Gill Beck autumn update: Barn Owls, Whinchats, Green Woodpeckers and paths

To balance the previous serious post…here’s the positive stuff 🙂

The valley of the Gill Beck: we’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating -it’s a great thing in a slightly gloomy world that such a beautiful natural space remains on the doorstep of two large cities. Looking after this place is vitally-important to our well-being (Photo: Ros Crosland)

We’ve been plugging away at the paths and getting fitter (younger participants) or more cream-crackered (the middle-aged) in the process of wheelbarrowing tons of aggregate around.

The path below Spring Wood in it’s newly-engineered glory

We’ll be needing another delivery soon Richard!

And we continue to fight the torrent of litter, poop and general trash that gets left down there. Many thanks to the legendary Jeff Yates of Litter-free Guiseley for supply of bags.

All of the following pics were taken in the Gill Beck valley late summer and autumn:

Barn Owls have had a bonanza year locally. The wide roughs of the golf courses, the rough pasture at Tong Park and Baildon Moor are rich in voles (photo: Ros Crosland)
These days, it feels increasingly special to still have Swallows nesting in the valley. Happily there are still parts of the valley where pesticides aren’t (much) used and there are enough flying insects for them.
A juvenile Whinchat on the wires at Low Springs Farm:
this is another species rapidly decreasing in the UK as a whole (Photo: Ros Crosland)
Migrant Wheatears also at Low Springs Farm (Photo: Ros Crosland…….this is a beauty Ros!)
Juvenile Green Woodpecker (Photo: Ros Crosland). There’s a lot of standing dead wood in the various bits of woodland around the valley which is important for woodpeckers.
Oyster mushrooms sprouting in the colder weather this week
Lurid Bolete at Hollins Hall
Russian Comfrey also at Hollins Hall
Birds foot Trefoil at Tong Park is still in flower late September
Crosswort alongside the Beck
And finally…not going to win any photography prizes with this one but I wanted to include it because I’ve seen very few Hedgehogs in the valley over the past couple of years.

This week there are still lots of Chiffchaffs hanging around and a few Swallows and House Martins. Lots of Siskins, Redpolls and the occasional Crossbill have been moving through overhead. The male Goshawk normally resident in the Shipley area, which is presumed to be a escaped falconer’s bird occasionally visits us.

Gill Beck water quality issues

There’s been an upsurge of interest nationally and locally in the quality of water in our streams and rivers. Nationally, the Environment Agency report on 17th September revealed the depressing fact that all UK watercourses are polluted in one way or another.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/17/rivers-in-england-fail-pollution-tests-due-to-sewage-and-chemicals

Locally, Ilkley Clean River Campaign have been valiantly fighting the inertia of Yorkshire Water and the authorities to reduce the shocking amount of raw sewage dumped into the river where many people swim and paddle.

https://sites.google.com/view/cleanwharfeilkley/home

So, it’s perhaps not a surprise that we have our own issues. In case you were thinking that our pristine Beck was …well, pristine, it’s perhaps time to publicise the fact that there are at least two places that we’re aware of where raw, untreated sewage also enters the Gill Beck.

Combined sewer overflow (CSO) at Tong Park: the grey slime emanating from these CSOs is made up of billions of bacteria -many of them antibiotic-resistant and potentially disease-causing. This outflow pipe runs from Baildon and actually goes under the lake before entering the Beck.

CSOs are a consequence of the design of our waste water system -often dating back to the Victorian era. Excess rainfall is channelled into the same pipes as sewage. As a safety valve in times of intense rainfall there is built-in allowance for overflow to run straight off into streams and rivers. In reality this happens at times of intense rainfall……and also at other times….or, in some cases, most of the time!

Fixing this problem is a big challenge and, in reality, requires a vast infrastructure investment programme with political backing. This is an uphill battle in the face of large, well-connected, privately-owned and profit-orientated water companies. I stand to be corrected but my impression is there’s not much the environment agency can do when you or I ring to say ‘there’s sewage flowing into our Beck’….because, to a degree, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

This summer we’ve seen an enormous number of families out enjoying the wild bits of the valley and playing in the stream.

Other potential sources of pollution include farming and industry. Fortunately, we’re lucky that, to the best of my knowledge, the farmers along the Gill Beck valley are very good in this respect.

