Raisby Hill Grassland SSSI, July 2019

It’s back home for my next blog, my monthly trip to Raisby Hill. Actually three trips, as two of my friends were keen to visit the site too, so some of the plants I’ve listed were flowering early in the month but not by the time of my final visit, in the middle of this week’s hot spell.  With temperatures forecast to rise to the high 20s in the afternoon, I set off early to enjoy the cool of the morning.  The first meadow has changed appearance completely since last month – the Cowslips and Water avens are long gone and Meadowsweet and Marsh thistles dominate.

Last month’s spotted and marsh-orchids (and their hybrids) still hung on at the start of the month but were gradually replaced by tall Fragrant orchids – mostly Marsh fragrant-orchid, Gymnadenia densiflora, with a few Common Marsh-orchid, G. conopsea, thrown in for good measure. There are still plenty of tall Twayblades hiding in plain sight too.

Clockwise from top left: Dactylorhiza fuchsii, D. Fuchsii x D. purpurella hybrid, Gymnadenia densiflora and G. conopsea

Fragrant orchids in the UK all used to be lumped together as a single species but have more recently been separated into three different ones, on the basis of the shape of the flowers (though this is notoriously variable), flowering period and habitat.  Both the species I’ve found like limey soils so its perhaps no surprise to find them at Raisby Hill.  The obvious physical characteristic which links the three species is a long, nectar-bearing spur behind the flower itself.  The nectar can only be reached by butterflies and moths with a long proboscis, so these are the main pollinators.  As the insect approaches to suck the nectar, the flower’s pollinia stick on to the proboscis and are then transported to the next flower visited.  It’s not a great photo, but you can see that this Burnet moth on knapweed has already picked up plenty of club-shaped orchid pollinia. 

Burnet moth carrying orchid pollinia

The number and diversity of butterflies and moths on the site yesterday probably explains these orchids’ good seed set and abundance here.

Climbing the hill onto more open ground, Betony and Harebells are suddenly abundant and there is plenty of Agrimony, Centaury and Ladies’ bedstraw amongst the grasses; a proper wildflower meadow rather than an artificial ‘pictorial meadow’ of the type often created by councils using artificial seed mixes .  There are many more Fragrant orchids too and a few Bee orchids in a patch of shorter grass at the top and one of my favourite, tiny flowers – Fairy flax, Linum catharticum.

Clockwise from top left: Betonica officinalis, Campanula rotundifolia, Linum catharticum and Centaurium erythraea

Beyond the fence the scree slopes have changed again, though still have a yellow tinge. The Rock roses are largely finished but now there is plenty of Yellow-wort amongst the Hawkweeds and what I was previously calling Cat’s ear but now know to be Rough hawkbit.  A session with Sue at South Gare last week taught me that I need to look more carefully at the involucre bracts behind the yellow flower to distinguish between the two; Cat’s ear has a distinct ‘cockscomb’ at the tip of each bract and the outer ring of florets are grey beneath whilst Rough hawkbit is covered in hairs and the florets are yellow underneath .  

Left: Cat’s-ear, Hypochaeris radicata; Right: Rough hawkbit, Leontodon hispidus

The real stars of the scree this month, though, are the Dark-red helleborines – the largest colony of these in County Durham.  Wandering back and forward across the screes you see many of different sizes and colours.  Next week I’ll be returning to the reserve with Wildlife Trust volunteers to count the flower spikes as part of their site monitoring.

The old quarry at the far end of the site was, again, fertile hunting ground.  Golden Carline thistles stud the short grass and I find aromatic wild basil amongst longer vegetation around the edges, as well as Pyramidal orchids to add to the tally.

Left: Carline thistle, Carlina vulgaris; Right: Wild basil, Clinopodium vulgare

On my way back to my bike I could see that the fen area cleared in February is already being recolonised, mostly by opportunists such as willowherbs and bracken – the latter will need watching.  There are lovely stands of Perforate St John’s-wort, Valerian and Meadowsweet higher up the banks, though, and wild strawberries provide a tasty snack.

