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Humberhead Peatlands National Nature Reserve (South Yorkshire)

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South Yorkshire

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      05.03.2008 13:52
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      Covering over 8000 acres this is the largest area of raised bog wilderness in lowland Britain

      The Humberhead Peatlands National Nature Reserve spans over 8,000 acres of Thorne, Goole, Crowle and Hatfield Moors and straddles the borders of three different English Counties: South Yorkshire, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. It is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and represents the largest area of raised bog wilderness in lowland Britain.

      I always used to think of the term "moor" as a bit of a misnomer for this area as to me a moor is a rounded area of land that has a relative height. Whilst the moors here are very flat and at sea level, in fact in certain places they are actually below sea level.

      I have travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles and this truly is a unique habitat. The closest that I have seen to this is the low level boggy terrain of Sutherland, at the top north west corner of Scotland or the coastal wilderness that is found in the Outer and Inner Hebrides, but generally speaking these two regions are heather clad environments. Whereas here, on the Humberhead Peatlands, there is not (to the best of my knowledge) a single strand of heather to be seen anywhere. The Humberhead Peatlands have been likened to similar areas in the Baltic region of northern Europe.

      To appreciate this area fully you need to travel right into the heart of its core. There are no public roads that penetrate this vast area so this journey can only be undertaken by foot, which involves a walk of around 5 miles to reach its interior. I have a regular walk of around 13 miles which is only possible to undertake with the aid of public transport as the starting and finishing points, though 13 miles apart by foot are almost 30 miles apart by road.
      There is no doubt that this isolation has protected the area and created the unique environment that we find today. There are many species of plants, insects and birds that are found here, completely isolated from other populations.
      Examples of isolated populations of wildlife include two different species of bird, namely the Nightjar and the Nightingale. Both of these species are represented here at their most northerly breeding sites in Europe and appear in much denser concentrations than elsewhere in Britain. Each summer over 80 pairs of Nightjar breed on these moors and over 100 pairs of Nightingales. Other scarce breeding birds include Merlin, Hobby, Long-eared Owl, and Whinchat.

      Over 5,500 different species of insects also occur here. These include six species that are found nowhere else in Britain and over 250 further species of a nationally important status. These include a sub species of butterfly found nowhere else in the world other than in these peat bogs and two different types of beetle. Scarce British plants include Bog Rosemary, Royal Fern, Bladderwort and an insect eating plant called the Round Leaved Sundew, which could be described at the Humberhead Peatland's own version of the Venus Flytrap.

      The history of this area dates back several thousands of years and forms the remnant of a much larger area that once stretched across most of Lincolnshire. These former areas have been drained and their peat extracted. Some peat working has also taken place on Thorne and Hatfield Moors but this has now ceased and these areas are now carefully managed by English Nature and the Lincolnshire Trust for Conservation. Evidence of this former peat mining can however still be clearly seen today and this is represented by hundreds of narrow ditches called "baulks" that criss-cross the land. These water filled channels have also led to the creation of many small brackish lagoons.

      According to English Nature's official Website group visits and guided walks are regularly arranged by English Nature but I have to say that I have probably visited here on over thirty different occasions and I have yet to encounter another single person on my walks. I have often been puzzled by the complete absence of other humans on these moors as the footpaths are very flat and they are of very good quality. I guess it is the way of the world today where, if somewhere is only accessible on foot then it is more or less out of bounds to all. I for one hope that they never open a public road across these moors.

      The 13 mile walk that I undertake is an incredibly varied one. It begins on the edge of a housing estate in Moorends, to the north of Doncaster in South Yorkshire and finishes near Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Access onto the moors is sign-posted "Thorne Moors" in Moorends, but the path begins at the opposite end of the town's football pitch so it can be quite tricky to work out exactly where this sign is pointing to. Once you have found the footpath at the opposite side of the football pitch things do however then become much clearer.

