The so-called industrial City of Steel is probably the last place you’d expect to find abundant wildlife, but after two years of extensive research in the city centre and wider district, a brand new report – Sheffield State of Nature – has just been released to prove us all wrong.
‘There’s a lot of activity in Sheffield’s different habitats from various species,’ says Sara, who has been involved with conservation and ecology since studying these areas at university. ‘We wanted to put the report together because there hasn’t been a project to research nature in the area as a whole before, and information that we do have was out of date.’ The project has used over 50 case studies to form an all-encompassing document which explores, celebrates and challenges our knowledge of the local environment and produces a snapshot of how nature in Sheffield is faring.
‘Sixteen percent of Sheffield is wooded, far higher than the UK average of 10 percent,’ Sara explains, ‘and we have seen an increase in many woodland birds including sparrowhawk, warblers and nuthatch due to climate change and habitat restoration.’ On the flip side, most specialist farmland birds in the area are declining due to changes in agricultural practices. ‘Four out of the five most severe declines of breeding birds are farmland specialists,’ Sara explains.
Out of all of the findings collected in the report, Sara tells us that one of her personal highlights is the fact that otters have returned to the River Don, discovered by Nature Counts’ Otterly Amazing project which used professional surveys and infra-red cameras to monitor otter sightings, droppings and footprints. Over 40 video shots were captured from five distinct locations – the first time that otters have been filmed locally. ‘Otters require a decent food bank so this shows that fish have returned to our waterways too,’ Sara explains. In fact, a whopping 26 out of 31 species of fish historically found on the Don have now recolonised the river. ‘That’s the result of lots of different factors,’ says Sara. ‘The rivers have been cleaned up, fish passes have been installed to facilitate natural migration and local businesses have worked hard to reduce pollution.’
Moving in closer to the city, Sheffield has a substantial amount of semi-natural and managed green space within the urban zone, providing a home for many species such as hedgehogs, urban foxes, squirrels and badgers. ‘As part of our project, we appealed for information on hedgehogs,’ Sara explains. Between 2016 and 2018, more than 500 records were collected, recording 454 live hedgehogs, 46 dead hedgehogs and 19 signs of droppings or footprints, mainly in public gardens but also in school grounds and suburban streets. These sightings reflect nationwide signs that hedgehog populations in urban areas are recovering, despite a steady decline of around 50 percent in rural areas.
Up in the air, the future is looking particularly bright for peregrine falcons. These birds of prey experienced a nationwide population crash due to pesticides working their way up the food chain in the 1960s, but began to breed in urban locations in the UK from the late 1990s. Sara explains that after the birds were spotted on the roof of Sheffield’s St George’s Church, a nest platform was erected on the north-facing ledge at the top of the church tower. It was used by a breeding pair that had taken up residence in the vicinity and they fledged two young in June 2012 – the first urban breeding record of peregrines in the city. ‘The same site has been used every year since then, with four eggs laid on each occasion,’ Sara explains, ‘and a webcam has been installed so you can watch the birds online.’
The rise of peregrines and otters aren’t the only surprising increases noted in the report – the mountain hare population surrounding Sheffield appears to be thriving due to better summer weather and good rainfall through autumn, allowing vegetation to grow and enabling hares to feed well for longer. Historically, Sheffield supported some of the largest medieval deer parks in South Yorkshire, and the population of roe deer is now well-established into the heart of the urban catchment, with regular sightings in the city’s suburbs including Crookes, Nether Edge and Sharrow.
Garnering all of this information has taken time and effort, but Sara says that the work of its contributors won’t stop here. ‘We don’t want to release another report too soon because the results won’t be that different, but I hope that in a few year’s time there’ll be another partnership effort to reflect what we learnt from this State of Nature report, and how we’ve put that into practice.’
What we have learnt is that we have a city brimming with biodiversity, so the next time you step outside in Sheffield, take a moment to appreciate its hidden wildlife.
The Sheffield State of Nature report can be downloaded at www.wildsheffield.com
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Don’t miss these notable findings from the Sheffield State of Nature report
Over 90 percent of Sheffield’s residents have access to a large area of woodland within 4km.
Sheffield supports over a third of South Yorkshire’s woodland, despite covering less than a quarter of the area, and 1,256ha of ancient woodland can be found across the district.
Rivers are central to Sheffield’s ecology and draw wildlife into the heart of the city.
The research shows 26 out of 31 fish species have recolonised the Don, and otters have returned to Sheffield’s river thanks to efforts to clean up the waterways.
Local threats to wildlife mirror many national trends.
These include the near-disappearance of white-clawed crayfish, turtle doves and water vole from the district.
Newly built features in the urban landscape support key urban species.
These have provided peregrine falcons, hedgehogs and bats with foraging, shelter and breeding opportunities.
Local ponds provide important habitats for species such as great crested newts and dragonflies, and many have benefitted from recent restoration work.
Dragonfly diversity has significantly increased, partly due to improvements in water quality and associated emergent waterside vegetation.