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Richard Bell’s Wild West Yorkshire nature diary,  Friday,  5th June 2009

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brich stump
felled birch

A  TALL SPIKED fence around an oak tree; no, of course it’s not what I like to see in the countryside; the iron talons of private interest clawing away another patch of our community’s heritage. But that’s not the whole story, if you see it from the point of view of wild flowers, birds and small mammals.


The fence surrounds one end of an old mineral railway that used to take coal (including, so local tradition has it, house coals to Buckingham Palace when Queen Victoria was in residence) from Hartley Bank Colliery, crossing the canal and the River Calder to coal staithes connecting with road and railway. The colliery and the little railway closed in the late 1960s.


It’s 30 years this spring since I met Barbara and I remember I brought her along this old railway the first time we went on a walk together. It was very much my local patch.


I’ve drawn dozens of sketchbook pages along the old railway over the years of willows, brambles, birches and of ducks, including pintails, which you’d be lucky to see now, on the marshy field that it overlooks. I’ve painted a small acrylic of this marshy field - the Strands (long earmarked for aggregate extraction) - on location one evening and I drew a bramble bush for a large (about 4ft x 5ft) acrylic on board, a painting  which also included a life-sized rabbit based on studies I’d made when I worked on the cartoon film Watership Down. I worked long, long days (and nights) to get this painting finished for an exhibition of work by students and graduates of the Natural History Illustration course at the Royal College of Art. I was at a very low ebb financially and I was hoping to sell it at the exhibition at the Ruskin School in Oxford.


Being so broke I’d used the cheapest 2 x 1 inch timber to baton the board so I had to buy marine ply in Oxford and use the Ruskin School’s workshop to re-baton the board as it started skewing in the warmth of the gallery.


But it sold at the preview!

It’s always a shock to see favourite trees - in this case trees I’ve drawn for over 30 years - cut down but the light getting down to ground level will encourage the growth of wild flowers on the embankment. While a tidy-minded forester might stack the brushwood and timber, the way these have been left, more or less where they fell, some of them across the old unofficial path, will help create dense patches of cover for nesting birds and small mammals. The wildlife doesn’t really mind how tidy it looks!

We can’t wander along the old railway as we have for the last 30 or 40 years but that also means that the birds and other wildlife enclosed by the spiked barrier and stock-proof wire fencing won’t be disturbed by regular visits from dogs exploring the undergrowth - a shame for us, but good news for the wildlife.

Chainsawing birches at waist level may be the easiest option but it’s probably not the best forestry practice. However, as the stumps rot they’ll become a habitat for fungi and insects -  and perhaps they’ll attract woodpeckers and tree creepers.