News from John Moffat for April 2015

  • Beyond the bluebells

    09:00 30 April 2015
    By John Atkinson, Nick Petrie, Paul Kear , Richard Tanner, Rob Clarke, Glenn Bailey, Sarah Anderson, Sam Stalker, Ian Griffiths, Matthew Allmark, Stuart Graham, Paul Farrington, John Moffat, Craig Hutchinson, Clair Payne, Luke Sherwen

    Spring in the woods means only one thing to lots of people: bluebells! Vibrant carpets of the delicate cyan flowers are a quintessential British experience at this time of year.   

    And it’s not just a spectacle; Britain is home to fifty percent of the world population of this species of bluebell. As plants recolonized the northern latitudes after the last Ice Age, bluebells reached Britain just before the sea level rose and cut us off from the continent, so lots of other plant species never arrived here.  In the rest of Europe, bluebells are out-competed by some of these species, whereas in the UK they are free to thrive.

    But I’d like to take you beyond the bluebell. Although bluebells are spectacular, my favourite time of the woodland year is actually a couple of weeks earlier, when some of the other woodland wildflowers are the real first sign that spring’s on its way.  Like bluebells, these plants have adapted to life in the woods by flowering before the trees are in leaf, so they make the most of the sun.  They don’t always form such a dramatic carpet on the woodland floor as bluebells, but often the fact that a number of different species are clustered together - with their diversity of colour - makes for a sight to gladden the soul.

    Wood anenome

    Wood anenomes Anenome nemosa are one of the most important indicators of ancient woodland.  They reproduce through rhizomes (root-like structures) that only spread about six inches a year – this means they don’t colonise new sites easily, and the presence of a large population means that a wood has been undisturbed for a very long time.  They can also provide an interesting clue to previous land uses, as they're sometimes found on open ground – but this is a strong clue that the area has been wooded previously.

    Lesser celandine

    Like wood anenomes, lesser celandines Ranunculus ficaria can be found in a variety of habitats, but usually give us a clue that the area has been wooded at one point.  It is sometimes known as ‘the spring messenger’ as one of the earliest flowers, and William Wordsworth was inspired to write three poems about the plant – famously, however, the celandine carved on his gravestone is the wrong species, the greater celandine.  It is also sometimes known as pilewort because there is an old folk belief that the crushed roots could make a lotion for piles when mixed with wine or urine!

    Wood sorrel

    Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella is probably my favourite woodland wildflower despite its ubiquity.  It particularly thrives in cool, shady woods  - of which there's no shortage round here - and can tolerate shade much darker than other plants. In the Lakes, it often grows out of the mossy carpet on the woodland floor or even from moss growing on tree branches, creating lush hanging gardens in the canopy.  The leaves are delicious and taste of apple peel, but don’t eat too many as they also contain Oxalic acid.  Wood sorrel is one of the more widespread flowers globally and is native as far north as Iceland, south down to Greece, and east as far as Japan!

    Wild garlic 

    Wild garlic Allium ursinum is another very common flower of damp woodlands and lends the woods their distinctive garlicky aroma in early spring.  The latin name means ‘Bear’s garlic’ and is so-named because where they still exist in Europe, brown bears love to truffle up the roots! Both the leaves and flowers are edible and have a more gentle taste than culinary garlic – wild garlic risotto is a personal favourite.


    Primrose Primula vulgaris has been under threat in England over the last few decades because of people digging plants up to put them in their garden – fortunately attitudes have changed and this sort of thing is much less common now.  Primroses can be seen anywhere that’s undisturbed, cool and slightly shady, so our Lake District oakwoods are great places to find the lemon yellow rosettes. 

    Get out and see 'em!

    The South Lakes is home to lots of fantastic native woodland so it’s the perfect place to get out and see woodland wildflowers in the spring.  The woodlands on Windermere’s west shore, along the Yewdale bridleway, above Glen Mary car park, or along Coniston’s east shore are particularly special places with rich flora and incredible atmosphere – make sure you don’t miss the spectacle, it changes day by day at this time of year! 
  • Same nest, different tenants - squatter's rights for birds!

