Humberhead Levels

Extending from Escrick, a few miles south of York down to just north of Retford in Nottinghamshire, and some 30 miles wide, the Humberhead Levels cover a large expanse of flat, low lying land situated either side of the head of the Humber estuary.

Geological research has shown that during the last ice age, the whole of this area would have been the site of large glacial lake (often termed Glacial Lake Humber) and as the glaciers retreated, the lake silted up creating a vast landscape of swamp and bog mire. Over the intervening centuries these lands have been systematically drained and reclaimed for agriculture, peat extraction and of course housing, with only a few remnants of the former marsh lands - the wetter areas of Skipwith Common, near Selby being a prime example. Although intensively farmed in many areas the Humberhead Levels today retain a sense of wide open spaces, characterised by field systems criss crossed by drainage dykes and shaped by several major rivers that flow slowly across the flat land before emptying into the Humber. In addition and to the benefit of the wildlife there are several nature reserves and large scale conservation projects across the area all aimed at preserving or restoring the levels.

Main Habitats & Top Wildlife Sites (map top right)

Lowland raised bog - Covering an area of just under 3,000 Hectares and collectively known as the Humberhead Peatlands, the moors of Thorne, Crowle, Hatfield and Goole, represent the largest area of lowland raised bog in England and after years of drainage and commercial peat extraction the once flat milling fields have now been largely restored and are now managed as a National Nature Reserve (NNR) by Natural England. The twin sites of Hatfield and Thorne Moors are especially good for insects with over 4,000 species recorded including Mire Beetle, Pin Palp Beetle and Hairy Canary Fly, and also support a diverse array of other flora and fauna. Cotton Grass is the dominant plant with other species including Ling & Crossed Leaved Heather and Bog Rosemary. Over 200 species of birds include nationally important numbers of breeding Nightjar, a small population of Common Cranes and wintering Hen Harriers and Short Eared Owls.

Lowland Heath - The only remaining heathlands of any size are on Thorne & Hatffield Moors and Skipwith Common with smaller areas at Southfield Common (near Market Weighton). Skipwith Common represents one of the largest remaining 'wet heaths' in northern England and supports a wide range of plant species including Marsh Cinquefoil, Bog Pimpernel and Marsh Pennywort, and is also known for its insect species including rare moths such as Scarce Vapourer and Silky Wainscott. Reptile species Common Lizard and Adders are especially numerous on Hatfield Moor and Thorne Moors, where specialist heath birds such as Hobby, Tree Pipit and Whinchat all breed in good numbers.

Wetlands - The Humberhead Levels are a naturally wet area with several river systems all meeting here before they empty into the Humber - from the north (Ouse & Derwent), the west (Aire & Went) and the south (Trent, Don, Idle & Torne) all of which have associated floodplains. There are also several canal systems including the Selby, Pocklington, Aire & Calder, and Keadby canals, and together with a network of drainage ditches and dykes these water courses all provide valuable habitats for a wide range of plant and animal life including Water Vole, Otters, virtually all of the dragonfly species that occur in the north of England, and bird species such as Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit. Notable nature reserves include Potteric Carr, the Lower Derwent Valley and Blacktoft Sands.