After some prevarication, I’ve chosen Raisby Hill Grassland nature reserve as the site I’ll look at monthly this coming year. It’s just a short bike ride from home but has one of the last remaining areas of primary Magnesian limestone grassland in the country, as well as an abandoned quarry, ponds and an area of woodland. Lots of diversity but, this time, my walking route more or less round the bounds of the reserve will be just a mile or two long so it shouldn’t be quite such a mammoth task as last summer.
Like parts of the Thrislington nature reserve which I’ve written about before, the grassland here is relatively undisturbed and lies on free-draining limestone soil which has not been ploughed, fertilised or sprayed, at least in recent times. This allows it to support an even wider range of lime-loving plants than Crowtrees and many of my other favourite local reserves, which are in disused quarries. Ironically enough, had it not been for the activities of humans in the area since the end of the last ice age, almost the whole area would have become wildwood, dominated by ash trees.
The limestone at Raisby Hill is the oldest layer of the so-called Magnesian limestone, laid down during the Permian period just under 300 Million years ago, when the hot, arid landmass of which Britain was a part lay near the Equator and was periodically inundated by the shallow Zechstein Sea. This layer forms much of the escarpment which marks the edge of the Magnesian limestone plateau, running in a NE to SW direction from South Sheilds to Newton Aycliffe, including the area currently being quarried above Crowtrees LNR.
It’s too late to take part in the BSBI New Year Plant Hunt this year as we’ve been in Argyll, distracted by the reintroduced Knapdale beavers (another story) but this week seemed like a good time to get out and see what I could find; only two species in flower but plenty of other less blousy beauty to enthral me. I’ve been here in summer, when the grass is long and full of flowers and been completely unaware of the range of mosses and ferns in damper areas of the reserve. The site also looks much smaller when you can see its boundaries so clearly and, to be honest, it would be easy to miss how special a place this is, were you just to visit at this time of year.
Looking from Raisby Hill towards Kelloe, now and in July 2017
I entered the reserve where the arrow on the map below indicates and walked through short grass, across a damp meadow and then up the hill towards the top of the hill on the red path.
In spring and summer I know the grass is full of cowslips, betony, meadowsweet and harebells but there is little sign of that diversity at the moment, though the delicate betony seed heads are beautiful.
Betony, Stachys officinalis, summer and winter
At the top of the hill, I skirted along the top of the reserve above a limestone spoil scree slope much like the one in Crowtrees LNR, but on a much larger scale. At the moment it looks equally unprepossessing, if not for the clues provided by orchid and helleborine seed heads – Dark-red helleborines, in particular, prefer the thin quarry spoil heap soil to that found on the more established grasslands. Roll on the summer!
Limestone scree with Dark-red helleborine and other orchid seed heads
Plenty of Brown-lipped snail shells nestle in the vegetation – the abundance of calcium makes all the old limestone quarries something of a haven for shelled molluscs.
Brown-lipped snail, Cepaea nemoralis
From the scree I dropped down through the disused quarry at the eastern end of the site and followed the Kelloe Way cycle track through the ash and hawthorn woodland which runs parallel to the reserve for a short distance, before entering the reserve again at the first entrance.
This took me alongside Raisby Beck and the marshy areas beside, it which I know are full of valerian and knapweed in the summer, playing host to a variety of butterflies, including Pearl-bordered fritillaries, plus dragonflies and damselflies.
For now, though, delicate mosses and ferns steal the limelight.
The only two plants I find in flower today are on the woodland-edge above the beck. The White dead-nettles are not a surprise, as I found them flowering 10 months out of 12 at Crowtrees but the Wild angelica is a novelty at this time of year.
Wild angelica, Angelica sylvestris
On a rather different note, I forced myself to go out and do this initial survey on a rather dull, cold early January day and was amazed at how much I enjoyed it. I’ve written before about the value of getting out into a natural environment and the evidence for this continues to grow, as eloquently explained by Miles Richardson in his ‘Finding nature’ blog. He outlines a brief Positive Psychology Intervention (PPI) known as ‘3 Good things’, in which participants are encouraged to write three good things a day, for a week or two, which has been found to increase happiness and decrease depression for up to six months by making participants more conscious of positive things around them. When Richardson modified this to ‘3 Good things in nature’, people showed more statistically significant improvements in their psychological health than the original ‘good things’ group. When he analysed which positive things people wrote about, the ‘good things in nature’ group tended to write more often about hearing and seeing nature specific things such as, ”the sparrows chattering in the hedge” or “sun reflecting off the river”, rather than about quantitative actions related to themselves. Richardson concludes that enjoying the everyday things in nature, each day, seems to deliver sustained increases in nature connectedness and improved well-being.
I shall be taking that lesson to heart this year – a New Year’s resolution which shouldn’t be too hard to keep. Noticing the first new leaves of 2019 seems like a good place to start!