Creating The Common Blue on The Commons of Industrial and Urban Dereliction
It is known that in recent years the Common Blue butterfly has suffered a frightening decline of something like 60% in its traditional countryside habitats of downland and the like. The days of the butterfly teeming in these localities has virtually ended. At the same time the butterfly is beginning to take off among the wilderness of weeds in cities like Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield (and no doubt many other cities and towns throughout these islands). Initially our aim was to assist this process. More, to see if the Common Blue could teem again in their new strange, endlessly morphing homelands well distanced perhaps from the fall out from all the poisoned pollutants that characterise industrialised agriculture. We shall see shortly if this happens to be the cause for the butterfly’s decline or are other major factors at work?
Slowly over the last decade and now with an ever intensifying vigour and passion that has become an obsession; we have started to physically transform these big, enticing spaces of industrial dereliction throughout the valley bottom between Shipley and the centre of Bradford in West Yorks. We haven’t asked anybody in authority for permission, not out of perversity but because trivial legalisms take such an age and we don’t have much time on our hands. Moreover, we would almost certainly have been told to bottle it with threats of prosecution. In themselves these unexplored spaces – perhaps more unknown than the rain forests of the Amazon - have become amazingly wildlife rich over decades of wonderfully, benign neglect creating a bio-diversity begetting ever greater bio-diversity. However we have also encountered some very real problems. Many such spaces have become overcrowded with dense carr woodland, some of which are so impenetrable we have called them “buddleia forests.” In the first instance our basic intention was to turn some of these spaces into corridors of viable grassland well stocked with birds foot trefoil, the seeds of which we have personally harvested in millions, allowing a very threatened Common Blue butterfly to reproduce at will. Huge coppices pregnant with passages and connecting labyrinths, seemingly mysterious, appeared, felled by unknown hands.
However, behind our backs the project seemed to develop a life of its own; an improvised open-ended momentum much wider in scope than our original intentions. It became an adventure with us becoming the ghosts of intervention as we clandestinely began changing the shape and profile of these abandoned lots, whether council or privately ‘owned’ (i.e. desultory ready-fenced in land banks) of these new Commons in the making for the Common Blue (and other species including humans) all of which were undergoing a process of disintegration, or more exactly a process of de-commodification. We were uncovering long lost amazing features: Brimham Rocks and Malham Coves of long gone 19th century industrial processes now brilliantly colonised by thick green mosses; ready mades full of surprise suggesting endless future possibilities.
As police helicopters flew overhead – only to return yet again – and security guards and health and safety inspectors became exceedingly puzzled, even angry at what was taking place; we wondered what they were thinking. Was this the work of terrorists or was it about an Occupy movement ready to pounce? Seeing or most likely only hearing the sawing, the digging etc. the concerned middle classes grabbed their mobiles to phone the police or council officials. On the other hand, individuals from the sharp end spontaneously encountered in these down and dirty poetic dumps were fascinated by what was taking place, asked if they could help, even suggesting they could, “help bury some bodies”. One guy fresh out of jail that morning shouted, “Up the Revolution”. The class divide was almost as stark as that! As for the other misfits who increasingly criss-cross these places, either as rough sleepers in makeshift dens or simply nouveau hippies following in our footsteps constructing equally makeshift future primitive yurts alongside the various wooded ‘new’ labyrinthine paths, also seemed to bring with them, the latest slew of deep topographers, the occasional installation artist of dereliction - both using these absent spaces for recuperative artistic ends and possible career advantages - and on the plus side, gangs of friendly, vandalistic youngsters, along with all the other ghosts beginning to mutually influence each others activities.
This on-going story in all its particularities and fascinating details; the punch-ups, the run-ins with authority, the enlightening encounters, the creative skulduggery, is still in the making, so watch this space……The following is merely a taster; a simple chronology together with quick off –the-cuff comment chronicling a tiny part of some of the discoveries on these unintentional exhilarating Wastes, these future Commons of a new society living in harmony with unofficial nature.
