Feature: Keeping Common life alive and kicking

Wadsley Common conservation work Chris Bullock of Sheffield Conservation Volunteers clearing birch saplings
Wadsley Common conservation work Chris Bullock of Sheffield Conservation Volunteers clearing birch saplings
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Volunteers keep ‘unique’ Wadsley habitat in ecological balance.

“Wadsley Common is unique,” said Sheffield Council ranger, James Musgrave.

“To have a lowland heath on the edge of a city is brilliant. You get species up here that you just don’t find anywhere else.”

There are 900 species of birds, animals and plants to be exact, said Wadsley and Loxley commoner, Alan Bailey, according to surveys and data collected by volunteer Commoners.

“It’s a mixed habitat of woodland, grassland and heath land, and we’re trying to keep that in balance,” said Alan, adding that cutbacks in the city’s ranger service means that only around 20 percent of the 100 acre common can now be actively managed. On Sunday, the Commoners were joined on one of their regular work days by Sheffield Conservation volunteers and ranger James.

The first task was to tidy up the Rural Lane carpark by pruning overhanging ash trees and clearing leaves and brash so sunlight could reach the flowers (planted by local schools) due to appear as spring arrives.

“We want it to look like a cared-for place,” said commoner, Hannah Isherwood.

“If such places don’t look ‘cared-for’ there’s a danger of fly tipping,” said James Musgrave. A total of 200 tyres were recently dumped in another common car park, for example, costing time and money for the council’s ranger team to clear. Tyre companies receive a subsidy from every tyre sold to cover disposal, but Sunday’s volunteers believe that some find it more profitable to dump them at local council taxpayer’s expense.

“I’d rather they didn’t,” said Alan Bailey politely. The second task was to remove botanical ‘thugs’ from the common’s lowland heath, a globally rare habitat of heather, grass and occasional trees growing on dry soil lower than 300 metres in altitude. Lowland heaths like Wadsley and Loxley Common are often under threat and in poor condition in the UK, often through lack of resources, said Alan.

In days gone by, the tradition of local coppicing, grazing and wood gathering would have kept back scrub and fast growing trees like silver birch, which shade out the heather, he said.

“Heather is a bit of a prima donna. It’s quite specialised and needs lots of light.”

So removing fast growing ‘thugs’ (as James called bracken, brambles and birch) means heather can thrive and attract insects and bees, which attract birds and animals like lizards and voles, which in turn bring weasels and stoats to Wadsley.

On Sunday 20 volunteers cleared scores of birch saplings and tangled brambles from the heatherabove Rural Lane.

“When you look out when the heather is in flower, you know that view just wouldn’t be there without the volunteers’ time,” said James Musgrave.

“The rangers can’t manage sites like this by themselves, it would be just scrubbed up birches with a bit of heather dotted around, you wouldn’t have that stunning vista.”

Alan Bailey added that more volunteers would allow more work to be done.

“With more resources we’d be able to open up more areas of heath land that are under threat,” he said. The Commoners have regular work days, with tools and gloves provided – the next is on Sunday the 25th starting at the Rural Lane entrance at 10am. There are also events and talks about the unique habitat half a mile above Middlewood tram stop, including a bird watching walk with local ornithological raconteur John Robinson on Saturday at 9am, again starting at Rural Lane.

The common is due to benefit from the new £2.8m Heritage Lottery funded Sheffield Lakeland Landscape Partnership project recently announced by Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, as one of the ‘gateways’ to the Outdoor City’s 14 reservoirs between Redmires and Langsett. The hope now is that a bit more of the common can be returned to lowland heath, to retain the varied habitats attractive to wildlife and to local people. The unique mix of heather, woodland, weasels, woodpeckers and yellowhammers used to be almost a secret outside Sheffield 6, but not any more.

“Wadsley Common is very well used now,” said Hannah Isherwood. “I think word is getting out.”