Bleak Practice - David Bocking looks at why rangers are changing perceptions of a Peak area

Working on the Bleaklow fence: ranger Chris Lockyer carrying a fence post and tools
Working on the Bleaklow fence: ranger Chris Lockyer carrying a fence post and tools

Bleaklow is famous for being bleak. “An inhospitable wilderness of peat bogs over which progress on foot is very arduous,” said the famous walking writer Alfred Wainwright in 1968. “Nobody loves Bleaklow. All who get on it are glad to get off.”

The wide moors west of Sheffield and Howden Reservoir have suffered from an intimidating reputation for years, and even now attract far fewer visitors than the adjacent Kinder plateau.

Which is a shame, as Bleaklow is now far less bleak than it was in Wainwright’s day, partly (and controversially, to some), because of a 20 mile fence that was put around it 15 years ago.

“We love this landscape,” said National Trust area ranger Kait Jones. “I work here but I also come out in my spare time because it’s good for the soul. You can get out here into the middle of nature where you can’t hear anything but the wind and the birds.”

For much of the last century, Bleaklow lived up to its billing. It was a “big, black bare area” said Kait, scarred by gullies of eroding peat caused by pollution and acid rain from industry and years of heavy grazing by huge numbers of sheep.

Over recent years, owners the National Trust have been working with the Moors for the Future Partnership to restore Bleaklow’s status as a thriving blanket bog, with all the benefits that will bring to wildlife, and to humans.

Restoring and rewilding the landscape of Bleaklow has already improved water quality and reduced flood risk after heavy rainfall, according to tests by Moors for the Future scientists, and as work progresses on the moors of Kinder and Bleaklow, they will start to lock carbon away in wet peat again, rather than seeing it erode away into the atmosphere.

“We’ve been doing restoration work on Bleaklow for over twenty years,” said Kait. “But to give it a decent chance of properly regenerating, it needs to be completely stock free.”

Hence the fence. Kait’s team regularly have to check and repair lengths of wire and wooden posts, often because of movements in the land itself - a recent landslip meant an entire stretch had to be rerouted. Unfortunately, the fence also sometimes gets cut deliberately.

“I found a place recently near the snake summit where it had been cut in several places,” said ranger James Kennedy, who reckons there are still some who see a fence as a barrier to keep people out rather than a means to keep regenerating landscapes in.

If people know why the fences on Bleaklow and Kinder are there, Kait thinks they’d be less concerned about them. Both have been constructed to avoid skylines whenever possible, and with an access stile to allow people in and out at least every 100 metres.

The regeneration process has been honed by moorland scientists over many years, and a temporary fence to keep sheep off recovering landscapes is crucial. After work to block bare peat gullies, raise the water table and reduce erosion, a ‘nurse crop’ of grasses is seeded along with lime fertiliser to hold the peat together and reduce acidity, which can be as harsh as battery acid on some eroded areas.

Dwarf shrubs like bilberry, crowberry and some heather can then start to thrive as the grasses die off, and eventually plugs of peat-forming sphagnum moss can be added to start forming new peat.

Flocks of nibbling sheep would never allow the nurse grasses and shrubs to get going. But once the rest of the vegetation gets established a low level of grazing can actually contribute to the landscape, said Kait. The fences will remain, however, until the vegetation is sustainable.

The difference is noticeable in some areas - inside the fence near the Grinah Stones, bilberry and cloudberry are now thriving, while outside there’s mainly heather and moorland grasses.

“If people are concerned about fences, I’d say none of us want to see fences here, but they’re on Bleaklow and Kinder just now for a reason,” said Kait. “And that reason is to protect the landscape and habitat we all come here to see.”

More info: Kinder, Edale and the Dark Peak

Moors for the Future