Smestow Valley Bird Group - History in the making

Smestow Valley Bird Group
by Angus Dickie

A small group of Wolverhampton birdwatchers living near Valley Park, as it was then known, became increasingly concerned in the 1980's about possible threats to it's wildlife and to it's immediate surroundings from industrial pollution, commercial and residential development and habitat erosion. 

The green area between Oxley and Wightwick was already known to conservationists across the UK thanks to the ground-breaking treatise "The Endless Village", which in the 1970's had used it as an example of how a linear park could survive and flourish within a conurbation (the study led to the formation of the first Urban Wildlife Group and helped create the other "green corridor" nature reserves up and down the country). 

But a decade later, it was clear that few people in Wolverhampton, even those living alongside the four-kilometre site, knew of the park's existence. It was also clear that the importance of the valley's wildlife, and in particular it's resident and visiting bird populations, had not been fully appreciated by those charged with protecting and promoting it.

So, determined to improve the situation, birdwatchers decided in 1988 to form their own pressure group. Their aims were stated in simple terms on the group's first promotional leaflet: "To protect and publicise the bird-life of Valley Park and neighbouring areas, and to actively campaign on behalf of the valley by opposing any threat to it's wildlife and by supporting all moves to safeguard at's flora and fauna"

progress was slow, but a fledgling Valley Park Bird Group was able to help defeat potentially disastrous plans to turn Dunstall Park racecourse into a shopping and leisure complex. At the same time it was establishing a relationship with the then Wolverhampton Borough Council, which was responsible for the linear park's upkeep.

The publication of the group's first annual bird report in 1989 told other West Midland birders and the wider public of it's existence (in the early 1990's the report was on sale at, among other outlets, Stars News shops and the Beatties department store, and copies have been sent annually to the British Trust for Ornithology, the West Midlands Bird Club, to the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, and to Wolverhampton Council's archives section).

Resources were limited, but the group was able to arrange site visits and hold slide shows for it's members, and man it's own promotional stall at RSPB film shows, regional bird fairs and at council-run green festivals at West Park and elsewhere. It helped run council narrowboat wildlife trips for the public along the Staffs & Worcs canal, and in May 1990, organised, publicised and ran a hugely successful Smestow Valley open day from the old Tettenhall railway station.

Major concerns

By the early 1990's pressure was increasing on the wider valley. Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club wanted to build a training complex at Compton Park, and the bird group demanded that an environmental impact study should be part of the plan. The scheme was eventually passed, but only after a delay of some months on the orders of the then Department of the Environment so that the study should be carried out.

At the northern end of the valley, the group helped block some of the more damaging aspects of the Aldersley Leisure Village project, but there were major concerns that plans to turn nearby Dunstall Park into an all-weather track could damage its status as one of Wolverhampton's most important wildlife sanctuaries. The group approached the new owners, and was granted restricted access to what had already become a strictly commercial site, closed to public access. The resulting close relationship has meant the racecourse continues to support and encourage nature conservation on it's land.

Development of the council-run sections of the linear park, meanwhile, had continued in fits and starts, but group members sitting in on the site's official advisory group plugged away, with two major objectives: to press for the creation of the post of a countryside management officer who would oversee nature conservation for the whole of Wolverhampton, and to establish the valley as the council's first officially designated Local Nature Reserve. To underline it's intentions, the group changed it's name to the Smestow Valley Bird Group. In July 1998, it celebrated as a plaque was unveiled at the old station announcing the valley's LNR status.

The countryside management post was eventually created and filled in 2004, but campaigners' hopes that this would mark the start of a new and productive era for the valley were shortlived. Management plans for the nature reserve were not implemented, the advisory group went into limbo, and important wildlife initiatives, like the reedbed created alongside the Smestow Brook, North of Compton were allowed to wither and die. Council staff with specialist wildlife and conservation knowledge left and were not replaced (the post of countryside management officer disappeared), and by the start of this decade, cutbacks in staffing and funding for all of Wolverhampton's green spaces meant that work on the Smestow Valley reserve was restricted to basic maintenance.

Instant information

The bird group too was facing an uncertain future. It had fought vigorously but in vain in 2011 to defeat redevelopment plans for Compton Park, plans which meant the extension of the Wolves training complex and the sacrifice of neighbouring Green Belt land for an estate of luxury homes. 

The group's membership was declining, and it was finding it more and more difficult to maintain standards and delivery times for annual reports and periodic bulletins. It was only too ware that birdwatching groups across the UK had for some time been using information technology to give their members instant information on local, regional and national sightings and statistics.

It was therefore decided, reluctantly, in 2012 to wind down the group's operations and give it's support to the newly created internet blog site: "Smestow Valley Birding".

The Smestow Valley Bird Group is now part of the past, but birdwatchers are at present still members of the now revived Smestow Valley advisory body, and will in the future continue to campaign to protect wildlife inhabiting the nature reserve and it's immediate surroundings. Their task will not be easy. An effective and sustainable LNR management plan has yet to be implemented, resources for nature conservation have to be increased, and sensitive wildlife areas within the reserve and elsewhere must be protected against the ever-increasing and damaging effects of human incursion.

But those who, a quarter of a century ago, created one of Wolverhampton's most vociferous and effective conservation pressure groups are sure of one thing: Birdwatchers will carry on their work to protect the jewel, that is Smestow Valley LNR.

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