Habitat restoration at Quarrington Quarry, December 2019

Like last month, there was nothing at all flowering this week in the area I’m looking at below Quarrington Hill.  The restored land maintains its lawn-like stripes and the barer ground around it is just that, at this time of year.

The few stragglers still flowering on my way up the hill were the usual suspects, mainly from the daisy family – Yarrow, Oxeye and Common daisies, Groundsel and Dandelions.

Elsewhere, it’s all about seeds and berries, being enjoyed by the flocks of Redwings and Long-tailed tits which scatter in the hedgerows ahead of me as I walk. 

The funniest encounter of the afternoon is with a small boy (six or seven years old) on a stocky Thelwellesque pony who accosts me in his best ‘Just William’ voice as he rides past with his Dad;  “D’you know, I’ve had six canters today”!

The end of the year is a good time to take stock of what I’ve seen growing on both the newly- restored grassland at Raisby hill and on the adjacent, undisturbed spoil so here is a list:

  Newly restored ground‘Original’ vegetation on older spoil
Creeping buttercup  Ranunculus repensp 
Common fumitoryFumaria officinalisp 
Common nettleUrtica dioica  p 
Fat-henChenopodium album  p 
Black-bindweedFallopia convolvulus  p 
KnotgrassPolygonum aviculare  p 
Clustered dockRumex conglomeratus  p 
Slender St John’s-wortHypericum pulchrum   p
Field pansyViola arvensis  p 
Shepherd’s-purseCapsella bursa-pastorisp   
Dame’s violetHesperis matronalis  p 
CharlockSinapis arvensis  p 
WeldReseda luteola  p 
Scarlet pimpernelAnagallis arvensis  p 
Cowslip  Primula veris p
CotoneasterCotoneaster horizontalis   p
HawthornCrataegus monogyna   p
Wild strawberry  Fragaria vesca p
Wood avensGeum urbanum   p
Creeping cinquefoilPotentilla reptans   p
Dog roseRosa canina p  
BlackberryRubus fruticosus agg.   p
Bird’s-foot-trefoilLotus corniculatus   p
Black medickMedicago lupulina   p
Zigzag cloverTrifolium medium   p
Red cloverTrifolium pratense p  
Tufted vetchVicia cracca   p
Bush vetchVicia sepium   p
GorseUlex europaeus p
Rosebay willowherbChamerion angustifolium  pp
American willowherbEpilobium ciliatum   p
Fairy flaxLinum catharticum p  
Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill  Geranium dissectump 
Herb RobertGeranium robertianum   p
Rough chervil  Chaerophyllum temulump 
Wild carrotDaucas carrota ssp. carota p
Upright hedge-parsleyTorilis japonicap   
Yellow-wort  Blackstonia perfoliata p
Ribwort plantainPlantago lancelata p  
EyebrightEuphrasia sp.   p
Germander speedwellVeronica chamaedrys p
HarebellCampanula rotundifolia   p
Crosswort  Cruciata laevipes p
Welted thistleCarduus crispus  p 
Common knapweedCentaurea nigra   p
Greater knapweedCentaurea scabiosa   p
Creeping thistleCirsium arvensep

Spear thistle  Cirsium vulgarepp
Hawk’s-beardCrepis sp.  pp
HawkweedHieracium agg.   p
Cat’s-earHypochaeris radicata   p
Common ragwortJacobaea vulgaris  pp
Rough hawkbitLeontodon hispidus   p
Oxeye daisyLeucanthemum vulgare  p 
Scented mayweedMatricaria recutita  p 
Mouse-ear hawkweedPilosella officinarum   p
Autumn hawkbitScorzoneroides autumnalis   p
Prickly sow-thistleSonchus asper  pp
Smooth Sow-thistleSonchus oleraceus  p 
Common spotted-orchidDactylorhiza fuchsia   p
Northern marsh-orchidDactylorhiza purpurella   p
Marsh fragrant-orchidGymnadenia densiflora   p
Quaking grassBriza maxima p
Spring sedgeCarex caryophyllea   p
Crested dogstailCynosurus cristatusp   
Tufted hair-grassDeschampsia cespitosa   p
Red fescue  Festuca rubra p
Yorkshire fog  Holcus lanatus p
Annual meadow grassPoa annuap   

