I’d been living in the valley for thirty five years before I became aware of chimney sweeper moths. Since they’re small and black, and I’m not a moth specialist, this may not be as surprising as it sounds. Back in 2008 their presence in a local field helped us persuade the powers-that-be to curb a planning application that would have wrecked a bluebell wood. Only last year did I connect them with the summer solstice. We typically see them -you really need binoculars to render their beauty accessible to human eyesight- as tiny living pieces of blackness, edged with cream, fluttering amongst golden hay meadow flowers. Around midsummer it stays light here until after 10 p.m. I find it quite hard to sleep, so welcome the return of the dark that these little creatures seem to herald.
This June my partner was planning to show some people our favourite species rich hay meadows. When she went up to see whether the warm dry weather we’ve been having had brought the flowers on early, she was confronted by fields with thick grass and only a few buttercups. Two of the best meadows had been fertilised for extra silage. When I went up myself, I was shocked to see the field where I’d first seen a chimney sweep moth devoid of flowers, and, of course, moths.
Our ‘in-house’ conservation deparment has since been mugging up on local farming practice, and talking to people involved in re-seeding hay meadows. Upland hay meadows are a U.K. priority habitat for biodiversity, and an Annex 1 habitat under the European Union Habitats Directive. Hay meadows declined drastically during the 20th century due to the use of inorganic fertilisers, ploughing and re-seeding, a switch to silage making, and heavy grazing pressure. In the U.K there are now only about 1,000 hectares left. (1) In the Calder valley, ‘in-bye’ meadows, adjacent to moorland, are crucial for a variety of ground nesting birds.
Its not all been bad news though. On recent walks round our hillside I’ve been delighted to find an unprecedented number of ringlet butterflies. I’ve been counting about 20 near the paths alone, and a naturalist friend came across a much larger community of them, ‘in the hundreds’, further down the valley. Both their colour, the males are a velvety ‘sooty brown, sometimes almost black’, rimmed with white, and their distinctive fluttery flight, reminded me of the chimney sweepers I hadn’t seen. They’re quite flightly, but I managed to get a photo of one of the paler females resting amongst grasses in the old quarry at the top of the hill. She may have been dropping eggs. Un-noticed by me at the time, another tiny creature is visible just below her in the photo (double click to enlarge). Ringlets have been absent from parts of North-west England, but are now returning to some areas they had abandoned due to pollution.(2)
With the owner’s agreement we planted some alders and a willow in that quarry some years ago -actually quite a long time ago!- and have twice been upset when someone has cut them back, effectively coppicing them. This year, however, it occured to us that because the south-east facing quarry, with its impressive spread of rosebay willowherb, has become a hotspot for butterflies, maybe the planting wasn’t such a good idea after all?
Whilst up there I also photographed another of our neighbours on the hillside -a caterpillar of the beautiful northern eggar moth, denizen of the local heather. I suppose those hairs say ‘Go away, I’m inedible!’ Imagine having a body, indeed a life cycle, like that!
I’m fortunate to live somewhere where I’m mostly content to wander about within a five mile radius of my back door. I do occasionally travel down the valley to a favourite post-industrial nature reserve though. Part of the reserve is a former council tip now bursting with the summer colours of ox-eye daisies, trefoil, vetches, clover, northern marsh and common spotted orchids, and damsel flies, and the song of black caps and reed warblers. In mid-June I paid a visit to reconnect with the kingfishers there, and wasn’t disappointed.
I’ve also enjoyed going out at 4 a.m. on a couple of mornings to listen to the dawn chorus. On one occasion a family of magpies was chattering softly to one another in a big ash tree. The blackbirds have repaid us for our offerings of food with brilliant music throughout the day, but there’s something special about listening to them at that quiet time, as the sun breaks through pale layers of cloud low on the eastern horizon, splashing the leaves, and the rim of Langfield with gold light. As I walked down through the wood, bats flew past my head. Wood pigeons, thrushes, and wrens, were broadcasting -the latter with characteristic vigour, and down by the railway a solitary willow warbler still sung. Perhaps he hadn’t succeeded in finding a mate?
(1) North Pennines AONB, A Step by Step Guide to Upland Hay Meadow Restoration, 2009, and Hay Time.
Green Business Network, Biodiversity Projects.
(2) Richard Lewington, Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland, British Wildlife Publishing, 2003.