An Ecological Survey of the Gill Beck Valley 2021

Friends of Gill Beck Valley

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The valley covers an altitudinal range from 50m at the confluence of the Gill Beck and River Aire up to 385m at the twelve apostles on the watershed of Rombald’s Moor.

The catchment of the Gill Beck

Unsurprisingly, the whole area has been heavily utilised over the centuries; since sporadic settlement in Mesolithic times, through to the extensive woodland clearances of the Mid-Bronze Age (around 2000 BC) and enclosures from at least 1610 onwards (shown in a map of Baildon Moor by Robert Saxton of that date http://www.bradfordhistorical.org.uk/baildonmoor.html). Coal was extracted from shallow pits at many sites in the Baildon moor area from at least the 14th century until the end of the nineteenth -having a .  The settlements of Low Hill, Sconce and Moorside subsisted on coal mining, quarrying, textiles, arable and livestock farming.  In recent decades, the former predominantly agricultural landscape has become increasingly varied with leisure use for Golf Courses and horse paddocks. 

Baildon Moor was purchased by the Bradford Corporation in 1899 to provide recreation for the populace and remains a ‘urban common’.

Rombald’s Moor is designated as an SSSI as part of the South Pennine Moors SPA/SAC (Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation) .  This creates an obligation on planners to ensure that development within 7km does not adversely affect the area.

To the best of our knowledge, no other parts of the valley are protected by any designation conferring statutory protection although there are some Local Wildlife Sites (LWS) and most is ‘green belt’.

There’s a good variety of habitat types compressed into the study area.  This review aims to look at each in turn and highlight aspects of particular significance.

Whilst it might be said that the Gill Beck catchment is nothing ‘special’, and maybe 70 years ago it wouldn’t have been; it must be borne in mind that we find ourselves in a situation where nature has declined to the point where there are fewer than 300 pairs of Curlew in the whole of England south of Birmingham, the number of UK Grey Partridge breeding pairs has declined by 64% in just 23 years from 1995 to 2018, Cuckoos by 75% and we have lost 97% of our wild flower meadows since the 1930s.  The Gill Beck valley, which has all of these and more, represents a contiguous area of relatively wild country: a priceless resource on the doorstep of almost 2,000,000 people in the Leeds-Bradford conurbation.

Moorland

The description of the South Pennine Moors SSSI, which encompasses Hawksworth moor describes ‘extensive areas of blanket bog occur on the upland plateaux which are interspersed with species-rich acidic flushes and mires. There are also mosaics of upland wet and dry heaths and acidic grasslands.’

Most of that part of Rombald’s moor which drains into the Gill Beck catchment remains managed grouse moor with sheep grazing, predator-control, drainage and regular burning. 

The drainage network has been constructed to channel water, for example from Horncliffe Well, to Intake Gate and thus to Reva Reservoir.  

Ling Calluna vulgaris is the dominant plant species.  Also Crowberry, Bilberry and Sedges.

Heather moor on Baildon Moor was probably never so heavily managed and, in places, is rapidly giving way to Bilberry, Bracken, Hawthorn, Silver Birch, Rowan and Willow. Grouse have declined to become only occasional visitors.

The top of Baildon Moor is dominated by Purple Moor-grass Molinia caerulea.  Molinia-dominance has become an increasing issue for landscape managers since this species tends to form a bland monoculture.  The reasons for its rise to problematic levels are complex but probably involve sheep-grazing in the absence of other large herbivores, increasing nitrogen pollution and higher atmospheric carbon dioxide.

https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/the-problem-with-purple-moor-grass-molinia/

Since sheep have been removed the moor now has an issue with encroaching Bracken! Control measures have ensued.

For many decades Baildon Moor has played host to numerous human visitors.  In the early 20th century crowds of 30-50,000 Bradfordians regularly gathered there on weekends and holidays to enjoy the surroundings.  Walking, cycling, dog-walking, horse-riding and golf continue to be significant environmental factors; although obviously integral to its role in public amenity. 

Rombald’s moor supports populations of Merlin and Golden Plover of international importance.  Cuckoo (parasitising Meadow Pipit), Reed Bunting, Stonechat, Whinchat and occasionally Short-eared Owls are hanging on.

Bilberries on Baildon Moor support the caterpillars of Green Hairstreak butterflies.

Plant communities Baildon Moor: these include Bog Asphodel, Sundew, Lesser Twayblade orchid and more.

