The wildlife of Ilkley

The wellbeing of one of Yorkshire's most celebrated stretches of countryside is vital to the prosperity of Ilkley and Ben Rhydding, reports Terry Fletcher

Thanks to Yorkshire’s unofficial national anthem, Ilkley Moor is among the most hallowed of the Broad Acres. The cautionary tale of lovers without hats, death, ducks and second-hand cannibalism puts it right up there with York Minister, Castle Howard and Aysgarth Falls among the county’s most celebrated landmarks.

But, at least according to some in the town of Ilkely, all is not well on the wind-scoured heights. And that matters to almost everyone in Ilkley and Ben Rhydding which nestle at the bottom of the moorland slopes.

Since the shake up of local councils in 1974 Ilkley has been part of the Bradford District and there are mutterings that the big city neighbours, with a welter of more pressing urban problems to occupy them, have not been giving the moor the care it deserves.

Bradford was heavily criticised for its stewardship at a public meeting in the town three years ago and there were even calls for the moor to be handed over to the National Trust.

Instead the Friends of Ilkley Moor was formed, with a remit not merely to press for more to be spent on the moor which dominates the town but also to dig in and get their hands dirty too. So far volunteers have helped with path building, drystone walling, heather restoration and other conservation and access projects.

Its chairman, Owen Wells, a long-time volunteer with Bradford Council’s Countryside Service, said: ‘We did not want to be seen as just a bunch of whingers. We wanted to help.’ In the two short years since they were formed the Friends have recruited almost 300 members and raised more than �50,000 as well as helping to clear bracken and scrub, which Owen believes pose the most serious long term threat to the moor’s well-being.

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‘Many people don’t realise that this is a managed landscape and that left to its own devices Ilkley Moor would become scrub and then woodland. Walking on the moor today you can see scrub trees becoming established. Woodland is all very good but heather moorland is one of the rarest environments in the world and 90 per cent of it is here in the UK.

Ilkley Moor is much more valuable as a habitat than an Ilkley Forest could ever be, especially for ground nesting birds like skylarks and small owls.’

In the past grazing livestock played an important role in keeping scrub under control but as the number of animals on the moor has dwindled young trees that would previously have been nibbled away by sheep are taking hold.

Bradford meanwhile insists it is committed to the future of the moor and can point to a major restoration effort under way to regenerate acres of heather that was destroyed in a disastrous wildfire in 2006 which left a huge area blackened and lifeless. But in the coming years as public finances are squeezed there are fears that the moor will inevitably slip down the list of priorities for councillors looking for savings.

Owen also believes that as well as maintenance the way the different parts of the moor are used is also crucial. Since Victorian times the lower slopes including around the Cow and Calf Rocks but especially around the Tarn just above the town centre, have been treated almost as a public park and there are still locals who can recall winter evenings spent skating on the frozen water by the light of surrounding street lamps.

He believes those lower areas, including around the former spa buildings at White Wells, should be restored and made as visitor-friendly as possible for locals as well as for the many thousands who flock to Ilkley from surrounding cities on sunny afternoons. The higher slopes, however, he believes should be left as wild as possible with just a handful of major paths. There are currently two main north-south paths, one leading to Dick Hudson’s pub and the other following the Keighley Old Road. An east-west route runs from Burley Woodhead to Addingham Moorside.

These should be kept in good condition to persuade walkers to stay on them rather than pioneering their own routes through the heather but other crossings should be kept to a minimum, he says.

It is a vision that the Friends are already helping to realise by contributing to a restored path to the pre-historic Swastika Stone on the moor edge this summer and there are ambitions to extend it in the future.

It’s an issue that goes beyond the needs of ramblers and dog walkers. The quality of the moor is viewed as important for the prosperity of the town and its smaller neighbour, Ben Rhydding. Their setting is an integral part of their appeal to visitors alongside the elegant shops and caf�s strung along The Grove and the playgrounds and gentler strolls along the banks of the Wharfe. And without it, what would be left to sing about?

Do you have an opinion about the future of Ilkley Moor? Write to us at letters@ or leave your comments below

Where is it: Ilkley and Ben Rhydding are on the A65 Leeds to Kendal road, which bypasses the town centre. Regular direct train services to Ilkley and Ben Rhydding from Leeds and Bradford and buses from Leeds, Bradford and Harrogate, via Otley. Trains terminate at Ilkley but onward bus services continue into the Dales.

Where to park: Parking in the main car park between the A65 and The Grove. Separate car park for the Cow and Calf Rocks at the top of Cow Pasture Road. Sat Nav ref: LS29 8HA

What to do: Manor House Museum and Art Gallery, Church Street, housed in one of the oldest buildings in Ilkley and standing on the site of the Roman fort of Olicana 01943 600066 house

Ilkley Toy Museum, Whitton Croft Road, has exhibits dating back to 350BC and one of the finest collections of early English wooden dolls in the country. A treasure house of childhood memories.01943 603855

Lido, Denton Road. Large outdoor 1930s style Art Deco swimming pool complete with fountain. One of the few surviving examples of these once-popular municipal attractions. Sun terraces and caf�. Also heated indoor pool. 01943 600453