Returning the past - the forest of Newcastle

 

Town Field cattle

The Town Fields are a collection of green open spaces in Newcastle on Tyne. They were formerly known as the Town Moor - the official name - but have been tamed and tidied so much recently that the old name doesn't fit any longer. They are semi-improved grassland. The land is owned by the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne but is managed by the Freemen through an ancient and unchallenged covenant. The Freemen of Newcastle are an hereditary group of individuals descended from border reiving families and manage the land on behalf of the residents of Newcastle. They are led by Sir Len Fenwick CBE. One of the rights of a Freeman is the consent to graze a cow on the moor. These rights are exercised symbolically nowadays, with beef cattle fed on the grass between April and October. A couple of stockmen look after the beasts and there is still a tied house for the headman.

The latest agricultural improvement is the enclosure by stealth of parts of the moor. Post and rail fence is being extended to divide the grassland into fields. This intensification of grazing pressure has been neither consulted nor commented on.

Most people know the Town Fields from The Hoppings, which is the huge fairground that appears every summer. The fair that was held here in 2012 was a complete washout. Prolonged rain on the flat field, combined with the movement of vehicles through the site, turned the grass into deep mud. The Freemen later laid deep drains and have levelled and resown an amenity grass mix over the fairground site. The Hoppings successfully returned to the site in 2014, with both the land and weather perfect, and have returned again in both 2015 and 2016.
An aspect that is completely overlooked is the suitability of the Town Fields to produce food. It is known that vegetables from
allotments on sites adjoining the fields are unfit to eat, due to historical contamination by heavy metals, from chimneys and traffic, yet meat from the cattle browsing beside them is sold into the human food chain unchecked. It shouldn't be difficult to monitor the blood lead level of the cattle when they arrive in Newcastle and again in six months time, as they leave.

The term 'moor' implies something wild and foreboding and this word has no place in Newcastle any longer. The streetlights along many of the paths tamed the great field almost entirely and the Freemens' garish management regime has increased the decline. Draining the land was expensive and, while it's improved access to the Hoppings, it's also destroyed the little ponds that were vital for wildlife. The turf is now 'topped' with a mower in the summer and sprayed regularly with a herbicide based on Monsanto's Roundup. The stockmen don't even bother to remove the cattle during spraying and simply chase them away. The herbicide makers have recently admitted that their product is 'probably carcinogenic' so it would seem that not just the cattle should be excluded during spraying operations but people too - particularly the students from the Halls of Residence.  The stockmen wear no protective gear and must probably be the most at risk from the sprays.

 Enclosure by stealth - Summer 2015


 

Aerial view of the Town Moor - late June 2014

These herbicides have destroyed the flowering plant species - weeds - that are vital to bees and other pollinating insects. The draining, topping and the heavy stocking density of the cattle has destroyed the rushes that supported  moths and shrews. It is now an almost completely plain field, with security cameras on poles. There's loads of cattle and the swallows have faded fast, down from a dozen nesting pairs ten years ago, to just two pairs last year. There were twittering skylarks long before the Saxons came but this summertime cattle ranch has placed them under great pressure. The Freemen have abandoned their gamekeeping responsibilities and the small birds have mostly been replaced by crows.

There are patches of woodland plantation scattered about the Town Field but they're not healthy. They are sometimes fenced with wooden post and rail but it's not maintained. The cattle get among the trees, the ground is trampled, grazed down and whatever was living there - particularly the hedgerow birds - are displaced and lost. The picture on the left shows an aerial view of the town field, which was taken on the 23rd of June 2014, in the afternoon. Click through for a view of the herbicide spray lines around the last pond on the moor, from that morning's spray ops. Sadly the pond itself was bulldozed during 2015 and is now entirely gone. As it's Newcastle this was done without comment or consent and has entirely eliminated frog, toad and damselfly from the moor.

The Exhibition Park Lake was drained recently as part of a Lottery funded park renovation scheme. 'Community Spaces'. No thought was given to the extensive colony of Swan mussel, which were left high and dry for three months, nor the minnow and stickleback, which were casually drained away. A stable and valuable mesotropic pond community was expensively destroyed in the name of biodiversity. The perfect dipping platforms and tidy ethically-sourced walkways have been situated at the shaded end of the lake, just where they are least useful and the small population of Blue damselfly, in the lake, has been killed, along with their larval prey species. The planted reedbeds are a monocrop of canary grass which is notoriously invasive. Much effort has been made controlling the consequent algal bloom with barley straw and nests have been made for moorhen - common birds which are not at risk.

Nunsmoor Allotments - June 2016
After many years of threatening action the Newcastle Freemen have taken over the management of the Nun's Moor Allotments site from the council. The gardeners were given just a months notice to quit, in April 2015, and were gone at the start of May. After several months of inactivity and lush growth the gardens were just beginning to be smashed up at the start of September that year. The Freemen said that they want to tidy up and relet the gardens, claiming they've found contamination, but the soil itself is very badly polluted, mostly by lead, and is entirely unsuitable either for visiting children or for the production of food. (The topsoil dry matter analysis is roughly 0.17% lead). However the site is being slowly cleared to become open pasture for even more beef cattle.

The wood and old sheds have been broken and slowly led off the site. All of the trees have been illegally felled and uprooted. The loss of this informal wildlife habitat is immense and the freemen's intractable destruction would be criticised in a less-developed country but is perfectly acceptable in Newcastle. No felling license was sought and the Forestry Commission, who supposedly enforce the law, have let them off with the excuse 'the council never told us we needed one'. Some of those apple trees were a hundred years old and are gone. There was a great colony of native bluebells scattered around the site but no care was taken to gather them.

At present the ground is still covered by an enormous quantity of assorted rubbish and no attempt has been made to collect it. As the land is so contaminated fieldworkers will need protective clothing before they handle it, to comply with Health & Safety Executive regulations. The land's been finely disc ploughed but hasn't been seeded or herbicide sprayed yet. An irregular patchwork of weeds and remnant fruits are springing up. This photograph was taken in late June 2016, please click through for a larger view. There is also a small album of photographs of the former Nunsmoor allotments here.

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David Aspinall, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 6NQ, UK.
All rights reserved. Page updated: 18th April 2017