Cassop Vale, Autumn 2021

The weather could hardly have been more different to July for my late August trip to Cassop – I walked up there under overcast skies and, no sooner had I arrived, than it started to rain.  I guess that might partly account for my disappointment with the day but I think this was more to do with how rundown and overgrown the site now looks.  What should be high quality Magnesian limestone grassland is largely covered in Himalayan balsam, Mugwort, Willowherb and Creeping thistles with the odd garden escape (Montbretia) thrown in.  Some of the smaller, less common plants which I was hoping to see this year have simply disappeared in the face of this competition,

though there is Devils-bit scabious on the hillside on the south side of the reserve above the disused quarries. There is no comparison with what I see in August at sites like Raisby Hill and Crowtrees local nature reserves, managed by Durham Wildlife Trust and County Council respectively. Here you can still find Meadowsweet, Greater and common knapweed, Perforate St John’s-wort, Rockrose, Wild strawberry, Viper’s bugloss, Eyebright, Yellow-wort and Tufted vetch in flower, amongst many others.

August flowers from Raisby Hill and Crowtrees LNRs. Clockwise from top left: Meadow cranesbill, Sneezewort, Autumn gentian, Greater knapweed, Harebell, Eyebright, Small scabious, Yellow-wort and Viper’s bugloss (centre)

My October trip was at least dry and the beautiful, Constable-like afternoon light helped improve my mood. 

There seemed to be a little more in flower than on my last visit, though nothing particularly exciting.  Seeing a second flush of Cow parsley in October was a bit of a surprise but, though the cattle are not back in the field yet, it looks like some scrub clearance may have taken place giving other plants a chance.  Or it may be that the Himalayan balsam is just less conspicuous now it’s mostly finished flowering….

Flowers from Cassop Vale in October: Clockwise from top left: Betony, Meadow vetchling, Yarrow, Red clover, Harebell, Hogweed, Autumn hawkbit, Cow parsley and Common knapweed (centre)

Not until late October did I get an explanation from Natural England about the state of the reserve.  It turns out that most of the valley (hatched on the map below) has been declassified as a National Nature Reserve, leaving only a small pocket of protected land on the west side of the road up to Quarrington Hill (coloured yellow) now known simply as Cassop NNR.  Not having realised the significance of this patch of land and given that it has no obvious public access, I haven’t even visited the area this year and it’s too late now to see much of what might be growing there.

Natural England’s ‘Cassop National Nature Reserve No. 02 Declaration 2021’ states that, “The land having a total area of 17.86 hectares or thereabouts, situated in the Parish of Cassop-cum-Quarrington in the Unitary Authority of County Durham shown cross hatched and un-shaded on the attached maps (which land was included in the Cassop Vale National Nature Reserve No.01 Declaration made by the Nature Conservancy Council for England on the 11th day of July 1996) is no longer the subject of a nature reserve agreement and has ceased to be managed as a nature reserve. The land shown shaded yellow and unhatched on the attached maps having a total area of 6.84 hectares or thereabouts remains declared and is to be known henceforth as Cassop National Nature Reserve.”

An e-mail exchange with local Natural England staff reveals that the declassification is the result of issues around land ownership of the SSSI. The mystery of the site’s deterioration is solved but my disappointment remains real and so does the concern of Natural England conservationists, worried about the state of the Magnesian Limestone grassland. Natural England have been actively managing encroaching scrub on the remaining area of NNR for the last couple of years and have seen significant improvements in the species composition and invertebrate biodiversity, so I’m sorry I didn’t visit this area and will make sure I do next year.

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