Why we must cherish the High Peak

National Trust rangers Tom Harman (left) and Chris Lockyer among the new grass on Kinder Scout

National Trust rangers Tom Harman (left) and Chris Lockyer among the new grass on Kinder Scout

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For hundreds of years, Sheffielders have looked west and seen the High Peak moors glowering in the distance. It’s time we stopped taking them for granted, say conservationists.

“The High Peak has a similar resonance to the Kalahari Desert, or a Madagascan rain forest,” said Tom Harman, National Trust project officer for the High Peak.

Short eared owl on the High Peak moors - photo credit: John Beatty

Short eared owl on the High Peak moors - photo credit: John Beatty

“It’s a habitat only found in certain places at this latitude, and you could say we’re looking after this unique landscape for North West Europe. There really isn’t much of it anywhere else.”

The first official High Peak Day on September 20 celebrated the 40 square miles of upland moors stretching from the north west of Sheffield to the edge of Glossop. Most of the High Peak’s famous rock formations and edges were revealed when the last ice age retreated 10,000 years ago, and since then the landscape became a wet upland peat bog with trees and woodland among the slopes and valleys.

Until the 19th and 20th centuries, that is, when overgrazing, industrial pollution, land management for grouse shooting and thousands of hikers footsteps changed the landscape for generations. Until now.

“Areas of the High Peak like Kinder Scout are really like a sponge sat on top of a flat mountain,” said Ted Talbot, the trust’s countryside manager. “But it became like a sponge with a knife cut through it in a lot of places. Now if it heals properly, sphagnum moss will fill up those wounds and it will return to the landscape it should be, as it was after the last ice age.”

Bilberry Bumblebee on the High Peak moors

Bilberry Bumblebee on the High Peak moors

Three years ago, after lengthy consultations, the trust began work on its 50-year plan for the High Peak Moors. A 50-year plan might seem a bit leisurely for many humans in today’s world, said Tom, but the upland landscape moves at its own pace.

Yet there have already been changes over the last three years, he said: Kinder Scout has finally turned back from ‘brown to green’, over 80,000 young native trees have been planted to bring woodlands back to the cloughs and valleys, and most importantly the public are beginning to talk about the changing landscape.

Conservationists note the return of grasses and plants and moss, of the unusually purple-bottomed bilberry bumblebee, the sightings of short-eared owls and mountain hares, but also note the curious absence of iconic moorland birds of prey like hen harriers, peregrine falcons and goshawks.

In the past, birds of prey were routinely killed to protect grouse, and conservationists believe that ‘active persecution’ of birds of prey still occurs, despite it being illegal. (The law doesn’t just prevent shooting, it’s also illegal to disturb birds of prey and their nests in the nesting season).

Last week a young peregrine falcon was found killed by shotgun pellets in the Peak District, an act condemned by Derbyshire police and by Sarah Fowler, chief executive of the Peak District National Park.

The long-term plan for the High Peak includes the protection and encouragement of birds of prey, and Ted believes that more soaring goshawks and plummeting peregrines would encourage visitors to the area, and could even encourage a new approach to grouse shooting.

But perhaps the most important part of the 50-year plan is to inspire people to take an active interest in the High Peak. Rather than just visiting or watching Countryfile from your armchair, why not join one of the conservation groups and volunteer to help, said Ted, or join a natural history group and record the wildlife you see on your travels?

“We get complacent about our countryside here in Sheffield, but I’ve got a ranger from the Rockies visiting at the moment, who made me understand that this landscape really is something rare and exciting and strange. He asked me: ‘How many other places in the world turn purple in August and September?’”