Exploring the wildlife of Rose End Meadows near Cromford
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 June 2020
The small pocket of Derbyshire countryside that is helping our wildlife flourish.
Derbyshire is predominantly an agricultural county; we’re all familiar with grassy fields. Looking rich and verdant in spring, covered with lush, fast-growing grass and bounded by limestone walls or thick hedges, they appear the very epitome of natural, old-fashioned farming. Yet in many ways they are not. The grass is often fertilised to encourage vigorous and rapid growth, the species of grasses are limited and the presence of unwanted, other plants severely lacking. The upshot of these two factors is very poor insect biodiversity; the knock-on effect of many fields being almost perfect avian deserts.
However, there are small pockets of traditional agricultural grassland still to be found in Derbyshire with perhaps the best example being in Cromford - Rose End Meadows. The meadows are a set of 16 small, hilly fields which can be accessed from Cromford Hill. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust purchased the land in 1987 and have been managing it ever since. The views across this part of the county are spectacular but the real gems are two-fold - the incredible mix of wild flowers from spring right through to summer, and the knowledge that you are strolling through a landscape that has predominantly remained unchanged for over a century; a genuine agricultural and wildlife time capsule.
It’s usually easy to suggest the best time to visit a reserve - often there is a specific peak related to one precise species, such as the early-purple orchids in Cressbrook Dale. However, Rose End Meadows has two floristic peaks - the spring assemblage of bluebells, buttercups and cowslips, and the later summer display of orchids, betony and knapweed.
Spring wildlife is not restricted to the fantastic blues and yellows of the bluebells and cowslips, however. As the winter wanes and the warmer, longer days start to exert their affect on the wildlife, the two dew ponds start to leap into life. In late March, frogs start to croak before the resident toads crawl their way to the ponds. At roughly the same time the large, black, warty newts (better known as great-crested newts) also crawl through the long, protective grass to the same two ponds. Unfortunately, from our viewing perspective anyway, the dew ponds are fenced off to protect them from grazing cattle. As the summer progresses the vegetation around the ponds grows up and becomes the resting place of numerous damsel and dragonflies, all easily viewable from the path.
Summer differs from spring. Lacking the intense greens of May, the grasses are now longer and slightly greyer. However, because the reserve has never experienced chemical fertilisers or herbicides, the many different species of grasses don’t outcompete the summer’s native flowers. Now the colours are different, with the darker purples of betony, burnet and knapweed and the blues of cranesbill and field scabious being scattered across the pocket handkerchief fields.
Summer is really the season for insects and the buzz and hum is clearly audible, even above the sound of distant cars. Showy insects like butterflies will quickly catch your attention, particularly if we have another good painted lady year. The less impressive, but always present, meadow brown is ubiquitous across the 16 fields. Common blues, usually the blue males (the female is actually brown), should be obvious but if you want to separate the brown argus from the female blues (they look remarkably similar) then a good pair of close-focusing binoculars and a butterfly field guide will be needed.
Once you have absorbed the stunning, visual broad sweep of Rose End Meadows in summer it’s time to start looking closer. Four species of orchid (bee, common spotted, frog and pyramidal) will be trying to show their delightful flower heads amongst the grasses in mid June to mid July. These, though, particularly the frog orchid, don’t leap out at you so you will need the binoculars again. It’s very important to stick to the paths. It’s always tempting to stray a few feet into the fields, it seems so harmless, but if we all did this the combined trampling effect of dozens of walking boots on delicate orchids doesn’t bear thinking about.
Rose End Meadows is a human-created wildlife hot spot that requires careful management to ensure that our children can also experience the same thrill that we get on our visits. Cattle grazing is the dominant conservation tool - hence the wire fences, as many of the limestone walls are in a poor state. When grazing is not sufficient, mowing will be used in late summer to replicate the old-fashioned grassland management of hay production.
The meadows are not just about the fields, they also include delightful small woods of ash, hazel and bird cherry and in winter the bird watcher’s favourite - the hawfinch - can occasionally be seen. There are other signs of historical human use with small hillocks dotted here and there. These are old lead mining spoil heaps and have a unique flora of plants, including leadwort that can successfully grow in the toxic soil.
Rose End Meadows is a microcosm of an ancient and wildlife-rich agricultural system. However, it doesn’t need to be unique and we could all benefit if we can create other grasslands of a similar ilk across the county. This is just what the Coronation Meadow Conservation scheme is intended to do – the creation of new biodiverse meadows with an ancient feel. Rose End Meadows is not only an example of what we can aspire to, it is also playing a vital role by providing seeds of the stunning array of Derbyshire wild grasses and flowers to germinate in new fields across the county. What could be better.