Malcolm Smith, DWT Botany Group Member, shares this step-by-step account of the group’s recent outing to Waldridge Fell, a beautiful expanse of lowland heath, mire and woodland. Details on how you can get involved in the DWT Botany Group are included at the end of this report. (Photos by Malcolm Smith, species list by Keith Robson).
Waldridge Fell is an area of lowland heath 1.5 km southwest of Chester-le-Street, extending to some 90 hectares, bounded to the northwest and to the southeast by the Cong Burn and South Burn, tributaries of the River Wear. Lowland heath is a threatened and declining habitat countrywide, easy prey to agricultural improvement and commercial and residential development. In County Durham, Waldridge Fell is the last remaining expanse of this unusual and interesting habitat. The soil is acidic and sandy, the broad impression of the vegetation is a wild and open landscape dominated by heather, with bilberries, gorse, occasional trees and scrub, and ubiquitous intrusive bracken. As well as its ecological and conservation significance being recognised in the Waldridge Fell SSSI, the area – styled as the Waldridge Country Park – is an important amenity space, owned and maintained by Durham County Council, and much favoured by walkers and their dogs. There are car parks, way-marked routes, benches and interpretation boards.
Keith Robson is a member of the DWT Botany Group whose knowledge, curiosity and enthusiasm has made him an expert on the natural history of Waldridge Fell – just look at his website, A Waldridge Naturalist! – and he was the obvious choice to lead a party keen to discover the botanical riches.
From the high ground of the Hilton St. car park we could look southwest beyond the gorse and heather, across Wanister Bog to the woodland surrounding South Burn. At the very beginning of our descent we were encouraged to discover the small, inconspicuous sand spurrey (Spergularia rubra) growing at the edge of the path. It took some finding, but on our return leg some flowers had opened, making it much easier to spot. I’ve noticed corn spurrey (Spergula arvensis) behaving the same way; flowers tight shut in the morning but wide open by early afternoon.
To either side of the sandy path stretched the mosaic of ling (Calluna vulgaris), bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), gorse (Ulex europaeus) and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) that is the core of the fell’s ground cover. Suddenly we came upon an attractive patch of open grassland that, for no obvious reason, has avoided incursion from bracken, and here we noticed and (after some long deliberation and a lot of help from Keith) put a name to purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea), with its broad stiff leaves and delicate purple spikelets. Ironically, at Town Kelloe Bank, which several members of the party visited a couple of days later, purple moor grass is itself the invader, colonising the magnesian limestone grassland of those steeply sloping banks.
Wanister Bog has gated access through a protective fence, and we took advantage of this to examine closely the delightful alternative world that wetland so often represents. Here, we saw luxuriant growth of marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) (though with no evidence of its tiny flowers) and an abundance of Marsh Violet (Viola palustris), along with occasional patches of leggy Marsh Bedstraw (Galium palustre).
Moving toward the centre of the bog we were in a dense carpet of bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), now past flowering, and beyond that, in deeper water, the focus of attention was a large expanse of common cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) shining brilliant white in the sunshine. Other species noted here included water horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile), marsh willowherb (Epilobium palustre) , and common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii).
Leaving the bog, we followed a path through the mixed woodland – chiefly sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), downy birch (Betula pubescens) and alder (Alnus glutinosa) – that casts a broad margin of shade across the banks of South Burn. Here the ground flora was quite sparse, though wavy hair-grass (Deschampsia flexuosa) was noteworthy, and wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) was plentiful, but is reportedly shy of flowering. Emerging from the shadows we took the opportunity to key out a small-flowered stitchwort: “petals as long as to longer than sepals”? – that makes it lesser stitchwort (Stellaria graminea); no doubt about it, is there?
Retracing our steps uphill towards the car park we visited a pond – signaled from afar by a stand of glorious Yellow Flags (Iris pseudacorus ) – whose clear water revealed a troop of fat dancing tadpoles, back legs just emergent, and whose margins yielded up among the soft rush (Juncus effusus), and lesser spearwort (Ranunculus flammula), yet another small-flowered stitchwort: hang on, “petals distinctly shorter than sepals”? – this one is Bog Stitchwort (Stellaria alsine), much easier now we’ve seen the two together!
To the north side of the pond the spearwort was in company with sedges, not only black sedge (Carex nigra) but also the less common oval sedge (Carex leporina). The photo shows them both in the safe hands of Steve Gater.
The final ascent back to the car park gave us a retrospective view of our meander across the wide expanse of heath, mire and woodland, framed by the big sky and wide horizons and, as so often in the east of County Durham, offered a glimpse of Penshaw Monument in the distance. It was a wonderful habitat to have explored under Keith’s guidance; we thank him for that, and for the species list he recorded on the day (available here). Waldridge Fell is a gem and will surely repay further visits.