Working with nature: Sheffield campaign calls for protection of upstream environments
Michael Meredith describes the thought process behind the ‘Ecological Owlthorpe’ project, which starts from the position only by co-operating with nature that we can safely live with nature.
Climate change studies, and indeed the experience of people around the world, suggest that extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and flooding are increasing in frequency, making the question of how best to mitigate the potentially devastating effects of these on people’s lives an urgent one. Many attempts to provide solutions have taken the approach of fighting against nature but this can end up making matters worse. The ‘Ecological Owlthorpe’ project described here takes its place at a different starting point: that it is only by co-operating with nature that we can safely live with nature.
Birley Woods golf course stands approximately 650ft above sea level. Sixty years ago, before the golf course was created, this was an area of mostly farmland and woodland, where children used to play and catch newts in the headwaters of the Ochre Dyke, a stream then lined by flourishing trees. The stream passes through Birley Moor at an elevated position of around 650 feet above sea level. As a result of heavy rain towards the end of 2019, and the deforestation that had taken place to make way for the golf course and the Owlthorpe housing estates, the otherwise harmless stream was turned into a downward-rushing torrent. This caused downstream rivers to flood, overwhelming Beighton and Fishlake.
Birley Woods golf course Image: Michael Meredith
On television, we watched the desperate plight of the Fishlake victims as the emergency services worked to evacuate them. And, as we have seen so often in recent years, when survivors are able to return to their homes after a flood, what they are met with is a scene of complete devastation. Many find it hard to claim compensation, and insurance premiums rise relentlessly, as insurance companies are overwhelmed with claims.
Ironically, it was a previously constructed flood defence in Sheffield that contributed to the problem. Sheffield is a city with a history of damage to property and also loss of life caused by flooding, for example in 2007, when the River Don flooded the Don Valley area of the city, and a 14-year-old boy was swept away in the River Sheaf. To prevent further disasters, a concrete barrier was erected which did save the east of Sheffield from the 2019 winter floods, but instead caused floodwater to be channeled downstream towards Fishlake.
Ecological Owlthorpe: an environmental approach
In contrast to solutions of this kind, Ecological Owlthorpe promotes the preservation and conservation of upstream environments, an approach which is finding some favour in government circles. In an interview with Sophie Ridge in February 2020, George Eustace explained that the government’s approach to UK flood prevention would consist of an extra £4bn spending on flood defences but also in Yorkshire the creation and support of upstream nature-based solutions. In addition, as reported in a government press release on 23 January 2020, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and Natural England have jointly committed to “nature-based solutions to tackle the climate emergency”, to which Ecological Owlthorpe has the potential to make an excellent contribution.
The ‘rural oasis’, as it has been termed, of Owlthorpe, which sits between Mosborough and Hackenthorpe, includes the award-winning Owlthorpe Heritage and Nature Trail, the Moorhole Lane Trail and other environmental and educational improvements which spread from Moor Valley down to Moss Way. Constructed with the help of some 795 local schoolchildren, the oasis was opened on 16 March 2012 by local MP Clive Betts. This is the area we wish to preserve as an upstream nature-based solution to protect the environment.
The interpretation boards on our website show details of the extent of the work carried out under the management of Natural England under their higher level stewardship scheme, for example the creation of a wild orchard.
Detailed invertebrate surveys carried out show the diversity of species living in Owlthorpe, and the natural ecology of the area. Some of the identified invertebrate species are dependent on the rare vegetation growing on Owlthorpe Fields in Ecological Owlthorpe. These in turn are vital to the continued support of the area’s birds, and thus perpetuate the habitat naturally found in the area. During this past summer, it has been a pleasure to watch swifts darting after insects and buzzards hovering as they hunted for prey. The year 2020 has particularly highlighted the crucial need for green spaces such as this to be protected, for our own health and wellbeing and that of future generations.
A further improvement to Ecological Owlthorpe’s capacity to control downstream flooding would be the planting of more trees. It is very much to be hoped that Sheffield local planning authority (LPA) will tap into the national tree strategy and that this will lead to the planting of trees upstream on all of Sheffield’s rivers.
Competing demands on Owlthorpe
Worryingly, Sheffield LPA has made further land in the area available to developers, in seeming contradiction to the statement by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick’s Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government that, “Valued green spaces are to be protected for future generations, with more building on brownfield land”.
Mapping of the proposed construction plans onto our interpretation boards shows their potential impact. Plans for 72 homes at Ochre Dyke (described as Plot E) show two road spurs: one pointing towards Moorthorpe Way and the other towards Moor Valley (Plot F). The main problem to building on (Plot F) has been access. If Moorthorpe Way is opened up, this leads to the potential for developing (Plot F) and, as a result, the complete destruction of our oasis. Hundreds of objections have been lodged by local residents and other interested organisations, and the developers have been refused planning permission on a number of occasions. However, they have now taken their appeal to Robert Jenrick. The inquiry is to be held 12 January 2021.
