Ribble, a local and natural history

PUBLISHED: 14:13 17 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:25 20 February 2013

The Hodder, the Ribble's most beautiful tributary, in winter

The Hodder, the Ribble's most beautiful tributary, in winter

Lancashire naturalist Malcolm Greenhalgh introduces his newly-published classic guide to one of this county's defining features – the mighty River Ribble

The River Ribble and its tributaries have been an important part of my life for well over 40 years. I was 12 when I first walked its estuary saltmarshes with my binoculars in winter to watch the huge flocks of waders and wildfowl.

Later, I spent several years researching the estuary wildlife, earning my Ph.D. and the Zoological Society of Londons Prince Philip Prize for Zoology, and writing many scientific articles and my first book, Wildfowl of the Ribble Estuary.

Just as the Ribble has a remarkable wildlife estuary, so its source and its tributaries are equally important. The Ribble itself rises in what is probably the finest limestone scenery in the British Isles, its source dominated by the three great peaks of the Yorkshire Dales: Ingleborough, Penyghent and Whernside. For almost five years I was fortunate enough to help run a field centre and lead biology and geography courses in the dales and fells around the Ribble headwaters.

For the last 22 years I have been a freelance researcher and writer, and the Ribble Valley downstream of Settle and the River Hodder - the Ribbles most beautiful tributary - which flows from the north, having drained the Forest of Bowland, have been my open-air laboratory. In the last decade this laboratory has been extended to include the tributaries which flow from industrial Lancashire into the Ribble: the Calder, a once polluted sewer, which flows through Burnley; the Darwen, which rises on wild moors before meandering around the back of Blackburn Rovers football ground; and the Douglas, which flows from the aptly named Winter Hill before losing most of its water in reservoirs and collecting pollutants in Wigan town centre.

The Ribble system is unique among British rivers in that it forms the boundary line between what is still largely an idyllic rural scene to the north and the grime and urban sprawl of old industrialised Lancashire to the south. What we see today - the rivers and streams, countryside around them, and the wildlife that live here - is thus largely a consequence of history and prehistory. Man and nature together have moulded the primeval countryside which was forged by the last Ice Age. Here, history and natural history are inextricably linked.

There is no doubt that the Hodder valley is one of the most beautiful in England. That is not only my opinion. It is rumoured that the Queen has intimated that she would retire here if she could! The Craven hills where the Ribble rises from one of the finest pieces of limestone scenery in Britain, while the valley down to the tide is a scene of green tranquillity, with lovely woodlands and lush pastures. Even the urban tributaries rise on fine areas of moorland and, having escaped town, pass once more through splendid countryside.

Much of the coast around the estuary has been developed, but we have the most magnificent saltmarshes in Europe, while the sand dunes that still exist between Southport and Liverpool are quite splendid. An integral part of our coast is the extensive flat mosslands that were once a marshy, wet wilderness. Yet millions of people live within easy reach and every dry day of the year thousands of feet set out to tramp the country. People want to live here, and every year a little more countryside is converted into estates of executive homes. People want clean water for drinking, watering their lawns and washing their cars. Every year a little more water is abstracted from the Ribble and its tributaries.

For the past 50 years the British government, now backed by the European Union, has urged farmers to increase their productivity and has subsidised the draining of wet fields, the turning of wildflower meadows into grass monocultures and the grubbing up of hedgerows. There is a conflict: we want the wilderness, but we want the wilderness trained. That conflict is sure to grow, for people and votes will always come before wilderness and wildlife.

My book is a record of what was at the start of the third millennium, and of how it came to be here. It is a personal view and based largely on personal observations made as I walked and waded here. I can only urge future generations to be heedful of the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Malcolm Greenhalgh is a passionate Lancastrian. He was born in Bolton and raised in Kirkham and Preston. After studying biology at Lancaster University, he lectured until he was 40.

For the last 20 years he has been a freelance writer, specialising in wildlife issues and he has had more than a dozen books published. They have covered a wide range of topics including the life cycle of the salmon, a distinguished guide to freshwater life in northern Europe and a book charting a gastronomic tour of Lancashire.

His latest, viewed as a potential classic, draws upon his considerable knowledge of geology, history and wildlife. It reveals how the Ribble system has developed and tells the story of the communities that grew up around it. Its illustrated with striking photography, much of it by the author.

Ribble, a local and natural history, is published by Carnegie Publishing, of Lancaster. Tel: 01524 840111. Price 17.99

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