This weeks wanders take me to Billingham and deepest Derwent Valley gorges.
Billingham Beck Country Park was a pleasant surprise to me as a first time visitor. I met up with another volunteer who lives locally on a sunny warm Thursday morning. The park lies right on the edge of the A19 and is very easy to access. With a mix of meadows, some of which are grazed, old hedgerows, Alder Carr and stream banks and ponds it provides habitat for a wide range of birds, insects and wildflowers. It did look good in some areas for reptiles as well but a brief chat with the ranger told us what we feared, which was of no sightings, other than terrapins in one of the ponds some years ago. As most herpetologists will know, the lack of records doesn’t mean that nothing is there, just that people haven’t seen them or if they have, have never thought of recording the sightings.
This didn’t stop us from exploring this extensive site on either side of the dual carriage way. One area of rough vegetation caught my eye and we spent a good forty minutes creeping and peeping round. It was full of some good wild flowers and butterflies. Vipers Buglos (pictured) attracted a lot of insect pollinators as did the Ladies Bedstraw and White Bladder Campion.
As we wandered around the rest of the site the overwhelming abundance of Himalayan Balsam was nothing short of depressing. This devastating invasive plant is ruining our river banks and woods. It overcrowds native wild flowers and pollinating insects become addicted to its nectar at the expense of our natives which get overlooked.
It’s shallow roots destabilise river banks and the soft mush it reduces to in the winter when it dies means other plants are buried beneath it’s sloppy decomposing sludge. As you’ve correctly guessed I really do not like Balsam and have waged a personal war on it over the last few years.
Friday at the Derwent river below Muggleswick village. A cooler day with a brisk breeze. The walk took us along the track past the old ruined grange which dates back to the 13th century and was part of a monastic community run farm. The ruin is of national importance as it is one of the few standing remains of its type. The track runs parallel with Muggleswick Burn on the left.
After losing the path, which isn’t too well signed, we ended up on the river bank where a few ponds offer perfect habitat and spotting opportunities. Once again I was distracted by Balsam. Not so much as at Billingham but a manageable amount to get rid of. Which we did. It’s impressive what two people can achieve in a short concerted effort. I include this as habitat management as the balsam will affect basking opportunities for reptiles if it is allowed to completely overrun the banks of the river and surrounding Carr and wood habitat.
With a sense of achievement we set about scanning the river banks and pond edges. This particular site is rumoured to be one of the likeliest sites to spot grass snake. We spent hours Creeping & Peeping. It was a beautiful location with no other people, walking dogs, riding mountain bikes or jogging to disturb the peace and tranquility. After a lengthy wander, lunch happened at Pow Hill country Park after first delivering batches of the newly printed RRP bookmarks to several likely outposts in and around Edmunbyers.
Today, Saturday is a slightly different story. Firstly the weather was against me as steady but not heavy rain fell. I thought rather than be defeated by it once again I’d venture out to the planned location to see what the place was like and whether any reptiles would brave it out and be abroad. The only likely part to explore was a long and overgrown track through some of the woods.
Long grass filled with day flying moths and meadow browns soon had my shoes soaked. It wasn’t this that put me off exploring further. Nor did the constant rain distract me as my waterproofs had me well protected. (Apart from the boots). The lack of potential reptiles and suspiciously low amount of bird song did nothing to dampen my spirits. The scenery was delightful and I’m ever hopeful when on a wander.
It was the flies what did it! Hordes of insistent insects getting in my face, hood and hair. They were biters as well. One got in my hood and jabbed the back of my neck. Any photos I tried to take were spoiled by a lense full of uninvited thoraxes. Eyes, nose and ears were a particular point of interest to be investigated by these flying irritants. It was too much, I gave in and headed back to the van. If only I’d taken my mossy net I might have stuck it out longer, but I thought two hours was more than was called for under the onslaught.
So here I am back home in an insect free living room tapping away at this and preparing next months outings. I’d never make it as one of those wildlife photographers who sits in trees for days, waiting to film forest elephants in Cameroon, while slowly getting drained of fluids by mosquitos.
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