While many came to the conclusion that the oasis should remain intact, as requested, they produced alternative plans to control the environmental impact, in case permission for the proposed development was granted. One suggestion was that the maximum number of properties on plot E should be not be 72, but 36.
As an alternative to this scheme, and if government pronouncements about preference being given to brownfield sites are serious, housing developments could be built on the disused aerodrome at Norton, which is brownfield land by definition and boasts many derelict buildings in need of redevelopment.
A further consideration is the need for new, environmentally friendly technology to be integrated into any plans. These should, for example, ensure that houses have south-facing aspects to capture the benefits of solar technology, with storage batteries capable of taking advantage of new government legislation that says properties with excess electricity can sell back to the national grid. High-speed charging points must be planned for, for electric cars and bicycles, with perhaps a car scrappage deal for residents moving into new housing and even possibly a ban on combustion engines from new housing estates.
As we say on our website, public opinion is a very strong tool. It is by working together that we can change hearts and minds and curb the over-development of vital green spaces, especially when mature and valuable trees are threatened with the axe. Numbers are important: politicians take notice when they feel a sufficient threat to their re-election.
We all want to live in an environmentally friendly world free from pollution, floods, disease, famine and war. Politicians from all political parties claim to want the same and have signed up to ecological and climate emergency policies. For the sake of Ecological Owlthorpe and all other such fundamentally important environmental initiatives, let’s see if we can hold them to it.
by Michael Meredith.
My involvement with Owlthorpe spreads back about sixty-five years. As a child my cousins and I regularly visited Birley woods, we used to climb trees and visit the header waters of the Ochre Dyke where we found frogs, frog spurn, tadpoles and newts. My aunty gave strict instructions that we were not to visit Birley wood pits down Dent lane as she thought it was too dangerous, with many lorries delivering coal to the power station at Meadowhall. When the pits where open water had to be pumped out into the Ochre Dyke, to stop the miners from drowning. It was the Ochre deposits from the pits that gave the Ochre Dyke its name. The pits closed in the late 1960s but many officials forget the pits that run under Owlthorpe are still in a constant state of flooding.
A big thank you to Louise Houghton for hosting our editorial in Yorkshire Bylines. from 29th December 2020.
History of our endeavours to save Ecological Owlthorpe
Dated: 2st February 2020. Michael Meredith 22 Royston Avenue Sheffield S20 6SG (Objects)
Dated: 26th May 2020. Call in request to George Eustace MP Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/Email26thMay2020GeorgeEustace.pdf
Dated: 2nd June 2020. Review of Planning and Highways Committee Meeting. Video evidence is available if required.
Dated: 2020. Built our web-site to support our endives to protect Ecological Owlthorpe as an upstream nature-based solution to prevent downstream flooding. https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/
Date: Inquiry Held on 12-15, 19, and 21 January 2021 Site visit made on 20 January 2021 by O S Woodwards BA(Hons.) MA MRTPI an Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State. Video evidence is available if required.
Evidence: Regarding Secretary of State Environment.
Evidence: Regarding Planning Inspectorate.
Evidence: Regarding Parliamentary Ombudsman.
Evidence: Regarding Secretary of State Housing.
Evidence: Regarding Natural England.
Evidence: Regarding the Environment Agency.
Evidence: Regarding Coal Authority.
Evidence: Regarding Cola Mining in Owlthorpe.
Evidence: Regarding the Forestry Commission.
Evidence: Regarding Sheffield & Rotherham WildLife Trust.
Evidence: Regarding Sheffield (LPA).
Evidence: Regarding Sheffield South East LAC.
Evidence: Regarding MP Clive Betts.
Evidence: Regarding ecological surveys.
Evidence: Regarding the Ochre Dyke.
Evidence: Facebook Posts.
14 January 2024 Update.
Our project is now under threat from Sheffield City Council (LPA) who wish to build 150 new properties on (plot F) the Grassland & Grazing Project a major component of Owlthorpe Heritage & Nature Trail.
We decided to take action and started a petition Please help our project by signing our petition to Sheffield City Council: https://chng.it/6vXHqcGG4S thank you to the 1,697 who have signed.
Published Recently 3,532 views to date. Please SHARE on social media.
Please explore our on-line visitors guide to Owlthorpe Heritage & Nature Trail.
Scroll down the page to see points of interest. https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/directionsmaps.htm
If you double click on any of the interpretation board photos you will be able to view a large version, which enables you to read online, the extent of environmental work carried out in creating our oasis.
To support the project, Government funding was provided by Natural England, under their higher-level stewardship agreement.
The google maps show the GPS coordinates, which help if you decide you wish to visit in person.
Many parents bring their children and use the interpretation boards to educate them about the wonderful environment we live in.
Owlthorpe is very steep; some locations show the height above sea level.
Scrolling down the page we have several short videos which you may find interesting.
Please share with Friends & Family.
Thank you for your attention
We will be revamping our petition to the Parliamentary Ombudsman with new evidence.
More updates will follow