Category Archives: News from the Reserve

Regular update on what’s happening on the reserve

Sheep return to Hills and Holes

 Please note that the sheep will soon be present on the reserve. We would like to provide a reminder that it is extremely important that dogs are kept on leads during the time the sheep are grazing on the reserve. Even the most well behaved dog can cause stress and disturbance to these animals and a dog off its lead will also encourage others to think this is acceptable for their dog. These animals provide a very special service in helping to manage the reserve. Particularly this year with the lush growth present in many areas it is important to graze as much of this as possible. I am sure that you have noticed the different densities of grass and other vigorous plant species in certain areas of the reserves with many paths disappearing this year under the dense vegetation. Without grazing this will only extend in future years and reduce the profusion of flora we see on the reserve during the spring and summer. The effect of successful long term grazing can be seen in the South West compartment (furthest from the two roads which border the reserve) where over 50 years of consistent management has produced an environment supporting the largest populations of Pasque flowers and Orchids plus the broadest range of flora on the reserve. With the help of the sheep this is gradually being extended into the other quadrants so please assist them in their work by leaving them undisturbed and untroubled.

Mid-July on the reserve and some historic notes

At least some dry weather has arrived and the flowers are doing there best to put on a fine display even if the grass and vegetation is rather lush following the consistent rainfalls throughout spring and early summer. One slight benefit has been probably the latest record of a Pasque flower in bloom during a visit by a Warwick Natural History group to the reserve on 12th July.  I would be interesting to hear ( of any later recorded dates from previous years? The warmer drier weather has also brought out the butterflies in reasonable numbers with Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Marbled Whites vying for the top spot on the transect walks. The latest walk added Gatekeeper, Comma and Green-veined white to this years records. Look out for the Chalkhill Blues (pictured above) that are expected to be flying in the next week or so.

With the general floral display probably at its peek now is a good time to visit the reserve and brush up on your flora identification but also keep a look out for Grass snakes (Tim has recently seen a large specimen on site).

I also promised earlier in the year some extracts from the historic Summer Warden reports so here is a taster from 1977 just one year after the site being declared a National Nature Reserve.

“The grassland belongs to the Tor-grass Brachypodium pinnatum Upright Brome Zerna erecta type and contains the whole range of species characteristic of this association. The Man Orchid Aceras anthropophorum is locally abundant and several other orchids are present. The Pasque Flower Anemone pulsatilla occurs frequently and this reserve is one of its main strongholds. The Mountain Everlasting Antennaria dioica is primarily a northern species and is represented on the Hills and Holes by one small patch in the Northants Naturalists area. (Note added: Now designated compartment 1 – South west quarter). This area has the most varied flora which must be partly due to scrub clearance carried out by Trust volunteers.

The last sentance remains true today – (more or less forty years on) and just shows how long term any management strategy needs to be. Perhaps in another forty years the clearance in circa 1999 of the turkey oak trees and scrapping back to bear limestone waste in compartment 4 (South-east quarter) adjacent to the wooded area will show the same benefits. The survey data also shows how management of the reserve (probably consistent annual sheep grazing) has led to a dramatic reduction in the amount of Tor Grass on the reserve with  72% of quadrats surveyed found to containing it in 1978 compared to only 16% in 1996.

Update from the Reserve

Whilst it may seem far from summer with the wet weather the reserve is still putting on a fine floral display with the added benefit since it is so well drained of not remaining too wet underfoot to enjoy it. With the Pyramidal Orchids joining the Bee Orchids, Fragrant  Orchids and the Man Orchids still holding on it is a bumper time of year to see Orchids on the reserve and the wet weather has enabled some pretty impressive flower spikes to grow this year. Not so good, due to the wet weather, is the butterfly display. A transect walk today yielded disappointing numbers but did add Speckled Wood and Meadow Brown to the list and a later walk with the dog added the first Marbled White to my own list. Unfortunately not the first reported observation of the year as that went to Tim and Steve the Wardens who saw one earlier in the afternoon! The late afternoon walk also provided the call of a Cuckoo possibly the last of the season given their imminent departure for warmer climates. The bright yellow flash and prominent call of a year round resident,  the Yellowhammer reminded me how lucky we are that, whilst numbers to me have been well down in recent years,  you can almost guarantee seeing one on the reserve, or certainly in the surrounding field hedgerows. I was reminded that we are fortunate in this by a recent conversation with a visitor to the reserve from Derbyshire and also a total absence of them during a holiday in Pembrokeshire last week. It is surprising how easily we take for granted what we can see every day on the reserve, perhaps unfortunately not appreciating it until after it has gone. So I encourage you to get out on the reserve, during the few dry spells and enjoy the flowers of summer, the migratory birds and of course the butterflies.