Last week, alarmingly, the Beck looked like this…

Silt from groundworks upstream making the Beck run brown: mid-September 2020

In contrast to its usual clarity:

A more normal state of water clarity in the Beck at Otley Road

This silt stemmed from construction works upstream. The issue isn’t quite as disastrous as serious slurry pollution but it’s still not great for the Beck ecosystem. Silt at this level adversely affects invertebrate populations by smothering them. Obviously, fewer invertebrates leads to fewer fish, birds, mammals and so on.

Privately, our view is that some works and development is inevitable with the number of people living in the area but there are relatively straightforward technical ways of reducing this kind of problem when work is planned in advance. Since the success of businesses involved in leisure and tourism relies largely on the valley being a beautiful natural environment we’re surprised that those involved weren’t more careful.

On a positive note, this summer has seen work start on the final fish passes which will allow migratory fish such as Salmon and Sea Trout to get up into the Aire above Leeds for the first time in over a century.

https://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/18636454.next-step-starts-get-salmon-river-aire/

Smaller streams such as the Gill Beck are potential spawning grounds for these fish when they make it through. It’s really exciting to think that we could have Salmon spawning on our doorstep. It’s important the Beck is in decent shape for them. Happily, it’s mostly pretty good in comparison to other watercourses; we’ve seen Brown Trout up as far as the caravan park this summer. We regularly have Otters, Kingfishers and Dippers. However, the situation clearly needs watching.

If you have any concerns about pollution or water quality in the Beck then please get in touch. Together we can monitor the situation and take effective action when necessary.

More projects

Many thanks to the guys who laboured to put together Fin’s bridge and the new path across the swamp by the frog pond.

Cheaper than going to the gym: the sculpted physiques of the FoGBV team after a morning of wheelbarrowing aggregate up a muddy track.

Also many thanks to Bradford Countryside and Rights of Way team for their advice and practical assistance in providing raw materials for this endeavour.

Lockdown in the valley

A slightly belated update this one: due to lots of stuff going on. However, as life creeps inexorably back to normal it seems like a good time to pick up the reins of the Friends of Gill Beck project again.

Lockdown has seen an enormous increase in people, especially young families, using the valley -which is great. Fantastic for them all to be able to get out there and mess around in the beck and the woods. We’re incredibly lucky to have such an amazing place on our doorsteps.

The beach on the Gill Beck at Tong Park

Hopefully a connection with the local landscape and nature is a legacy of the current crisis. The flip side of this is a big increase in litter: I suspect that, for many people, there’s nowhere else to socialise. For several weeks we’ve been collecting bags of litter including vast numbers of bottles and cans from the bin by the dam. The owners have thankfully granted us vehicular access which means we can now drive down and pick it all up. Although sometimes it feels like a bit of a chore I think, at least, the party people are putting their trash in/next to the bin rather than in the bushes. I know that quite a few people have been helping to gather up some of the mess and put it ready for collection -which is a big help and much appreciated. We perhaps need a bigger bin!

It’s been suggested that we’re suckers for punishment taking on his job…but sometimes it’s good to have a purpose in life and I reckon there’s definitely less rubbish in the bushes since the advent of the FoGBV bin.

This is also the first run out for the FoGBV logo:

We are planning on using this, discretely, on some fence posts at entry points to the valley to generate some interest.

We’ve also been tackling the footpaths in one or two places. Mainly the heavily eroded section East of Spring wood.

Footpath engineering

This is going to be an ongoing project for a few months. Hopefully we can get it in decent shape before next winter. Bradford council have generously offered some aggregate to surface the path….but not a helicopter to get it to the bit where it’s needed. Muscle power is going to be required. A bit of socially-distanced labour should be possible I think.

Finally, a bit of a photo-gallery of recent bits and pieces:

Large Skipper on Vetch: Willow Lane 30/5
Broad-bodied Chaser Libellula depressa Tong Park 31/5
Crosswort: Gill Beck 31/5
Yellow Pimpernel Spring Wood 31/5
Cuckoo flower on Hollins Hall golf course: making the most of the break in mowing
The dam is properly blue at the moment due to dye which the anglers use to control the growth of weed. As far as we know this is not directly harmful to wildlife. Obviously weed has its advantages for wildlife…but we an understand that too much weed is a problem for anglers.

