IN a patch of woodland at Clifton Backies, a group of children are running wild. They have made a makeshift shelter out of a scrap of camouflage netting and a groundsheet, and now they are determined to have fun.

They have already completed an assault course relay through the trees, learned how to climb through a giant spider’s web (not, thankfully, a real one) and taken part in a series of environmental challenges.

Now they are playing a variation of blind man’s buff. Two teams have each nominated one member to be blindfolded. Other team members then shout instructions to help them find hidden ‘treasure’.

“Keep on going!” squeals a little girl. “Down! Down!” shouts another member of the team. The boy wearing the blindfold squats and scrabbles around with his hands, before finding the wrapped prize. “Yes! Well done!” his team-mates shout, leaping with excitement.

Afterwards, games over, they cluster around to say what they have enjoyed most about the morning. “The relay,” says nine-year-old Stephanie Lamb. “And I like being in the woods. It’s adventurous.”

“I liked all of it,” adds ten-year-old Katie Thackeray. “And I like being in the woods too, because there is lots of nature, and room to play.”

It is great to see children running about and getting their hands and knees dirty in the woods. This Running Wild morning for children aged eight to 13 is one of a series that have been held by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and City of York Council at nature reserves and green spaces across York this summer.

The aim of this one was to get children running around in the fresh air, says Stephen Whittaker, senior park ranger with the city council’s parks and open spaces team. Others have been more focused.

“There’s been a lot of survival stuff – making shelters, gathering wood, making fires.” All the things children used to do 30 years ago, but never seem to get the chance to these days.

Stephen used to love doing such things when he was a little boy. “I’ve always loved being outdoors,” the 33-year-old says.

“Making shelters, sleeping under the trees, all that sort of stuff. So I see myself in these kids.” His own son, Jacob, almost two, looks as though he may well follow in his father’s footsteps, he adds.

“He’s always outside. He’s not scared of beetles and things.”

It has been a busy summer for Stephen and his three park ranger colleagues. They have been involved in a series of summer events – Running Wild activities such as this one organised with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust; organising five major summer fairs at parks across the city; leading family activities such as ‘food for free’ walks and school holiday activities such as nature hunts.

Whether it is teaching children about the habitats of newts and squirrels, or leading adults on foraging expeditions for edible hawthorn berries and other ‘free foods’, everything they do has one thing in common.

“It’s all about bringing people, wildlife and local green spaces together,” says Stephen.

Clifton Backies is one of four local nature reserves in York – and the city’s first. It was designated back in 2002, when Stephen first joined the city council – and it’s clearly still a favourite of his.

Running Wild session over, he takes me on a tour of the reserve. The remains of a Second World War runway lie beneath part of it. In one dense patch of hawthorn scrub are the remains of odd, brick structures. Stephen pushes through the undergrowth to stand in one.

“They’re old blast shelters,” he says. “For sheltering in when bombs hit the ground.” He weaves through the dense hawthorn scrub to a clearing in the woods. “This is one of the main areas where we bring kids, because it’s more open. We do quite a lot of thinning out, to let light onto the ground and encourage more ground cover.”

Out of the woods, we visit an oddly undulating hay meadow. “It’s an old ridge and furrow meadow,” Stephen says, explaining the long, just noticeable parallel ridges hidden beneath the grass and wildflowers. These patterns were left by medieval ploughmen – and they have survived because this field, and another like it at the other end of the Backies, has never been ploughed using modern methods. It has simply been grazed for hundreds of years.

The Backies is one of those wonderful urban nature reserves that York does so well – think Acomb Wood, or St Nicholas Fields, or Hob Moor. It may have been a busy airfield as recently as 65 years ago, but nature has returned full force. There is a wealth of wildlife here – wildflowers such as dog’s tail, knapweed, red clover and great burnet; waterside plants such as watercress and forget-me-not; animals such as water voles, foxes and field mice; and birds including warblers, blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings and kingfishers.

The reserve is at the southern end of Bootham Stray, and is surrounded on three sides by housing, at Burton Green, Water Lane and Woodland Chase. Being so close to built up areas, it has naturally long been used by locals – since well before it became a nature reserve.

Stephen would be the first to admit that it used to have problems – local kids lighting fires, or using the woods for off-road motorbiking. “They were not going to stop that just because we stuck a label on it and said ‘this is a nature reserve’, he says.

Instead, efforts have focused on changing perceptions of Clifton Backies – encouraging people to visit and see this as their nature reserve.

