Future of Ripon’s Hell Wath nature reserve generates heated discussion
Feb 24, 2022
Photo of people at the Hell Wath public meeting
Some of the 100-plus attendees at last night's meeting.

More than 100 people with passionate but different views about the future of Hell Wath Nature Reserve attended a meeting in Ripon last night.

The meeting, at Ripon Bowling Club, was organised by Keep Hell Wath Natural, a group concerned about clearance and other work at the reserve, including removal of a large area of hawthorn and blackthorn, the felling of trees and draining/de-silting of a pond.

The work is being done as part of the National Lottery-funded £2.5m Skell Valley Project, which involves work on a 12-mile stretch of the River Skell between Dallowgill Moor and Hell Wath.

Members of Keep Hell Wath Natural, along with local residents, dog walkers and people who have been visiting the area for up to 55 years joined representatives from the Friends of Hell Wath, the Skell Valley Project, and Harrogate Borough Council leader Richard Cooper at the meeting. It was chaired by independent city councillor Peter Horton.

Photo of members of Keep Hell Wath Naturalp Hell Wath

Meeting organisers Janet Anderson (centre) and Brian Don, pictured in January in an area of Hell Wath where clearance works have taken place

Project partners include the National Trust, Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Harrogate Borough Council, which has a 99 year lease on Hell Wath negotiated at a peppercorn rent with landowner Tarmac.

Objectors say ‘brutal’ clearance has gone too far

Speaker after speaker said they wanted Hell Wath to remain as they have known it for decades — as a natural and largely un-touched area with trees, shrubs, grassland, riverside paths and pond.

They were critical of the clearance activities that have already taken place as part of the Skell Valley Project.

Fears were also expressed about possible longer-term plans to create a cycle path, which they believe would be hazardous for owners who take their dogs to exercise at Hell Wath and let them off the lead.

They believe that the clearance ‘went too far’ removing areas of bushes, trees and water that sustain wildlife ranging from frogs and newts to birds, rabbits and hedgehogs.

The removal of trees and scrub, was described by two speakers as ‘brutal’ and ‘creating a mess.’

Sheila Boyd summed up the feelings of many present, when she said:

“We are talking about an area that has been completely cleared and destroyed, taking away the habitat for hedgehogs, butterflies, birds and other creatures.

“There are four large and open fields at Hell Wath, with barely a tree in sight, so why couldn’t these pockets of bushes and woodland be left as they were?”

What was the response from the Skell Valley Project?

Project manager Nabil Abbas explained the reason for the clearance works. He said

“Historically, in a wild landscape like this, there would have been large herbivores like wild boar, wild cattle, elk, beavers etc living and naturally managing the land.

“Regular catastrophic events such as flooding or wildfires would also take place, all of which remove trees and shrubs and help to maintain a mosaic of open habitats suitable for a broad range of different species.”

Photo of Nabil Abbas

Nabil Abbas

He added:

“Cattle did graze at Hell Wath for a long period, however it is not appropriate to reintroduce them given the way the community now use and enjoy the space.

“Due to the absence of these natural processes which would keep them in check, trees and shrubs are spreading through these precious open areas.

“As a result, we risk losing the diversity of species such as rare orchids and wildflowers, bees, butterflies and other pollinators, and the birds and animals that feed on them, if we do not actively manage these remaining habitats.

“In summary, our landscape is no longer ‘natural’ since key ecological processes are no longer operating, and therefore human intervention is needed to conserve the diversity of habitats and species which depend on them.”

Council leader ‘shocked’

Cllr Cooper, said he was ‘shocked’ by the hostile reaction to some of the points made by Mr Abbas and claimed there had been an attempt to ‘shout him down and heckle’ him.

In response, a member of the audience, said:

“You should understand the strength of feeling in this room and that is why people are getting heated about what is happening at Hell Wath.”

Cllr Richard Cooper

‘Shocked’ Harrogate Borough Council leader Richard Cooper. Picture: Tyler Parker Photography

‘No plans for a cycle path’ – Friends of Hell Wath

Both the secretary of the Friends of Hell Wath, Jeremy Dunford and committee member Carol Leo, were categoric in saying that a cycle path is not planned as part of their work or that of the Skell Valley Project.

Mr Dunford, who is also chair of the Ripon Disability Forum, confirmed there are plans to improve paths and access for people who, like himself, are wheelchair users, or families with children in pushchairs. He said:

“There will be no cycle paths, no tarmac, no concrete, but we want to ensure that Hell Wath is accessible to everybody. We all have a right to visit this area.”

Photo of Jeremy Dunford

Jeremy Dunford, spoke about improving accessibility

Ms Leo, added:

“There will also be no bridleways and there will be signage on all entrances saying ‘no cycling’.”

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Invitation to join the friends

At the end of the meeting, Ms Leo, said:

“It is clear that people here are passionate about Hell Wath and I hope that we can all work together.

“I ask those of you who are not already members of the Friends of Hell Wath to come and join us.”


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