This year I’ve set myself the challenge of visiting some of the many small nature reserves around us in County Durham which I’ve not been to before rather than visiting the same one on a monthly basis, as I’ve done for the last couple of years. What better way to kick this off than by finding a new place to carry out my New Year’s Plant hunt? So, after a trip to the station today, I decided to explore Low Newton Junction, a county council run Local Nature Reserve which forms a narrow wildlife corridor between the main east coast train line by Newton Hall housing estate on the outskirts of Durham and HMP Frankland.
Part of the reserve lies within a disused sand quarry, now home to a species-rich grassland similar to that in other nearby quarry reserves such as Bishop Middleham and Thrislington. I was more surprised to see common heather, Calluna vulgaris, and puffballs growing on the well drained slopes of the quarry sides.
Cotoneaster plants covered in scarlet berries testify to the reserve’s proximity to suburban gardens but in the summer there are Northern marsh orchids, Harebells and Bird’s-foot trefoil to enjoy, the latter providing food for the larvae of a population of Dingy skipper butterflies.
As you’d guess from the name, the reserve also encompasses an old railway junction between the east coast main line and a now-disused line which ran north east towards Washington. Ponds have developed along the old railway lines – the cuttings they run through drain water from the surrounding land. These ponds are occupied by a range of amphibians, damselflies and dragonflies though there was no sign of these on this cool January afternoon. There was, however, plenty of evidence of water plants – bulrushes, aquatic Ranunculus, duckweed and Potamageton, amongst others and a healthy, brown bloom of diatoms. There is no doubt the ponds support plenty of invertebrates and other small animals.
The quarry grassland is closely grazed by rabbits but there are plenty of plant rosettes amongst patches of soil-dwelling lichens and mosses in the damper areas. The scrubby hawthorn trees are covered in both Xanthoria parietina and a grey lichen which I’m sure I should recognise…. Hawthorn often seems blessed with a particular abundance of lichen, maybe because the rough bark traps moisture, providing a good place for fungal spores to germinate or for fragments of lichen to get a foothold.
I was trying to kill two birds with one stone on my visit by taking part in the New Year plant hunt so I walked in and out of the reserve along the old railway path, wandered through some of the coppiced woodland and criss-crossed the quarry itself but the only plant I found in flower was a little gorse, Ulex europaeus.
Other ‘usual suspects’ such as White dead-nettle, Yarrow and Herb Robert, which I was finding in flower last January, were conspicuous by their absence. Although it has been mild for the last three or four weeks, some very hard frosts in early December seem to have put paid to most flowers for now. For now I’ll have to be content with the promise of things to come.