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Sleddale by Ted Parker


Sleddale lies within the North York Moors National Park and is on the extreme southern boundary of Cleveland. Part of it lies in North Yorkshire and, even for those familiar with the area, it is often difficult to determine on which side of the boundary a bird you have seen has occurred! I have been visiting this area for over 40 years and never tire of the place, as it is so peaceful and, to my mind, the most beautiful part of Cleveland. The mood and atmosphere change dramatically with the weather and this adds immeasurably to any visit.

Sleddale consists of an upland Heather moor plateau, which is dissected by a relatively wide valley, through which Sleddale Beck runs, first southwards and then in a southeasterly direction into the Esk Valley. Sleddale Farm lies near the head of the valley on the Cleveland side and must surely be the one of the remotest farmsteads in our area. Guisborough Forest provides an attractive backcloth to the north, while on the North Yorkshire side to the west, there are sweeping, panoramic views of the forested Cleveland Hills towards Kildale, Baysdale and the Pennines beyond. The upper valley around the farm has been reclaimed from the moor and is now used for sheep pasture, which enhances habitat diversity and provides feeding areas for species that otherwise would not occur, such as Fieldfare and Redwing. There are some patches of Gorse and Bracken and the area is criss-crossd by old drystone walls, so typical of the North York Moors. Isolated Scots Pine and Rowan trees are dotted sparsely across the valley sides and these provide ideal vantage points for raptors, such as Peregrine, Kestrel, Common Buzzard and Rough-legged Buzzard.


SLEDDALE FARM FROM PERCY CROSS RIGG: With Guisborough Forest in the background. (Don Page)


Access to Sleddale is via two main routes. If approaching from the west, drive around Great Ayton on the A173 (Guisborough Road) and bear immediately left after the bridge over the River Leven on to Easby Lane. Follow this road for several kilometres until you reach a T-junction, signposted Easby and Kildale. Turn left here and follow the road through Easby and Kildale village, then past the cricket ground on the right and, after crossing over the Esk Valley railway line, turn left at the first crossroads onto Percy Cross Rigg (the right turn is signposted to Westerdale). This narrow road takes you up on to the highest parts of the rigg, from which there are expansive views over Sleddale. Make sure you park off the road as it is regularly used by other vehicles.

OS Map of Sleddale area. The area surrounded by the purple line is the area normally watched

If approaching from the A171 Whitby moor road, drive around Guisborough on the Guisborough Bypass and, on reaching the end of this, go straight on at the roundabout, signposted to Whitby and then past Charltons village. Climb up on the A171 to the high moor at Birk Brow and continue along this road for about a kilometre or so, down a dip (with Lockwood Beck Reservoir on your right) and, after this, take the first road on the right, signposted to Castleton and Hutton-le-Hole.


Continue along this road for a about 1.5 km until you come to a right turn, marked by a concrete-style bus stop. Follow this road down a steep bank, through Commondale village and keep going until you reach the Westerdale crossroads referred to above and turn right here on to Percy Cross Rigg. In my experience, the best vantage points are:

   - near the top of the first bank, after the cattle grid, looking back (southeast) down Sleddale towards the Commondale road;

   - on the highest parts of the rigg, where there are two or three pull-ins (arrowed), which give views over Sleddale Farm and Guisborough Forest, and

   - just after the Iron Age hut circles (marked by a timber knee rail fence).

Away from the rigg, another very good place to watch from is on the Commondale road, from the sharp right-hand bend, marked by a metal chevrons traffic sign (arrowed on the map).


AERIAL VIEW OF SLEDDALE SHOWING THE MAIN VANTAGE POINTS: The yellow line is the road up to Percy Cross Rigg; the purple line is the Kildale to Commondale road; and the blue line shows the Cleveland/North Yorkshire boundary. Sleddale Farm can be seen near the top centre of the photograph and the dark line running across the bottom is the Middlesbrough to Whitby Esk Valley railway.


Although a beautiful place, the birding at Sleddale can be either ‘feast’ or ‘famine’ and sometimes a watch of several hours or more produces nothing more than a Kestrel and a few corvids, if you are lucky! However, at other times it turns up trumps and the birding can be very good.