Pasture:

A wide range of agricultural practices have resulted in a variety of floristic communities

Unimproved upland grassland covers the Reva Hill area, High Eldwick and part of Baildon Moor.  This is upland acid grassland and upland rush pasture which is currently grazed by sheep and, in parts, also by horses and cows. There are Gorse, Willow, Rowan and Holly.

A Hare on Upland Acid Grassland in the upper valley

Here, there are still Curlews, Lapwings, Snipe and Grey Partridge.

This upland grassland is important for breeding Lapwing, Curlew, Grey Partridge, Snipe and Skylarks.

Improved pasture:  Most of the pasture which dominates the valley is improved to a greater or lesser extent.  Much of it has little floristic diversity, other than in the field margins, although some relief from the sea of Rye Grass is provided by Red and White Clover, Vetches, Dandelions, Daisies and Buttercup.

Improved pasture with Ash trees around the abandoned Shrog’s Farm at Moorside

Horse paddocks and Tong Park: represent relatively unimproved lowland pasture -which has now become a very scarce habitat.  Here there are Harebells, Yellow Rattle, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Oxeye Daisy, Ragged Robin, Devil’s Bit Scabious, Red Bartsia, Teasel, Pignut, Knapweed, Betony, Marsh rchid, Hedge Mustard, Pineapple Mayweed, Buttercup.

Tong Park: the horses are essential to maintaining the flower-rich meadows
A carpet of Yellow Rattle at Tong Park in June
By late July Tong Park has gone purple with Knapweed
In the absence of insecticides in the valley, diverse insect life survives
Small Copper. The valley has several important butterfly species including Purple, White-letter and Green Hairstreaks

Field boundaries:

Drystone walls remain a characteristic feature.  Lower down there are also hedges.  Some of these have previously been layed and must be quite old.  In some areas new hedges have been planted.

Stoats are common in the many drystone walls
…and that’s why!
Walls and the mature trees which punctuate them are home to Little Owls
Hawthorn is the other tree typical of hedge lines and dry-stone walls.
In the distant past some of these Hawthorn hedges were managed by periodic laying

In less intensively-farmed areas there are broad expanses of Bramble and Rosebay Willowherb.

Bramble beds on Hollins Hill Golf Course.  This stretch hosts breeding Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat, Garden Warbler and has held singing Grasshopper Warbler.
Lesser Whitethroat, an adult carrying food in the same area

Butcher’s Broom on Strait Lane at Hawkstone Farm, Harebells, Foxglove, Dandelion, Hogweed, Cow Parsley, Coltsfoot, Dog Rose.  There are isolated patches of primroses and cowslips.

Cowslips on the north side of the valley

Woods:

The woods down the centre of the valley consist of semi-natural deciduous woodland.  Spring Wood, Willy Wood, Birks Wood, Roundabout Wood in the lower part of the valley.  Old Wood, West Wood, Great Wood (north of Faweather Lodges), Honey Joan Wood, Howden Wood (at Sconce) above the road bridge at Mill Lane. 

Spring Wood from the south.  The long low hill in the mid-ground is a glacial drumlin

Additionally, there are sizeable pockets at Hazel Head Wood on the Baildon side of the valley.  Hollins Hall and Elm Wood on the Guiseley side. The Odda and Hawksworth Hall on the northern watershed.

This woodland shows a gradation from flatter, less acidic areas where Pedunculate Oak, Sycamore, Silver and Downy Birch, Holly and Alder (along banksides) are the main trees, along with a few Rowan, Yew and Field Maple.  Holly Ilex aquifolium is showing strong regeneration in the face of the onslaught of the many Roe Deer. In some areas there are quite large contiguous stands (for example just west of Hollins Hall). 

An old Field Maple at Hollins Hall
Mature Ash trees in what was pasture and is now Driving range at Hollins Hall
Holly wood, Hollins Hall

The herb layer in these areas tends to be dominated by bramble.  Bluebells and Wild Garlic are plentiful, along with wood millet, hedge woundwort and ferns.

On the steeper valley sides a more acidic soil is found.  In this area sessile and hybrid oaks are more common, along with Silver and Downy Birch, Holly, Wych Elm and Hazel.  Parts of Spring Wood have old stools of coppiced Hazel which must have been managed in the past.

Old Hazel stools in Spring Wood…coppicing has long since ceased

All of these areas are shown as wooded on OS map dated 1851 and remain so today.

