Sometimes you should look at a tree through a child’s eyes, says enthusiastic Sheffield Council ranger Nell Dixon.
“We have lots of well-established woodlands in Sheffield, but if you’re a small child in those places there’s nothing but the trunk to touch, and the trees are like skyscrapers. With a young tree, a child can get their hands all around the trunk and see the branches, and they react to it a lot more.”
There are few skyscraper trees in the Shire Brook Valley nature reserve, since trees were not a priority in the valley’s former life. “I grew up in this area, and it’s come on tremendously,” said Richard Pearson. “But we’d never come down here as youngsters. It was a sewage works then.”
It was also a landfill tip, and before that several collieries, and a tannery. But now Richard, from the Shire Brook Valley Conservation Group, often spends several days a week clearing brambles with his scythe or scattering wildflower seeds.
“There’s such a variety of habitats here now, with ponds, streams, wildflower meadows and cattle on the fields of Linleybank, and it’s so accessible. It’s smashing.”
Nell Dixon is now inviting Sheffield schoolteachers and other children’s groups to come and meet the Shire Brook wildlife and learn how the old sewage works and landfill tips have been turned into a patch of urban countryside for butterflies, bats, and buzzards, where grass snakes are thriving, and where the keen-eyed might even see a harvest mouse or a great crested newt.
“Children are so excited when they come here, they ask so many questions. One child found a caterpillar two inches long, and he couldn’t believe this bright green creature with a mohican haircut would grow up to be a pale tussock moth. I think the children who came that day will remember that moment for years to come.”
Much of the valley, between Hackenthorpe and Woodhouse, was designated as a nature reserve in 1999, and after years of pond building, tree planting, scrub clearing and meadow planting by the city council along with the Shire Brook Valley Conservation and Heritage Groups, the site now feels like countryside, said local ranger Tom Broadhead.
He and Nell added that what people think of as a ‘natural’ environment rarely occurs naturally any more in England after centuries of human activity: woodland left to its own devices would become an impenetrable mix of native and introduced species and brambles, for example.
“With the reduction of grazing animals like deer, you actually have to put a lot of work in to maintain what should be a natural environment,” said Tom.
Which is where volunteers like Richard come in. “I like getting stuck in,” he said. “Nothing happens quickly, but you can see the difference you make, and you don’t have to spend hundreds of pounds, I can use my scythe and plant seeds I’ve collected myself, and basically do it for nothing.”
He added that volunteering in a recreational area like Shire Brook is just as important a part of the Outdoor City as running or cycling. “I can’t understand why people go to the gym when they could be out here volunteering and doing conservation work.”
Tom said: “A lot of people from this side of Sheffield drive out to the Peak District, when all this is within walking distance. But why drive out to somewhere miles away when you’ve got this on your doorstep?”
“There are ponds right next to meadows right next to woods here,” agreed Nell. “There are dragonflies, freshwater shrimps, kestrels, and some awesome leeches. We want to get people to use this site more, and to realise what a beauty it really is.”
Groups or individuals wanting to help can call at the visitor centre on Stone Lane on Wednesday mornings, while primary or secondary school teachers or youth leaders interested in the Tuesday learning sessions, supported by Natural England, can call Nell on 0114 2356348 or contact Nell.Dixon@sheffield.gov.uk via email. She’s also keen to hear from local people interested in an outdoor nursery at Shire Brook Valley.