A walk on the wild side

A cold couple of days of fieldwork in the Lake District last weekend provided a very welcome opportunity to drop in for a look at the RSPB reserve at Haweswater on the way home.  The RSPB first became involved in Haweswater because of the pair of Golden Eagles which nested there from 1969 until the last male died, in 2015.  They rent some 3000 hectares of woodland, moorland, farmland, river and meadow from the water company, United Utilities, which extracts around a quarter of NW England’s water supply from Haweswater reservoir.  The reserve land is now being managed in a joint initiative by the RSPB and UU as ‘Wild Haweswater’ – an attempt to improve habitats for wildlife and maintain water quality, whilst running viable hill farms.  These aims are surprisingly well aligned – over-grazing of uplands and drainage of peat over the last twenty or thirty years has led to soil erosion, meaning that more sediments end up in the reservoir and the water needs more extensive treatment to make it fit for drinking. 

Looking SW along Haweswater towards Harter Fell

Planting native shrubs and trees in the catchment and grazing land around the reservoir less intensively will reduce these problems, as well as making space for upland wildlife.  Current management of the reserve also includes measures such as the blocking of old drainage ditches (grip blocking) to restore and maintain peat bogs, with their unique plant communities, including Sphagnum moss, Bog asphodel, Cloudberry, Bog orchid and Sundew.  Grip blocking also increases the numbers of invertebrates such as Leatherjackets and Chironomid larvae, which provide a valuable food source for grouse chicks and waders such as Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe and Golden plover. 

Of course it is the plants which particularly interest me.  The upland habitat mosaic hosts many nationally or regionally scarce species of both higher and lower plants.  Though this area sits firmly amidst the Borrowdale Volcanic rocks, plants of interest found here include the Bird’s-eye primrose, Spring sandwort and Alpine lady’s-mantle I more often associate with limestone in Upper Teesdale and Weardale.  Others are new to me – Bog rosemary, Bog orchid, Spignel and Wintergreen.  It’s too early in the year to find these in flower so a repeat visit may be necessary….

I was particularly looking for the early-flowering Purple saxifrage, Saxifraga oppositifolia, which has been recorded on the crags above Blea Water in the past.  We clambered up the hill from the road near Mardale Head towards the tarn which, along with the imaginatively-named Small Water, makes up the ‘Waters Heft’ SSSI.  Though I saw plenty of hummocks of Mossy saxifrage, S. hypnoides, there was no sign of the purple, sadly. 

Blea water looking East (top) and showing the cliffs below Mardale Ill Bell where I found S. rosea

I did find an unexpected oddity, though, in the form of Roseroot, Sedum rosea, growing high enough up a vertical rock face to make photographing it a challenge! It seems very alien in this environment but is not uncommon on sea-cliffs and in rocky crevices and on ledges in montane areas above 300 m, though usually on more alkaline rocks.  Like other Sedums, S. rosea is a member of the Crassulaceae plant family which use a special form of photosynthesis known as CAM (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism) to help them survive in very dry environments such as this vertical rock face. If you cut the tough rhizome it’s supposed to smell of Damask roses and, indeed, is full of aromatic organic compounds. It has been grown as a source of perfume in the past.  Dried extract of the rhizome is also used as traditional medicine, for treating anxiety and depression as well as altitude sickness, particularly in Russia and China, though there is no clinical evidence for any of these benefits. 

Sedum rosea

I’m keen to go back and see what it looks like in flower.  Sedum rosea used to go by the name Rhodiola rosea and a number of other Rhodiola species are familiar to me from the Indian Himalayas, though growing at much higher altitudes, above 3000 m.

Top: Rhodiola wallachiana.
Bottom: left, R. tibetica; right, R. trifida

The other genus of plants easy to spot early in the year, though very difficult to separate to species level, are the Lady’s mantles or Alchemillas. Alchemilla alpina is relatively easy to tell apart because its lobed leaves are cut almost to the base, rather like Lupin leaves.  I don’t even want to hazard a guess at the other species below. 

Two species of Lady’s Mantle. Alpine Lady’s mantle, Alchemilla alpina on the left.

I’ll be agitating for another trip here after our June fieldwork in the Lakes when, although there will be no chance of finding Purple saxifrage in flower, I’ll be hoping for some other gems.

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