Busy Barnard Castle

Whit Sunday is usually a busy day in Barny, with lots of activity for locals and visitors alike and, on this occasion, in very nice sunny weather too. So it was a great day for the DWT botany group to avoid the crowds and retreat to the local woods in search of wildlife, particularly wild plants.

The day was of two halves, the morning following the north bank of the River Tees heading towards Cotherstone and the afternoon an exploration of Deepdale Wood to the west. Both woods are just below the castle, easy to access and offering different plants and vegetation to enjoy.

Geum urbanum (wood avens)

Margaret Morton kindly agreed to be our first lead and shared her intimate knowledge of the Natural History of Tees Bank Woods drawn from the booklet with that title that she recently revised and edited with Margaret Bradshaw. We were quickly picking up species on the track down to the start of the walk and then seeing the woodland specialities. The smell of garlic was strong with swards of Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard) and Allium ursinium (ramsons / wild garlic) on display. The peculiar flower spathe of Arum maculatum (Lords and Ladies) was emerging and the white umbrella-like umbels of Athriscus sylvestris (cow parsley) were swaying gently. A tawny owl was calling.


Fragaria vesca (wild strawberry)

Thinking of the magical woods of Shakepeare’s Midsummer night’s dream, the tiny white flowers of Circaea lutetiana (enchanter’s nightshade) were not on show (of course, it’s not mid-summer yet) and those of Mercuralis perennis (dog’s mercury) had seen their best (separate male plants and female plants for this dioiceous species). We were also too early for strawberries, but not for the delicate white flowers of the wild strawberry plant, Fragaria vesca.

Alchemilla mollis (common garden Lady’s mantle)

Ahead of a later, return, visit to see Lady’s mantle species it was good to see a couple of the special wild ones; Alchemilla glabra (smooth Lady’s mantle), A.xanthochlora (intermediate Lady’s mantle). We recorded a further one in the afternoon, A.filicaulis subsp. vestita (common Lady’s mantle) – not to be confused with A. mollis which is the common garden Lady’s mantle.

Several crane’s-bills were on show, including Geranium pratense (meadow crane’s-bill), G.robertianum (herb robert) and the less common.G.sylvaticum (wood crane’s-bill). Geum rivale (water avens) and G.urbanum (wood avens) were in flower alongside the hybrid between the two, G. x intermedium.

Lunchtime, so back into the town centre to eat in the sunshine, before walking the short distance over the castle bridge into Startforth, negotiating the road works and finding the entrance to Deepdale Wood. Here we were quickly found by our afternoon guide, vc66 recorder and wood-owner John Durkin.

John was able to give us some fascinating details of Deepdale Wood over the next few hours, starting with his project with DWT volunteers and others to manage the wood and provide outdoor education via a forest school. The setting was ideal to spark the imagination of groups of young children and to enthuse their interest in wildlife. Hopefully they will become the future guardians of the rich natural and social history of these woods.

Cruciata laevipes (crosswort)

Not surprisingly we were seeing much of the same flora as delighted us in the morning, but you cannot get too much of a good thing! John explained how he was managing the wood to support the high biodiversity that it has long been renowned for. There’s still much to do and he is most grateful for the local folk who eagerly volunteer their time, skills and muscle to help him make a difference – their efforts were clear to see.

Gagea lutea (yellow star-of-Bethlehem) seen earlier on the Tees in flower

With John’s guidance we were able to find a needle-in-a-haystack – well the leaves of a single Gagea lutea (yellow star-of-Bethlehem) plant under the extensive cover of Petasites hybridus (butterbur). Both plants have finished flowering by now, but John explained that very few of the Gagea plants flower in the wood – but why?

Ribes spicatum (downy currant)

He also revealed a low straggling bush that was new to most of us, Ribes spicatum (downy currant). This is a rare native on limestone that seems to enjoy growing near water. As well as being downy, it differs from other currant species by it’s leaf base and flower shape.

Lathraea squamaria (toothwort) 

Lathraea squamaria (toothwort)

John was disappointed not to be able to show us the flowers of another speciality, Hordelymus europaeus (wood barley), which should be emerging soon. But he was pleased to see a second stand of the hemi-parasitic  Lathraea squamaria (toothwort), a new find for him on the day.

buckler ferns Dryopteris carthusiana (front) and D.dilatata (back)

There were plenty of other grasses, ferns, sedges and rushes to see. It was good to compare the smaller Dryopteris carthusiana (narrow buckler-fern) growing alongside D.dilatata (broad buckler-fern)

The species list (click here) continued to grow before we had to say goodbye and quickly dash off after a thoroughly rewarding day. Thank you to Margaret and John for their detailed preparation and expert guidance, to Keith for images and species list and to all for your interest and support. Just hope that John found his dog after it ran off at the end of our wonderful day!

Durham Wildlife Trust botany group is open to Trust members who are interested in finding, seeing, enjoying, identifying and learning about the wonderful wild flowers and plants in our area and beyond. There is a busy programme of events to cater for all. The group welcomes anyone who is interested in wild plants – beginners, improvers and experts – and we all learn more together. For more details email botany@durhamwt.co.uk or call Rainton Meadows (0191 5843112).