“We do work with schools, we set up the friends of Clifton Backies, we bring groups here to do all sorts of jobs, such as coppicing, maintaining woodland paths, clearing,” Stephen says.

In one project, volunteers with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers chopped back some of the hawthorn scrub along Bur Dike to encourage the return of water voles. “They like long grass. There was so much self-seeded hawthorn and blackthorn covering the ground we didn’t have much grass.”

There is even a clearing with two beautiful metal seats by steel artist Jim Roberts, with giant oak-leaf backrests and armrests with a jumping frog and a caterpillar. The clearing, with its seats, makes a natural meeting place – and can also be used for fires.

“If people are going to have a fire, we’d rather they have it here,” Stephen says.

All this is right on your doorstep, if you’re lucky enough to live in Clifton. But there are other urban nature reserves in Tang Hall, Acomb and Dringhouses – see panel.

So why not pay them a visit? And if you happen to bump into a large, softly spoken man with long hair tied back in a ponytail, that will be Stephen Whittaker doing the part of his job he likes best – patrolling the reserves he loves, looking for ideas for his next wild food forage or nature hunt.

Perfect job for a man who always wanted to work in the great outdoors

STEPHEN Whittaker always knew he wanted to work outdoors. He grew up in Warrington, and as a boy liked nothing better than making dens and sleeping out under the stars.

So it seemed natural to study environmental science at university. The only question was where.

He’d met his girlfriend, Jennifer Halliwell – now his wife – while in the sixth form, and they decided that wherever they went, they’d go together. Jennifer wanted to study theatre, and in the end, the old teachers’ college in Scarborough, affiliated to the University of York, seemed the ideal place.

It was great for Stephen, with the coast, Moors and Dalby Forest all on the doorstep – and great for Jennifer, with the Stephen Joseph Studio. “We could have gone our separate ways, and probably gone to better universities, but we wanted to be together,” he says.

Degree over, he got his first job as a park ranger back in his native Warrington. But he always hankered to return to Yorkshire, so he jumped at the chance of a job setting up York’s first local nature reserve.

That was nearly eight years ago. Today, York has four such reserves, as well as a number of formal parks and gardens, including Rowntree Park, West Bank Park, Hull Road Park and Rawcliffe Country Park.

Between them, he and his ranger colleagues are responsible for organising a host of public activities and events in the city’s parks and nature reserves, so as to increase local people’s appreciation and understanding of the nature on their doorstep.

Their jobs include:

• Working with schools on about 55 curriculum-related sessions in parks and nature reserves each year.

• Delivering about 70 school holiday activities a year, including survival skills workshops and nature hunts.

• Leading about 35 ‘family’ activities a year, including ‘food for free’ foraging walks and hedgehog walks.

• Organising five major summer fairs at city parks each summer, which between them attract more than 10,000 people.

• Leading voluntary groups to carry out conservation work in parks and nature reserves.

Forthcoming Ranger-led events during September include:

• Wednesday, September 1, 8pm to 9.30pm. Hob Moor – Bat Night.

• Thursday September 2, 8pm to 9:30pm, Rowntree Park – Bat Night.

• Saturday September 25, 10am to 11.30am, West Bank Park – Food For Free walk as part of Food & Drink Festival.

• Saturday, September 25, 1.30pm to 3pm Clifton Backies – Food For Free walk as part of Food & Drink Festival.

York’s four local nature reserves...

• Clifton Backies, between Bootham Stray and Water Lane in Clifton Without. Features include medieval ridge and furrow hay meadows, the remains of Second World War blast shelters, plus a wealth of wildlife and wild flowers.

• Acomb Wood, York’s newest nature reserve, designated in 2007. Ten acres of mixed woodland and ancient meadow, including traces of ridge and furrow meadow, set in the middle of a large housing estate off Acomb Wood Drive in west York.

• Hob Moor – part of Knavesmire, one of York’s ancient commons. The land is unimproved pasture grazed by cattle in summer. Two types of ridge and furrow and, across on Little Hob Moor, the Plague Stone and Hobstone.

• St Nicholas Fields. A 24-acre site in Tang Hall. In the Middle Ages it was open fields grazed by cattle belonging to monks from St Nicholas Hospital. More recently it has been a brickworks, the city rubbish dump, and an unofficial wildlife site, before being designated a local nature reserve in 2004. Home to the York Environment Centre.

To find out more about York’s parks and open spaces, visit