Getting back to nature in an industrial landscape

by ANTONY CLAY

SOMETIMES when you travel through the heart of Rotherham and the Dearne Valley it’s hard to believe there is countryside just a few miles away.

Denaby Ings Nature Reserve near Mexborough

But not only is there open space, there are important nature conservation sites, sometimes created, ironically enough, as a result of past industrial activity.

Denaby Ings Nature Reserve is one of these special places for nature which is just a short drive, cycle or walk from the ‘burbs.

I’ve been visiting this site on and off since the 1970s and, quite frankly, it hasn’t changed that much in all that time. The footpath route has altered a little but the main features – the lake and the woodland walk along the old railway – remain.

While it may not be one of the uber reserves, I think it has a lot to offer. Regular favourites and a few surprises. Remember, you can see a rarity anywhere although spotting rarities isn’t the point for most birders.

The Site of Special Scientific Interest shows what can be done when nature reclaims land once under the hammer of industry.

Denaby Ings lies on Pastures Road, midway between Mexborough and High Melton, and offers a lake, reedbeds, woodlands and a rare hay meadow.

Denaby Ings. Picture by Peter Dawson

The good thing is that the reserve offers variety throughout the year and different things for people with different interests. If you are a botanist there are orchids, if you’re into reptiles there are grass snakes and if, like me, you’re a birder there is something different in each season.

The lake was caused by mining subsidence and the wooded footpath through one side of the reserve is along an old railway line.

The lake has been carefully managed and a reedbed and muddy areas have developed which have attracted rare birds such as bitterns, avocets and spoonbills. There have been flocks of hundreds of lapwings, a once-common wading bird whose population has really hit the buffers in recent times.

Some of the reserve is used for flood storage by the Environment Agency so water levels can be manipulated to stop flooding elsewhere.

Yellow rattle. Picture by Jim Horsfall

Grassland areas are grazed by sheep in the Spring and Summer and highland cattle in the Autumn to ensure it is managed in a natural sustainable way and the hay meadow, spattered with colour by plants galore, is cut in July.

The hay meadow is the jewel in Denaby Ings’ crown. A rare habitat these days nationally – down 87 per cent across the country over the years – the hay meadow is an example of times long gone when farming practices were very different.

It is a remarkably diverse ecosystem too, boasting an incredible 20-30 species of plant per square metre.

Beautiful orchids such as the Southern Marsh Orchid and Common Spotted Orchid (which isn’t that common) can be found here but the most important plant in the hay meadow is the Yellow Rattle, a species which parasitises the roots of other flora and so keeps the growth of plants like grasses well and truly in check.

The reserve opened in 1967 and has proved itself to be a popular place to visit for nature lovers. It’s a must for any birder visiting the Doncaster/Rotherham area, alongside nearby Sprotbrough Flash, Potteric Carr in Balby and Wath’s RSPB Old Moor reserve.

Common spotted orchid. Picture by Jim Horsfall

Denaby Ings is not a large reserve which means its delights can be seen relatively easily and the variety of habitats means that people can see grass snakes, common terns and much more.

Every effort is made to encourage more wildlife. Special nestboxes for barn owls and kestrels have been used, for example, and there are nesting rafts on the lake designed to provide a dream home for common terns.

The lake is home to all the usual suspects – your mallards and tufted ducks and mute swans – but also other nice spots like great crested grebe.

Denaby Ings was one of my regular reserves when I started out birdwatching many moons ago. I would visit it fairly regularly, mainly dividing my ornithological time between it and the much more famous Potteric Carr at Balby.

But Denaby Ings always had the feel of a hidden away little birding jewel that certainly wasn’t anywhere near as busy at Potteric Carr. That feature has remained, and if anything Denaby seems even quieter these days.

That makes it feel like even more of a special spot.

It was manned by a warden back then (at least when I was there, though not because I was there I hope) but isn’t now and there have been some, how do I put it, ‘difficulties’ with those looking for love rather publicly in the car park but that should not put you off.

It’s a quiet place and you can go for hours seeing no one, and just concentrate on the birds and other wildlife. Being the only one to see a grass snake disappear into the bushes can be a bit of a thrill on a hot day.

It is quite a trek to walk all the way round and could prove a problem for disabled nature lovers or those with walking difficulties, and some of the route takes you near main roads which requires a degree of caution.

But the hides do the job and are sheltered so you can be as comfortable as birdwatching permits in the more inclement weathers. Maybe not RSPB hides comfort but comfortable nonetheless.

But it’s a good spot to visit all year. In winter you get the wildfowl on the water and in summer songbirds galore.

Looking back at my old notes from years ago, I find that I was so perplexed by some big grey waterbird on the water that I wrote to the RSPB to ask for help identifying it. Now, ofcourse, I would know an immature great crested grebe a mile off but then it was something new, and I also seem to have had difficulties with a reed bunting that wasn’t presenting itself quite as the guide book said it should. Birds are like that!

Denaby Ings nature reserve. Picture by Jim Horsfall

But birdwatching is all about learning as you go along, mainly from your observational mistakes.

I hope that Denaby Ings continues to enjoy the protection of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust for many years to come and can withstand the pressures of new housing and the HS2 project which could cut through Mexborough just down the road.

For a small nature reserve it packs a punch way above its size and should be treasured.

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