In water-tracks, in ditches and in wet fell-sides are the bog plants and mosses I love,
Wildlife watching in Kentmere, we're being watched. Deer pause on a crag topping a fell-side of foxgloves. Their short tails suggest they're red deer. A large, pale bird flies over the crags and away. A kestrel hovers above Tongue Scar where Rough Fell ewes and mature lambs seek shade beneath the trees and in the shadow of the barn wall as the mid-day sun beats down on us all.
In water-tracks, in ditches and in wet fell-sides are the bog plants and mosses I love,
Life begins at the spring-line, where water bubbles up from the earth. There are nameless water-tracks where seep and trickle sustains an intricate flora. Micro-habitats whose ecology is become familiar. How will today match what I’ve found here before at this season? Where water drains off the fell-side, down into the River Kent, here I hope to find the flora I love. Becks run dry, the sun scorches plants growing on hot rock but where there are water-tracks fed by springs a weave and tangle of flora flourishes.
On Friday it rained all day and, two days later, there are puddles along the track beside Borrowdale Beck, although water in the beck is low. Tall thistles come into flower, topping lush grasses. There are small heath butterflies and chimney sweeper moths. A stonechat is clamorous, flitting from perch to perch where saplings are planted.
The High Borrowdale hay meadows are beautiful as the sun burnishes drifts of flowers.
Swifts fly low about me, thrillingly close above my head. Insects must be flying low this morning.
A sole patch of dyer's green-weed has come into being almost overnight. I've been looking out for it..
Roses bud and bloom. Thistles are budding. Brambles are green, budding but with few flowers. I'm hoping for butterflies, searching for them. A few common blues, small heath, dingy skipper. Walk through tall and seeding grasses and small moths rise but where are the butterflies?
A bright and sunny day on South Walney, with a fresh breeze. I had hoped to see cinnabar moths and we were in luck, a brood was on the wing and some were mating. Their striking scarlet and black colouring warns predators not to eat them, they contain toxins. The moth lays its eggs on ragwort, the foodplant of its caterpillars who ingest its toxins safely and so the moth inherits them. The moth flies by day and at night. Cinnabar moth, Tyria Jacobaeae. Ragwort's Latin name if Senecio Jacobaeae.
Something shifts the moment we cross Jubilee Bridge onto Walney Island. We leave behind Barrow in Furness and fast roads, the pace slows as we drive beside the salt marsh, heading for South Walney Nature Reserve. Birdsong reaches us through the open windows (these are Covid times.) Cistercian Way, said the OS map. Now it's designated the England Coastal Path. These were the domains of Furness Abbey and Piel Castle looms in the distance. Mid-June is a season I'm not familiar with on Walney Island, so there are surprises in store.
‘Did you say hideous?’
‘Yes, I did. Menacing. As if it could decide to go for a walk in somebody’s direction.’
‘It looks like a potato field.’
She isn't seeing potatoes, she's seeing Triffids.
We have neither of us met this plant before. It's a speciality of the sandy coastal habitat of South Walney but I haven't been here before in mid-June. I had a mental picture of the flower but I was unprepared for the bulk and sprawl of the plant.
Gorse is important habitat on Scout Scar and Helsington Barrows. Linnet and redpoll depend on its shelter in the breeding season and its seeds are a food source. So are the insects caught hovering over its flowers in a sequence of images I took In May 2020.
So when I noticed gorse die-back in late May 2021 and realised how extensive it was across this area I reported my findings to Natural England. I wanted to know if the problem was widespread and if the cause were known
A glorious June morning. Sunlit white cloud patterns the blue and a refreshing breeze trembles and shimmers drifts of cow parsley, buttercups and seeding grasses. Lark song fills the air yet the lark ascending always surprises as the bird launches from secrecy into song-flight and display. Impossible to gauge just when and where that song-flight might commence. Surprise song, then seconds to try for the photograph before the lark is high in spiralling ascent, warm tones almost translucent in sunlight, then lost in cloud.
A day or two ago, we found a redstart nest with the female flying in furtively, delivering insects to her brood. Today, a male sings loudly from display perches below Scout Scar escarpment. Perhaps he's hoping for a second brood. The canopy is now in full leaf so he was hard to see, despite his loud song. In this image his beak is wide, his bright gape visible.
