By Jonathan Dent, St Nicks Natural Habitats Manager.
We know that so-called “green corridors” are important. By connecting fragments of green space in the urban landscape, these corridors link access to habitats and reduce the isolation of wildlife populations, enabling plants and animals to flourish and improving biodiversity. They also provide benefits for humans by increasing urban ventilation and reducing the urban heat island affect, providing some flood resilience and of course having all of the usual positive effects that green space has on human mental and physical health.
Our initial focus was on the sites which create the vital green ‘corridors’ which allow wildlife to travel back and forth to St Nicks, including Foss Islands Cycle Path, Tang Hall Beck and Osbaldwick Beck. However, in recent years our work has broadened to include external sites to St Nicks. Our recent Meadow Keepers project reached across the city helping to support and improve grassland areas. Our involvement with the many amazing groups managing these sites started conversations about their own green corridors and what could be done on a bigger scale to improve biodiversity across the York landscape as a whole. This last year has also seen us get more involved on the main River Foss, itself a hugely important corridor for wildlife. We have been working with the River Foss Society, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and other partners within the Dales to Vale Rivers Network to build up a picture of the current state of the river through various survey methods. This project especially has pushed us out of our urban comfort zone into the far away rolling hills of the Howardian Hills, with all of the different challenges that this brings.
As our offsite work continues we have found others as keen as we are on joining up green spaces to create these corridors. Natural England are already doing amazing things by looking at ways to improve the corridors and buffer sites around the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve while The Woodmeadows Trust as in the process of instigating a network for meadow managers building on their wonderful work to create Three Hagge Woodmeadow.
I’m sure many people will have heard various doom and gloom news stories about the state of our natural habitats and the species they support. While there are so many wonderful wildlife sites across the country doing fantastic work conserving their local patch, there needs to be a change to more landscape wide thinking. Existing wildlife sites need protecting to ensure they aren’t shrinking but ideally growing in size and vitally they need be connected to other sites to increase their impact on wider biodiversity value – as John Lawton expertly summarised in his 2010 Making Space for Nature report, these nature conservation sites need to be bigger, better and more joined up.
With so much going on and so much potential for more, we really needed some help to develop this work. Thankfully we have found the perfect person, Beki, who started with us last month as a Green Corridors Development Volunteer. Beki, who also works part-time as an Environment and Communities Officer at City of York Council, will be working with us to help support our ongoing green corridors projects and crucially investigating the potential for new projects across the city. On her first day we took advantage of a sunny autumn day to explore some or the areas we are currently working on.
The project which we are most involved with currently is surveying Osbaldwick Beck to build up a picture of the state of the current habitat along this corridor. With potential restoration works happening to the Beck in Hull Road Park and at St Nicks, it is really important we have as much information as possible about the upstream and downstream ends of the beck to inform these works. For example, we need to know which invasive plant species exist that may colonise any newly created habitat if not managed accordingly, plus we know there are populations of water voles either end of Hull Road Park so we need to make sure any work can help them spread their range to become a more joined up and resilient population. Also, by conducting a wider range of ecological surveys we will have a baseline to measure against once the improvement works take place. Although we didn’t spot any water voles we did see some nice examples of more natural beck habitat highlighting how we could transform the not so nice bits within a few years’ time.
We then changed location to Millennium Fields, a large patch of open space by the River Ouse on the Fishergate side. We have been working here for a number of years to improve the grassland habitat near the bridge – join us every second Sunday morning to help out here! – but we quickly realised there is already a lot of community conservation action going on. This includes Fulford Cross Allotments (our new landlords for the grassland work as they have kindly allowed us a plot to be a base for this project), Danesmead Wood, and the tucked away Danesmead Orchard and Meadow. But these amazing groups only account for a small area of the green space on Millennium Fields, so there is a lot of potential to work together to both protect these sites and also have a greater impact on the Fields as a whole.
After spending time looking at the potential here we wanted to explore further along the corridor to see how the habitat changed as we got further away from the city. We were pleasantly surprised to discover the natural area that is Fulford Ings. While I had walked through the Ings before but I hadn’t really stopped to take in what amazing floodplain habitat this area of Special Scientific Interest is.
Many areas of the reed beds were holding water as they should and a more raised grassland verge had been cut and bailed, showing us that the area was seemingly well cared for. There was enough areas of reeds, hedgerow and scrub that hadn’t been grazed or cut, including a number of old coppiced willow trees across the landscape, which meant there was still lots refuge for overwintering wildlife. As we got further out of town we could start to hear a slight noise of the ring road traffic but otherwise it was so peaceful and quiet. Beyond the ring road we were now into more managed land but we were impressed by a large wetland scrape in the middle of one field which will seasonally hold water to support a wide range of wildlife. It was up here we were treated to a couple of playful roe deer bounding around the fields. A passing dog walker told us she saw them most days but for us city folk we were amazed and thrilled to have such a sighting.
While we both felt we knew York’s natural habitats pretty well it is exciting to know that there are plenty of amazing sites for wildlife to explore. If we can understand more about these bigger established sites – and the species which call them home – any efforts to connect sites should be more informed and hopefully more successful. This makes it really exciting to find such well-established habitats within a few hundred metres of Millennium Fields as we have the potential to add so much more value to any improvement works on the Fields.