    07:30 24 April 2015
    By John Atkinson, Nick Petrie, Paul Kear , Richard Tanner, Rob Clarke, Glenn Bailey, Sarah Anderson, Sam Stalker, Ian Griffiths, Matthew Allmark, Stuart Graham, Paul Farrington, John Moffat, Craig Hutchinson, Clair Payne, Luke Sherwen

    Everyone know it’s good to recycle or if possible re-use, but it’s not just us that does this.Two summers ago we noticed Swallows taking a great deal of interest in the toilet block at the volunteer centre here at High Wray. We always keep the door shut, to stop them flying in and getting stuck, but in this instance they were interested in the alcove above the door – an ideal nesting spot it would appear. Over the course of a couple of weeks we watched the nests build up, with both adults bringing in mud and plant material to make a lovely firm construction.

    Soon after completion we were delighted to spot the female sat on the nest. We were worried at first that she’d be put off by people heading in and out of the loo, but she’d briefly exit the nest whenever anyone passed before quickly returning. A couple of weeks later we noticed she was exiting the nest a little more often and spotted tiny fluffly feathers poking out over the rim of the nest – they’d hatched!

    Young and virtually featherless, the young not long hatched
    It took about another 3 weeks for them to steadily grow to the point where they were hanging out over the sides and it seemed a wonder they didn’t force each other out of the nest! Shortly after that, we checked one morning to find they’d all gone (without so much as a thank you).

    Shove over! The considerably bigger young almost ready to go

    The next year we hoped they would return as Swallows will often repair and re-use old nests, but were disappointed to see no sign of action. By the end of the summer the nest above the gents loo door was starting to look very run down, with the ladies one holding together much better.

    New tenants move in!

    So we had our fingers crossed for this year but it looks like someone beat the swallows to it. It appears that a Wren has decided the ‘ladies  nest’ would make a perfect base for its own construction and has built an exquisite (and very snug looking) extra layer on top of the original base. It looks like it had a go at the ‘gents nest’ as well, judging by the tatters of moss poked into some of the holes, but obviously agreed with us on the state of it and must have given it up as too much hard work.

    The 'gents nest' - not sure about that .....

    Much better! The 'Ladies nest' with cosy adaptation

    We’re not sure if this adapted nest has ended up being chosen by the female Wren (males normally build several nests, from which the females chose their favourite), but we’ll keep an eye on it over the coming weeks. One things for sure, with the swallows having just reappeared on the scene here (see last week’s entry on migration) they’re likely to get a big surprise if they decide to return to this particular site!

    By Rob Clarke, High Wray Basecamp community ranger
  • The Great British Migration

    07:39 17 April 2015
    By John Atkinson, Nick Petrie, Paul Kear , Richard Tanner, Rob Clarke, Glenn Bailey, Sarah Anderson, Sam Stalker, Ian Griffiths, Matthew Allmark, Stuart Graham, Paul Farrington, John Moffat, Craig Hutchinson, Clair Payne, Luke Sherwen

    Spring is finally here. As most of us contemplate what and where we are going on our summer holidays this year, the mass summer migration has begun for Britain’s wildlife.

    Could you imagine having to travel half way around the world to get to your destination, only to then repeat the same journey four months later? No nor can I but that’s exactly what hundreds of millions of our summer migrants do every year.



    Bird species such as Wood Warbler, Redstart, Cuckoo (arrive early April and leave by end of June) Swallow, House Martin, Sand Martin, and Swift (last to arrive and first to go) arrive in the spring and have traveled for thousands of miles from either North-West or Sub-Saharan Africa. These species come to Britain to breed because the further North they go, the greater the abundance of food and more light in which to search for it.

    Wood Warbler
    Sand Martin
    House Martin

    Butterflies & Moths


    Would you believe that some of our butterflies and day flying moths migrate to the UK too?

