30 years since Settle-Carlisle reprieve

Letter to PM

A defining moment for the Yorkshire Dales National Park came on 11 April 1989, nearly three months after then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher received a letter from Dales businesses (see banner image and below). 

On that day the Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Channon, quietly conducted a U-turn.  He announced in a ‘written answer’ that he had decided ‘to refuse closure consent’ for the Settle-Carlisle railway.  Cheers rang out across the Dales. 

Mr Channon said one of the reasons for his decision was ‘new evidence on… the line’s importance to the local economy’.  Thirty years later, I have that evidence in my hands.  It is a scrapbook containing the voices of Dales business men and women, which had been delivered by hand to 10 Downing Street.

Front page of the influential scrapbook

The scrapbook – eventually recovered from Downing Street – is a loan from Ruth Annison of Hawes Ropemakers.  In 1989 she was the Chairman of the ‘Settle-Carlisle Railway Business Liaison Group’ and was one of a group of nine people to go to Number 10 in the January of that year.

“The Prime Minister was out, but we were invited in to hand over our evidence,” she said.  “A small problem was that we also had a basket of goodies,  containing Dales produce such as cheese, fudges, soaps and preserves.  The police asked how they could be sure there wasn’t a bomb hidden inside the cheese.  I said we could get a knife to cut it open but the idea of a knife was even worse than the idea of a bomb.”

Pages from the scrapbook (above and below)

“What we were able to do as a business group was to highlight the loss of business and employment, if the Settle-Carlisle line were to close,” said Mrs Annison.  She and a large group of volunteers gathered together supportive statements from dozens of businesses which benefitted from the line.

Some of the businesses, including hoteliers and retailers, went into great detail about how they would be affected by line closure.  Others kept it short and sweet.

“The 30 year anniversary is really important.  It’s been a generation since the reprieve.  The decision on the Settle-Carlisle line was regarded as the first reversal of British Rail closure policies.  The campaign to keep it open was international by the end,” said Mrs Annison.

Ruth Annison with colleague at Garsdale station, alongside the Hawes to Garsdale mini bus

Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority Chief Executive David Butterworth added:  “The reprieve for the Settle-Carlisle line was a huge moment for the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The line brings considerable economic, transport and environmental benefits to the National Park.

“Five stations lie within the National Park – Kirkby Stephen, Garsdale, Dent, Ribblehead, and Horton-in-Ribblesdale – while Settle station lies just outside the boundary. It means that residents can have days out to market towns, while tourists can visit, without the need for a car. It’s a heritage attraction, too, as well as a working railway; the line’s marvellous infrastructure has become an integral part of a landscape loved the world over.”

Full text of the covering letter delivered by hand to Mrs Thatcher in 1989

Restoring the Amazon of the Yorkshire Dales

The extent of peat erosion at Fleet Moss can best be seen from the air. Credit - Yorkshire Peat Partnership

 “It’s the Amazon on our doorstep,” says Jenny Sharman as we walk onto an area of peat moorland near Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales. “And it’s as if we’ve chopped it down.”

Jenny is a restoration officer for Yorkshire Peat Partnership. She has spent a year surveying Fleet Moss, paving the way for major restoration works which started in March.

Jenny Sharman on Fleet Moss, a landscape of hags, bare peat and erosion channels

“Fleet Moss can be seen from space,” says Jenny, pulling from her bag a laminated aerial image to prove it. “All that carbon we have lost is contributing to climate change in a big way. Peatlands are our rainforests.”

At the Skipton offices of Yorkshire Peat Partnership they’ve nicknamed Fleet Moss the Somme, such is the devastation at the site.

‘It’s dead land effectively. Degraded bog is no good to anyone, for farming, for shoots, for people, for anything,” says Jenny.

Water from one side of the bog runs off into Barden Beck and then into Semerwater (see map below), one of only two natural lakes remaining in the Yorkshire Dales.

Such has been the amount of peat washed down, Semerwater has partially silted up and its waters have become opaque and more acidic.

