Raisby Hill Grassland SSSI, March 2019

This afternoon’s weather forecast was about as good as it’s going to get all week so I headed for Raisby Hill again. In the last month we’ve had daytime temperatures up to 16 Celsius and some nights below zero so both plants and animals are a little confused.  Last month’s hazel catkins have finished flowering, replaced by goat willow catkins.  Salix caprea is a dioecious species, with separate male and female trees.  Male trees produce fluffy grey ‘pussy willow’ catkins before the flowers open to reveal masses of yellow, pollen-bearing anthers.  The female flowers are much more subtle – you can just about see the yellow stigmas protruding from the flowers below.

Male (left) and female (right) Salix caprea catkins

Today’s big (not really the right word) excitement for me was finally finding a plant in flower which I must have seen many times before but have never noticed.  Common whitlowgrass, Erophila verna agg., is one of the earliest-flowering brassicas and so tiny that it is easily overlooked.  I found it growing on top of one of the large limestone boulders which strew the slopes of the old quarry. The rabbit dropping on the left of the picture below gives a sense of scale!

Colt’s-foot and gorse are cropping up in flower everywhere now but their brightness is particularly welcome at this time of year.

Other signs of spring are appearing in the shape of new leaves – primroses and the first obvious orchid rosette of the year in the grassland and masses of Cuckoo-pint in the woodland.

The excavation needed to start restoring the fenland area adjacent to Raisby Beck has been done since my February visit.  An area of open water has been created by stripping off the topsoil and the ends of the pool created dammed loosely with some of the logged trees.  It looks bald at the moment but I suspect the rich looking soil piled up beside the water will have a good reservoir of seeds, happy to be exposed to the light.  I’ll be watching with interest to see what appears!

A few leaves are appearing on hawthorn trees now but most trees are still bare enough for their bark and silhouette to be the main attraction.  Some of the silver birch trees have orange-tinted bark which I soon realise is the filamentous ‘green’ alga Trentepohlia, an important partner in many lichen associations.  There are patches of Trentepohlia on the bare ground too – a case of making hay (or rather sugars) whilst the sun shines and before it gets shaded out by plants later in the year.

By April I’m expecting a much longer list of plants in flower but here is the short list for March (ordered by plant families as arranged in Rose’s The Wild Flower Key):

Goat willow Salix caprea
Common whitlowgrass Erophila verna agg.
Gorse Ulex europaeus
Colt’s-foot Tussilago farfara

Interestingly, this list is much shorter than my list from this time last year at Crowtrees LNR, mainly because of the absence of things like daisies, dandelions and speedwell in flower on the reserve, though I’ve seen them elsewhere.



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