By this stage the peace of the morning was being shattered by the sound of several strimmers wielded by Trust volunteers hard at work, clearing paths through the reserve.  Necessary as this is, I was glad to have more or less completed my visit before they started!  The list below of 80 or so species in flower includes many I haven’t mentioned for lack of space, so here is a collage of just a few of them to give a flavour of the diversity on display.

Meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris
Creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens  
Common mouse-ear Cerastium fontanum  
Bladder campion Silene vulgaris  
Wood dock   Rumex sanguineus
Perforate St John’s-wort Hypericum perforatum  
Slender St John’s-wort Hypericum pulchrum  
Square-stalked St John’s-wort Hypericum tetrapterum  
Common rock-rose   Helianthemum nummularium
Agrimony Agrimonia eupatoria  
Smooth lady’s mantle Alchemilla glabra  
Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria  
Wood avens Geum urbanum  
Tormentil Potentilla erecta  
Creeping cinquefoil Potentilla reptans  
Bramble Rubus fruticosus agg.
Meadow vetchling Lathyrus pratensis  
Bird’s-foot-trefoil Lotus corniculatus  
Black medick Medicago lupulina  
Lucerne Medicago sativa ssp. sativa  
Zigzag clover Trifolium medium  
Red clover Trifolium pratense  
White clover Trifolium repens  
Bush vetch Vicia sepium  
Tufted vetch Vicia cracca  
Rosebay willowherb Chamerion angustifolium  
Great willowherb   Epilobium hirsutum
Broad-leaved willowherb   Epilobium montanum
Fairy flax Linum catharticum  
Common milkwort Polygala vulgaris  
Meadow crane’s-bill  Geranium pratense  
Herb-Robert Geranium robertianum  
Hogweed Hieracium sphondylium  
Burnet-saxifrage Pimpinella saxifrage  
Upright hedge-parsley Torilis japonica  
Yellow-wort Blackstonia perfoliata  
Common centaury Centaurium erythraea  
Viper’s bugloss Echium vulgare  
Wild basil Clinopodium vulgare  
White dead-nettle Lamium album
Selfheal Prunella vulgaris  
Betony   Betonica officinalis
Hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica  
Wild thyme Thymus polytrichus  
Ribwort plantain   Plantago lanceolata
Hoary plantain Plantago media  
Eyebright Euphrasia agg.  
Red bartsia Odontites vernus  
Yellow-rattle Rhinanthus minor  
Germander speedwell Veronica chamaedrys  
Harebell Campanula rotundifolia  
Crosswort Cruciata laevipes  
Lady’s bedstraw Galium verum  
Common valerian Valeriana officinalis  
Field scabious Knautia arvensis  
Yarrow Achillea millefolium  
Carline thistle Carlina vulgaris  
Common knapweed Centaurea nigra  
Greater knapweed Centaurea scabiosa  
Marsh thistle Cirsium palustre  
Spear thistle Cirsium vulgare  
Hawk’s-beard Crepis sp.  
Hawkweed Hieracium agg.  
Common ragwort Jacobea vulgaris  
Rough hawkbit Leontodon hispidus  
Oxeye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare  
Mouse-ear hawkweed Pilosella officinarum  
Dandelion Taraxacum agg.
Pyramidal orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis  
Common spotted-orchid   Dactylorhiza fuchsii
Dark-red helleborine Epipactis atrorubens  
Common fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia conopsea  
Marsh fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia densiflora  
Common twayblade   Neottia ovata
Bee orchid Ophrys apifera  
Meadow foxtail   Alopecurus pratensis
Quaking grass   Briza maxima
Crested dog’s-tail Cynosurus cristatus
Cock’s-foot Dactylis glomerate  
Tufted hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa  
Red fescue Festuca rubra  
Yorkshire fog Holcus lanatus  
Annual meadow-grass   Poa annua


  1. loved the pictures! I have been looking closely at a walk on saturday and found Crepis capillaris! cant remember its english- smooth hawkbit i think


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