So, 28 species in total flowering on the newly restored land, compared to 46 on the adjacent, older spoil and only five species common to the two areas. The usual provisos apply that I certainly didn’t identify all the grasses present and that I probably also missed other small species.  Nonetheless, there is a clear difference in the plant families present.  Many of the plants I identified on the newly restored ground are ruderals in the chenopod, dock and cabbage families, which tend to be early colonisers of disturbed ground.  Their seedlings’ roots grow especially fast and are less dependent than many others on mycorrhizal fungi and they produce huge numbers of seeds when they flower.  Most topsoil will harbour a substantial reservoir of such seeds, just waiting for conditions where competitors have been knocked back.  I assume the meadow grass which dominates this area at the end of the year was sown by the contractors, though I’m not sure why they felt that was necessary.

The older spoil has a floral assemblage much closer to what I found last year in my survey of the nearby Crowtrees local nature reserve; several members of the rose and pea families, calcicoles (lime-loving plants) such as orchids and cowslips and a range of grass species. The thin soil over dolomitic limestone makes this no surprise – as I’ve said before, limited nutrient availability tends to promote plant diversity by keeping more vigorous species in check.  The Fabaceae (pea family) are at an advantage here because of their ability to fix nitrogen. Orchids have such tiny seeds they are more dependent than most on mycorrhizal fungi for successful germination it so they cannot grow until enough time has elapsed for suitable fungi to colonise the soil – maybe they will reappear on the restored ground in due course.

The daisies (Asteraceae) are the only plant family reasonably abundant in both habitats and, though the species are largely different, four of the five species found in both newly restored and older spoil are from this family. The Asteraceae are opportunists and often early colonisers by virtue of their ability to produce many, light seeds readily dispersed by the wind – thistledown fills the air around here in late summer.

Ragwort is one of the daisies found in both habitats.  Livestock farmers get very exercised about its appearance in fields because of toxic alkaloids in the leaves though, in fact, herbivores tend to avoid it because of the unpleasant taste. Ragwort only poses a real risk when gathered in as part of a hay crop.  While farmers worry about seeds arriving on the wind from less rigorously managed, neighbouring fields, Isabella Tree points out in her book ‘Wilding’ that 60 percent of ragwort seeds fall at the base of the parent plant and only 0.005 percent, on average, travel 36 metres from their parent.  Those which travel furthest on the wind are also the lightest and least likely to be viable.

Other daisies are perennials, or at least biennials, so once established can put down substantial tap roots which give them a secure foothold even in disturbed soil.  Some, such as Creeping thistle, hedge their bets by also spreading vegetatively using lateral roots. This can allow them to dominate a landscape very quickly when the conditions are right, something Isabella Tree observed between 2006 and 2009 on the rewilding Knepp estate in Sussex – really large swathes of thistles are not particularly amenable to being kept in check by grazers. Fortunately, the problem turned out to be short-lived.  2009 was a year, like 2019, when Painted Lady butterflies arrived in the UK in much larger numbers than normal…..

Painted lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, on Wild thyme, Alnwick, June 2019

Creeping thistles are an important source of nectar for the butterfly and the leave are its larvae’s preferred food source so the thistles proved a magnet for newly arrived migrants.  The plants were soon swarming with black caterpillars which munched through the leaves, leaving them in tatters by the time the larvae pupated and a new generation of butterflies flew away.  The thistles were then much more easily finished off by the estate’s resident Exmoor ponies and the ‘problem’ was gone – a classic boom and bust of linked populations.  An unexpected bonus was that three years of dense thistle patches provided protection from birds for other butterflies, moths and grasshoppers and allowed common lizards to flourish with an abundant supply of prey.  In addition, many new anthills became established with the protection offered from herbivore hooves.

Tree is a powerful advocate for conservation by letting nature take its course and seeing what appears – very different from the regime at Quarrington Hill.  Nevertheless, I’ll be intrigued to watch what happens here over the next few years.

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