Hutton Roof Crags Nature Reserve - a wilderness with amazing views
PUBLISHED: 00:53 07 May 2013 | UPDATED: 19:14 08 June 2016
We have a beautiful nature reserve of international significance on our doorstep and this is a great time to visit, writes Charlotte Rowley
Not many of us would be able to look at the ground beneath our feet and say what kind of rock we are standing on. You may know from time spent in the garden whether it is alkaline, acid or neutral soil that dictates which plants you can grow. But so often when out walking in the countryside the plants and animals look the same. Hutton Roof Crags Nature Reserve, on the border of north Lancashire and Cumbria, defies this trend and instead swings from limestone pavement, where lime-loving plants like dark red helleborine grow, to acid heathland, where green hairstreak butterflies lay eggs on acid-loving bilberry.
The limestone rock here was laid down 350 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. Fossils within the rock show that it was created in a warm shallow sea inhabited by corals, shelled creatures and sea lilies. Glacial debris was left by retreating ice sheets 10,000 years ago and over time rain water etched a pattern of grikes and runnels into the rock, creating limestone pavement. Between the pavements different thicknesses of soil create varied conditions. Where the soil is thinner, lime-loving plants like blue moor grass grow in abundance but where the soil is thicker, acid-loving plants do better.
Cumbria Wildlife Trust bought the first part of the nature reserve in 1978 thanks to a grant from the World Wildlife Fund and donations from members, with another part coming from the Atkinson family. The Trust also manages Park Wood and land owned by the parish. The nature reserve is managed by Andrew Walter, known as Wal, with help from local residents and volunteer honorary reserve managers Charles and Ann Dale.
‘The nature reserve feels like a wilderness with amazing views from the top. The limestone pavement is like a wild lunar landscape’ says Wal. ‘It is a special place because so much unusual flora and fauna thrives here. The limestone pavement at Hutton Roof Crags is one of the best examples in the world and rigid buckler fern, limestone fern and angular Solomon’s seal are some of the rare plants to look out for.
‘At Hutton Roof Crags we have northern brown argus butterflies whose caterpillars only live on rockrose, and the rare high brown fritillary butterfly that needs an abundance of violets for its caterpillars. We maintain the rides, which are essentially the paths, in the woodland so the violets get the conditions that are right for them.’
The limestone pavement is flanked on one side by woodland and on the other by heathland and acid grassland. The flora in the different areas is dictated by the soil ph. Together with the variety of heights and structures that is created, as one habitat blurs into the next, niches are provided for the diverse range of invertebrates like butterflies, spiders and beetles that thrive. Pickles Wood itself is an ancient woodland and has all the layers you would expect to find, from ground flora to tall trees of ash with fine examples of oak, yew and holly. You will see hazel with its pretty catkins, buckthorn, which is the food plant of the brimstone butterfly, and spindle with its stunning orange and pink berries. Bluebells, sweet woodruff and Paris carpet the woodland floor in spring.
Some of the woodland is coppiced. Around half a hectare of woodland is cut each year on rotation. The technique is great for wildlife as it lets light onto the woodland floor that would otherwise be shaded, allowing woodland plants to thrive and bloom, which in turn provides food for insects like butterflies. Chiff chaffs, black caps and willow warblers flourish in the dense coppice when the canopy closes and provides cover for four years after cutting.
As a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation this is a very special place. ‘We’ve worked hard to keep it ideal for wildlife and to preserve the wilderness. That makes a visit here so different. We’ve got a new audio trail so people can discover more at Hutton Roof Crags,’ says Wal.