AFTER the Yorkshire Dales National Park’s boundaries expanded two years ago to include parts of Cumbria and Lancashire, ecologists are for the first time assessing the condition of ‘priority habitats’ in these new areas.

To carry out the detailed work, the YDNPA commissioned Otley-based ecologists Haycock & Jay Associates to survey up to four thousand hectares of vitally important habitats such as upland hay meadow, native woodland and blanket bog.

The firm began work in May, and by the end of September will have surveyed priority habitats in an area including the parishes of Tebay, Firbank, Killington, Middleton, Barbon, Mansergh, Kirkby Lonsdale, Casterton, Leck, Barrow-with-Burrow and Ireby where landowner permission has been granted.

Earlier this summer an ancient semi-natural woodland near Sedbergh was surveyed.

YDNPA senior wildlife conservation officer, Tony Serjeant, who is responsible for the survey, said: “It is exciting that for the first time we are taking a close look at the state of the most important habitats in the newest parts of the national park.

“These areas have not been surveyed in this way before, so we are breaking new ground.

“I would like to thank all the farmers and landowners who have permitted us access onto their land. We are confident that they will benefit, as all the data collected can be made available to them to aid their decision-making.

“It can be used, too, to support agri-environment scheme applications and other bids for funding.”

A blog detailing the survey in Hodgehill Wood, at Holme Open Farm, near Sedbergh, followed two members of Haycock and Jay Associates - Robyn Guppy and Steve Heaton- as they compiled date about the health and condition of the wood.

There was good and bad news.

The good news was that ash saplings were n abundance in the wood showing no signs of ash dieback, a deadly fungal virus which has been sweeping the t since 2012.

However, sheep had somehow been getting into the wood and had been munching happily on the saplings, seriously affecting their growth.

A bad sign which the group came across was a patch of Himalayan Balsam, an invasive weed, which may have spread from seed blowing up bank from the nearby River Rawthey.

The mystery of how sheep were infiltrating the wood became apparent when badger setts were found along with areas of fencing where the mammals were thought to have burrowed under the wire, rather than using special badger flaps. The sheep were thought to have escaped under the fencing at these points.

Elsewhere, data gathered throughout the wood showed an abundance of bluebells that had gone to seed.

A lack of diversity in ground flora was noted under the dark canopies of beech and sycamore, while the less shady underbelly of ash provided a home for barren strawberry, wood avens, wood speedwell, yellow pimpernel and enchanter’s nightshade in abundance.

Throughout the wood at shrub level there was holly, wych elm and hawthorn.

At the end of the survey which took two hours the question was asked of an overall assessment of the wood and whether it could be classed as A (good), B or C.

Robyn said the data needed to be analysed thoroughly, but in her judgement Hodgehill would likely be assessed as a ‘B’.

“It wouldn’t be in condition A because of the stock intrusion and the invasive species,” she said. “A way to get this particular woodland in good condition would be to remove some sycamore and make sure sheep can’t get in.”

A survey of some of the most important habitats carried out in Swaledale last year, outside of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, found that only 60 per cent of them are, by area, in good condition.

The survey – which was carried out between May and September last year – confirms that significant investment is needed to create a resilient habitat network.

A summary of the survey results shows that less than 10 per cent of native semi-natural woodland, rock outcrops and upland flushes, and only 23 per cent of upland hay meadow was in good condition. More encouragingly, 80 per cent of blanket bog, by far the largest priority habitat surveyed, was in good condition.

Data collected as part of the 2018 survey will be studied over the coming months and the results made publicly available next year.

The survey is part of a 10-year programme running from 2010-2020. By 2020, the condition of priority habitats across the Park outside of Sites of Special Scientific Interest will have been assessed.

The process will then be repeated so that comparisons can be made and long-term trends established.