Some Background to the York Natural Environment Trust

There was presumably a commitment to the well-being of the city and its people that probably encouraged our forefathers (and foremothers) in the city, notably the Rowntree family, that when establishing areas like the original New Earswick there was a central green area, as well as making liberal provision for trees and planting around the area, much as the monks would have planted trees centuries before, to align man and the beauty of nature. It was also our predecessors concern for the citizens’ well-being that had them establish Rowntree’s Park. For all we might decry this somewhat paternalistic Victorian approach, what would so many cities, including York, do without that philanthropic foresight now? Those cities with green hearts and lungs endowed by those philanthropists have places established for quiet relaxation away from crowded concrete and brick streets and the stresses of daily life, away from the constant pressure of Mammon, the consumer’s deity – a place to put life in its context within the greater and more natural environment and coincidentally providing green corridors for wildlife and that’s where York Natural Environment Trust (YNET) comes in!

In actual fact its not just a case of having green spaces, they need to be managed to prevent their decay, which they do all too easily and even more they need to be joined-up to permit nature, whether bird, beast or wildflower seeds to move between them, breed and eat each other. When landlocked or not managed with consideration for wildlife, the value of an area to nature disappears.

YNET was set up in 1988 in response to local concerns over the environment that had built up in the mid 1980’s, particularly failures in the planning process. There had been keen interest in establishing St Nicholas’ Field, the former refuse site between Foss Islands Road and Tang Hall as an urban nature reserve.

From its initial close links with the City Council, who actually funded the group’s establishment, as its campaigns continued, YNET gained its independence and is now an independent registered charity.

From being a purely campaigning organisation YNET came to be a landholder/manager, first with Rawcliffe Meadows, early in 1991, then Danesmead Meadow in 1992 and other sites such as St Nicholas’ Field when the Council finally accepted the sense of the plan in 1994. There is also the Mayfields site off Tadcaster Road, that YNET designed and created  – YNET now having responsibility for the part known as the Railway Pond & Reserve, with an active local group doing the management.

With its links to groups such as the York Amalgamation of Anglers, the River Foss Society and various Friends  groups, YNET is also the umbrella group for concerns over the green environment in York, there being no other group with similar broad interests in the locality and along with its representation on the Council’s planning panel, its campaigning side and providing advice and management.

The change in focus, from campaigning to landowning came in 1991 when Sustrans, the charitable company that has made a business of building cycleways around the country wanted to establish a link from the centre of York north to Beningborough. The planned route took it alongside the River Ouse through pasture then owned by the National Rivers Authority, the body which is now the Environment Agency. The NRA would only give access if the land through which it passed was managed as a nature reserve. The land was in a bit of a state, it had been ‘poached’, in other words over-grazed, so that it was full of creeping thistle, dock and other noxious weeds. Looking at it now, it was only the encouragement of Phil Gray, the then Countryside Manager that made us do it! The field looked terrible, and we in our simplicity didn’t realise the task we had taken on. Up ‘til then we had done minor works on St Nicholas’ Field, such as planting trees and trying to improve the general appearance and habitat of the area but we had never attempted to do agriculture, particularly recovering 25 acres from years of misuse to its historic former glory. We spent many evenings and weekends just treating the weed problem. With the assistance of some locals we planted trees and shrubs, which are so well developed that they now need to be managed. We have a hay crop to dispose of, grazing to organise in the historic cycles of the Ouse Ings, the term for York’s flood meadows, when it commences after Lammas Day (the then 1st August), a tradition followed now as it was in Medieval times.

The site, now named Rawcliffe Meadows, has been well recorded over the years by various people identifying the mammals, birds and plants. It was also accepted for the Countryside Stewardship scheme early in the schemes inception, which means that an annual payment is made for ensuring the management is in harmony with nature. In 2013 it along with Clifton Ings was notified by Natural England as a Site for Special Scientific Interest.

In 1991 York Natural Environment Trust (YNET) was involved in a Public Planning Inquiry into a proposal by Persimmon Homes to develop land at Water Lane, Clifton, York. The group had first become involved in the land in 1989, when the York Green Site Survey run by Martin Hammond, which had been initiated by YNET, highlighted it as a valuable amenity and wildlife resource.