Roe deer browse amongst the hawthorn scrub and in the shadows beneath sunlit yew trees. The warm reddish-brown of their summer coats and their large ears are striking. They/ve seen us but they linger under the trees. A peaceful scene until something startles them. Their barking would have been puzzling if we'd heard it unawares.
A south-east wind keeps the day fresh and wind-shear shows in high cloud. At this season fresh flowers appear overnight. Brid's-foot trefoil is bright yellow. There's white bedstraw and everywhere the white May of hawthorn in bloom. Yellow hawkweeds show. The ground looks dry, patterned with fine cracks. Hard to remember how cold and wet it was for most of May
After weeks of rain the last week in May is hot and sunny. Sunlight through yellow flowers, a meadow of buttercups and dandelion flowers and seed-heads. Oak catkins are almost hidden in clusters of new leaves. Purple catkins on alder show best in winter when the trees are thick with catkins and bare of foliage. By the time alder catkins flower the tree is in leaf.
During the unusually cold and wet weather of May there was no sign of the buds and flowers of Hoary Rockrose. Then the rain stopped, the sun shone and the temperature rose. Helianthemum canum, named for Helios the sun god. Hoary Rockrose responds to the sun, opens up its delicate lemon flowers. Closes them if the sun does not shine.
The flower is a speciality of the cliff-face of Scout Scar escarpment, limestone rock facing south and south-west. Hoary Rockrose cannot tolerate competition, so it thrives on rock where other plants cannot.
Mostly dry and fine, with the risk of isolated showers. That's the Radio Cumbria weather forecast today.
Cloudscapes are sunlit and spectacular. During the morning, dark and louring cloud gathers but there's an elusive cuckoo who is calling- now above Scout Scar escarpment, now in the trees of Helsington Barrows. He calls through a pelting of hail and a rumble of thunder as I head home. He's somewhere in one of my images.
Sunlight filters through down through a tracery of branches, shimmering through leaf-green, illuminating mosses and bluebells lush after rain. A cathedral of the woods. A rainy May, awash with bluebells .
We meander country roads, windows open to birdsong and the pungent smell of wild garlic. A heron stands statuesque on a plinth, a dead tree anchored in rocks. Bluebells and wild garlic are enchanting, so we forget our destination and to take to the woods,
In Upper Teesdale in April, I forgot to look for the rare Teesdale violet.
We did find some lovely pansies on the grassy banks of the River Wear. Given their variable colours and propensity to hybridse, they are likely to be mountain pansy (viola lutea) hybrisided with heartsease, wild pansy ( viola tricolor.)
Spring comes late at altitude, and in the North Pennines. Season and weather interact so the template is familiar but each spring is unique. It’s a time of transition, of departures and arrivals. Each morning, we hear fieldfare heading north to their summer breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Only now, this last week in April, come reports from south-west England of a steady passage of sand martin, swallow and house martin, most heading north east. We see our first swallow at Orton on 22nd April, hear our first cuckoo on Hadrian’s Wall four days later.
As a nature writer, I like to study an OS map for the natural history embedded in place names and landscape features. A history of natural history.
Looking back on the day, I match our findings with what the map tells of habitat and species. Bents Sike is a burn flowing through boggy pastures of rush, sedge and rough grass. *Bents Head is the last intake bordering Moss Moor. Lapwing call all around us, in display flight descending with an audible clapping of wings. Snipe rise from sedges in zig-zag flight. Curlew are calling and a pair perches on a ruined sheepfold outlined against the sky. When they fly, a meadow pipit takes the stand. Songs of spring surround us.
Sunrise at Ghyll Burn Cottage 22nd -29th April 2021
Ghyll Burn is a tributary of the River South Tyne and the cottage is a peaceful and secluded spot. It was an old stone barn, a lofty space with thick walls. deep embrasured windows and wooden beams. A flight of stone steps leads to the entrance and the kitchen on the first floor. The cottage sits within the shelter of the ghyll, with hawthorn rich in lichens and taller trees beyond; ash still in winter guise, sycamore close to leafing, birch and sitka spruce.
Jan Wiltshire is a nature writer living in Cumbria. She also explores islands and coast and the wildlife experience. (See Home and My Books.)