How you can help save the 3,000 species which are at risk of being lost in Yorkshire

As a landmark report highlighted that nearly 2,000 species have been lost from Yorkshire in the last 200 years, and another 3,000 are at risk, Alexandra Wood spoke to wildlife experts about what we can do to help.

Roadside verges say a lot about the state of nature in Yorkshire. Take a closer look and you’ll find many that are overgrown and rank with grass, cow parsley, docks and not a lot else. Verges which are apparently bursting with life on closer inspection often have little variety.

That is because they are getting “a continuous rain of fertiliser”, which includes nitrates formed from car and truck exhaust gases, ammonia from places like intensive pig farms, says Professor Alastair Fitter, who contributed to this week’s ground-breaking State of Yorkshire’s Nature report, published by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

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Prof Fitter, a trustee both at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Yorkshire Naturalist’s Union, says the rate at which land is being fertilised for free is about the same as farmers would have used pre World War Two on their fields.

Thousands of species are at risk of being lost in Yorkshire. Pictured: North Cave Wetlands (by John Potter)Thousands of species are at risk of being lost in Yorkshire. Pictured: North Cave Wetlands (by John Potter)
Thousands of species are at risk of being lost in Yorkshire. Pictured: North Cave Wetlands (by John Potter)

It’s making the coarse grasses and weeds grow and swamping other more delicate plants - including the species Prof Fitter used to barely remark on back in the 1990s, as they were so much commoner.

He said: “There’s a very beautiful vetchling, Lathyrus linifolius, bitter vetchling, which has lovely purple and blue flowers.

“It’s an example of the sort of plant I wouldn’t have bothered to notice. Now if I come across it I think crikey.

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“One of the very striking things about the State of Yorkshire’s Nature report is the number of plants that are now only found in just a single place - 25 of them; if a plant grows in just one place it is very vulnerable.

Alastair FitterAlastair Fitter
Alastair Fitter

“Someone will come along the verge and flail mow it, what’s cut may be left there and smother everything that comes through so you will only get species like docks, nettles and coarse grasses.”

The report, a collaboration between YWT, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, Butterfly Conservation and the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union (YNU) shows as many species are increasing as declining in Yorkshire.

But those that are disappearing are rarer nationally than the increasing species, a path leading to a “duller natural world, full of common species...and with fewer of the scarcer ones that make Yorkshire special”.

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Among the common species on the up in Yorkshire are those everybody will recognise - cleavers or goosegrass that drape themselves over so many hedges, nettles, and yellow ragwort - as well as greylag goose and fox in the animal world.

On the rare and declining side are birdseye primrose, turtle dove, willow tit and water vole.

Another type of roadside verge that isn’t great for nature are those that are newly mown and immaculately neat.

Prof Fitter said: “Increasingly you find people with ride on mowers go for often long distances either side of their drive and mow it as if it’s a lawn.

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“They think it looks neat, but by definition they are destroying the wildlife there.”

Prof Fitter gives talks to gardening clubs and says people with a garden can do a huge amount for biodiversity. He encourages people to “embrace untidiness”.

He said: “I think there’s a lot of people who are interested in nature but don’t know what to do. I say to them you have to be willing to accept untidiness - but it is also cheaper and easier.”

The number one question he is asked is how to make a wildlife meadow. He says people can achieve a passable version in just a few years, tackling it with the lawnmower just twice a year.

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“Hay meadows in Swaledale are one of the glories of Yorkshire - they have taken a thousand years to develop.

“The hay which is grown for fodder is cut in July and then what’s left is grazed.

“For a meadow in a garden you’d have to cut it twice a year.

“If you just literally adopt that regime and do nothing else it might take ten years to become a flower-rich meadow but you can get something like it in as little as three or four if you put in seeds and plug plants, things like knapweed, betony or yellow rattle which suppresses grass.”

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Prof Fitter, who lives near York, says his own little patch of meadow is buzzing most days with butterflies, bees, hoverflies and moths. And he detects a changing mood among the gardening clubs he visits - an openness to unruly nature.

“Whereas ten years ago people thought gardens should be neat and manicured increasingly people want a garden that goes with nature. It seems a pretty general movement. Garden clubs are really a barometer - people there are not self-selected because of their passion for wildness, there is a big shift. Ten or 15 years ago the RHS used to favour classic garden plants that were immaculate with no insect damage with the flowers looking perfect.

