The Wensleydale project area covers the upper Ure catchment – an area of 506km2 encompassing the main tributaries of the Ure including Wensleydale, Coverdale and Bishopdale.
Geology and Soils
The Ice Age impacted on Wensleydale by carving out the u-shaped valleys, creating significant glacial and post glacial landforms and features including: drumlins, moraines and the post-glacial lake of Semerwater.
Five hundred metres below the surface of Wensleydale is a bed of 400 million year old granite known as Wensleydale granite. On top of this the Great Scar limestone was deposited 350 million years ago, which was then topped by the Yoredales – a series of limestone, shale and sandstone layers.
Wensleydale’s soils closely reflect its underlying geology and range from the rich, fertile loam and clay river alluvium, with coarse loam and sand over gravel along the valley floors, to the fine loam and clayey upland soils with a very acidic peaty surface.
Species and Habitat
The river Ure and its tributaries are home to salmon, brown trout, river lamprey and white-clawed crayfish. The dale bottoms have a mosaic of lowland and upland hay meadows, calcareous grassland, wetlands and native woodland between more improved grazing. This is where the rare species Burnt orchid, Dormouse and Northern Brown Argus butterfly can also be found. The dalesides are important for moorland fringe habitats which support an assemblage of wading bird species as well as isolated areas of calaminarian grassland on lead mining spoil and wooded gills, providing important shelter for black grouse. The fells consist of upland heathland, blanket bog, acidic flush habitats and occasional mature conifer plantations which are home to red squirrels.
The Wensleydale catchment has extensive areas within North Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation (SAC) & Special Protection Area (SPA), three North Pennine Dales Meadows SAC sites, Ox Close SAC as well as 9 other SSSIs. Nevertheless more than half of the nationally important priority habitats in the catchment are outside these protected sites.
Wensleydale has been shaped by the interaction of people with nature since the pre-historic Mesolithic period - with Semerwater an important focus for hunting activity during that era. Bronze Age farmers, Roman settlers and Viking invaders have all left their mark on the landscape in the form of intricate field patterns, terracing and fortifications. The post medieval period saw livestock and dairy farming becoming more dominant and this gathered pace into the 17th and 18th centuries, when the farming landscape became dominated by small meadows and isolated field barns, recognised as a special quality of the National Park today.
The same period saw an industrial transformation with the development of lead mining complexes, woollen mills and the Wensleydale Railway.
This has left behind an archaeological heritage with twenty nine scheduled monuments in the upper Ure catchment and some of the highest densities of traditional field barns in the National Park.
The river and its tributaries
The source of the River Ure is Lunds Fell on the border with Cumbria, 305 metres above sea level. From here it drops 215 metres in height over 26 miles where it reaches Kilgram Bridge; about a third of this fall comes in the 3 miles between Redmire and Aysgarth with a series of picturesque waterfalls.
On average the catchment receives in excess of 130 cm of rainfall per month and the river level rises and falls rapidly in response.
Recreation and Tourism
People are attracted to the Yorkshire Dales by its natural beauty and stunning landscapes. They love its sense of freedom, open space and the tranquillity they find here. Visitor numbers are increasing year on year with just over 4.5 million visitors days recorded across the whole of the National Park in 2013. Tourism contributes approx. £210 million a year to the local economy.
There are extensive opportunities for visitors in Wensleydale from fell walking, cycling, wildlife viewing (including the elusive red squirrel), wild swimming, sailing and fishing to market towns, museums and local interest visitor centres like Gayle Mill and the Wensleydale Creamery. The lower part of the dale also has the added attraction of castles, grottos and abbeys.
The catchment mainly supports upland agriculture. Hill sheep and beef farms dominate, though the area has a long history of association with dairy farming, which continues today with the success of the Hawes creamery and production of Wensleydale cheese.
The catchment contains a range of managed woodland types, from Hazel coppice in Freeholders Wood at Aysgarth to Sitka Spruce plantations in Raydale and Widdale.
On the fells towards the edges of the catchment there is active moorland management