A Tale of Two Habitats: Fen and Heathlands in Northern England

Tom Wainwright explores the importance of fen and heathlands for local wildlife in the Vale of York, and why conserving them is of the utmost importance.

Image Credits: Paul Allison

The Vale of York, surrounding the historic city of York, is one of the most intensively farmed areas of England. Inevitably, this hasn’t left a huge amount of natural habitat for the region’s plants and animals. However, in a few areas of relic habitat, nature continues to thrive with extreme abundance. Askham Bog and Skipwith Common represent two extraordinarily important habitat types that once covered much larger areas of the Vale.

Image Credits: Nick W

Located on the edge of York’s urban sprawl, the Askham Bog nature reserve is well-known to locals as a peaceful place to take a walk, especially during the era of Covid-19 lockdowns. Owned by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the bog isn’t just maintained for our benefit, as it also represents one of the most biodiverse sites in the Vale of York and Northern England providing a home for numerous rare species of insects and plants. A multitude of water beetle species thrive in its shallow alkaline pools with one species being recorded nowhere else in England! Dragonflies and moths abound here and over 90 species of birds have been recorded to date. The plant life is also to be admired, with a huge variety of flora found in the reserve, such as the royal fern and gingerbread sedge, which is limited to only a few places in England.

The reason for such abundance becomes clear when you examine the huge range of habitats found in such a small area (only 45 hectares in size: that’s an area much smaller than the out-of-town retail centres surrounding York!). The area contains a type of habitat known as Fen-meadow, which is kept moist by groundwater flows into the soil. These habitats generally are dominated by grasses and sedges but despite their biodiversity, they have been historically drained for farmland in most of Northern England. England had roughly 3400 km2 fen in 1637, now there are just a tiny 10km2 left!  As a result, they are now only found in limited places, increasingly fragmenting the distribution of fauna which rely on them. In addition, Askham Bog contains its namesake: bog which unlike fen, has more acidic soil and, despite often not being as species-rich as fen, provides habitat for different plant species such as Sphagnum Moss, a plant that is adept at maintaining environmental conditions to its own liking. The wide variety of habitats likely reflects a natural process known as succession, where habitats naturally transfer from one to another. It just so happens that the Bog has numerous areas at different successional stages, maintaining a great diversity of plants, insects and animals.

When I last visited the Bog, I had a chat with one of the dedicated YWT volunteers who is stationed there. Imagine my surprise when he told me that there were plans to build 500 houses on the edge of the Bog!  Thankfully these plans were scrutinised by members of the public. Over 7000 people objected to the proposal and David Attenborough himself, the natural world’s finest ambassador, intervened to criticise the proposal. Eventually, the proposal was blocked in May 2020, despite an appeal by the housing developer. With a national shortage of housing leading to a construction boom, campaigns like these will be vital in protecting valuable habitats from the gradual creep of urban sprawl.

Image Credits: Malcolm Temple

Not far from Askham Bog, there is another important example of a relic habitat type: Skipwith Common, located 10 miles south of York, and one of Northern England’s finest areas of Heathland. Areas like this were once widespread in the surrounding area but 5000 years of human agriculture has left only this 274 hectare fragment to survive.  Many heathlands were created thousands of years ago after forest clearance and grazing led to the creation and maintenance of tree-less areas.  Since the 1880s, 82% of heathland has disappeared which coincided with agricultural advances allowing the transformation of heath to more productive farming land.

Skipwith Common is an example of Northern Lowland heath which occurs on acidic and nutrient poor soils and usually is dominated by low-lying shrubs and plants such as heather, gorse and bilberry. Heath is valuable for many animals such as the sand lizard and smooth snake which require these specialised habitats types to thrive, along with birds such as the nightjar which prefer heathland as their habitat. Designated as a site of special scientific interest in 1957, the area also provides for peaceful surrounding for dogwalkers and families to enjoy.

Recent management work by Natural England has aimed to remove around 100ha of tree cover in certain areas, in order to expand the heath cover and allow colonisation by heather. Despite this, trees still cover around 50% of the reserve in order to maintain a varied habitat to support species such as grass snakes and adders. There are even areas of fenland similar to Askham Bog which further creates a mosaic of varied ecosystems. In order to prevent excessive birch regeneration, hardy animals such as Hebridean sheep, highland cattle and even Exmoor ponies are allowed to graze, as the nutrient poor vegetation would likely not give enough nutrition to typical domestic animals.

Image Credits: Malcolm Campbell

Despite these two habitat types being home to very different species – they both share numerous things in common. They are both extremely biodiverse habitats, and both represent fragments of what once was much larger areas of continuous ecosystems, before human intervention shrunk them down to their current sizes.  The protection and expansion of these kind of reserves wouldn’t be possible without the tireless work of volunteers from the local and national wildlife organisations such as the Yorkshire Wildlife trust and Natural England. Even community groups such as the friends of Skipwith common make a difference by informing local people about the importance and history of these habitats. As the human population continues to rise, nature will only persist if people show they are willing to speak up and defend it against the tide of development and over-exploitation.

About the author: Tom Wainwright is a third year Natural Sciences student at the University of York.

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