Sightings of the White Letter Hairstreak and Common Blue in June, July and August 2011 in Bradford, West Yorks
Common Blue & White Letter Hairstreak butterflies in the Shipley area of Bradford, West Yorks in June / July 2011
A. Three Common Blue at Frizinghall Station. (14th of June 2011).
B. Two White Letter Hairstreak, Shipley Station by Bradford / Leeds platform. (16th of July 2011).
C. Five White Letter Hairstreak on lone elm by the side of “T’Mucky Beck”. (The ‘mills’ have since been demolished). (16th June, 2011).
D. Two White Letter Hairstreak on the site of the former Bradford Canal between Briggate and railway line. (16th of June 2011).
Bolton Woods Quarry, Bradford 2, West Yorks
A. Two White Letter Hairstreak ( 15th July 2011))
B. One White Letter Hairstreak (15th July 2011)
C. One first generation male Common Blue (15th July 2011)
New Common Blue sites in central Bradford (mostly second emergence)
A. Five Common Blue in fenced-off areas between Canal Road and Valley Road. (June 20th 2011).
B. One blue female of Common Blue off Linguard Street where the birds foot trefoil is growing between York stone setts. (8th of August 2011).
C. Seven Common Blues between Valley Road and railway to Forster Square. Five were female. (9th of August 2011)
D. Three Common Blue between Trafalgar Street and Snowden Street, (off Manningham Lane) behind Church of Christ Scientist. (9th of August 2011)
15th of August 2011, saw 14 Common Blue butterflies around Drighlington, Bradford 11, West Yorks. Two of the Common Blues were seen on Adwalton Moor, a site of industrial spoil left over from the quarrying of fire clay. The 'new' Tong School has been constructed on the site of the Bradford brick Works. The other twelve were to be found on the site of the old railway (hence Station Road). (This is a copy of an old map and has the Kirklees / Bradford boundary changed in the meantime?)
New Common Blue Sites between the Otley Rd and the River Aire, Shipley, West Yorks, early Sept 2011
1. BNP Paribas site, Dockfield Rd, Shipley: 3 ‘brown’ females of the Common Blue on the 4th of Sept 2011. The site has planning permission for industrial and residential units but has no takers and now must flaunt itself. A year ago this was a captivating sun-trap of a site to look down on from the walled heights that contain the Leeds / Liverpool canal. It enclosed a number of unusual features like a series of perplexing ‘industrial barrows’ covered in grass and defying a rational explanation…... and all the more beautiful for that.
We seeded both sides of the site in early spring 2011 with hop trefoil which is dissected by Dockfield Rd, underneath which runs a short tunnel joining the two halves. Since then the unfeeling vandals of BNP Paribas have cleared and levelled the site in a bid to make it more saleable. Given its situation on the flood plain of the River Aire, there is at best only a remote chance of this succeeding, particularly in this direst of economic climates. Much of this site, as a result, is now bare earth but is likely to be carpeted by hop trefoil (trifolium aureum in particular) in the near future and which, in our opinion, is almost as desirable to the Common Blue as Birds Foot Trefoil. As a Common Blue site, it clearly has massive potential and would greatly benefit from conservationists (i.e. anti the system / anti collaborationist conservationists)getting stuck in. BNP Paribas is a French bank that specializes in property and land. Until 2007 the UK’s infatuation with land values and the property market ideally suited this most ‘un-French’ of land grabbing outfits. But on the 9th August 2007, BNP Paribas precipitated the banking crises when it announced that it was closing down 3 hedge funds that specialized in US mortgage debt.
2. Baildon Holmes, Shipley. 1 male Common Blue, 3rd Sept 2011. The former mill on this large site has been partially converted into flats until it too, became a victim of the crises and work stopped, the only employees left hyper active security guards, fearful the building was now a prime squatting target rather than prime real estate. Containers, building material and mounds of spoil have been left on this waste ground which is slowly becoming grassed over. The danger is it soon could be overrun by Goat Willow and Buddleia saplings. The site was sown by us in the spring of 2011. The male Common Blue was flapping around the trefoil we had planted behind the steel fences separating the site from the Aire footpath. Kids are now starting to play on the site, which is a good sign because it means security is losing heart - though more likely losing their jobs!