Fleet Moss is the moorland in the centre of the horizon. Water from Fleet Moss runs off into Semerwater.

The Wensleydale naturalist, Deborah Millward, who has advised Yorkshire Peat Partnership, said: “We have to remember that all water bodies are ephemeral. Yet Semerwater is silting up at a far quicker rate than it ordinarily might because of all the peat being washed down from Fleet Moss. The problem at the moment is only getting worse.”

During high rainfall, torrents also flow off Fleet Moss on to the other side of the watershed – into Oughtershaw –and ultimately into the River Wharfe, adding to flood risk downstream.

It’s all gone wrong rather quickly. Until the late 1950s, the bog at Fleet Moss would have consisted of a layer (or ‘blanket’) of peat some four metres deep. About a metre of peat is thought to form every 1000 years. This was a significantly huge store of carbon, as well as a natural facility which held water on the moor.

Today by contrast, mounds of peat known as hags stand proud of countless channels and gullies. Some of the gullies have a stone bottom (‘it’s gone down to mineral’, as Jenny puts it), with the peat entirely washed away. In others, only a few centimetres of peat remain.

As with other degraded blanket bogs, the causes of erosion are thought to be over grazing, draining and atmospheric pollution. Wildfires, or managed burning, are also a typical cause.

Little wonder that Fleet Moss was identified early on as a priority site for the Yorkshire Peat Partnership, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary. “This site is what started the YPP,” says Jenny.

More than 400 hectares of Fleet Moss have been restored so far. Now funding from Pennine PeatLIFE, Defra and owners supported by agri-environment scheme payments, totalling £510,000, is in place to pay for the restoration of a further 100 hectares over the next three years.

So, how do you restore peatland? To answer that question, Jenny took me to Stake Moss, another blanket bog a few miles away. It straddles the high point of the green lane running from Stalling Busk over to Cray and Buckden (see map). It has been subject to intense restoration efforts this winter, 2018/19.

A map of the area highlighting Fleet Moss, Stake Moss and Semerwater

The first stage of restoration at Stake Moss, as elsewhere, was the survey work. It would be almost impossible to restore peatland without modern technology. Data collected by UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) is used to create maps which show which way each channel and gully runs.

Vegetation surveys, lab tests and old-fashioned depth rods are used to get a full picture of the bog’s condition. The next stage is to dam the channels and gullies. This requires digger work and skilled contractors. Local firm, Marsdens, carried out the work on Stake Moss.

Coir logs are placed across eroded channels at Stake Moss to stop the peat washing away.

Coir logs are staked across channels where the depth of peat remains between 1.2-3.6m. Coir is the outer husk of coconuts; all the logs must be imported, often from India or East Africa.

Sediment soon builds up behind the logs and, after a year, Yorkshire Peat Partnership staff and volunteers come along to put in plug plants of blanket bog species such as crowberry.

“As soon as we block the channels the hydrology changes immediately. The aim is to keep the water on the moor, for the biodiversity as well as everything else. If we slow the flow, we create the ecology we want,” says Jenny.

Where the erosion has been so bad that the bog has ‘gone down to mineral’, stone dams are created. Stone is lifted to site by helicopter and dropped in position. The stone dams, like the coir logs, stop peat being washed away and lead to the build up of sediment.

A stone dam placed in a 4 metre deep eroded gully at Stake Moss

It struck me as I watched Jenny prodding the peat that she was stood before four thousand years of history.

Other peatland restoration techniques include installing wooden ‘leaky dams’; creating peat bunds; re-profiling the hags; and covering bare peat with a brash of chopped heather, sphagnum mosses and dwarf shrubs mixed with grass and dwarf shrub seeds.

“It is a new science,” says Jenny. “We’re still working out what techniques work where.”

Peat bund (centre-left of photo)

It’s about time the all-important S-word cropped up; there can be no blanket bog without sphagnum.     

Sphagnum palustre on Fleet Moss

Sphagnum mosses are rootless plants which, Jenny says, hold ‘about 24 times their weight in water’.

