Yesterday’s jaunt for Day 3 of #30 Days Wild was a trip to Hannah’s Meadow, on the north side of Blackton Reservoir in Baldersdale. Hannah Hauxwell was the unlikely star of a series of Yorkshire Television documentaries in the 1970s after she was ‘discovered’ running the dilapidated Low Birk Hatt farm by herself, with no running water or electricity, and living on little over one tenth of the average income at the time. Miss Hauxwell had so little money that, by necessity, she farmed with very little in the way of ‘inputs’; her land was maintained as it had been for generations, with no re-seeding or use of artificial fertilisers. It was amongst the least ‘improved’ and most diverse floristically in the Durham dales and, as such, has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). After Hannah Hauxwell became something of a celebrity, her life became a little easier and, in the end, she retired in her mid seventies to live in relative comfort in nearby Cotherstone. The farm was bought by Durham Wildlife Trust in 1988 and the land has since been managed in the traditional way to maintain its unique diversity.
We park by Balderhead Reservoir today, to the west of Hannah’s Meadows, and walk south then east around Blackton Reservoir, saving the treat of the meadows until the end of our walk. Everywhere there are flowers.
Red clover, tiny Forget-me-not and Mountain pansy, left to right
The path along the south side of the reservoir, like parts of the Weardale Way on Thursday, is not always easy to follow but we scramble through nettles and thistles, to a soundtrack of anxious lapwings. The sheep, at least, are unperturbed. I’m intrigued by an arch-roofed building in the corner of one field, which I assume must be a lambing shelter.
Eventually, we find ourselves walking across the dam to at the east end of Blackton reservoir, past an odd looking overflow basin and drawdown tower which channels water down to a small holding reservoir between here and Hury Reservoir – I’d like to see this from above but the doors to the walkways are firmly locked.
Overflow basin and drawdown tower on Blackton Reservoir
As we head west along the north side of the reservoir the meadows get increasingly beautiful.
Wood Crane’s-bill appears and we see Bitter-vetch and a few remaining Bluebells flowering in sheltered spots.
Geranium sylvaticum and Hyacinthoides non-scripta (top) and Lathyrus linifolius (bottom)
A pair of curlews, disturbed by our progress, rail at us until we leave the field where they must be nesting but the next meadow along is an equally lovely spot for our picnic lunch.
After lunch we cross Blind Beck and enter the most beautiful meadow so far. I’ve noticed before how well purple and yellow flowers complement each other – at Thrislington NNR it’s Cowslips and Early-purple Orchids in May. Here it is Meadow Buttercups, Cat’s-ear, Wood Crane’s-bill and Red Clover, with white Pignuts for accent.
Interestingly, you have to look harder to see the diversity in Hannah’s Meadow nature reserve itself – it feels slightly more exposed so may just be a little further behind than the meadows round the beck.
We don’t see any of the rarities for which the site is well known (Moonwort, Adder’s Tongue fern and Globe flowers) but there is plenty of diversity – sky blue Speedwell, Bugle and Eyebright amongst the flowering plants we have seen before.
To maintain this diversity, Durham Wildlife Trust still manages the meadows and grazing pasture in the traditional way. From now, until the meadows are cut in late July, a succession of plants will flower. Only once they have seed will the meadows be cut for hay. Then, the grass will be allowed to regrow for cattle to graze in September and October and finally sheep, running with the ram, in November. The livestock will be taken off the land over the winter and it will be rested until spring, when the sheep are brought back into the fields to lamb. Some muck is spread on the land when the sheep are removed but no additional fertilizer is added. A fairly nutrient poor environment is key to allowing plenty of species to flourish rather than having one or two ‘bullies’ take over.