3. Jeffries Motors and a Tesco Express site. 1 male Common Blue, 3rd Sept 2011. These two firms stand on the Otley Rd end of the site. Tesco’s is presently extending its operations but we are reliably informed by a site subcontractor we are friendly with that new building regulations in force since the floods of 2007 will rule out the development of the remainder of the site because of its propensity to flooding. A perfect home for the Common Blue provided its food plant is there in abundance. On 4th of Sept 2011 we seeded a corner adjacent to the Aire footpath with birds foot trefoil. The rest will have to wait until the building work is completed, the mounds of earth that are left over unlikely ever to be removed and hence Common Blue des res for evermore.
Above: Male Common Blue on buddleia at Stainforth Construction site
4. Stainforth Construction / Greens Fitness and Health club. Four Common Blue males. The site is to be found at the end of Fred Atkinson Way by the side of Stainforth Construction car park. We seeded the site in early spring 2011. Now there are substantial patch of Birds Foot Trefoil. Definitely requires management particularly the cutting down of Buddleia and Goat Willow. Again can be described as Common Blue paradise…*
*(By Xmas 2011 we had rid the site of all the invasive trees and scrub finding in their shade huge areas of black medick which now can flourish freely providing food plant for the Common Blue.)
5. Dockfield Junction 3 White Letter Hairstreaks, 13th July 2011, between the Leeds Liverpool canal and the Leeds / Ilkley / Shipley railway line.
Plus a further Common Blue site in the city centre
Disused Pit Lane Mill site off Barkerend Rd, near the cathedral in Bradford town centre. Four Common Blue males. Site seeded with trefoil in March 2011. The site is criss-crossed with informal paths and, until recently, largely bare of vegetation though there are grassy knolls with a variety of garden escapes like variegated poppies, some broom – and much rubbish and litter. A fascinating, slightly scary place. Be prepared for (mostly welcome) encounters! The plot is up for sale courtesy of Bradford Council, the ‘land bank’ of last resort in this inner city neighbourhood! By October a huge area of ground was covered with hop trefoil so no wonder Common Blues were found.
Pit Lane mill site during hop trefoil seeding in March 2011
New Common Blue sites in Bradford and Leeds, mid to late September 2011
1. 13th Sept 2011. St John’s, Bowling, Wakefield Rd, Bradford 4. One female Common Blue, head up not down, so clearly not roosting. Clinging to a stalk of hop trefoil, it was sheltering from the blowy aftermath of Hurricane Katia.
The one acre plus site is covered in buddleia, goat willow, grasses, black medick and hop trefoil (trifolium campestre and possible hybridized forms of latter). Cement, bricks and tarmac have been liberally dumped on this site of earthen mounds and broken concrete slabs from which protrude twisted metal rods. It is partially screened from view on the side facing Wakefield Road, a fading bill board advertising “Rowan Trade Park. To let: Flexible terms”. Looming over this anarchic nature un-reserve is the steeple of St John’s, itself already something of a de-sanctified church, the profane rows of stacked headstones from the built-over graveyard now forming, sentinel-like, the northern boundary of this glorious site. Defying convention, this was a place of transgression – and home, some poor devil having pitched a bargain basement tent beneath the buddleia bushes. Since commencing our project to extend (and in the process finding) the Common Blue throughout Bradford, we have come across many instances of this type of invisible existence, the one accompanying the other like they were members of a ‘common’ underground intent on escaping notice.
2. 13th Sept 2011. Lower Lane, Bowling, Bradford 4. 2 males scuffed up on a still partially functioning industrial site. There surely must be many more. A few days later, I was to find a female here.
