Should we wind the clock back and return the Stray to nature?
Last updated Feb 9, 2024
Photo of the early morning mist rising from the rewilded landscape of Grote Netewoud in Belgium.
Is this how the Stray once looked – and should parts of it again? Photo: Wim Dirckx/Natuurpunt.

Arriving in Harrogate by road for the first time, the Stray makes for a pleasant surprise: a vast expanse of green land cradling the town centre, fringed around the edges by mature trees and, in spring, swathes of crocuses and daffodils. 

But it wasn’t always like this, and some believe it shouldn’t be any more – that we should turn the clock back to a time when the Stray was a bit more… wild.

The author of Robinson Crusoe, the 18th-century writer Daniel Defoe, wrote that what is now the Stray was a “most desolate out-of-the-world place”, and a century before, a Dr Stanhope – who discovered the chalybeate spring at St John’s Well in 1631 – described it as a “rude barren moor”. 

It was a place of “grassland, gorse, marsh, heather and peat”. There might have been the odd boulder and a sparse scattering of trees – birch, hawthorn and rowan, perhaps, with a few bilberry bushes too. 

It had areas of standing water, as exist to this day after heavy rain, and was boggy in parts, where springs came to the surface. Large flocks of lapwings — tewits, in Yorkshire dialect — would congregate, and even gave their name to one of the area’s most famous wells.

Photo of a lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), showing its iridescent plumage and long crest.

Lapwings, or tewits, used to flock in great numbers on the Stray, giving one of its most famous wells its name. Photo: Steve Garvie/Creative Commons.

If you think all that sounds messy and impractical, you’ll probably want to stick to the lawn-and-crocus look. But if you think it sounds beautifully natural – a healthy hotbed of biodiversity – you might want to take steps to get it back, at least in part. 

So should we return our 200 acres – or some of them – to something approximating their original state? Should we rewild the Stray? 

Support for rewilding

Shan Oakes is a fan of the idea. She’s a long-standing member of Harrogate and District Green Party, which successfully campaigned for wildflowers to be planted around the edges of the Stray in 2020. It’s something the council has repeated in subsequent years – and intends to continue this year – and has met with a largely positive reaction from the public. She says: 

“It sounds brilliant. To have a massive swathe of grass that needs mowing seems so unimaginative when you could have something a lot more natural and biodiverse instead. 

“The Stray was originally part of the Forest of Knaresborough, and hunting forests weren’t just made up of trees – there would be woodland and glades and rides – so it would be quite varied. Perhaps we could have a bit of wetland to bring back the lapwings that used flock here.”

She has an ally in Dr Steve Carver. He is a senior lecturer in geography at the University of Leeds and an expert in the field, co-chairing the rewilding group for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. He told the Stray Ferret: 

“The Stray isn’t big enough to properly rewild, and I’d hesitate to use the term ‘rewilding’ in this context, anyway – it conjures up visions of wolves and lynx.

“But you could talk about habitat creation, or nature restoration. There are big chunks of it that could be re-naturalised. You could make it a space that more people could enjoy, and which would be a bit more interesting than it is now. Then again, I can imagine a lot of clutching of pearls within a Harrogate context.” 

Photo of buttercups on a summer's day in a 'rewilded' part of West Park Stray.

Buttercups in one of the wilded areas around the edge of the Stray.

‘The uniqueness of the Stray is worth protecting’

Judy d’Arcy Thompson chairs the Stray Defence Association. Its website refers to the “neat, tidy and immaculate acres” of the Stray, and that’s exactly how she wants it to stay. She is not a fan of the wildflower cultivation, calling its late-summer phase a “bloody mess”. 

She has for many years been at the forefront of efforts to preserve the integrity and look of Harrogate’s “green lung”, opposing any novel uses or applications for the land – and she is distinctly sceptical of the suggestion that the Stray could benefit from a more natural approach to land management for the sake of biodiversity. 

She says: 

“The Stray is right at the heart of the town, and one of the joys of it is that people can have that huge expanse of green to walk on, run on, play on, sit on and enjoy. I call it our Natural Health Service. 

“I just think the uniqueness of the Stray is worth protecting.” 

She adds: 

“I’m not anti-biodiversity, but how much biodiversity do you need? Once people start doing this kind of thing, it starts to snowball: ‘Well, if we can have that bit, perhaps we can have that bit too’. If you start to nibble away at it, where does it end? The danger is that we could end up with the Stray being taken over by this.” 

Dr Carver readily acknowledges that renaturalising all 200 acres of the Stray would not necessarily be desirable, but thinks a more nuanced strategy could work. He says: 

“You could take a compartmentalised approach, and create patches of wilder areas. You could retain the football fields and the crocuses around the edge, keeping the things that people like, but also do something different with the bits that people have less interaction with. There’d be something for everyone – it could be a win-win.” 

