Lockdown botanising – Littlewood LNR

One small silver lining of not being able to travel far from home due to Covid19 may be that it awakens many of us up to what is on our doorsteps. In my case this means more local nature reserves a short bike ride from home.  Littlewood LNR is a site of special scientific interest more or less straight up the scarp slope of the Magnesian limestone escarpment from us, at Cassop.  I’ve never visited before, drawn by the allure of larger, and more famous national nature reserves not much further away. On a bitterly cold, late March afternoon the site initially looks unprepossessing – an exposed, bare-looking field which, judging by the number of cow pats, has been heavily grazed all winter.

I know June or July would be much better times to visit the reserve, known for its magnesian limestone grassland and the range of butterflies, birds and small mammals this attracts but wanted to introduce myself to the site now.  I’m keen to find more nearby places for botanising whilst travel restrictions are in place.  In any case, I know from my monthly walks round Raisby Hill last year what a piece of unpromising grassland can turn out to harbour so it’s worth giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Whilst today was more about anticipation than actual botanising, it was soon apparent that the field will be golden with cowslips in just a week or two. 

Cowslip, Primula veris

I beat the bounds of the reserve and, along the western edge, was delighted to find a dozen or so goldfinches chattering away in the hedgerow.  They were flitting about far too fast for me to photograph but who can resist a goldfinch, so here are a pair which feed on the niger seeds outside my ‘office’ window.

A couple of areas of the reserve have been fenced off for the protection of the ground-nesting partridges and larks which thrive here, though I saw no sign of them today.  The reserve slopes down from the road to the south, towards Kelloe plantation, with just a thin layer of topsoil over the limestone beneath.  In parts the topsoil has been mechanically scraped away to help some of the more delicate grassland plants compete with more vigorous grasses. In such area I find the other treasure of the day – tiny Hairy violets, Viola hirta, easy to distinguish from their larger dog-violet cousins by the rounded (rather than pointed) sepals which enclose the flower.

There are plenty of other interesting leaves too, one of which may be Rue-leaved saxifrage, which I’ve not seen in this area before.  Last year’s Carline thistle heads may be one of the attractions for the goldfinches.

Left to right: See heads of Carline thistle, Carlina vulgaris; Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara; leaves of Rue-leaved saxifrage, Saxifraga tridactylites

A narrow, wooded gully runs through the centre of the reserve and I thought I might find primroses here but the understorey was mainly bright green Cuckoo pint leaves, with their distinctive purple speckles – an equally sure sign of spring.

So, plenty to draw me back later in the year;  a small benefit of the current lockdown as I’d never have discovered this was here if I’d had the option of travelling further afield to look for nature reserves I’d not visited before.  Stay local, stay safe, protect the NHS!

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