Children more interested in slugs that 19th century social history

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“I’m very conscious of the fact that not everybody is interested in nineteenth century social history,” reflected Friend of Wardsend Cemetery Howard Bayley.

This is true. The children at last week’s ‘Don Discovery Day’ at the old Victorian cemetery were generally more interested in slugs.

Howard and his colleagues are very pleased that the old cemetery, which saw 120 years of burials of ordinary Sheffielders between 1857 and 1977, is now a haven for wildlife, with badgers, voles, deer, (and various species of slug, it turns out) passing through.

But the hundreds of working class Sheffielders buried in the cemetery (including many soldiers who died at Hillsborough Barracks after serving around the world), should be remembered too, said Howard.

“We often say that the people buried here were probably overlooked when they were alive, and are overlooked now,” he said, noting the difference in visitor numbers between Wardsend and the General Cemetery off Ecclesall Road. “These are the people who made the wealth for the people with the big monuments in the General Cemetery.”

Howard was standing on the bridge over the Upper Don near the cemetery entrance at the back end of Owlerton, as naturalists and families scoured the riverbank and the overgrown gravestones in a ‘bioblitz’ to find and record as many species of Wardsend wildlife as possible.

“It’s a stunning view,” Howard said, looking along the Don towards Sheffield. “If you went out into Derbyshire I don’t think you’d find anything more attractive than this.”

The city’s otters agree. ‘Spraints’ (otter droppings) have been found near Wardsend, and naturalists from the Sheffield Wildlife Trust, Sheffield University and Moors for the Future are now monitoring our urban otter population – an idea that would have seemed incredible only 20 years ago. Otter hunting and poisoning from pesticides had drastically reduced otter numbers last century, but the secretive river animals are now making a comeback on the inner-city Don.

“It’s fantastic to have such an enigmatic species on our doorstep,” said Sarah Proctor from the Moors for the Future Partnership.

The Don Discovery Day was organised by the Don Catchment Rivers Trust, which is working along the Don to help protect the river and its tributaries and to ‘reconnect’ 1.4 million people who live in the Don catchment area with nearly 200 miles of rivers, streams and wetlands that feed the river through South Yorkshire’s town and villages.

“We want to engage local communities with the River Don, which I think has sort of been forgotten since the times it was yellow and full of pollution, and unloved,” said Sally Hyslop from the trust’s ‘Living Heritage of the River Don’ project.

The Don Catchment Rivers Trust is about to launch the Don Valley Way, a footpath all the way along the river from Doncaster to Kelham Island. It’s also been working to improve the riverside footpaths, and is helping to build a series of fish passes at weirs to help salmon navigate their way further upstream (they’re already arrived at Sprotborough).

Howard Bayley said the river is now so clean that it’s full of trout and grayling, and the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery hope to open up more of the view down to the riverbank in future. They also put on events at Wardsend to show the site off to the rest of the city in the hope of getting more regular visitors. Although the quietness of Wardsend does benefit wildlife, Howard notes that if there were more walkers, anglers, runners and birdwatchers at Wardsend, there’d probably be fewer people illegally riding motorbikes or quad bikes along the pathways.

“There’s the river, there’s woodland and heathland, and if you go to the top there’s a great view of the city centre,” said Howard. “It’s a little hidden gem tucked away.”

And Sally Hyslop said Wardsend is a good place for Sheffielders to get to love the Don. “Nature is coming back now,” she said. “The river was disgusting, but now it’s the way it should be again. We get otters and kingfishers, and one day we’ll see salmon in Sheffield.”

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