Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Hills and Holes

Green Hairstreak butterfly

Not all of my favourite spots are nature reserves, but most of them are designated in some way. That means somebody loves them enough to want to have them conserved. We have a brilliant system in the UK for saving our countryside and thousands of precious sites have been conserved, but it makes me sad to see the way we generally mine the countryside to make money. Why do we need so much oilseed rape and sugar beet? (I really want to know.)

If I had time, I would try to visit every nature reserve in the UK, but in reality I visit just a few a year; usually the same ones. Top of my local list is Hills and Holes at Barnack, just south of Stamford.

Pasque flower.
The reserve is the remains of a medieval limestone quarry that was used to provide the stones for several local cathedrals and churches. Today it is a National Nature Reserve (NNR), run for the government by Natural England. I imagine that, before Natural England got to grips with it, it was overgrown with hawthorn scrub but they have instituted a management regime that involves intense grazing by sheep in the autumn and winter, almost exposing the bare chalky soil in places. This kind of nutrient stripping is the ideal way to encourage flowers and discourage coarse grasses. The result is a spectacular succession of wonderful flowers and butterflies throughout the summer.

Early purple orchid.
The season traditionally starts at Easter when the pasque flowers bloom and probably ends with the autumn gentians, broomrapes and yellow-flowered Carline thistles. In between, the site boasts a host of flowering orchids and some special butterflies, including the chalk-hill blue.

There is no restriction on visiting and dogs run freely all over the site, which is not ideal, especially if you are sheep. However, the best areas for wild-flowers are roped off to protect them from big feet, especially those of photographers.

We have only managed one visit so far this year and that lasted just half an hour before we had a telephone call to say were were needed at home. All the same, we saw the end of the pasque flower season and caught the last of the cowslips. We also saw green hairstreak butterflies on the wild apple trees and some lovely early purple orchids.

Go there soon if you can.

Pasque flower seed-heads.