He cautions that the results wouldn’t be instant, and the process would need to be helped along through “assisted regeneration”, where seedlings of appropriate species are planted in likely spots. He says: 

“You could have a mixed mosaic of heather, grass and early succession trees – in other words, the species that first colonised the land after the last ice age – such as birch, rowan and juniper, which if you let nature take its course, would eventually give way to later succession trees such as oak.

“If you gave it a helping hand, it would probably come on in leaps and bounds, and you’d soon see a massive increase in bird species. Over a period of five, 10, 20 years, it would show huge changes.

“Whether people would like it would be down to personal preference, but wildlife would certainly like it.”

An aerial photo showing a planked track bending through the rewilded landscape of Grote Netewoud in Belgium.

A track bends through the rewilded landscape of Grote Netewoud in Belgium (also shown in main image) – could parts of the Stray look like this? Photo: Wim Dirckx/Natuurpunt.

Wildlife might like it, but Harrogate in Bloom’s Pam Grant wouldn’t. As far as she’s concerned, there’s nothing wrong with the Stray as it is. She says: 

“To me as a Harrogatonian, the Stray is an open space and it needs to stay that way. I certainly wouldn’t want to see any trees blocking the view. There are plenty of trees already.

“The beauty of the Stray is the neatness and tidiness of it. When you come into Harrogate, it’s the first thing you see, and it’s beautiful. Personally, I wouldn’t have any wilding at all.”

Neat v messy

And therein lies the yawning gulf between the two sides: a difference both in aesthetic values – one side likes neatness and the other prefers nature’s messiness – and also in the two sides’ approaches to change: one side wants to preserve the status quo, while the other prefers a more progressive approach. 

But at the heart of the matter is the two sides’ respective attitudes to the environment, which for Dr Carver and Ms Oakes is of paramount importance. A glance at the data shows why. 

In its State of Nature 2023 report, the World Land Trust called the UK “one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth”. Among G7 countries, it’s the worst by a huge margin. 

Since 1970, the distribution in England of pollinators has declined by 22%. Among species found on land and in freshwater, there has been an average 32% decline, and the distribution of flowering plants has dropped by a staggering 64%. 

More than one in eight (13%) species in England is threatened with extinction. Numbers of lapwings – that formerly iconic Stray bird – have plummeted by 50% over the last 40 years. 

Dr Carver says a more naturalised Stray could help the situation is a modest way, by providing more habitat for a variety of species currently absent, and by putting in place a wildlife corridor stretching almost unbroken from Beaver Dyke, west of Harrogate, right through to Knaresborough. 

But Ms d’Arcy Thompson says the Stray already does that job: 

“If Harrogate was a much more industrialised, paved-over town, I might be more interested, but we have 18 parks and lots of large gardens, so we actually do quite well for biodiversity. The Stray has 2,500 trees – we counted them – and there’s a lot of birdlife in those, as well as shrubs, bushes and plants, so it’s quite a good corridor.” 

Photo of crocuses on West Park Stray in Harrogate.

The traditionalists’ preference: crocuses on West Park Stray.

Another of her objections concerns public safety. She said: 

“The anti-social blighters who love to discard their detritus – litter, needles, little gas canisters, broken bottles, used condoms and the rest – would do it in knee-high grass, where you’d never see it. People can’t even find their own dog’s poo in the wilded areas around the edge. 

“One of the lovely things about the Stray is that parents can let their little children run around safely. Imagine your toddler coming out of the long grass clutching a hypodermic needle!” 

So ponds are out of the question, then? 

“Little children and ponds do not mix well. Why should the Stray need ponds? Why can’t people just leave it alone? They’ve gone biodiversity-mad!” 

‘We always keep this under review’

In the middle of the discussion – between the ‘blue’ corner and ‘green’ corner – stands North Yorkshire Council as arbiter, deciding how the Stray is managed, from what trees are planted to when the grass is mown. 

It has planted two “pocket woods” of native species in recent years, the most recent just this winter, and has said it will continue to keep the wildflowers strips, but otherwise it appears the status quo is winning. The Stray Ferret asked the council if it intended to introduce any more changes to the upkeep of the Stray, especially any that might affect biodiversity. 

Jonathan Clubb, the council’s head of parks and grounds, told us: 

“There are no plans to change current maintenance regimes on the Stray at the present time, but we will always keep this under review to ensure good practice.” 

What “good practice” looks like is clearly debatable, but in the meantime, Shan Oakes just hopes people will keep an open mind and think about the possibilities. She says: 

“It would be nice to have a big public conversation about how we can manage the Stray for everyone’s enjoyment.

“There seems to be a stranglehold on the conversation – ‘the Stray is the Stray’ – but we need it discussed more openly. I think you’d get a lot of good ideas.”

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