Every cloud

I hope no-one is reading this confined to a small flat in London. It’s been a beautiful week in Yorkshire, notwithstanding the unfolding crisis. I’ve had the chance to visit some of the parts of the valley which I see less often.

Panorama of the valley of the Gill Beck from its northern watershed at Reva Hill on Hawksworth Moor.

Having just read the sobering accounts of Mark Cocker’s Our Place and Benedict Macdonald’s Rebirding I have new-found interest in some of the farmland birds which, thankfully, we still have up here. Although I guess we’ve all seen the stats, it’s only sinking in recently for me that birds like Lapwings are actually completely absent from large swathes of the country south from here. They’re also now absent from the lower parts of our valley.

The cattle- and sheep-grazed fringes of Rombald’s Moor at its eastern end are a relative oasis. It’s scruffy and marginal agricultural land but in brilliant spring sunshine this week the fields of Reva Hill are alive with drumming Snipe, Curlew, Lapwing, Skylark, Golden Plover and Grey Partridge: all of them priority conservation species.

Lapwing: on Reva Hill it’s as though the CAP never happened
Grey Partridge: they’re hanging on in the lower parts of the valley but are in danger of getting overwhelmed by released pheasants, dogs, cats and walkers. 20 years ago we had a covey on our back lawn in Guiseley during a cold spell. Up on the sheep pastures they’re still OK.

It would be great to do something to do something to preserve this habitat but maybe it’s not under immediate threat. Possibly the greatest danger is of inappropriate wholesale tree-planting in this particular area. It could take a bit more vegetation: some Rowan, Holly and Gorse would be fine.

Life goes on in the valley

Who knew that Elms had pink flowers! Just very small pink flowers

Spring is on the launchpad and ready to go at the next hint of warmth. It’s already quite dry but on the damp beck-sides there are Marsh Marigolds out-golding the adjacent saxifrage.

Marsh Marigolds
Bit of a yellow theme at this time of year: maybe there’s a reason for that? These celandines carpeting the roadside are technically just outside our area at Esholt.
Meanwhile, this clump of Cowslips are the only ones I’m aware of on the North side of the valley.

We’ve been a bit slack on the invertebrate front but these Ichneumon wasps mating on the dry stone wall at Tong Park are amazing. An alien-like parasite looking a bit out of place in Bradford in March! I’m amazed to find that there are over 2500 UK species of Ichneumonids.

Ophion scutellaris?

…so I’m certainly not qualified to identify these with any confidence. However, geographically and seasonally this seems potentially compatible with Ophion scutellaris:

https://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/ophion-scutellaris

On the gritty matter of litter, pollution and other things-to-be-done, the area east of the viaduct looms large.

Wild Garlic and wildly out of control litter situation

It’s difficult to know what to do with this lot. It certainly looks awful. On the other hand, some of the wildlife evidently doesn’t give a damn about living amid 200 years-worth of glass, plastic and goodness-only-knows what else. And it would be a major project to clean up. This conundrum is a theme of post-industrial landscapes.

Early spring news from the valley

The Roe Deer population is steadily increasing.

Up to six have been frequenting the Hollins Hall side: it’s like the Serengeti with bunkers (photo Ros Crosland)
All looking in the peak of good health after a mild, wet winter with lots of greenery to browse (Ros Crosland)

Last week we put up another round of bird boxes. Some of these:

This lot are aimed at Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers which have certainly bred in Spring Wood in the past.
This male Pied Flycatcher was photographed by Paul Marfell just down the road at Denso Marston last spring: they obviously still pass through from time to time.
And, amazingly without serious injury, we fixed up a box for Joey the Hollins Hall resident Barn Owl.

The Hollins Hall team have been very welcoming. It’s got to be the most wildlife-friendly course around. Really importantly, there are lots of corners which aren’t over-managed. Fallen dead wood is great for invertebrates which, in turn, obviously support birds and mammals.

You rarely find this kind of thing in farmland or in council parks these days: all the dead wood is tidied away.
But without a natural cycle of decaying vegetation there are none of these: Violet Ground Beetle.

Après le déluge

It rained. A lot.

The Gill Beck going the full Zambesi at Tong Park after storm Ciara: Sunday 9th Feb
Water almost up to the bottom of the bridge at the dam
And briefly flowing over the old weir again
A raging torrent heads for the viaduct

All this action has substantially re-engineered the Gill Beck.