Around these are various plantings comprising a wide range of native and introduced species: for example on Hollins Hall (dating from early 2000s) and Bradford Golf course (from early 1900s).  Species include Ash, Hazel, Larch, Lombardy (Black) Poplar, Beech, Silver Birch, Scots Pine, Guelder Rose.

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) has been planted along the line of the aqueduct at Tong Park, on the Odda/Hawksworth Hall, Bradford Golf Club and at Hollins Hall. 

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), often magnificent mature specimens, is also widespread and locally frequent, often on slightly more neutral soils. There are many along drystone walls in pasture.

Ash is the characteristic tree of many drystone wall field boundaries, pasture and is also present within woodland. 

Wild Cherry is scattered, often around buildings.

Along watercourses here are frequent Alder (Alnus glutinosa) with particular Alder Carr below the railway viaduct.

Goat willow (Salix caprea) and grey sallow (S. cinerea).

Regeneration is generally good among the broadleaved species, with oak, beech, birch, rowan and the sporadic ash all showing good spontaneous growth. No active regeneration was observed among the conifers.

There is plenty of dead standing and fallen timber throughout the woodland.  This reflects the fact that no large-scale timber extraction occurs.  As a result, fungi and invertebrate populations are quite diverse and numerous.

Wood pasture at the head of Spring Wood: dead wood in most parts of the valley is allowed to lie undisturbed -home for arthropods and fungi
King Alfred’s cakes fungus on Ash

Other shrub species comprise hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, Blackthorn and Elder Sambucus nigra.

Honeysuckle in many hedges/wood margins.  Many mature trees have Ivy, often a profuse covering.

Red Admiral on Ivy.  There are a lot of ivy-covered trees in the valle

It’s an indispensable resource for insects late in the year

Herbaceous layer relatively un-depleted by grazing deer: Wood Anenome, Wood Sorrel, Yellow Pimpernel, Wild Garlic, Bluebell.  Locally, Green Alkanet.

Wild Garlic in April

Bluebells in May

Diversity of woodland birds is not what it could be: the wooded areas are perhaps just too small and isolated to support long-term viable populations of Redstart, Wood Warbler or Pied Flycatcher.  Spotted Flycatcher, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Hawfinch which may have been present in relatively recent times have all experienced severe national decline.

Buzzard Sparrowhawk, Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker are all present.  Kites have obviously become common and seem likely to breed.

Roe Deer are plentiful: their tracks are everywhere.  Hares also use the woods…especially in hard winters. 

Scrub:

On Baildon moor there is extensive Bracken and Hawthorn. Blackthorn thickets occur on the Odda, Hollins Hall golf course and at Tong Park.

Blackthorn flowering on Sunny Brow, Tong Park.  This is an important early season nectar source
Meadow Pipit in Bracken on Baildon Moor

Elder, Crab Apple, Ground Elder, Brambles, Gorse, Broom, Bracken.

Water bodies:

There are plenty of man-made water bodies ranging from small coal pits on Baildon Moor up to the reservoirs at Reva and Weecher.

Reva and Weecher reservoirs: these cold, deep waters have few breeding birds.  Notably Oystercatchers.  They do provide roost sites for gulls, ducks and geese.

Hawksworth New Dam:

Tong park Dam: water lilies, Purple Loosestrife

Eel captured in Tong Pak Dam
Gadwall on Tong Park Dam

Frog Pond at Tong Park: Yellow Flag, Willow

Red Brick Dam: Willow

Hollins Hall golf club ponds: Bulrush

Reservoir at High Eldwick

Toads mating in the ‘frog pond’ at Tong Park.  This typically follows a few weeks after the Frogs

The Valley is home to good populations of Common Toads, Common Frogs and Smooth Newts.

Wetlands:

Marsh at Tong park (2 areas) Bulrush Typha latifolia, Marsh Marigold, Marsh Thistle, Angelica, Himalayan Balsam, Hemlock water dropwort, Ragged Robin, Water Mint

Marsh in Bartle Gill at Tong Park, Ragged Robin and Marsh Thistle

Also above Weecher.

Blanket bog and coal pits on Baildon Moor

Water courses:

The Gill Beck and its tributaries remain in good condition and relatively pollution-free in post-industrial times.

The Gill Beck

A good range of riparian fauna includes Dipper, Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail (all of which have bred), Grey Heron, Otter (occasionally), Mink, Brown Trout and Bullhead.  The only crayfish in the lower part of the beck are invasive Signal Crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus

Dipper on the Gill Beck at Denby’s Mill (Paul Marfell)
Signal Crayfish

The invertebrate fauna of the beck includes good numbers of Mayfly.  Mass hatching on fine spring days remains a feature.

