Monday, July 18, 2011

Teesdalian Botanophilia: Part Two

This is a follow-on from Part One here.

Widdybank Fell is spoken of in hallowed terms by botanists. A visit there was high on my list of must-dos in Upper Teesdale. The site is easy to access by road and there is a car park (but no loos or other facilities) at Cow Green Reservoir (Grid Reference NY810309).

Cow Green Reservoir looking north towards Greet Dun Fell.
Cow Green reservoir, so tranquil today, was the site of a bitter controversy back in the 60s. Upper Teesdale has internationally rare assemblages of alpine plants; remnants of a once more widespread post-glacial flora. Plans to construct the reservoir meant a part of this relic flora was to be inundated. Local conservationists fought a fierce battle to save the area, letters were written to The Times, scientific papers were published, ministers consulted, but despite all their efforts, the reservoir was built. Government 1: Rare Plants 0. However, the land surrounding the reservoir was designated as an NNR (Moor House and Upper Teesdale) and is now a Global and European Geopark.

Looking ahead is the dam, behind which is Cauldron Snout waterfall. The path to the dam is tarmacced and easy going. (From thence, the going gets harder; the 'path' down the water fall is a scramble over rocks so most people walk carpark to dam and back.) The plants I have photographed were all found just along or near to the path.
Looking towards the dam and Cauldron Snout.
Widdybank Fell is a delectable feast of dainty delights. Consequently, much of my time was spent in the botanical position; head down, bottom up, with wet knees.

Adorable mountain pansies (Viola lutea) were dotted about in the short damp grassland.

Mountain pansy (Viola lutea)
Here's the petite pink bird's eye primrose (Primula farinosa); only found on limestone in upland Britain. Most plants were past their best but we found a few still flowering.
Bird's eye primrose (Primula farinosa)
Another diminutive alpine plant (see UK distribution map here) found on damp calcareous upland grassland is Scottish asphodel (Tofieldia pusilla). Sowerby's English Botany (1799) states that it was first found in England in County Durham. Mr Thomas Tofield after whom the genus is named, was an 18th century botanist and civil engineer from Doncaster.
Scottish asphodel (Tofieldia pusilla)
The tiny white stars of spring sandwort (Minuartia verna) were dotted about where underlying limestone rocks were exposed. 
Spring sandwort (Minuartia verna)
A plant I didn't expect to find in the mountains was sea plantain (Plantago maritima) with its distinctive yellow anthers and linear leaves. This photo (below) was taken leaning over a fence as they only grew in exclusion zones, fenced off from sheep. The exclusion zone was tiny and hinted at the botanical riches we could enjoy if grazing pressure was reduced. 
Sea plantain (Plantago maritima)
Also growing in exclusion zones were carpets of alpine bistort (Persicaria vivipara). You can see its dark browny-red bulbils under the white flowers.
Alpine bistort (Persicaria vivipara)
Woolly-fringe moss (Racomitrium lanuginosum) is characteristic of upland moors and below is growing with wild thyme.
Woolly-fringe moss (Racomitrium lanuginosum)
The red spangly spoon-shaped leaves of carnivorous sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) sparkled in boggy areas. Drosera mean 'dewdrops'. They are always a treat to see.
Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
On exposed rocks by the water we found yellow saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides)....
Yellow saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides)
....its star-like flowers are orange-speckled.
Yellow saxifrage flower (Saxifraga aizoides)
Once past the reservoir dam, the footpath is rockier. The Tees tumbles noisily down the cataract of Cauldron Snout right next to the path.
It then flows over its rocky bed through open country. We didn't meet another person on this stretch of the path. 
There were scattered juniper trees (Juniperus communis) in the rocks.
Juniper (Juniperus communis)
Further along, a distinctly chubby viviparous lizard (Lacerta vivipara) was sunning herself on a short stretch of boardwalk. She'd clearly regrown her tail at some point.
Viviparous lizard (Lacerta vivipara)
I was thrilled to see ring ouzels along the way; here ahead of us on the path. 
Male and female ring ouzel with a wheatear in the background
After a few miles we left the River Tees and started to follow the track back round to Cow Green. The picture below looks back to Widdybank Farm (reserve office for the National Nature Reserve/Natural England).
During our day-long walk through this beautiful upland area we didn't see a single raptor in the sky; not one. I thought this very suspicious, as the habitat seemed perfect. In fact raptorless skies were a notable feature of our entire week in Upper Teesdale.

The last stretch of the walk was along the road and the best views were to be had by looking backwards. Here is the view back down Teesdale with its white-washed farmhouses.
This fluffy juvenile wheatear was sitting on rocks near the car park. Cute!

Further Information
North Pennines AONB publish a Cow Green geological trail.
There are some aerial shots and maps of the area here.

Durham Wildlife Trust (?1990) Upper Teesdale. This excellent little booklet was on the bookshelf at our self-catering cottage. I'm pretty sure it's now out of print so photographed the parts on botany (by renowned local botanist Margaret Bradshaw).

McCulloch CS (2004) Political ecology of dams in Teesdale, in H. Hewlett (Editor) Long-term benefits and performance of dams. Thomas Telford: London. Pages 49-66. Available (good on them) here

Dr CD Piggot wrote an influential paper abotu the botany of Upper Teesdale in 1956 published in the Journal of Ecology (The vegetation of Upper Teesdale in the North Pennines. Journal of Ecology. Volume 44(2). Pages 545-86. Cusses that this important and pivotal paper is behind a paywall so only avaibale to those in academic or other paying institutions. He also wrote a piece for New Scientist which is freely accessible online (Pigott CD (1957). The botanical treasures of Upper Teesdale. New Scientist, February 21, pages 12-13)

Sowerby J and Smith Sir JE (1799) English Botany: Volume 8. Full text available on Google Books.


  1. Marvellous.... just the kind of habitat I looked for when I was up in the Dales last (and failed to find because I hadn;t done my homework).

  2. You've sussed my secret. A bit of planning did help. M