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Can conservation save ancient quarry?

Friday 13 March 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, whose first contact with Yorkshire Dales quarrying began in near disaster, hopes that a top conservation award will save a 230-year-old quarry from closure by complaint

TWENTY years ago, my wife came perilously close to death, beheaded by a football-sized lump of limestone which fell off the back of a Yorkshire Dales quarry wagon, bounced off the bonnet of her Fiat Panda, and skipped just over the roof of her tiny car. Had it gone through the windscreen, she could well have been killed.

Yet today (March 13), I am delighted to reveal that another Dales quarry has won a major national conservation award from one of the country’s most respected research bodies. Because after 230 years, that quarry is threatened with closure – because some local residents, mainly new arrivals to the region, object to its trucks being on the narrow, twisting Dales roads.

Conservation at Dry Rigg
Conservation at Dry Rigg

I am referring here to two different quarries but the theme is the same. My wife’s lucky escape occurred outside the Swinden Quarry, near Grassington, which a few years ago escaped closure only by the chairman’s casting vote of the Yorkshire Dales National Park – a local born and bred who understood the crucial importance of quarrying to local working folk.

Many of the committee, professional people who lived outside the park or wealthy retirees, voted for closure because of traffic on the roads and complaints from bodies like the Ramblers’ Association that the quarry spoiled the view.

Today, the British Trust for Ornithology, one of the world’s leading research bodies into bird life and behaviour, announced that Dry Rigg Quarry, in Upper Ribblesdale, has won a national prize in its British Energy Business Bird Conservation Awards, a unique project designed to make industrial sites like quarries, power stations, water recycling plants, reservoirs and even military training grounds more habitable for wildlife.

And just like Swinden, Dry Rigg - first worked in the 1780s – could be closed down later this year if the national park decides to withdraw its planning ;permission. And already in the past, there has been pressure from well-to-do, mostly newly arrived, for just that for the same old reasons: many of them came to the Dales to live in pretty countryside and didn’t want their view spoiled by scars on the landscape and nasty big trucks on the roads.

Now despite my wife’s earlier escape, this attitude infuriates me. All these protestors knew that the quarries were there when they brought there often enormously expensive homes (thus driving them beyond the pockets of the locals). The majority had already had successful and profitable careers – in the cities, of course – and showed little understanding that jobs for working men and women are incredibly difficult to find in the countryside.

Dry Rigg employs directly or indirectly 40 people, and that makes it a big employer in Ribblesdale, where hill farming can barely support a single family, never mind paid labour,, and many families have to rely on the part-time income brought in by wives and daughters who have part-time summer jobs in the tourist industry.

When the national park planners come to make their life-or-death decision, I hope they take it into account too

But what really incenses me about these attitudes is that they rarely recognise the vast changes the quarries have made in the past 20 years to clean up their act. All quarry lorries now have to be “sheeted” – covered over the top – to prevent rock falling into the roads. Any driver failing to do so faces being banned from ever taking deliveries again.

Much more quarry traffic is now carried by rail and virtually ever quarry now has large and inventive landscaping programmes to cover the scars they inevitably leave on the landscape. When they are worked out, they are now bound by law to return the site to as near as possible to its natural state – and that, quite frankly, often means improving the landscape rather than detracting from it.

When I visited Dry Rigg a year ago, I was taken to a sedge-lined lake in what used to be a moonscape of bare rock and dust. In it, the crested newts are thriving. On it, coot and water hen chicks searched for food. On the hill sloping down to it, five pairs of plovers had successfully nested and, at the top of the rise, 300 ash saplings have taken root and are beginning to grow.

The quarry owners, the French conglomerate Lafarge, have spent tens of thousands of pounds on these improvements, including long lengths of top-class drystone walling, giving much needed work to local craftsmen, an effort which today’s BT0 award recognises. When the national park planners come to make their life-or-death decision, I hope they take it into account too.

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