Mayflies over the Gill Beck

Bankside vegetation of Gill Beck: Moschatel, Wood Anenome, Lily of the Valley, Wild Garlic, Daffodil, Butterbur, Crosswort,

Bankside plants along the Gill Beck at Tong park: Butterbur, White Dead-nettle, Bluebell, Cleavers

Bankside smaller tributaries: Meadowsweet, Brooklime and, in shaded areas, Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Fool’s Watercress, Brooklime, Great Burnet Sanguisorba officinalis, Marsh Marigold Caltha palustris, Meadowsweet, Cuckoo Flower, Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage

Opposite-leaved golden Saxifrage: the characteristic species of the shaded, woodland becks

Industrial sites:

Tong Park Mills: Buddleia, Purple Toadflax

Gardens:

There are no large settlements in the valley (this being a large part of its attraction).  The village at Hawksworth and scattered farms and houses.

Summary of significant features:

Ecologically, the most important habitats and floral/faunal communities are the wild flower meadows at Tong Park, the upland areas of Rombald’s Moor with its adjacent unimproved acid grasslands and the relatively unspoiled Gill Beck itself.

However, by virtue of being a large contiguous stretch of semi-natural habitat from the Aire Valley to the top of Rombalds Moor crossed by only two roads, the valley is important as a recreational and aesthetic resource for people who live around it and enjoy its natural spaces.  There is a good network of public rights of way.  It’s not a coincidence that the area was a popular holiday and leisure destination in the days before air travel. What it lacks is the focus of an area (‘nature reserve’) managed primarily with conservation outcomes in mind.

Potential threats and opportunities:

1: It would be a concern if land use at Tong Park were to change away from horse/mixed grazing.  The current regime is ideally-suited to the maintenance of the diverse meadows.  Further encroachment by housing would also reduce its value.  Hopefully, the present long-term lessees will continue to use the area.  If not, and if the opportunity arose to manage all or part of this area for conservation then that would be an opportunity which would be interesting to look at: if a team of people with the capacity to take on such a job were available.  The area is intensively used for recreation by local people and is not big enough to support much in the way of larger fauna.  However, it would be invaluable as an educational resource.

2: Similarly, the extensive mixed grazing of the Reva Hill area depends (to the best of our knowledge) on the management methods of a very few landowners.  Again, it’s a big undertaking but such an area could be a valuable mixed-use conservation/farming project. 

3: As is the case for intensively-managed grouse moors generally, biodiversity, carbon sequestration and flood alleviation on Hawksworth and Bingley Moors would benefit from reduced drainage, replacement of burning with alternative management tools, increased numbers of trees and scrub and reduced control of apex predators.  It’s to be hoped that, given the pressing need, land managers, incentivised by the regulatory environment, will be able to adapt in positive ways.

4: Pretty much all waterways in England are vulnerable to pollution in one way or another.  Regulation is not always effective given the challenges faced by the environment agency.  The ecology of the Gill Beck could be severely impacted even by isolated incidents.  Vigilance is required and a network of reporting observers would be a big advantage.

 5: There are always opportunities to engage with land managers to encourage wildlife-friendly practices.  It would also be nice to involve schools as potent agent of community engagement.  River monitoring would be a good focus for this.

It’s been a bit wet!

But there’s always a silver lining. In this case a lot of mushrooms in the valley. Like the trees, although the land use has changed some of the fungal organisms must have been soldiering on underground regardless.

Field Blewit in grassland. What would have been unimproved meadow is now golf fairway.
The lilac stem distinguishes from similar species: Field Blewit is a good edible mushroom that usually appears after the first few really cold nights
Oyster mushrooms: can appear at any time of year but, around here, mostly in Oct-Dec
Meadow puffball: there are some huge mushroom rings uo to 50 metres across on the south-facing slopes of the valley which must be centuries old. Several fungi are responsible including these beauties.
Troops of Fly Agaric are all over. We’ve been testing these out as fly traps: a small lump in a saucer of milk on top of a cupboard will intoxicate a fair number.
Princess mushroom: Agaricus lanipes
Clouded Funnel
Death cap: there are several patches in the valley where they crop up. All under Oak.
I won’t bore you with too many brown ones but this is Common Cavalier