3. 14th Sept 2011. Little Horton Lane, Bradford 5. 1 blue female on long derelict land some 100 yards up from St Luke's Hospital and by the side of the Dringhella Mills, now a retail outlet. Though bisected by a time-saving shortcut, exploratory paths wind around this site that is not in the least utilitarian. So recognizably Bradfordian in particular, they are the material expression of an unconscious yearning, a desire to create something rich and mysterious out of a no-frills, industrial landscape. They are the earth bound equivalent of the chimney smoke that formerly would momentarily transfigure existence and provide a welcome respite from the weight of things. Mulling over the consequences of the Paris Commune of 1871, Ruskin was stirred to unexpectedly characterize Bradford as a “paradise of smoke”. Swept along by events, and despite himself, he had briefly broken through to the essence of symbolism, anticipating by a few years Mallarme’s eulogies to London fogs, though with nothing like the same impact upon the formal integrity of ‘the arts’. This briefest of insights quickly forgotten, The Stones of Venice would forever remain the measure of The Stones of Bradford. Less out of character was Ruskin’s recognition that nature inescapably intruded into Bradford more than any other industrial city he knew of, a fact lost on Engels. Its untamable character even threatened its very existence. Struck by the amount of sooty livestock at liberty to wander, Ruskin also sensed the ineradicable presence of moorland paths in the ginnels and snickets that looped through industrial Bradford.
Above: Little Horton site
Though the prioritization of SHOPPING today has blunted the leaning, it has not managed to kill it off totally. The wish to break rank and walk away forever from the consumer guidelines of the paved shopping precinct is still there. Looking for the Common Blue in Bracken Hill Park in Great Horton, I came across an unfamiliar, obviously fairly recently created dirt-track, that twisted and turned to no evident purpose around the walled fortifications of a colossus of a Tesco store. I felt that in it there was a mining of the malls through other means, a hidden wish to blow the thing up with the enchanted castles of the imagination were a real opportunity ever to come along.
Though there is a reasonable amount of birds foot trefoil (though no trifolium campestre) in Bracken Hill Park, we have yet to find the butterfly there. Given that the site on Little Horton Lane (see photo above) is that much more basic and trodden down, leaving the ground bare in places, I fully expected to find hop trefoil and black medick there. And I was not to be disappointed. However what really did surprise me was the amount of birds foot trefoil I found growing on the site. How come neither of us had seen it before? We can only conclude there has been a recent and extraordinarily rapid spread of some species of the pea family throughout urban Bradford area and that has favoured the Common Blue. Of course our seeding over the years could well have made a modest difference. Though helped by the amount of industrially derelict sites in Bradford, what is true of Bradford is also true of elsewhere and after a brief reconnoitre I can say the same of Leeds, Batley and Huddersfield regarding the expansion of pea family species.
4. 14th Sept 2011, Manchester Rd, Bradford 5. One male Common Blue on an overgrown patch of ground adjacent to St Joseph’s Church between Lister's pub and the Station Hotel. Though quite thickly grassed over, there is a surprising amount of birds foot trefoil as well as hop trefoil, black medick and wild pea. One kid, doing his best to look menacing in a pair of polarized shades, thought I was combing the ground in search of a drugs drop!
5. 14th Sept 2011, Ripley Rd, BD4 (1/3rd of a mile from Bradford Interchange). 1 male Common Blue on this derelict 3 acre site. Hop trefoil, black medick and, of course, much birds foot trefoil. The site adjoins the Bradford / Manchester railway line which we have long considered a vector for the Common Blue.
6. 14th Sept 2011. Junction of Manchester/Leeds railway line some 150 yards from Bradford Interchange. One male Common Blue on the site we know as the ‘triangle’. Horses were frequently grazed on the site and may well have helped disperse the trefoil seeds we scattered around some years ago. Part of the ‘triangle’ is now occupied by the Bradford Food Technology Park. The advanced factory units are being built by the Council’s Dept of R(d)egeneration and Housing.
