In praise of another botanical playground

Last week I got to tag along on a trip to the country’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the English Lake District, bribed to make the steep climb up from Stonethwaite to Dock Tarn in heavy rain in search of desmids by the promise of a beautiful meadow to explore in the afternoon.

Of course there is plenty of botanical interest on the climb up to Dock Tarn too, from the oak woodland on the lower slopes of the fell to the marsh plants around the tarn itself.

Oak woodland alongside Willygrass Gill and Bell heather, Erica cineria on the less-than-aptly-named Lingy End

Swathes of Bog asphodel, with its orange anthers on woolly, yellow filaments brighten the gloom.

Bog asphodel, Narthecium ossifragum

The rushes in the wettest areas have rather more delicate flowers…

Heath rush, Juncus squarrosus (left) and Soft rush, J. effusus (right)

The Sphagnum bog is also home to plenty of insectivorous sundews, just like Upper Teesdale

Sundew, Drosera rotundifolia

Environmental campaigner George Monbiot has described the Lake District as, “a sheepwrecked monument to subsidised overgrazing and ecological destruction”, and worries that awarding it World Heritage status will only serve to sanction the over-grazing which means that many, supposedly protected, areas are relatively barren. Much of the scenery we see in the Lakes today is certainly far from natural, though the oak woodland on the lower fellsides around Borrowdale is close to what would be expected.

Inevitably, some of the low lying land has been heavily grazed for generations and has little botanical diversity but there are pockets where traditional practices have allowed hay meadows to be maintained and, sometimes, restored.  One such meadow, sitting in an almost-oxbow of the River Ehen, near Ennerdale Bridge, was my second destination of the day.

By the time we’d driven across Honister Pass, past Buttermere and Crummock Water towards Ennerdale Water the weather looked more promising and the meadow resplendent.

There has clearly been no over-grazing here.  Like Hannah’s meadow, in Teesdale, the field will shortly be cut for hay.  For now, the only mammal in evidence apart from me was the one which managed to unwrap the clingfilm around my sandwiches and sneak off with the bread – a red squirrel, I suspect, given the dexterity with which we saw one opening a feeder to retrieve nuts outside our hotel window this morning.

At the moment the meadow seems dominated by Oxeye daisies, Cat’s-ear and Red clover but you don’t have to look far to spot other plants in the mix – Lesser trefoil, Bird’s-foot trefoil, Selfheal, thistles, Devil’s-bit scabious and Hedge woundwort.

Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), Smooth Cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata) and Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Devil’s-bit scabious, Succisa pratensis ( top left), Hedge woundwort, Stachys sylvatica, (top right) and Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris (bottom)

The banks of the river which demarks the meadow are lined with trees and, in the damp shade these provide, there are Common spotted orchids, Valerian and delicate Lesser stitchwort.  The real stars of the show, for me though, are Greater butterfly orchids.  Some have ‘gone over’ now but a couple of spikes are still in good condition.

Greater butterfly-orchid, Platanthera chlorantha

When I first arrive the rain has not long stopped and each tiny droplet of water on the grasses carries an inverted image of the meadow beyond.

Later, as the sun comes out, butterflies and moths appear to bask in its warmth and sup nectar.

Male Large skipper (left) and Ringlet butterflies (right)

Meadow brown butterfly on a Spear thistle

The only downside of the warmth is the energetic horseflies which follow me round the meadow exacting their pound of flesh.  The bites don’t start to itch immediately but 36 hours later I am covered in wheals….

We spend the latter part of the day walking around Ennerdale Water from the car park at Bleach Green.

Apart from the invasive Rosebay willowherb and bracken, the north-west end of the lake sports Marsh woundwort, banks of wild thyme and the largest Golden ringed dragonfly I’ve ever seen.

The marshy area to the east of the lake is full of Heath spotted orchids, Dactylorhiza maculata, of many hues.

Heath spotted orchids, Dactylorhiza maculata, looking NW along Ennerdale Water

The final part of the walk up the western shore of the lake crosses many tiny inflow streams lined with more bog asphodel and as many sundews and butterworts as I’ve ever seen in one place.

Butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris, by Ennerdale Water

The day hardly constituted a scientific survey, but I got to see a huge range of plants and habitats within one small part of the Lake District making me think it does, indeed, merit its special status as a World Heritage site.  The award clearly needs to be used, though, to drive the use of best practice with regard to both farm management and conservation work so that this special place remains so.

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