CHRIS TITLEY takes a tour of York's newest nature reserve before it hosts a big party.

BEHIND a noisy road, across the way from a myriad of busy streets, the cattle sit and chew. They look as contentedly bored as any cows you might find on an Alpine slope or in an Antipodean valley.

The rumble of a 40-ton lorry or the buzz of a helicopter elicits nothing more than the languid flick of an ear. City living suits this bovine bunch. But then, they're feasting on some of the best cud for miles. For this is Hob Moor, where the pasture is all the better for being unimproved.

The humans seem to like the place too. "It's life-enhancing," says Elizabeth Smith, chair of the Friends of Hob Moor. "It's a wonderful open space. On Hob Moor you can feel quite remote from the urban environment. Here you can get away from the stress of everyday life as well as observe nature and the seasons."

Considering it is a wide open 90 acres, Hob Moor is surprisingly easy to miss. Drivers trundling down the nearby Tadcaster Road may not know it exists.

They are bypassing a treat. At the moment, a mass of buttercups have laid a sunshine carpet across the moor. Clusters of bluebells sway in the breeze, and here and there you spot dark pink dots of vetch.

Listen carefully, and you might hear the uplifting song of the skylark. The meadow pipit also breeds here.

Hob Moor is one of two ancient commons in York, Knavesmire being the other. Because the land hasn't been "improved" with fertiliser (other than that which the cows provide), the grassland grows naturally. York's medieval farmers who used to plough a furrow here would still recognise it.

As a result Hob Moor's flora and fauna is diverse. A member of the Friends group counted 286 different species of plant on and around it. So Hob Moor, which can be accessed at several points including behind Edmund Wilson swimming pool, was in all senses a natural candidate to be named York's second Local Nature Reserve by English Nature. It received this status at Easter, a year after Clifton Backies became the first.

Robbie Fisher, of English Nature, explained that Local Nature Reserves across the country are funded by a Government initiative called Wildspace! Reserves are given a legal status and a management plan, and there is a brief to both protect the wildlife and to encourage local people to become involved.

"It's very positive," said Robbie. "It's a great step forward for York, both environmentally and for the community."

Wildspace! also brought Stephen Whittaker to York seven weeks ago. His job as the city's first Local Nature Reserve officer is funded by the scheme.

The York University graduate and former teacher from Warrington was keen to break out of school into the great outdoors. "The classroom's too sterile. Teaching kids about the local and national environment by showing them videos is all you can do, but it's far better to get them involved, to experience it for themselves."

One of his jobs is to make more educational use of the existing nature reserves. He will also work to create a third at St Nicholas Fields, the urban park developed on a former council landfill site in Tang Hall.

Stephen's appointment, and the Local Nature Reserve designation, have delighted the Friends of Hob Moor. Chair Elizabeth Smith said the five-year management plan now in place for the site will take on the conservation and promotional work of the Friends, set up in 1999.

"We need to protect the wildlife that's here for the sake of the wildlife and for our own sakes," she said.

The Friends will be among those celebrating Hob Moor's new status as a Local Nature Reserve at a free party there in a week's time. The event, which runs from 1.30-4.30pm next Saturday, will boast country craft stalls, a folklore storyteller and a fun dog show. Jugglers and a drum workshop will provide more entertainment, and there will be four guided walks, focusing on the birds, wild flowers, history and management of Hob Moor.

Everyone is welcome, but please leave your car at home.

Fact file:

Hob Moor

Declared Local Nature Reserve in April 2003

Area: 90 acres

Wildlife: meadow pipits, skylarks, yellow wagtails, buttercups, harebells, English elm, hazel

Clifton Backies

Declared Local Nature Reserve in May 2002

Area: 60 acres

Wildlife: long-eared owls, hay meadow, great burnet, knapweed, crested dog's hat, hawthorn thicket

St Nicholas Fields

Yet to be designated a Local Nature Reserve

Area: 24 acres

Wildlife: kingfishers, blue tits, tawny owls, dragonflies, apple and pear trees

For more information or to attend events and organise bookings call Stephen Whittaker on 07771 941155. Also call him if you have some free time and would like to get involved in Local Nature Reserves conservation.

Updated: 09:34 Saturday, May 10, 2003