7. 14th Sept 2011, Lower Lane, Bowling, Bradford 5. 1 dished Common Blue male (finally!) on a site covering many acres and bounded by Lower Field Middle School just off the Wakefield Rd. Formerly a rubbish dump, the contaminated land, for health and safety reasons, has been fenced off with soft mesh which easily yields to a pair of wire snips. Consequently many unofficial off-map paths cross ‘Bowling Common’. In addition there are at least six horses tethered to plug chains, making a further nonsense of attempts to curtail access. Their close cropping of the grass lays bare just enough earth for a range of plants to take root in, such as the doves foot cranesbill and birds foot trefoil, the former, the main food plant of the Brown Argus and the latter, the Common Blue. There is one particularly intriguing feature: down one side of a grassed over gulley there is a flight of elongated concrete steps that fall and rise for no apparent reason, as if offering a challenge to the very idea of purpose. Set off on either side by massed clumps of trefoil, these illogical steps that now provide a window onto another world have, quite by chance, taken on the function of an amphitheatre for the Common Blue whose sole purpose is to now unforgettably showcase the basking butterfly. Suggestive of all manner of ecological potentialities, and appearing to me a correlative of our capacity to radically change human circumstance, this enigmatic site also epitomizes the mystery of the colonization of Bradford by the Common Blue. Who knows but a comprehensive quartering of the urban terrain could well yield up to forty sites? Now how’s that for a rash prediction!
Above and Below: 'Bowling Common' - the now grassed-over site of a former huge, landfill waste tip. An inspirational commons if ever there was one.......
8. 25th Sept 2011. Leeds United Football Club, Elland Rd. 3 Common Blue males by the perimeter fence. Much Hop Trefoil, Birds Foot Trefoil and Wild Pea. Up the blues!
9. 25th Sept 2011. Off Water Lane close to Leeds city centre. 1 male Common Blue on a derelict site extending over 2.5 acres. An integral part of the “Holbeck in Bloom” project, it is partially seeded around the perimeter, as are many other derelict sites in Holbeck. As Holbeck shares a border – and an increasingly ‘herbaceous’ one at that - with the glitzy city centre, the chief hope behind the prettying up of this run down neighbourhood, is that ecologically false appearances will eventually boost property prices. A praiseworthy ecological initiative it most definitely is not. Though the showy horticulture just might attract pollinators, like bees and hover flies, it is of no use whatsoever to the Common Blue. On this particular site the borders have been heaped up and planted with look-at-me poppies, narcissistic African marigolds, spoilt-rotten blue carnations etc. We are not meant to peer beyond this eye catching horticulture for, if we did, we would see that it concealed only a crumby stretch of grasses, hop trefoil, black medick, birds foot trefoil and thistle. This damages the area’s business prospects, for it implies no one cares! And that’s why Bradford, in terms of inner city Common Blue sites, has easily got the drop on Leeds because the city has been all but abandoned by business and is reaching the point of no return. Ever a frontier city, it is now ripe for “wilding”.
The Leeds / Castleford railway line running parallel with Water Lane marks the site’s western boundary. One 100 yards or so up the track, it adjoins the Leeds /Manchester, Leeds / London line before presently terminating in Leeds railway station. We know for a fact the ballast where the lines meet is covered in trefoil. The Common Blue has to be here. And that would mean the Leeds Blues are one canny step closer to a main rail terminal than even the Bradford Blues. If further Common Blue sites come to light in, or near, Leeds city centre, I think we can safely say that latterly railways have played a more decisive role in propagating the butterfly here than in Bradford. I say “latterly” because twenty years ago the Common Blue did fly in the sidings of Forster Square railway station before the construction of Forster Square Retail Park put paid to it.The ancestral colony had to be the one in Shipley Station. We will never know if a few individuals were able to cling on, particularly in the Boars Well. But what is certain is that the present spread of blue friendly trefoils owes little to Bradford's rail network.
Above: If you look closely there is a Common Blue here!
In fact, sad to say, it is cars, lorries and vans that have significantly facilitated the scattering of the Lotus Pedunculatus or greater bird foot trefoil seed. I had suddenly become aware of the increasing presence of this trefoil growing on road side verges, the flowers and leaves covered in dust; they were that close to the wheels of passing vehicles. I even took a closer look at the ripe trefoil seed pods splayed out like a hen’s claw over the tarmac. Noticing the number of coiled, empty seed pods on the road I swiftly realized that the seeds were being ejected into the road where some would become lodged in tyre treads. Tensioned like a coiled spring, when popped the seed pods are able to hurl the seed a metre or more.