“There’s now a realisation that plants are food for insects - they get eaten. If you want insects you have to accept that.”

Sometimes the idea of “helping nature” seems daunting, but a wilder garden may be the easiest way.

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Those without a garden can join community schemes, adopt an area or plant a windowbox. Prof Fitter said it was crucial people engaged with nature otherwise “they don’t value it - they won’t put pressure on policy makers and politicians to make the change.

“The days when conservation involved finding the nicest area of habitat, putting a fence round it and locking the gate are long gone. “People need to be actively engaged.”

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Last summer there were distressing scenes at YWT’s North Cave Wetlands reserve - a working sand and gravel quarry in East Yorkshire, which boasts an abundance of wildlife.

1,000 dead black-headed gulls lay around on its shores, after an outbreak of avian flu.

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People tend to think gulls are ten a penny - but they are actually declining in population.

All seven species of gull that regularly breed in the UK are now listed as red or amber status on the official Birds of Conservation Concern list.

Managers made the decision to remove the bodies - usually corpses of birds struck with the flu are left where they are to prevent disease speading and further distress to the survivors. Thankfully it seems to have worked.

“Last year was really horrendous because of avian flue we lost about 40 per cent of our breeding pairs,” said Regional Manager East David Craven. “We are seeing decent numbers coming back. It looks promising, although it will still be significantly down.”

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The State of Yorkshire’s Nature report says there are too few, too small and too scattered wildlife sites and protected areas in Yorkshire – they make up just 15 per cent of the county – to form a healthy and resilient ecological network.

“If you have fewer species for nature to occupy it is more likely that viruses like this will more easily spread through the population because they are living so closely together,” said Mr Craven. “You need more of these spaces, bigger and joined-up.”

The good news at North Cave is that due to a close working relationship with Humberside Aggregates, now Breedon, the nature reserve will continue expanding in the coming years.

This didn’t happen by accident - the worked out quarry would have ended up as landfill, but for opposition by villagers in nearby North Cave and Hotham.

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After the plans were rejected by an inspector, YWT purchased the 96-acre site in 2000 and went on to develop it as a reserve.

When Humberside Aggregates proposed to extract a further 3 million tonnes of aggregate from a further 105 acres, they offered to restore the quarries to YWT’s design and donate them back to the trust.

When planning permission was granted in 2006 to extend the reserve “by the extraction of sand and gravel” there was not one objection.

Now there are avocets, little ringer plover and common terns breeding there. “It started from 38 hectares, it’s now about 100 and in future it will be 200 plus,” said David.

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“The growth of the site means the birds can be more spread out and they can be in different spaces.”

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State of Yorkshire’s Nature identifies the habitats that are most important for nature’s recovery.

And if you want to visit a flower-rich “stronghold” nowhere is better than Ingleborough and this month it is “spectacular” says Wild Ingleborough programme manager Tim Thom.

Even the weariest of walkers on the Three Peaks walk need only lift their heads and look around to see unique flowers and plants found growing on its nationally-important limestone grasslands and limestone pavements.

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It is the only place in the world that the tiny white stars of Yorkshire sandwort are found and just one of four places in the UK you can see Teesdale violets.

Tim says birdseye primrose are looking stunning with their purple and yellow pompom heads and there are orchids everywhere.

“We have a third of the UK’s plant species and 30 to 40 on Ingleborough that are pretty rare”.

Rare flowers are being grown from seed to replant in a montane nursery and they’re also trialling harvesting and spraying fern spores from rare ferns directly into the limestone pavement grykes.

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Huge volumes of limestone once were taken for peoples’ rockeries - the practice only stopped by the late 1990s after a massive campaign.

Conservationists have gone the extra mile to reintroduce rare species. Tim said: “Some of the ferns are very rare; ferns produce spores and we have been scraping them into a spray bottle and spraying limestone with the spores - hopefully we will start seeing baby ferns.

“A real hero species is spiked speedwell which currently grows on one cliff ledge in the area.

“Last year with the help of climbing colleagues at Natural England we sent someone down a rope to collect seeds. We had some germinate and once they are big enough we will plant them out.”

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Although the scale of recent and historical losses are daunting. Tim, who is working together with the Woodland Turst, WWF and the University of Leeds, feels hopeful.

“We have some really nice big landscapes, there are projects working at scale to bring back a whole range of things, flowers, birds. There is so much activity, it feels really positive.”

The report can be read in full in the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union journal The Naturalist, and on the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website.

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