The North York Moors, its geology and biodiversity, is no stranger to the reader of the Voice of the Moors and neither, I imagine, is the history and story of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR). But to me, it has until recently, been a landscape that I have just ‘dipped in and out of’. I am naturally drawn to moorland (must be my Northern Scottish genes) but the calls of the river, sea, woodland and meadow compete for my attention.

It is with joy then that I find myself the new Lineside Conservation Officer for the NYMR, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. As part of our Yorkshires Magnificent Journey project I will be looking a little more closely at the biodiversity of the railway lineside, how we manage the habitats there and how we can best engage our visitors in this incredible landscape. I get to indulge all my passions!

But before I tell you more about our ‘living lineside’ (as I have dubbed it), let me first ask you to consider ‘boxing’ as a concept…

Humans like to box things. It may be concepts, art, music, other people or even landscapes. Look out on a view and what do you see? Do you see the individual elements of fields, woodland, moorland, becks, rivers, villages, paths, roads and railways or do you see a living, breathing, moving landscape of potential?

I don’t believe animals and plants see the world in boxes or even habitat types. They don’t care for drawn boundaries whether they be for counties or countries. Instead they see the world for its potential and for its connections – how can they disperse, find their own space, find food, a new mate, a home, survive? Whether you are a tiny leaf miner, living out most of your life in a single leaf, or a goshawk soaring and sky dancing across miles, connectivity is what you are looking for – the landscape level pathways for movement, communication, water, food and nutrients that necessitate survival.  

It has been known for some time now that an isolated nature reserve affords little sustainable benefit to its inhabitants. Despite these small oases of life, however lovely they are, our species and habitats are declining at an alarming rate and those small oases are themselves vulnerable to disease, pollution, climate change and development.  

Instead, it seems to me, our nature reserves are acting as a type of ‘Noah’s Ark’ - a holding pen for species, waiting until the flood of hard landscaping, monoculture agriculture, development and pollution abates and those species can move and flourish once again. But the nature reserves must be connected, there must be corridors for those species to flow along, from and to. In nature conservation we call those corridors, well, ‘green corridors’ or ‘living landscapes’.

Certain landscapes lend themselves immediately to the vision of a ‘living landscape’ and ‘green corridors’. The incredible North York Moors is an obvious living landscape and so are the dales and valleys among it. Newton Dale, home to the 18 miles of steam railway linking Pickering to Grosmont and beyond to Whitby, is packed full of treasures.

Those treasures persist along the railway lineside in part because the railway has been necessarily isolated from its neighbours. Fenced off with only a few lucky people able to traverse its sidings, its management has not been that of a commercial woodland or farmland but instead remains much as it was 50 years ago. Low maintenance, hand-tooled management techniques have sustained a magical green corridor forming a link between the lower valley habitats in Pickering and the upland habitats of the Moors and boasts woodland, grassland, fen, valley mire, marsh and moorland edge.

This lineside together with neighbouring habitats and nature reserves support a huge range of species many of them scarce or even downright rare in much of Britain today. In fact passengers on the NYMR may not know it but they steam through not just the incredible North York Moors National Park but two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), passed ponds with protected species and by ancient woodland. This is truly a living lineside and you can explore it from the relaxing position of the train and in many places, by foot.

However, as inspiring as it is, the lineside needs targeted management. Volunteers do an amazing job of keeping on top of the station gardens, the fences and drystone walls and clearing encroaching scrub (maintaining sightlines for the engine drivers, motorists and pedestrians as well as reducing fire hazards are always a top priority) but 36 miles of lineside (18 miles each side) takes some looking after and the first step to responsible management is knowing what we have got.

This year, despite the setbacks of COVID-19, we have been able to procure a full Phase 1 Habitat Survey of the whole lineside and woodland surveys of key woodland patches. Together they will help us create a management plan for the lineside. They will help us focus on key habitats and species that need targeted conservation.

Talks are underway with local bat groups, herpetological groups (that’s reptiles and amphibians to everyone else!) the Whitby Naturalists, the Forestry Commission and the Butterfly Conservation Trust as well as our key partners in the National Park and Natural England. The National Park ecologist and the Countryside Worker Apprentices have been invaluable so far in their support, advice and technical know-how.

Although the project has only been ‘live’ for a year and COVID-19 has done its best to scupper many of our efforts, we are already making good progress with wildflower meadow management, heathland conservation and heritage boundary restoration.

Key enigmatic species have made their voices heard and we have started to focus on identifying, raising awareness of and conserving our bats, butterflies (like the rare Duke of Burgundy Butterfly) and adders and reptiles. Birds and other invertebrates are next on the list to focus on and survey for.

You are never far from the chatter of a green woodpecker, the call of the buzzard or the song of a marsh tit and if we can succeed in some bird nesting surveys we can ensure that we are always aware of these species in our works going forward. Our invertebrates are more specialised and harder to locate and identify but no less important – in fact, perhaps more so. Entomologists who would like to investigate the lineside are very welcome to get in touch!

Whilst I am keen to really get started on the management plan and working with our partners and neighbours on cross-site projects and initiatives, I am equally passionate about connecting people to the landscape around them. Living landscapes and green corridors sound grand and something for ecologists and land managers to get stuck into but in fact the concepts themselves were embedded in the idea that we are all a part of our landscape. We are all a part of the connection.

Your gardens, window boxes and yards may not be 18 miles long and you might think a ‘green corridor’ is beyond your resources but, instead, think of yourself as a steppingstone in that corridor. Buglife UK ask us to imagine if 9 miles out of every 10 miles of transport links were taken out of the country. How would we get around? That’s what it is like for our invertebrates and many other species. Could you be a steppingstone?

For example, the Grosmont Station Group are taking on the concept of ‘planting for pollinators’. Each pot and corner can be a valuable habitat and they are looking at how they can be a steppingstone for invertebrates (and the birds and beasts that follow them) by planting the right kind of plants and providing a much-needed boost of food and shelter.

Have herbs at home? Let your chives bolt (the bees will love you for it) and your sage become your new best border plant (mine at home gets oooos and ahhhhs from passers by!). Cut a small hole in your fence to let the hedgehogs through (whole villages have taken this on!) or leave that leaf litter piled at the bottom of the garden – over-wintering amphibians and invertebrates need that frost barrier and who doesn’t want to make a leaf angel?!

Lastly, take time to stop and really engage your senses outdoors. Don’t let the grey clouds of winter fool you. It is hiding secrets that the wary will miss out on. Connection is not just between landscapes and species but between us and those landscapes and species.

Like everyone I have my ‘spots’ – the places that I feel calm in and where the sounds, smells and movements around me can both lull me to rest and inspire me to ‘do’ in equal measure. But I can’t stop in that spot for long - I have to keep walking, see what is around the corner, find out what or to whom my spot is connected to. Connection is the name of the game. 

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is an award-winning charitable trust that carries 300,000 unique passengers every year. It is Britain’s most popular heritage railway and is one of the best visitor attractions in the North East.

  • The NYMR cares for operating and developing the railway it owns from Pickering to Grosmont.
  • The heritage railway operates over Network Rail from Grosmont to Whitby.
  • The charity provides a high quality, safe and authentic evocation of the steam age for the public.
  • The NYMR is an Educational Charitable Trust. Providing education for all ages.
  • The railway is a fully accredited museum.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund: Using money raised by the National Lottery, we Inspire, lead and resource the UK’s heritage to create positive and lasting change for people and communities, now and in the future.

Follow @HeritageFundUK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #NationalLotteryHeritageFund