Seeing the plant is equipped with this explosive mechanism, seeds from trefoil growing higher up the verges could still end up on the road, if given that extra lift provided by the draught from passing vehicles. And the traffic did thunder past on these expressways, ring roads and motorway feeder routes. Hence the unanticipated pleasure of finding trefoil growing within an ace of the Bradford Leisure Exchange, Frankie and Benny’s, the Hollywood Bowl and Casino.These pasteboard pastiches are symptomatic of Bradford’s pathological bid to paper over all memory of its past industrial trauma. Hence the ceaseless striving to turn the city into an amnesiac, post industrial, leisure park.Though the unsolvable economic crises has shattered this threadbare vision for all time, it still lingers on in this most unthinkable and unworkable of cities that has yet to wake up to the fact it is rapidly losing its reason for being. And yet deep down every one of its inhabitants senses it is a city on the brink of an abyss, one ripe for chaos or total reinvention. The threat of terrorism aside, it is the reason why anything remotely out of place has the capacity to generate paranoiac reactions that verge on lunacy. We have been taken to one side by security staff who have demanded, in a voice shaking with panic, that we provide them with the names of the seeds we were planting. “Seeds of Doom” we would reply. I have even been tempted to say “you’ve heard of Jack and the Beanstalk. Well, these are beanstalk seeds”. I stopped short, however - for fear of being believed so endemic is the disconnect from reality, especially by security staff!
The simple fact is the greater birds foot trefoil in Bradford’s leisure heartland is out of place, for everything else has been put there by design, even though the grandest design of all, and grandest act of hubris that has earned it the unforgettable title Best Among Ruins resembles a crater left by a meteor that, by chance, just happened to devastate the center of Bradford. In the hope the Common Blue might even take up residence, we intend to actively encourage this stranger within its midst by sowing yet more seed. If noticed – as no doubt we will - it will be interesting to establish if authority, in the meantime, has gained a much needed sense of proportion.
The greater birds foot trefoil that has started to appear along the Shipley / Airedale road and spread to waste ground and side streets, unquestionably originated in the Boars Well Nature Reserve. We think, to begin with, the seeds were spread by birds and small mammals, because the principal area of this sun loving plant outside the reserve was beneath trees. It rather suggests the seeds had initially passed through the gut of roosting songbirds. The plant then went on to colonize sunnier spots closer to the roadway, where the task of dispersal was taken over by the wheels of motor vehicles.
We also believe the Boars Well trefoil is an introduced species and morphologically a shade different for our native greater birds foot trefoil, The leaves, for instance, are less pointed and diamond shaped. Also the latter likes damp grassy places, streams, ditch sides, marshes etc., whereas the former thrives on dry, even densely grassed over soils. If it was unable to do this, it would never have spread along the arid, dusty verges of Bradford’s inner city roadways - and, to our delight, taking the Common Blue with it.
Finally we need to offer some kind of an explanation for the rapid spread, in urban areas especially, of the larger hop trefoils, namely trifolium campestre and the longer stalked aureum. These, we think, have become naturalized because, on the one hand, gardeners increasingly prefer to plant packets of “green manure” (which makes them feel cleaner) than resort to the less ecologically sound practice of digging in manufactured fertilizers. And on the other, because councils, highways agencies, landscaping firms etc have come under pressures to liven up time-honored grass monocultures with low-cost, wild flower seed mixes. The clovers, hop trefoils etc. then rapidly ‘go native’ and start popping up everywhere, hopefully accompanied in due course by the Common Blue. I do find it of some significance that once I step outside the perimeter of towns and cities and into the countryside ‘proper’, the ground tends to become quickly denuded of these typical mixes and altogether much less exciting.
Followed by more urban speculation……
BATLEY BELOW (Almost certainly recently colonised Common Blue sites)
HUDDERSFIELD BELOW (Again Milnsbridge is a likely Common Blue site)