Sleddale is particularly noted for its raptors and is undoubtedly one of the best places in Cleveland to see them, though you will have to put in some hours to build up a decent list. In recent years, they have included Osprey, Marsh and Hen Harriers, Common and Rough-legged Buzzards, Goshawk, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, Merlin, Kestrel and Red Kite. A Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture even graced its skies for two days in March 2007: sadly, this was an escaped bird but was, nevertheless, an impressive sight in the early morning sun, as it was mobbed by a small flock of Lapwings over the moor near Guisborough Forest. Sleddale provides the best chance of seeing Rough-legged Buzzard in Cleveland. This is a very scarce species in our area and is not annual, so it is amazing how over the years, birds have regularly picked out this valley, particularly as most are juveniles making their first migratory trips. The longest-ever staying individual was still present here in mid-March 2008, after first being seen in early January the same year and, unlike others, it was relatively easy to see, favouring the eastern end of the valley near the Commondale road. The combination of open moorland, with scattered Scots Pine and Rowan trees, boulder-strewn areas, grazed upland pasture and large expanses of coniferous and mixed woodland probably mirrors its habitat in Scandinavia, from where our birds almost certainly originate. Common Buzzards are best looked for over Guisborough Forest or the well-wooded slopes of the adjacent Esk Valley and in late 2007 up to 6 were present in the air on one occasion. Perhaps the best time to see birds of prey is from mid-February onwards, when they are more active as they begin their territorial displays, which, in the case of Goshawk, Peregrine and Common Buzzard, can be dramatic. My strategy is to choose a relatively sunny, clear day with a stiff breeze blowing from the west or southwest, which pushes air currents off the Cleveland side of the valley. Scan the skyline and forest areas continually and make sure you have your telescope set up and ready to use. The birds are easier to locate when above the horizon but are not always on view for long and vigilance is a pre-requisite for success here.

During the spring and autumn, Sleddale acts as a flyway between the inland moors and the coast, as witnessed by movements of Skylarks, Pied Wagtails, Siskins, Meadow Pipits and occasional Snow Buntings. Birds of prey, such as Osprey, Sparrowhawk and Marsh Harrier occasionally pass through. As you drive up the rigg, keep your eyes open on both sides of the road for Stonechats, which almost certainly breed here. Red Grouse are relatively common and often give close range views. Small birds occasionally commute between the forest areas and if you park by the Iron Age hut circles, it is sometimes possible to see Common Crossbills and Siskins flying across the open moor between Guisborough Forest and the Larch plantations of the Esk Valley

Great Spotted Woodpeckers sometimes do the same and are a rather unusual sight as they fly low over the bleak, treeless moorland. A small, residual belt of Larch trees from the now felled Lonsdale Plantation often holds Siskins and, in the late autumn of 2007, over 150 were present, accompanied by 2 Mealy Redpolls. A Ring Ouzel was also seen here last November.

Like Rough-legged Buzzard, Sleddale has traditionally been one of the few sites in Cleveland where Ravens have been seen. This species is rare in Cleveland, with few long-standing birders having encountered one in our area until 2006, when one was seen in late February and up to three were present in early April. This bird, so typical of uplands elsewhere in Britain, should become more regular due to a population explosion outwards from their current breeding areas, though whether it will survive in an area where traditional game-keeping is still rife remains to be seen.

Breeding species are confined to typical upland species, such as Red Grouse, Lapwing, Curlew, Golden Plover, Snipe, Kestrel, Meadow Pipit and Stonechat. Pied Wagtails almost certainly breed in the drystone walls and Dunnocks, Linnets and Wrens nest in the isolated Gorse clumps and patches of Bracken. Song Thrush breeds in the vegetation around the farms and Ring Ouzel used to breed but sadly no longer do so in Cleveland. In the winter, the pasture and stubble fields around Sleddale and along the Kildale to Commondale road often hold large numbers of thrushes and, in late 2007, a flock of over 500 Fieldfares fed on the fields near Percy Rigg Farm, along with smaller numbers of Redwing and Blackbird.

I would strongly recommend a visit to this beautiful site. Be patient, be vigilant and be prepared to put in some hours and you will eventually see most of the special birds that Sleddale has to offer.


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