The Planning Inspector, after a week long Inquiry, overruled Persimmon’s plans and after that negotiations began between Persimmon and Ryedale Council and a number of others to preserve a part of the site whilst permitting Persimmon to develop the rest. The product was what is known as a Section 106 agreement, which allocated an area of the site as a nature reserve, a section as a play area and also provided a commuted sum of money to be used in the management of the nature reserve.

The Section 106 agreement was signed in 1993 but it took until late 1997 when the site had moved in to the control of the new unitary authority, the City of York Council, that the work of the Clifton Backies Management Board actually began. This was commensurate with the work of the developers as outlined in the agreement. Historically, in recent memory, the site had been part of the former Clifton Airfield but after its last use in the Berlin Airlift in the late 1940’s, it had returned to nature and become both a local amenity with concrete pathways making for easier access and a wildlife area as lack of cutting allowed scrub to develop. Originally the land belonged to St Mary’s Abbey and would have been used for growing arable crops. After the dissolution of the monasteries the land ended up with a family named Robinson. The area was part of a furlong or field known as Moor Broats, which was within the Parish of Clifton’s arable fields, which were cultivated under the strip farming system in medieval times. There is evidence from a dispute over the site that the land was originally enclosed (by hedges) in the 1590’s. The current ridge and furrow appearance of the fields is as a result of this. Due to the slight curve of some of the ridged furrows we are able to identify the work as having been done by a plough drawn by oxen. There is also some evidence that part of the site might have still been under arable management into the nineteenth century. The land has thus, until relatively recently been under the plough and it is only in recent years that it has taken on its wild appearance. However, the lack of artificial fertilizer and weed killer, which are so much a part of modern-day farming, has allowed a varied flora and fauna to survive.

From this it may be seen that Clifton Backies is not only a site for observing wildlife but also for observing and recording history, whether from the monastic times or to its use in the first half of the twentieth century as an airfield. A number of paths remain from the 1940’s; the Management Board has added others and all permit a wider public to see where our ancestors worked and also to see how a lack of pesticides and fertilizers has permitted a variety of wildlife to remain. We have also been fortunate that a number of people have monitored its wildlife during the period as an unofficial public park and although it is sad to say that these demonstrate the loss of some species, it is hoped that good management will encourage the return of these and some new ones to appear.

An area owned by YNET, Danesmead Meadow was a piece of land left over after a housing development off Broadway West in Fulford. Although the land had little to offer, it had been used for storage during the development and had been levelled and reseeded afterwards. The small some of money provided by the developers was used to do the groundworks of establishing the site but the local residents, now formed up as the Danemead Residents and Meadows Association, have been good in finding further funds to establish an orchard and various other features. The meadow is actively used by the residents.

Two other sites have links with YNET, perhaps because we have advised, assisted and encouraged them, this is the Friends of West Bank Park (off Holgate Road) in Acomb and the Friends of New Walk. Although the sites are largely managed by the City Council, local people are taking an interest in their environment.

The York Natural Environment Planning panel (YNEP) came into being from YNET attempting to get the City Council to recognise potential crimes against the environment amongst the planning applications it receives. Whilst we have had a number of victories, it is frequently seeking compromise for example over the Northern Gateway (Rawcliffe Bar) Park & Ride. Although we held onto the moral high ground we lost the battle but not before the Council had to make suitable changes to its plans to improve the local environment, such as the cornfield buffer and SUDS, the reed pond.

In the case of Coppergate II, we actively supported the alternative vision – York Tomorrow, which replaced the potential buildings with a green space and opened up the River Foss. We are also trying to get the River Foss considered on another project at Hungate, where the developers have the potential to greatly increase the biodiversity, the amount and variety of life along the area of the River and what is now a nature reserve on the site of the old power station. YNET has also appeared at Planning Inquiries into Osbaldwick Meadows (Derwenthorpe), Heslington East and the York Local Plan. YNET was a founding member of the York Environment Forum, which it continues to be involved in, as well as involvement with e York Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP).

In the words of that great nineteenth century Humanist philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill, in a quotation from a section of one of his treatises in which he called out for restraint in development at the cost of the natural environment:

“If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase in wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.”

John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, IV, VI, 2,

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