16 Smardale Gill from Witches Stride


16-andrew-walterAndrew Walter – Reserves Officer, Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve is owned and managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust. Because of the old railway line there is a really level surface which you can push a wheelchair or buggy down. So there is access into the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wildlife and history, for just about anyone to get to.

Smardale is a fantastic place, but what this view does is set it in the landscape, which is remote. You’ve got the Howgills as a backdrop, then grazed farmed fields, then the nature reserve on the steepest slopes and Scandal Beck at the bottom. Scandal Beck’s a fantastic river: it’s home to white-clawed crayfish, a globally endangered species, and other river fauna like otter, kingfishers and dippers, salmon and trout, as well as flora like water crowfoot and butterbur.

This view has had a significant industrial past. The viaduct was designed and built by Sir Thomas Bauch to take coke from Durham to Barrow-in-Furness – where it was used in iron smelting – and then to take iron ore back. It’s a really elegant viaduct; I don’t think it ruins the landscape at all, I think it’s an asset. You can also see lime kilns attached to the limestone quarry: they were used to turn the limestone into quicklime, which was then used in the steel industry.

The best part of it is not shown by the picture, and that is the wildlife. With the Wildlife Trust’s management we’re maintaining the wildlife, which is phenomenal – it’s hard to walk on some areas of this reserve, just because there are so many orchids. The wild flowers are so abundant that they often outdo the grass.

I’ve been at the Trust since July 1994. I look after about eight reserves in total, including Smardale. My job’s land management: it includes all aspects, from going out and rebuilding a bit of wall, or chopping down some scrub, or coppicing in the woods (with volunteers quite often), or writing management plans and agreeing them with Natural England, or seeking funding to do work.

I’ve got two incredibly keen volunteers – Nigel and Lois Harbron – who are there two days a week pretty much – they manage the site, not me! I just give them ideas of what to do and they do it.

Being here for this long is rewarding in terms of land management, because it’s all very long term. You get a more interesting overview having stuck with it.

Habitats are my main concern, because if you get the habitat right then everything else should follow. Here you’ve got ancient woodland, limestone grassland, hay-meadowy type grassland, and bracken and scrub. These broad habitat types support many plants that may have been lost from the surrounding land. The diversity of the habitats and their structure then supports a host of animals from mammals to invertebrates. One of the interesting species you get at Smardale is the scotch argus butterfly, which is a very dark, almost black, butterfly with red wing markings and eye spots. There are only two populations in England: it’s right at the southern end of its natural range, but it does very well on the reserve, so much so, they come up in clouds around your feet in early September.

The top wall lying where the bracken finishes was quite dilapidated when I took the reserve on; that was virtually rebuilt by a local waller called Cecil Capstick. Most of the other boundaries have also been fixed up. The area just beyond the viaduct we periodically clear of scrub, and that’s one of the best places for bloody cranesbill and rock rose, that’s where you see scotch argus, northern brown argus and it’s also a good area for dark green fritillary. The most obvious improvement is that we’ve upgraded the footpath to be more accessible; that has to be a major achievement for the reserve.

Mostly though, I hope that the view hasn’t really changed, because it was a special place when I first got to it. It didn’t need restoring, just managing, maintaining, and maybe a little tweaking.