An area that was once the heart of industry is becoming a natural haven. Rachael Clegg discovers the nationally-nominated nature reserve wildlife lovers hope will transform the Dearne Valley.
WITH its rows of industrial terrace houses and new-builds, Lowfield Lane is hardly the place you’d expect to find a grant-awarded nature reserve.
Especially one that’s among only 12 in the country to have been chosen for a £500,000 cheque from the Government for development.
But here, on the edge of Bolton-Upon-Dearne, in what was once an area used for open cast mining, is one of the RSPB’s latest hot-spots, and one that’s being transformed totally.
But its transformation isn’t about sprucing the place up. It’s about allowing the landscape to slip back into the way it originally was – a huge boggy marsh.
This is lucky for RSPB project manager Pete Wall, who loves wildlife and especially marshy landscapes and the habitats they attract.
“I get so excited about this project – I know that sounds a bit weird but I do!” grins Pete, who also works for Dearne Valley Green Heart, an organisation set up to improve the Dearne Valley.
“I’m so happy just standing in a bog and looking at wildlife.”
As if by magic, a flock of lapwings flutter nearby. “I love lapwings – they’re my favourite bird – and they change every day. They use their wings and show off to distract us, so we don’t see where they are nesting,” he says.
It’s clear Pete lives and breathes his job, though his excitement wanes when it comes to the budgeting and administrative work required of a project manager.
“I’ve spent the last six months sitting at a computer trying to sort these bids out, but I go to the pub on a Friday night and my friends ask me about the week and I explain it’s been a tough one and they say, ‘What, have the ducks been playing up again?’!”
He’s not offended but chuckles instead. “I worked in retail and catering for years but actually studied environmental science at university so I’m going back to my roots. It’s lovely to be excited about your job.”
He walks through the reserve with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, pointing out the mechanical diggers which are gouging out shallow areas for water, which creates an ideal habitat for a lot of species of bird.
“We’re trying to pump water back into the site to create a big bog and encourage habitats,” he explains.
In the distance, hares race across the field. In the blink of an eye they have vanished into the distance. “They are fabulous creatures – their back legs are pretty much pure muscle, which is why they can run so fast,” says Pete.
But the reserve’s positive repercussions go beyond wildlife conservation.
“All this work will also provide flood protection for the nearby houses, which is what marsh land does naturally,” he says. “What we’re doing is taking a holistic approach to improving the area – this isn’t just about digging holes for ducks.”
The changes to the land – which stretches across an area equivalent to 90 football pitches – is thanks to collaborations between DEFRA, Barnsley and Rotherham councils, Natural England and the RSPB.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs nominated the site as a NIA or Nature Improvement Area.
But it’s not just Lowfield Lane reserve that’s received government funding for improvement.
“There are two other sites in the Dearne Valley area that have been earmarked but we can’t give their locations away because we are still in negotiations,” says Pete.
Already the Lowfield Lane reserve is being used by the local community, by dog walkers and bird watchers and families keen on wildlife.
“That’s what makes this project so special,” says Pete.
“This is the Dearne Valley, it’s a post industrial area and this is the middle of a built-up housing area, yet people can be somewhere like this in just a few minutes and see wonderful wildlife without having to drive for an hour.
“It is great – people can get out, get some fresh air and keep fit, all in their local area.”