The 10 Moss Valley Wildlife Group’s bluebell walkers settled down for their sandwiches among the young bluebells of Dowey Lumb, but Nabil Abbas was more interested in dyer’s greenweed. “It could be over there,” he said, scanning the distant foliage, hopefully.
Dyer’s greenweed is rumoured to grow somewhere at Dowey Lumb, said Nabil, from the Wildlife Trust for Sheffield and Rotherham. “But no-one I know has ever seen it.” The plant, a source of yellow and green pigment for centuries, is also popular with moths, but is in decline, and restored meadows like Dowey Lumb are good places for such native wildflowers to thrive.
When the bluebell walk began on Saturday morning in Coal Aston, leaders Keith Pascoe and Jonathan Webster warned that swathes of bluebells could not be guaranteed, given the vagaries of our climate. But some early blooms had chosen to oblige in support of the Sheffield Environment Weeks event, along with supporting wood anemones, and guest appearances by jack in the hedge, stitchwort and a gang of red dead nettles.
The Moss Valley, said Keith, is an eight-mile long patch of greenery surrounded by the housing estates of Sheffield and North Derbyshire. “A lot of it is ancient woodland, which is rich in wildlife, and there’s also farmland, marshland, and ancient meadow.” There is only one road traversing the valley, he added, which means that the wildlife, including badgers, snakes, foxes, rabbits, hares and at least two types of deer have the luxury of an unbroken green corridor as their home.
“It’s surrounded, but isolated, because it’s got no roads in it,” said Keith’s MVWG colleague David Walker.
The valley might have included a major road and several new housing estates if the group hadn’t been formed in the 1980s. MVWG’s work to lobby for the area and its wildlife led to the nearby local authorities setting up ecological units to inform planning decisions. But funding cuts and relaxation of planning rules mean that areas like the Moss Valley could again be under threat.
People have got used to taking the protection of our local countryside for granted, said Ian Rotherham, professor of Environmental Geography and Moss Valley enthusiast, adding however that lack of resources means that the conservation of local green spaces is now reliant on “people on the ground.”
Such as Moss Valley Wildlife Group, who need new members to keep up the vigilance, said Keith Pascoe. “If a housing development is planned and no-one objects to it, it gets through,” he warned.
The valley has a number of working farms, just a few minutes’ walk from Jordanthorpe, Norton or Gleadless, said Nabil Abbas. “You cross the ring road, and suddenly it feels as if you’re really in the countryside. You have open horizons, you can hear skylarks and yellowhammers, which is really unusual in an urban setting.”
The valley is rich in history, too. Keith Pascoe said one medieval deer poacher captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham was hung, drawn and quartered with his body parts displayed around the valley as a deterrent. And during the 1600s the Moss-powered metalworking industries in the valley were the world’s leading supplier of clout nails, used to build the log cabins of North American settlers.
Now, the 30-odd members of the Wildlife Group organise walks and visits, work with other naturalist groups to monitor the valley’s plants and wildlife, and do their best to conserve the meadows, woods and various Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the valley for the benefit of wildlife and well-behaved human visitors.
Dowey Lumb, for example, was formerly “a muddy hill dug up by motorbikes and covered in bracken”, said Jonathan Webster, until MVWG and allies cleared the bracken and fenced it off.
Now, the lumb is a picturesque meadow of early bluebells, where local naturalists gather to eat their picnics and watch for an appearance of dyer’s greenweed.
n May is bluebell season, and Prof Rotherham suggests a visit to any of the city’s ancient woodlands to take in the sights. Woolley Woods, Ecclesall Woods and Lady’s Spring Wood are all worth a visit, or take a circuit through Newfield Spring, Bridle Road and Long Woods in the Moss Valley.