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Under our feet: the future of the Yorkshire Dales

Friday 14 March 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who would sooner run naked through cactus than be lowered into one of the immense caverns under the Yorkshire Dales, pushes aside his prejudice to report on a brand new co-operation between potholers and scientists which could allow us to fight future climate change by reading the record of our ancient past

IT IS ONLY fair to admit that over the years, my infrequent contact with potholers has been to report various incidents – all too frequent – when they have been forced to risk life and limb to go underground in horrific conditions to rescue people who, if they had any sense, shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Gaping Gill
Gaping Gill

I have known many of these brave men and women over the years, and have shared the odd pint and folk song with them in various Yorkshire Dales hostelries, but go down there with them? I’d rather run naked through cactus (or, perhaps more fittingly in this context, a hillside of gorse bushes).

As someone who can suffer claustrophobia in my allotment shed, I have always been somewhat mystified by people who can penetrate hundreds of feet into dark, dank caverns, sometimes wearing sub-aqua wet suits so that they can swim along water-filled “pipes” to see what lies at the other side. Ask them why and they will reply, like mountaineers, “Because they are there.”

However, an intriguing piece of information came my way this week – along with our stunning picture – which changed my mind about this singular band of adventurers. For apparently, this underworld they inhabit can be of immense value to scientists – and the Lancaster-based Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club has linked up with Natural England experts to read the runes of history laid down there thousands of years ago.

In a pilot scheme that may later be extended right across the Yorkshire Dales, Red Rose members are helping in the scientific investigation of Ease Gill Cavern, near Ingleton, searching for clues for the great stresses and strains which created this underground labyrinth in the first place – and which could help us predict the what the future could bring should climate change be as severe as the gloom-mongers predict.

It is thought that there are around 10,000 acres of land underground in the Dales and by studying the record they have left of the past, scientists may be able to work out the best way to face the future.

It is thought that there are around 10,000 acres of land underground in the Dales

However, the majority of this underground land has never been assessed for health and safety reasons: Natural England experts have the technical knowledge to search out important historical facts but not the under-ground skills to do so safely. But the two groups working together could come up with a gold mine of important data.

Says Ray Duffy of the Red Rose club: “Opportunities like this don’t come along that often, so we jumped at the chance to get involved. Much of the work they have asked us to do is common practice for us. As dedicated cavers we are constantly assessing the condition of the different geological features, so it’s pleasing to know we are playing our part.”

And Phil Eckersley of Natural England added: “The truly amazing effort which the Red Rose members have put into cave research and survey over nearly 40 years is a fantastic data resource. We foresee working with cavers in this and other areas in Northern England to protect these often unique natural features and show how special they really are.”

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