The pull of another trip south of the Tyne was too much to resist, and our efforts today were well rewarded.
Giant Bellflower at Wingate
Wingate Quarry was our first stop on what was a breezy morning with a chill in the air, grey cloud at times threatening rain which never arrived in any noticeable amount. The first highlight of the day was finding a rather noisy begging family of unfledged Kestrels being fed by a parent bird high and safe on the quarry face. The young Kestrels looked almost ready for flight and they were making moves outside of the nesting area. After this encounter our minds were firmly on butterflies and botany for the rest of the day. At this point we had no idea just how well the day was to turn out.
Like the old quarry at Bishop Middleham, this area had been worked for magnesian limestone until the 1930s. We were here primarily to try and find Marbled White Butterflies, rarely seen in the area outside of the reserve, they were introduced here in 2000. Initially we struggled to find any butterflies of any description in the overcast conditions, then one or two species began to make an appearance, all of them flighty. Then we found one Marbled White Butterfly, and moving on to an area rich in knapweed and thistles more were seen, but again all where flighty and viewing chances where brief, with no chance of a photograph. They would quickly disappear as soon as the sun was covered by cloud, seemingly disappearing deep into the grasses. There were other butterflies too including Small Tortoiseshell, Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Small Skipper.
Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly. The under-wings are often as interesting as the upper-wing.
Common Blue Butterfly (male)
A single Fragrant Orchid, a single Common Twayblade and many Common Spotted Orchids stood out from among some interesting flora. Having looked again at my image of the Common Twayblade I see in the flowers, celebrating spacemen/women in green spacesuits, and honestly I have not touched a drop of red wine today. This had been our first ever visit to Wingate Quarry, I’m sure it won’t be our last. Our next stop was to be a first visit too, the reserve at Thrislington, a National Nature Reserve.
During our hours walking at Thrislington we learned a good deal about this calcareous grassland area, not least being its sheer beauty at this time of year. There are hectares of land painted in patchwork fashion by the vivid colours of a myriad of wildflowers. The scene could have come straight from an artist’s brush and palette and offered ample opportunity for the poetic mind.
With so many flowers came numerous bees, grasshoppers, butterflies and other insects. The star butterflies were the Northern Brown Argus, which we had expected, and the Dark Green Fritillary which we hadn’t really thought about. Both species probably reaching double figures. Again, the Dark Green Fritillaries were especially flighty, but one, sadly a little worse for wear, gave the chance of a photograph.
Northern Brown Argus
Northern Brown Argus
Dark Green Fritillary
By now the sun was out and warming the air. The day list of butterfly species seen came to 12 and some others added included a lone Small White as we stepped from the car, Small Heath, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood.
As we walked through the grassland we found the air strongly scented by the many plants that bloomed and encircled us. Perhaps the most noticeable scent came from the many beautiful Fragrant Orchids now reaching their peak of perfection. There were thousands of orchids of many hues and sizes, but orchid species which stood out for me was the Dark Red Helleborine which we eventually came across. This must rank highly on my list of favourite flowers and they had reached their peak, one of them holding 36, wine red flowers on its spike. This made up for our disappointment on visiting Bishop Middleham Old Quarry a couple of weeks ago and finding only one of these plants beginning to flower.
It was with interest that I noted from Anne and Simon Harrap’s Orchids of Britain and Ireland that the first British record of Dark Red Helleborine was made in a work by John Ray in 1677. The site Ray mentions is Malham, 4 miles from Settle. Also noted in Harrap’s book is that the maximum number of flowers known on a Dark Red Helleborine plant is 45, so our plant wasn’t far short of that. My own experience of seeing these orchids is that spikes usually have fewer flowers.
Dark Red Helleborine
Dark Red Helleborine
I have never seen such a display of Orchids, nor can I recall seeing such an area of general botanical interest in Britain. It had us discussing just how wonderful it must have been to wander around the open country of John Clare’s England and enjoy not only the sight, but also the aroma of wildflowers. Oh, how he would have enjoyed today's walk.
We recalled the flower meadows of Eastern Europe and the area where open grassland met the tree line even invoked memories of the African Savannah, although on a minor scale of course. Yellowhammers sang as we admired the scene.
Savannah type scene
Sam ready for action
There were simply too many species of plant to list, but some come instantly to my memory. Carpets of golden Rock Rose, large areas of purple Betony, layers of Agrimony, bee laden Greater Knapweed, pale blue Field and Small Scabious side by side, masses of Birds foot Trefoil, clovers and vetchlings, blue Perennial Flax, Common Centaury, delicate Common Milkwort and an abundance of Lady’s Bedstraw and many more. It may sound imaginary and overstated, but it is not.
We chatted to the chap from natural England who was going about his business and tetrads and was one of the very few people we saw in the area, and he give us a condensed history of the reserve. Exmoor or similar Ponies are used here in winter for conservation reasons and whist some of the area is perfectly natural, a large proportion was re-laid some years ago. To my untrained eye I would not have known. As with any conservation area it is not without its problems and conflicting views as to how best to manage it, but whatever is being done certainly seems to be working.
It’s quite a walk to do this area justice, but there was so much interest, we quite forgot how far we had gone, although the whole day here would not have been wasted. Our day had been wonderfully complete and it had been a good lesson in botany. We’d quite forgotten about birds and decided that tiredness meant we ought to put off a visit to Castle Lake until another day. Our find of Dark Red Helleborine also meant that a visit to Bishop Middleham Old Quarry wasn’t essential either.
Well there is always another time.
Quite incidentally I’ have begun in the past few days to read a book by Steve Nicholls entitled Flowers of the Field, A Secret History of Meadow Moor and Wood. A wonderful follow up to the trip described and full of excellent photographs. I believe Steve is a Middlesbrough guy so I’ll be checking to see if Thrislington gets a mention in his book. By the look of the index it doesn’t.