Landscapes tell a never-ending story. To understand this narrative, we must first look to see even the smallest details, listen carefully to hear the language of the land, and learn fervently from all the life that calls this landscape home.
In the Yorkshire Dales National Park, you’ll find Swineley Farm. This 500-acre site carries with it scars of historic farming practices all whilst grappling with the increasingly harsh, chaotic climate. Nevertheless, it possesses so many treasured characteristics that make it unique. It harbours a rare habitat called blanket bog, Swineley meadow – a nationally important grassland Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a conservation designation indicating a protected area in the UK, as well as an array of beautiful birds including the UK’s largest wading bird, the curlew.
Within each ecosystem, delicate and intricate relationships interconnect and if we are to Scale Conservation, we must first be mindful of these. Our conservation work extends beyond simply buying land and indiscriminately planting trees everywhere. Instead, we treat the land individually, respecting its unique characteristics and in doing so, we can design a plan that works with the landscape as a whole allowing it to thrive for both nature and people.
Right from the beginning, it was clear that the landscape here was both incredibly complex and in desperate need of care and attention. The fields were overgrazed by too many sheep, the meadows were decimated, the wetter areas were eroding, trees were almost completely absent, and the environment sat silent.
Sadly this made the goal very clear. While preserving the bird habitats and flower-rich meadows, we could rewet and restore the peatland as well as support the creation of new native broadleaf woodlands, which would provide diverse habitat conditions for countless returning species.
“As is always our commitment when we acquire a new site we look, listen, and learn as much as possible. This includes working in partnership with local landowners, groups, and specialists to establish ecological, social, and economic baselines. At Swineley this includes extensive ecological assessments, soil sampling, and peatland mapping.”
– Rich Stockdale, Founder & Managing Director
The peatland mapping was a crucial first step since there were widely varying depths across the site, and in the UK, planting trees on peat deeper than 30cm is not possible. And just like that, this landscape became a little more complicated again, we started asking ourselves; Should we plant smaller areas of woodland? Where do we plant? What is best for this landscape?
Understanding where the depths varied was key. We completed multiple, high-definition surveys to fully understand the existing mosaic of peatland across the site. This allowed for a thoughtful and subtle woodland creation design that would complement and support peatland restoration.
However, as described previously, ecosystems are interconnected, and soon after the sheep and the chemical left the land, one of the most exciting characteristics of Swineley Farm revealed itself. The presence of several different species of iconic breeding wading birds including the curlew, snipe, lapwing, and golden plover returned to the landscape. There is some evidence that denser woodlands can have negative consequences for these birds as it may create a sort of “predation halo”. This means that the presence of predators may change the behaviour and distribution of these returning birds. In sum, they might avoid areas close to dense woodland where their risk of being targeted by predators is higher. This could have cascading effects on the entire ecosystem. As a result, the structure and dynamics of the woodland community had to be entirely different than we initially imagined. Knowing the needs of these wading birds meant that maintaining a significant amount of open space within the design was vital – wood pasture was clearly the answer.
But woodland creation wasn’t our only goal and Swineley Farm has some incredible habitat types that we wanted to prioritise. Avoiding planting on areas of grassland, rush-pasture, and blanket bog means that these interesting habitats won’t be lost to woodland. Our iterative design unfolded into a complex woodland plan consisting of mostly alder, downy birch, silver birch, rowan, hawthorn, aspen grey willow, and eared willow as well as juniper shrubs, that not only complement the peatland but all other habitat types and as many different species as possible.
Now, and only after this process of looking, listening, and learning, we focused more on removing barriers to the natural process of restoration, giving nature the space and time it needed to recover. As it turns out, nature needs much less time than we might think.
We have removed the significant grazing pressures including sheep from the hillside, artificial chemicals and fertilisers, and decades of discarded and significant lengths of redundant fence lines. The very act of removing these barriers began the process of ecological restoration. Only once you’ve removed the bad can you start to offer assistance toward a better environment.
For Swineley, this assistance included working in partnership with Natural England on the design and development of a new and improved countryside stewardship scheme, partnering with the neighbouring landowner to graze the wonderful hay meadow SSSI, and in the process, supporting the production of wonderful high-quality local produce.
Looking to the woodland design, in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust and the Woodland Trust, we have created extensive buffer strips around the Widdale Beck and planted 5,000 trees! This fantastic effort will help control water temperatures and create new habitats and havens for wildlife – and it is only the beginning. We also have plans in place to plant a further 60,000 trees in the autumn to create fantastic areas of wood pasture as we help nature create its own mosaic of habitats across this very special part of the Yorkshire Dales.
“When we returned to Swineley in July  the place could not have been more different, it sang, danced, jumped, and flew with birds, bees, and butterflies. Barn owls swooped across the hills feasting on the explosion of voles that were rapidly darting through the tall grasses all watched on by the cattle grazing in specific compartments where the land needed it most. Everything was different, the look, feel, smell, and sound – you could hardly believe this was the same Swineley we visited just a few months ago. On this incredible adventure that is Oxygen Conservation, I never fail to be amazed at just how quickly wildlife returns and nature begins to restore itself if only we give it a chance.”
– Rich Stockdale, Founder & Managing Director
It is only through looking, listening, and learning that we were able to understand the needs of this landscape and find a solution that not only protects existing species, but the species that should and could also be there. For Swineley, there is a whole suite of absent species that would utilise the diversity of habitats. The songbirds willow warbler, chiff-chaff, blackcap, garden warbler, and other birds like cuckoo would all benefit from our holistic restoration design. Insects would use the trees as a source of pollen and nectar during flowering. Black grouse, a rare bird in England suffering range decline, would thrive in open woodland using it for foraging and shelter. These are just some of the species that we hope will make their way back and eventually call Swineley Farm home.
It takes time to truly understand a landscape, especially sites across our portfolio that cover hundreds if not thousands of acres. Respecting its uniqueness and through thoughtful design, we are shaping the next chapter in the story of Swineley Farm and making it one of growth, diversity, and restoration.