Precious habitat is a natural defence

Jon Traill at  Yorkshire's newest nature reserve, Skerne Wetlands near Driffield

Jon Traill at Yorkshire's newest nature reserve, Skerne Wetlands near Driffield

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Yorkshire’s newest nature reserve is taking shape – and it aims to help people at risk of flooding as well as wildlife. Andrew Vine reports.

Jon Traill walks along one of the overgrown pathways between pools full of reedbeds close by a quietly-running beck. ‘You could lose hours down here, days even,” he muses.

He’s certainly spent hours and days down here, but not a minute of them has been lost. That’s because there’s so much to think about in this landscape in a quiet and often overlooked corner of East Yorkshire, tucked away off a back road not far from Driffield.

How the river and the reedbeds need to work together, for a start. What to do 
about hundreds of concrete posts and yard upon yard of electric fencing, for another. And, of course, how this tranquil 70 
acres can help safeguard people’s 
homes and the streets of Hull from being flooded.

This is Yorkshire’s newest nature reserve, though it will be some time yet before walkers and birdwatchers can enjoy it. But it’s more than that – it’s at the heart of one of our region’s most precious scientific sites.

The beck is one of three chalk streams close to Driffield that are the UK’s most northerly, forming the headwaters of the River Hull, which rises in the Wolds and runs through 20 miles of farmland and into the city before joining the Humber.

Britain has 80 per cent of the world’s chalk streams, but all apart from these three are in the south, which makes this and the others close by key conservation sites.

Looking after them is going hand-in-hand with deciding the best way forward for the new reserve, Skerne Wetlands, for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust as part of its Crystal Clear project.

It’s not an easy site to find, isolated at the end of a bumpy farm track, and it’s 
an out-of-the-ordinary setting for a 
reserve – a former commercial fish farm with a network of 60 ponds controlled 
by sluices and gates, which the trust bought in 2012 but has only started work on recently.

“There were a few eyebrows raised locally when we bought the site,” said Jon. “People were asking, ‘Why would the trust want a fish farm?”

The concrete posts all over the site once supported nets to stop kingfishers and herons from raiding the ponds where fish destined for angling lakes were farmed. The low electric fences – now switched off – were there to deter otters from helping themselves to an easy meal.

Jon, 44, is the trust’s regional manager and he could lose hours or days here because there’s so much to fascinate him. He’s as much as part of this landscape as the chalk streams, born in the Wolds and still making his home here.

He’s spent more than 20 years working for the trust, first as a volunteer and for the last 13 as a member of staff. Jon said: “I was doing a Saturday or Sunday volunteering task and the penny dropped – I can do this for a living and get paid. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I, then?’.”

Jon’s been around the rivers and farmland of East Yorkshire all his life, but Skerne Wetlands is something new. “We’ve got a blank canvas here. We can decide what to do where. It’s not about changing everything or making a habitat something it doesn’t want to be. It’s about working with the site.

“It’s exciting, because it’s not every day you find a site where you’ve got the opportunity to do that. It really is something that we can grasp with both hands.

“You could take the view that we could spend a lot more money and do something completely different, but we want to listen to what nature is telling you, what wildlife is telling you, and work with it.”

Listening to the site involved watching, waiting, discussing and thinking for more than a year after the trust bought it, to see what nature would do when left to itself.

The ponds that held trout, roach and perch have filled up with reeds. “The habitat is coming back in naturally,” said Jon. “It’s damp in there so we’ve got some wetland habitat, so we’re deciding what habitats we want here and then we’ll work with the landform to create that habitat.”

A key part of that will be making the becks and the surrounding land “talk to each other”, as Jon puts it. In other words, allowing the watercourses to break out of their banks when they are full.

The fish farm had been engineered to keep the becks under control, so that the carefully-managed pools were not flooded and production could continue without interruption.

Letting the becks burst when they need to isn’t just about the welfare of the wetlands. It’s about providing a safety valve for the farmland, villages and suburbs farther towards Hull. If flooding is allowed to happen here, it could mean it doesn’t happen in people’s homes and businesses.

“We’ve got an opportunity to make the river and our site interact,” said Jon. “So in times of high flow those flows can come onto our wetland, so we get our wetland habitat and the knock-on benefit is that if we’re taking several million gallons of water onto our land, then that water isn’t going onto someone else’s.

“It’s about creating that opportunity to release the pressure on other land locally and also downriver as well.”

The chalk stream running through the site is mostly crystal clear, except in a few places where silt has built up, and that is thanks to the nature of the Wolds where it rises, which filter these waters of impurities. Unlike most of Yorkshire’s other rivers, this does not react quickly to heavy rainfall, its level rising rapidly in response.

Jon said: “It’s fed from the chalk of the Yorkshire Wolds, all the rain that falls filters into the chalk, which is porous like a sponge. It fills up and when it’s full, it lets the water out slowly, through a line of springs, which feed the headwater chalk streams.”

Looking after the chalk streams will involve encouraging them to help themselves, including speeding up the flow here and there to allow the waters to clean themselves of silt.

Deforestation and abstraction of water in times of drought have weakened the streams, and restoration work will involve green engineering using natural materials. There will be no concrete or plastic here to divert the water flow, but bundles of willow and hazel.

The work will involve partnerships with local landowners and other agencies, and is being funded through the WREN Biodiversity Action Fund, Environment Agency and Natural England for the next three years.

The site is already alive with wildlife. Otter trails can be spotted here and there, and it is teeming with birdlife.

It’s not yet certain when Skerne Wetlands can be opened to the public, and even then because of the nature of the site, with its quiet habitats for wildlife, access will have to be carefully controlled.

But Jon wants people to come here. “It’s not just about us, it’s about the people who live in the area, work in the area and make their living from the landscape, and it’s about the people who enjoy getting out and about and it’s also about education.”

And part of that education is about why it’s so important to look after these chalk streams that form a unique part of the Yorkshire landscape. Jon knows all the scientific reasons for that, but the one he likes best is the simplest. “Just because it is.”

The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is seeking volunteers to help with work at Skerne Wetlands and the chalk streams. The trust can be found at www.ywt.org.uk

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