      The first part of the walk for a mile or so is not a very scenic one at all, and it certainly does not prepare you for what lies ahead. This first section of the route follows the old disused road to Thorne Colliery, which played a very prominent role in the miner's strike of 1984 but today it is closed and abandoned. The path takes you straight past the main building, which is now encased within high fences and I always think that it now looks quite eerie. It is certainly hard to imagine that thousands of people once worked here or that it was the scene of one of Britain's biggest coal mining disasters in 1926, when many men lost their lives.

      As you leave Thorne Colliery behind you the terrain quickly changes to scrubland and then as you reach a narrow makeshift bridge across a river, that basically consists of a couple of planks of wood, there is suddenly a vast area of reed beds and ponds in front of you. In the summer these patches of Greater Reed Mace are alive with the songs of Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers and the elusive Water Rail. The footpath that crosses this marshy terrain is raised above the level of the land on a wooden platform but following spells of heavy rain it can still be prone to flooding.
      As you cross through the reed beds on the elevated platforms if you are lucky you might catch the glimpse of a Marsh Harrier or a Hen Harrier flying past and at dusk I have often seen Barn Owls, hunting low above the ground with their ghost-like appearance.

      As you reach the end of the reeds the terrain suddenly changes again. It is only now that you can appreciate why this area is called "moorland" as the landscape becomes darker, duller and more barren. On a clear day you can see the lighthouses on the Humber from here, which I have calculated to be more than 20 miles away and as you leave the reeds and marshland behind there develops a complete sense of isolation.

      The open areas of moorland are home to one of the few wild populations of Red Deer in England and I have seen groups of over 50 of these magnificent beasts together, which is both impressive and somewhat scary. Coming face to face with a huge beast with antlers is not recommended for the faint hearted or those of a nervous disposition.

      These moors are interspersed with shallow lagoons, surrounded by areas of cotton grass, which are the breeding haunt of Snipe, Redshank, Golden Plover and Teal. I have walked across these moors at dusk when the bizarre "reeling" call of the Nightjar seems to be coming from every direction. This call sounds a bit like a motorbike and can carry for well over a mile. The Nightjar is a nocturnal bird and amongst the rarest and least known of all European birds. It is best seen at dusk when it often emits its call from a prominent perch, often the only tree or shrub around, its flight is just as weird as its song and it is often said to resemble a gigantic moth, fluttering and spiralling on silent wings.

      Due to the nature of this landscape there are only a handful of footpaths that cross it and it is not recommended to wander off these. This is partly due to the boggy nature of the ground, but also, if the signs are to be believed there are also Ministry of Defence activities in some of these remote areas, although I have never seen anything to support this.

      As you finally leave the moorland, the landscape suddenly changes again. In front of you now there is lush green woodland and beyond this a mile or so of rich farmland. This farmland contains some of the most fertile soil in eastern England. It is quite dramatic just how quickly the landscape changes and it never ceases to amaze me.

      I would describe this region as one of my favourite places in England and it is somewhere that I will hopefully return to again and again. There is always something very magical about the isolation of this place for me. A few years ago a Neolithic wooden bridge was discovered in the peat bogs on these moors and this was followed by the discovery of a large number of well preserved Viking tools, so who knows what secrets these moors still hold!
      Sadly however, the future of these moorlands is not certain. In recent months there has been a proposal to build a windfarm with 25 turbines on Thorne Moors, the environmental consequences of which do not even bear thinking about and every few years there are other crazy schemes discussed. So far, each of these plans has been successfully halted by local campaigners, environmental groups and English Nature, but it seems that the pressure to save one of the last remaining wildernesses in Europe is getting harder and harder.

      I would certainly recommend a visit here, but please don't tell everyone about it!

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    • Product Details

      Designated an NNR in 1995, a major extension came in 2005 and the moors now cover over 2,887 hectares. The moors are remnants of wetland that occupied the floodplain of the Humberhead Levels thousands of years ago. Five thousand years ago most of the site had become woodland. The deep layer of peat covers the area as a result of woodland clearcutting along with enhanced climate change. The clearing of woodlands lead to the gradual formation of boggy waterlogged conditions about 4,000 years ago.