A guest post by Rachel Bates
For a number of years, improving my botany skills has been on my ‘to do’ list. And I have been improving, albeit at a very slow rate. Part of me kind of likes not knowing what a particular plant is; there is a certain mystery about a plant I don’t know and I can appreciate it for its beauty and colour, rather than reciting its Latin name and habitat preferences in my head.
On the other hand, habitat and plant surveys are part of my job, so I do need to have a good working knowledge of common plant species and also plants that are indicators of different types of habitat. I have found, however, that plant courses that spend time in labs and going over and over habitat keys with limited time in the field really don’t help me to learn. I learn best by going out with someone who knows their stuff and having them point at something, tell me what it is and explain its main identification features.
With this in mind, earlier this year I booked a place on a Wildflower Tour with Yorkshire Coast Nature, the sister company of an environmental consultancy I worked with during my time at university. Three full days of guided walks around the countryside near the North Yorkshire Coast, looking at a different habitat each day, sounded like my cup of tea.
And it was a fantastic week, full of lovely people, lovely nature reserves, beautiful scenery, and plenty of insects, birds, and animals as well as plants! The tour finished with a ‘bio blitz’, where anything that can be identified is recorded. By the end of the week we had noted over 300 plant species alone, including 12 species of orchid, most of which I had never seen before.
Day 1 – Ancient Woodland
There were only two of us on the course, as the third person had had to pull out the week before. Our first day saw us visit two separate ancient woodland sites within Forge Valley, so called because of the iron forges and charcoal burning that used to take place here. Forge Valley is a National Nature Reserve and is one of the best examples of deciduous woodland in north-east England; it is estimated to be around 6,000 years old.
We saw a wonderful variety of species, from Wood Sanicle, Wych Elm, Wood Avens and Meadowsweet to Hart’s-tongue Fern, Wild Angelica, Enchanters’ Nightshade and Wickenfen Nettle (which doesn’t sting you, but a beginner might not be sure which is which unless you touch the leaves). We also came across a number of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Beautiful Demoiselles, dung beetles and a huge variety of daytime flying moths.
Day 2 – Limestone Grassland
The three sites that we visited on our second day were spectacular; we hit the right time of year for the majority of orchids and wildflowers at our first site and we were rewarded by a beautiful, colourful display as we wandered down a dry valley. We came across Bee Orchid at our second site, Ellerburn Bank Nature Reserve, which made me very happy as I have always wanted to see one.
Our third site had more boggy areas but was well worth the visit after we came across Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides), the scarcest of the marsh orchids. It is named after the man who discovered it, but, as is often the case, nobody believed him when he said it was different from other marsh orchids. Only after DNA analysis, decades after his death, was he proved right.
Favourites seen in these limestone grasslands included Dropwort, Musk Thistle, Lady’s Bedstraw, Crosswort, Fly Orchid, Greater and Lesser Butterfly Orchids, Devil’s-bit Scabious, Rock Rose and Salad Burnet.
Day 3 – Moorland and Bogs
For our third and final day we went to Fen Bog, a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Reserve, with moorland, wet heath and valley mire habitats. The Pickering railway line runs alongside this peaceful reserve and every so often we were greeted by the sight of a steam train chugging along.
In the morning we wandered through the valley mire, poking around in bog pools and admiring the Round-leaved Sundews, flowering Butterwort, Bog Bean, Hare’s-tail Cotton-grass and Marsh Cinquefoil, all the while surrounded by the delightful smell of Bog Myrtle. The afternoon was spent higher up on the valley sides where we found a lovely little fern named Moonwort, Climbing Corydalis and Winter Green Chickweed.
We finished the day on a great note, running around through the heather to try and catch up with a wood tiger moth!
Rachel Bates is a freelance ecologist based in the south of the UK. In between travelling around to carry out protected species and habitat surveys she takes any opportunity she can to explore the local area and hopefully discover hidden gems.
Yorkshire Coast Nature runs nature tours and workshops, led by expert and friendly guides who are eager to help you discover the secrets of Yorkshire’s unique natural history.
Text and photos copyright © Rachel Bates