    Take the Painted Lady for instance; this migrates from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, which is somewhere in the region of 9000 miles and at altitudes of over 1,000m.

    For a tiny creature weighing less than a gram, with a brain the size of a pin head, and no opportunity to learn from older, experienced individuals, undertake an epic journey. It’s estimated that 11 million arrive in Britain each year, with around 25 million migrating back by the end of the summer.

    The Red Admiral like the Painted Lady is another migrant to Britain, flying from North Africa and Continental Europe in there millions and covering similar distances as their counterparts.

    The Humming-Bird Hawkmoth is a day flying moth that also migrants to Britain. These arrive in there thousands every year. Historically these were usually frequenting the South and East of the Country, However due to changes in our climate and hence warmer summers; they are being seen in Cumbria in larger numbers.

    The Silver Y moth is our most common immigrant moth from Southern Europe, North Africa and parts of South East Asia, which can arrive in numbers up to 250 million in a good year (yes that’s correct you read it right!), with a staggering four times as many leaving as arrived.

  • Neolithic axe factory.

    09:09 10 April 2015
    By John Atkinson, Nick Petrie, Paul Kear , Richard Tanner, Rob Clarke, Glenn Bailey, Sarah Anderson, Sam Stalker, Ian Griffiths, Matthew Allmark, Stuart Graham, Paul Farrington, John Moffat, Craig Hutchinson, Clair Payne, Luke Sherwen

    The Borrowdale Volcanic Group underlies the highest and craggiest central part of the Lake District including the Langdale and Scarfell Pikes. These igneous rocks are volcanic lavas and ash flows erupted during a phase of cataclysmic volcanism 450 million years ago. Ash exploded out of a volcano, may fall through the air and settle in beds, when compacted and cemented these are called tuffs. 

    The fine grain tuff located in a band of outcrop rock which extends around the summits of Langdale, Bow Fell, Scafell and Glaramara is the source of material for the Langdale axe production sites. This band has been eroded by glacial action and detached blocks of the tuffs are present within the morainal mounds and scree slopes below.

    The majority of axe production sites were directly associated with the outcropping of this source material on either the face of Pike of Stickle and Harrison Stickle or the South scree gully. Debris and hundreds of "reject" axes have been found on the scree slopes of Pike o' Stickle.

    Pike of Stickle and scree gully.

    The initial identification of axe production in the Langdale area was on Mart Crag Moor between Stake pass and Pike of Stickle. 

    Below is a more resent discovery in 2008 on the moraines on Mart Crag Moor. A footpath over Mart Crag Moor had formed a large erosion scar due to inadequate drainage. Consequently this exposed a previously unknown Neolithic axe manufacturing site.

    Mart Crag Moor axe production site.
    The Neolithic axe factory Sites in the Langdales and Scarfell are where the rough outs of axes were manufactured. There is evidence that sandstone grinding slabs found on the Cumbrian coast were used to polish or finish these greenstone axes. 

    Polishing the rough surfaces will have improved the mechanical strength of the axe as well as lowering friction when used against wood. Of all the Neolithic polished stone axes that have been examined in the UK, around 27% come from the Langdale region. 

    Neolithic axe factory sites of Langdale and Scarfell Pike in Cumbrian, together with Grimes Grave in Norfolk represent the earliest industry of true mass production in Britain.

    Polished greenstone hand axe, found at Troutbeck Bridge, 1899

  • Happy Chinese New Year

    09:00 03 April 2015
    By John Atkinson, Nick Petrie, Paul Kear , Richard Tanner, Rob Clarke, Glenn Bailey, Sarah Anderson, Sam Stalker, Ian Griffiths, Matthew Allmark, Stuart Graham, Paul Farrington, John Moffat, Craig Hutchinson, Clair Payne, Luke Sherwen

    Happy Chinese new year.

    I know it’s a bit late but happy Chinese NewYear , it’s the year of the sheep lucky numbers 2 and 7 lucky colours brown , red and purple.