We now have a long stretch of steep sandy bank
And new water features: all the fine silt has been stripped out of the river bed leaving clean shingle. Looks good for trout spawning.
A beach! Already with sprouting Butterbur
The old stream bed has dried out again but the damp conditions are ideal for Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage -one of the signature plants of the valley.
The new design seems to suit the resident Dippers (Photo Paul Marfell)

The History of Tong Park

Many thanks to Peter Hughes for bringing this gem to our attention:

Published in 1995

That cover photo apparently dates from about 1925: a time when Denby’s Mill (now Tong Park Industrial Estate) was still a thriving industry.

The first chapter looks at the geology and pre-history of the area. The last two glaciations of the current Ice Age, the Anglian and Devensian, saw complex ice movements amid successive advances and retreats. At some point a moraine formed between ice in the valley of the Gill Beck and the Airedale glacier. This spur across the mouth of the valley is the site of Tong Park station and receives the southern end of the viaduct. The whole landscape is studded with smaller moraines, drumlins and erratic rocks.

Human presence is documented from about 4000 BC by the presence of stone age implements of the Magelmose culture. From about 3000 BC Bronze Age technology followed: with progressive forest clearance. Stone carvings which litter the area from this time.

https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=48900

Celtic Iron Age culture is known from Yorkshire only from about 300 BC.

With the principle ‘Inclosures’ Act of 1773 and other similar legislation across the centuries stone walls were built around ‘Parlimentary’ fields in the valley. These overly the earth ridges and furrows created by earlier farmers dating back to the Celts. The long S-shaped ridges are still visible on pasture and golf courses.

Ridge and furrow on Bradford Golf Course highlighted in melting snow: these earthworks may date back up to 2000 years.

At the ends of all of these fields are lynchet banks thrown up by the ploughs as they turned.

Weecher and Reva reservoirs, receiving run off from Burley and Ilkley moors, are the sources of the Gill Beck’s flow. Reva was completed in 1894.

Chapter two covers natural history: the list of species indicates little loss of diversity between the time of writing and today’s situation. In fact, I have the distinct impression that the valley is probably richer in flora and fauna today than it has been for much of the last century. It certainly looks considerably more wooded and wilder today than it does in many of the photos from the days when several thousand watched cricket matches at Tong Park. As Benedict Allen observes in his book ‘Rebirding’ ….’The post-industrial areas of Northern England have a very different aspect …In these areas vegetation freestyles in a way rarely permitted in any nature reserve or across much of the country….Here, less land is managed -and more is simply left’.

Chapter three documents the industrialisation of Tong Park. By 1778 there was a water mill on the site owned by messrs Halliday and Watson. Subsequently Thomas Gill upgraded this with the construction of Gill Mill. It’s unclear to me whether the name of the Beck derives from this.

William Denby and sons, incorporated in 1820, followed them and soon thereafter set about constructing the chain of upstream dams and reservoirs which ensured water supply to the factory. As well as the familiar main dam at Tong Park there are additionally the dam at the ‘frog pond’ on the north side of the beck, the Red Brick Dam below Moorside Farm, the New Dam on the Jum Beck above Hawksworth and the dam west of Ash House Farm, Sconce whose name remains unknown to me. At one time there was a large reservoir below the main dam and above the viaduct and enclosed by the bend in the beck.

Originally engaged in spinning, weaving and dyeing the business later progressively specialised in dyeing and fabric coatings. The tall chimney still nears the name ‘Denbirayne’: a patented waterproofed fabric.

The chimney of the former Denby Mills: photo by Paul Marfell (thanks Paul)

The book includes a lot of detail of the lives of the inhabitants of Tong during the heyday of the mill. The impression is of a tight-knit, self-contained community; almost all of whom worked at the mill or were related to those who did. The men played cricket and football in the valley, grew vegetables and kept pigs. The village gathered in the wesleyan methodist chapel (which also possessed a library) on Sundays, did their washing on Fridays and shopped in the Tong Park Street Co-op. They also swam in the lake at the dam. Many of the men went to fight in the world wars; frequently failing to return.

This loss which must have had a profound impact on the small community. A sadness compounded over subsequent decades by bitter industrial disputes and the ultimate decline of the textile industry. The main street was lined with terraced stone cottages which were demolished in the 1960s: a shame since they look very fine in photographs.