When the underparts of the sphagnum decay, peat is formed. Peat, if you were wondering, differs from soil in that it is acidic and anerobic i.e there is no oxygen in it.

A lawn of sphagnum with crowberry sticking out

Jenny is clearly impressed by all the work that has taken place on Stake Moss. “It’s like magic to me. Five months ago you’d have seen hags everywhere. What I’m hoping to happen here is that it’ll become amazing spots for birds and insects. But long term funding will be needed to keep building up layer by layer. We’ll need to come back every five years,” she says.

Healthy blanket bog supports a rich diversity of plant and animal life such as breeding waders and raptors. At one moment during our tour, we dropped to our knees to study the droppings of a short eared owl.

What did I learn from the experience? That blanket bogs are beautiful, if usually wet and misty places, of fundamental importance to the hydrology and ecology of the National Park.

It will take thousands of years to restore what has been lost in just a few decades, but the work to repair the damage, at least, appears to be gathering pace.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Management Plan 2019-2024 is in effect a work programme for dozens of organisations operating in the Park. It has 49 objectives, including objective D3 on peatland restoration:

‘By 2030, restore all degraded blanket bog/deep peat habitat to ecologically and hydrologically functioning bog that is actively sequestering and storing carbon, and is being managed sustainably.’

There are 51,160 hectares of blanket bog in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Almost all of this peatland was degraded when Yorkshire Peat Partnership began its work in 2009. In the past 10 years, YPP has restored 18,426 ha, leaving 35,734 ha still to restore. At current rates of restoration, YPP would be on course to complete the work by 2038, which suggests the Management Plan objective of completing the restoration by 2030 is ambitious.

Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority Member Champion for the Natural Environment, Ian McPherson, said: “Almost all the blanket bog in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is internationally-designated for wildlife. Peatland restoration is perhaps the most obvious and the most important environmental work we can do in the Dales because in terms of biodiversity and sequestering carbon, the gains are enormous.

“It has been calculated that investment in restoring peatlands right across the northern Pennines would generate net benefits of £760 million pounds over 40 years – just from the value of the carbon stored and the improvements in wildlife.”

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, together with the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water, Natural England and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, is among the core funding members of Yorkshire Peat Partnership. The Trust coordinates the practical works on the ground.

How are ‘priority habitats’ assessed in the Yorkshire Dales National Park?

Ecologist Robyn Guppy of Haycock & Jay Associates in Hodgehill Wood near Sedbergh, inputting survey data into a tablet

From where I’m sitting at a desk in Bainbridge, gazing out of the window (hard life), the Yorkshire Dales National Park is looking mighty fine.  But is it as lovely as it looks?  Just what is the state of nature in the Park?  Do we even know?

It was these questions which prompted me to take a look at a piece of work our wildlife conservation team has been conducting since the start of the decade.

Continue reading “How are ‘priority habitats’ assessed in the Yorkshire Dales National Park?”

How lovely to see you!

Sheep and their lambs in the Yorkshire Dales

These lambs seen last night in Hawes seem a good hook into this article which was first published in the Yorkshire Post on Sat 17 March 2018:

Right now it’s all cuteness and joy in the hills, but when lambing really gets going in a few weeks’ time few farmers will be able to get by without at least a momentary grumble. When the tiredness kicks in, and the work seems endless, the perennial question will come:  ‘Why do I do this?’ Continue reading “How lovely to see you!”

Hear the ‘Voices From The Land’

Cows in a Dales pasture

In my opinion the very essence of the Dales is a field of cows chewing on the August fog. Cows are such peaceful, steady creatures. My fondness for them started in childhood, with my granddad and uncle keeping a herd of thirty on the farm in Upper Wensleydale.

Few mornings would be so cut through with seriousness as those when the farmyard would be sealed off so that the great bull could come out to serve the cows. Few sounds would be so pleasing as the pulsating of the overhead pipes in the shippon at milking time. Few tastes would be so good as the fresh milk. Continue reading “Hear the ‘Voices From The Land’”