    Of course every year is the year of the sheep in the Lake District , sheep have been an important part of the culture, economy and landscape here  for over a thousand years.


    Herdwick ewe and 'black' lambs

     One breed of sheep has a particularly strong connection to the area,  reportedly brought over here by the Norse Vikings , Herdwick sheep have been grazing on the Lake District Fells  ever since . They are a hardy breed , stocky, short legged and with thick wiry wool , at home in the mountains they live up there almost  year round at altitudes of up to 3000ft, without needing any supplementary feeding , their ‘ low maintenance’ has made them popular with generations of Cumbrian farmers.

    Kendal Green

     The significance of sheep farming and Herdwicks in particular to this area  is hard to overstate not only have sheep been the backbone of almost every Lake District farm since the time of the Vikings,  providing a livelihood for generations of farmers and their families,  but  the trade in sheep , lamb, mutton and wool has helped to establish important market towns like Kendal, Hawkshead and Ulverston. The wool trade supported the wealth of the Abbeys at Furness and Fountains Abbey that owned land in the Lake District in the 15th and 16th centuries, and traded as far afield as Italy !  ‘Kendal Green’ was a hardwearing woollen cloth popular in medieval England and even mentioned by Shakespeare  in Henry iv ( part 1 )

    Sheep farming and the wool trade has quite literally changed the face of the Lake District , old pack horse routes are now our main roads, we still  have narrow pack horse bridges over the becks and  the flagstone and drystone wall boundaries that we see today,  were built to keep sheep in the fields .

    Herdwick sheep sale

    The Herdwick sheep are unique in many ways ,  the ewes , because they are a mountain breed usually lamb later in the year when the weather is kinder and the grass has started growing . The higher fell farms will  start lambing in April when other lowland farms lamb in February . The purebred ewes usually have only one lamb , the  lambs are born black and  their fleece gets lighter and greyer as they get older. As I get older I find my fleece is  getting greyer as well !

    Sheep or Goat ?

    Herdwicks are definitely part sheep part goat, they are agile climbers , helpful when you have to graze on rocky crags. I have seen herdwicks climb high walls with ease and on one occasion saw a herdwick jump straight over a stock fence with barb wire on the top , just because there was the prospect of a better meal on the other side !
    Much of our South Lakes property came from Beatrix Potter, the famous  writer and illustrator of childrens books what is less well known is that she was an active farmer,  Champion Herdwick sheep breeder and later in life the President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association. Everything she turned her hand to,  she did to the very best of her ability and sheep breeding was no different . Why she had such a passion for sheep breeding and Herdwcks in particular we don’t really know , I personally think that part of the reason was the uncanny  resemblance of the Herdwick to her father Rupert , who was always the favourite of her two parents .

    Beatrix's father Rupert is the one on the right !

    Good n ..ewes  Bad n…ewes

    So sheep have,  and will continue  to play an important role in the story of the Lake District , the National Trust even has a ‘ landlords flock ‘ of herdwicks to ensure that this happens,  but like  all things it is a question of balance .

     In recent decades the number of sheep on the fells, encouraged by  subsidieshas increased to a level that has had a negative impact . Sheep are not very selective in their grazing habits and will eat anything that is in front of them . Sweet fresh grass is preferred , but if that is not available they will eat other shrubs, flowers and young trees. Sheep in woodlands and gardens can wreak havoc in a short period of time , making it important that we maintain our woodland boundaries to a high standard and at some cost .

    Heavily grazed grassland  on the fells and the valley sides  means that there can be a very short grass sward a lack of diversity in terms of wild flowers and insects and a tendency for soil erosion  to occur with tonnes of soil washed into our becks during heavy rain . Over a long period of time this means a massive loss of habitat and a loss of carbon stored in peat .

    Sheep numbers in recent years  are starting to fall again but there is still much to do to minimise further damage and ensure more sustainable land management in the future , this will be  a real focus of our work in the Trust in the Lake District in the coming years.