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
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
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
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.