The time capsule deep in the Yorkshire Dales

AT the top of Yorkshire, on the eastern slope of Ingleborough where the flora and fauna are chiefly sheep and grass, some unexpected inhabitants have moved in.

Ashes Pasture, Ribblehead. PIC: Simon Hulme
Ashes Pasture, Ribblehead. PIC: Simon Hulme

It barely registers as a pinprick on the map, but on a warm spring day, Ashes Pasture is alive to the curlew and the cuckoo and to the smell of orchids.

Even on a freezing one like yesterday, the wildflowers are an oasis among the dry stone.

It is within view of the Ribblehead Viaduct, one of the county’s best-known landmarks, yet the eight hectare pasture is a hidden treasure. No-one knows for sure why it survived the chemicals that have for the last half century been used to improve livestock rearing in the Dales – though the barely accessible and steeply banked road alongside may have had something to do with it – but the wildlife it now supports has made it a window on a Dales landscape all but lost.

A curlew at Ashes Pasture. Picture by Jon Hawkins

Yesterday, its custodians were handed a grant that will ensure it always will be.

The hay meadow has long been considered a site of special scientific interest and placed under the care of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. When the owner of the neighbouring fields announced that he planned to sell them, the trustees knew they had to have those, too.

“It was too good an opportunity to miss,” said Jonathan Leadley, the Trust’s northern regional manager.

“We couldn’t risk the land being lost forever and we were lucky that a charitable foundation agreed to help buy it and give us some time to raise the money.

A curlew at Ashes Pasture. Picture by Jon Hawkins

“Without that, it would have been sold on the open market.”

Yesterday, a cheque for nearly £60,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund completed the funding jigsaw, and extended the pasture from eight to 20 hectares.

Mr Leadley said: “We have been bowled over by the response to our fundraising campaign to save it.

“The plants there are typical of the way the Dales would have looked at one time, but a lot of that has been lost.”

The new, enlarged site will be a more robust home for wildlife and allow it to better weather the unrelenting Dales winters, he said.

“Small, isolated sites are very vulnerable to external pressures and once wildlife is lost there can be no way that species can return.

“If we get the management right, then with time we should be able to help the wildlife spread out into the adjoining areas.”

Work will now begin on partly restoring one of two traditional stone barns on the site, with nesting boxes for the barn owls and kestrel believed to live there.

David Renwick, Yorkshire head of the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “Few people realise that every lottery ticket has the potential to save the UK’s important species and habitats. The purchase of Ashes will safeguard the nature reserve and provide homes for wildlife.”