Sheffield nature scheme aims for the smart approach

Urban Nature Project Training Day: Andy Healey and Pete Kelly (right) sheltering in the trees
Urban Nature Project Training Day: Andy Healey and Pete Kelly (right) sheltering in the trees

The birds of Beauchief had sensibly taken shelter in the trees during a series of late spring downpours to watch 13 bedraggled ornithologists attempt to record their numbers and mating activities.

From under his umbrella, Urban Nature Project training day leader Roger Butterfield told the salutory tale of the promiscuous male sedge warbler. “The recorders had heard two different songs from reed beds at different ends of a lake, but through ringing they eventually discovered it was the same bird. It was commuting from one nest to the other and it had a different song for each nest, and each mate.”

“That’s crafty, isn’t it?” observed John Robinson.

The message being, you can never be too careful when trying to make sense of British birdlife. Hence the training day. Roger, from the city council’s ecology unit, was showing the squad of volunteers how to record the birds feeding, foraging, nesting and roosting on a small Urban Nature Project site at Beauchief, once the council’s derelict nursery for trees and shrubs, now remodelled as a combination of allotments, an orchard and a carefully crafted patch of countryside.

“I was walking round here recently and came face to face with a young red deer stag,” said Roger. “He looked panicky.”

The initial aim of the council’s Urban Nature Project is to turn 300 hectares of existing green spaces into more naturalistic ‘Urban Nature Areas’ to encourage wildlife. UNP examples are Wincobank Common and Redmires playing field, as well as the old Beauchief nursery.

‘Smarter’ land management is the key phrase. Richard Harris of the council’s ecology unit explained: “The UNP project has the potential to improve many of the city’s green spaces in terms of biodiversity, air quality, carbon storage, flood alleviation and to provide a more interesting and varied landscape. It’s something the city should be doing regardless of the current budget pressures it faces. The fact that some savings can be made by adopting a more naturalistic style of management where appropriate is an added benefit.”

The UNP has already led to the planting of 50,000 trees, and Richard said the council is aiming for a balance between informal management of green spaces and more traditional management in the big city parks.

And now the public can help record the effect of the new policy on wildlife by being trained to monitor a particular site at least four times a year to record birds, plants, butterflies and other creatures. The monitoring programme will help plan the city’s green space management in future, and also generate important scientific data for the Sheffield Biological Records Centre and the National Biodiversity Network.

“It gives us the chance to do something that interests us, and at the same time to help develop the city’s open spaces,” said Peter Bull, taking part with his wife Louise. “Birdwatching is something we enjoy doing, but with this project, it’s not just us that’s benefiting.”

The ornithologists crept around in the mud, occasionally tilting their heads or raising their binoculars before making a note of ‘anxiety calls heard’ or ‘adult seen carrying faecal sac’.

“There’s a willow warbler,” said John Robinson. “A few days ago, he was looking down on rhinos, zebras and elephants, and now he’s looking down on us, with our clipboards. Now that’s a thought, isn’t it?”

John added that the rise and fall of various bird species is not just something that happens on the news, it’s happening in the woods and common land of Sheffield for everyone to see, and a structural recording scheme for Sheffielders to take part in themselves is ‘very exciting’.

Richard Harris hopes the new meadows and woodlands of the UNP will help reestablish many birds, butterflies and animals in Sheffield’s open spaces, and he said the intention is to involve the public, Friends groups and others to record wildlife in all parks and open spaces, not just those in the Urban Nature Project.

“It’s no longer about the council doing things for us, it’s about us doing things for us, and for others,” said Peter Bull. A blackcap alarm call was carefully noted as the team trudged past.

For more information call 0114 273 4481.