EDGE OF TOWN: Our series on Yorkshire nature reserves continues with an oasis for wildlife hidden in a busy urban landscape. Andrew Vine reports. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
“They’ll say, ‘I’ve been driving past here for 20 or 30 years and had no idea it was here’. It really surprises people,” says education manager Helen Gottschalk.
That’s because Potteric Carr is hidden in plain view, on the outskirts of Doncaster, a vital part of the town and a legacy of its industrial heritage, but kept apart from it by screens of woodland that make it invisible to many.
A million people a year hurtle through the reserve on the East Coast main line, possibly as many again speed past on the M18 a few hundred yards away, and commuters heading into town or the B&Q across the road on the A6182 are only seconds distant from it.
Yet it remains unknown to the bulk of them despite it being one of Yorkshire’s greatest havens for wildlife – the largest inland wetland in the country outside of London and the biggest reserve of the 80-odd run by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
Even though tens of thousands of Doncaster’s people may not know Potteric Carr exists, they have cause to be thankful for its 500 acres. This has been the town’s safety valve against flooding for the past 30 years, its lakes and reedbeds the destination for water that would otherwise wreck homes and lives, thanks to a network of pipelines and pumps.
But then, the fortunes and history of Potteric Carr and Doncaster are inextricably entwined. Coal and the railways built and shaped the town, and so they did the reserve. The site has had a chequered history, and grew up with the two industries that defined Doncaster.
It had been drained in the mid-18th century for agricultural use, but as pits and the railways made their mark a century later, the area became criss-crossed freight lines to carry coal. And it was coal that created the conditions that support hundreds of species of birds, mammals, insects and plants.
In the mid-1950s, a working from Rossington Colliery penetrated below the site, causing it to subside. The effect of this was to make the land revert to its condition of 200 years earlier, with extensive areas of open water and marsh.
The Beeching cuts of the early 1960s put paid to most of the railway lines crossing the site, though the trackbeds and embankments remain. A single freight line still crosses it, as does the main line from London to Scotland, which separates the bulk of the reserve from one of its marshes.
The eight miles of paths through Potteric Carr are often arrow-straight and about the width of a single-track railway line, which is what they once were. “There’s an apple tree at the top of here,” said Helen of one route that runs through the woods, “and I like to think of an engine driver picking an apple as he went chugging past.”
By 1968, the railway lines were defunct and 35 acres of land was designated as a nature reserve. Potteric Carr expanded to its current size in the early 70s, having survived the threat of destruction by a proposal to route the M18 straight through it, a plan kicked out after a public inquiry.
The rumble of the motorway is a constant backdrop, but the woods that keep the reserve hidden from view keeps the sight of traffic at bay as well. Secluded though it is, 33,000 people a year find their way here, as do nearly 160 species of birds, 70 of which breed, including kingfishers, warblers, woodpeckers, plovers, grebes and water rail. There are more than 20 species of dragonfly and 28 of butterflies. Mammals include roe deer and water voles.
From May to July, groups from primary schools come in – and Potteric Carr can be an eye-opener for many children whose connection with the natural world is, at best, tenuous.
“I always thought it was a myth that when you asked where apples come from, some children would say ’the supermarket’, but it’s true,” said Helen. “If you ask where rabbits come from, some children will say a hutch, and they have no concept that this is a wild animal that lives underground, or if we see a pheasant, they’ll say ‘Miss, Miss, it’s a turkey’.
“Sometimes, there’s no realisation that there are wild animals that do their own thing, and a blurring between domestic animals and wild animals.
“There’s a whole lack of awareness about wildlife, and when they’re here, they get such joy out of being outside. For some of them, it’s a really rare experience, so we hope that it not only sparks their interest in being outside, but gives the teachers some ideas that they can use back at school.”
New pond-dipping platform and outdoor classroom are planned for this summer, to be used not just by school parties but by community groups organising their own activities, the aim of which is to carry the work of the site beyond it by encouraging visitors to dig their own ponds at home, or at school.
“It’s not just about getting people here, it’s about inspiring them to go back and do something in their own environments,” said Helen.
As the reserve changes with the seasons, so do the visitors. In summer, it’s families, in winter it’s birdwatchers, often by the coachload, to see migratory birds. There is the occasional unusual visitor for them to watch, such as an Iberian chiff chaff blown way off course last winter, which attracted birders from all over Britain.
Developing the bird population is one of the reserve’s key objectives. Bitterns overwinter at Potteric Carr, and the staff are increasing reedbed coverage in the hope that it will encourage them to breed, so that their distinctive booming call is heard.
It’s hard work, and a team of 11 full-time staff are bolstered by more than 100 volunteers, who form working parties twice a week, with much maintenance taking place between October and March to avoid disturbing nesting birds.
That work was not easy in the harsh winter just past, and the lack of rainfall so far this year has also presented problems. Watercourses that would normally be full are bone dry, and are unlikely to recover until the end of summer even if there are weeks of torrential rain.
The main drain that supplies the site has also been dry, so there is no water that can be pumped in to help.
It’s one of the miracles of the site and its reedbeds that waste water is transformed as it passes through. “It filters the water,” said Helen. “You wouldn’t want to drink it on the way in, but you should be able to drink it on the way out.”
The traffic noise from the motorway, and the express trains that roar past are constant reminders that Potteric Carr survives in an urban landscape.
Doncaster’s expansion is seeing more developments spring up around it, and that is presenting new challenges for maintaining the reserve as a haven for wildlife.
“We are completely surrounded by transport links, so what we can do for the future is to continue to improve habitat management,” said Helen.
“There are more ethereal benefits to people’s health. We all need wildlife to survive.”
Being hemmed in by traffic, trains and buildings means focussing on helping wildlife survive. Helen said: “Wildlife adapts more than we give it credit for. The problem is not noise, or speed. Potteric Carr is surrounded on all sides, and the whole concept is creating habitat.
“If climate change is going to make things drier or colder, animals can’t move or migrate from here, so the whole concept is to create corridors across barriers so that they can move more freely. Animals don’t have the luxury of time to adapt.”
So far, they seem to be doing pretty well at this unexpected, hidden oasis. The children who arrive from schools are surprised and delighted to find it, and their delight is shared by the people who run Potteric Carr. “It’s an amazing place to work,” said Helen. “You’re always learning, and I want to know everything about everything, and of course you can’t, even in a lifetime.”
Potteric Carr’s website is www.potteric-carr.org.uk
The reserve is holding four weeks of summer school holiday events for children, starting in the first week of August. Details are on the website.