PS: One other benefit of the cooler weather has been the lizards are taking longer to warm up on the fence posts so provide more opportunities to spot them. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Update from the Reserve

As the dramatic display of Pasque flowers starts to come to an end and the spring showing of cowslips draws to a close the early purple orchids have taken over with a strong showing of some fine specimens and in some impressively large groups. Also the time has arrived for the more difficult task of tracking down Man Orchids. There are several now just coming into flower across the reserve. One splendid specimen can be found within a foot of the northern most gate between compartments 4 (wooded) and 1 (South west), assuming it is still there as a number of discarded Orchids around the reserve indicate some picking of flowers still occurs!

The butterfly counts continue to rise on the sunnier days with Dingy and Grizzled Skippers both photographed recently.

A Whitethroat nest in a bramble patch and activity along the Walcott wall by both Blue Tits and Great Tits also show that spring is progressing  and the mobbing by six rooks of a passing Buzzard shows that feeding territories are being defended. The regular sighting of Buzzards and Red Kites over the reserve (something the summer wardens of 1980’s would have been amazed by) makes up a little for the marked drop in other bird species to be seen. More  to follow as the summer progresses, comparing the summer warden reports in the archives to today’s flora and fauna.

Peterborough Conservation Volunteers

Our friends from the Peterborough Conservation Volunteers will again be on site this autumn on Sunday  4th October  helping with scrub clearance and other important tasks to maintain the rich diversity of flora and fauna we enjoy on the reserve. Please feel free to join in on the day for as much or as little time as you can spare. They meet at 10:00 am and weather permitting work after a well earned lunch break to about 3:00pm. Please visit their website ( ) for further details or contact the friends via

Sheep Present on the Reserve

We would like to provide a reminder that the sheep are again present on the reserve. These animals provide a very special service in helping to manage the reserve to encourage the profusion of flora and fauna we see during the spring and summer. Those who took part in the Ragwort pulling will testify that  keeping the vegetation under control would be a far more difficult task without them. In the past few years we have not had any serious incidents between dogs and sheep although a few incidents of disturbance and distress have been noted. We would therefore kindly remind all dog owners to continue to keep their dogs under strict control at all times whilst on the reserve and it is essential that, however well behaved they are, they are kept on leads in the paddock where the sheep are present. This helps ensure the sheep remain stress free and can continue to help manage the reserve for the benefit and enjoyment of all.


Autumn on the Hills and Holes

With Autumn comes the sheep, who keep the coarse grasses and weeds growing on the nature reserve in check. And that means another hazard to avoid – sheep poo! Happily, sheep poo is not offensive (unlike the dog mess left behind by some irresponsible dog owners). Sheep only digest about 50% of the plant material that they eat, so their poo is mostly cellulose. Did you know that it can be used to make paper? A firm in Wales sells it – I don’t intend to try making it myself though!

Many of the plants that grow on the Hills and Holes have now produced seed, and are dying down for the winter. Why not see how many different kinds of seed head you can spot? Other plants overwinter as flat rosettes, which allows them to avoid getting eaten by the aforementioned sheep.

Woody plants are also closing down for winter and trees will be losing their leaves. The silver birch leaves often turn a rich yellow before they fall. This is due to the breakdown of the green pigment chlorophyll, which is triggered by the change in day length. Once the chlorophyll has been withdrawn, other pigments in the leaves can be seen – carotene is the one that gives the yellow shades.

Trees and shrubs may also produce fruit. Elder is a common plant on the reserve, and elderberries are eagerly taken by small birds. That’s why our cars get purple splotches on them! Blackberries can also have this effect. Rowan berries are bright orange and are loved by blackbirds. There are apples on the reserve, both native crab apples and trees that are derived from cultivated varieties.

In the scrubby parts of the reserve you might see long strings of red berries draped over the vegetation – these are probably the fruits of a Bryony, either White Bryony or Black Bryony. Don’t eat them, they are poisonous.

spindle-04555Along the western boundary you might find the fruits of the Spindle, which are striking in pink and orange. Over in the wooded section, there is a walnut tree, and you may be able to find a hazel bearing its distinctive nuts in green wrappers – quite rare on the reserve, although common in hedgerows in the area. These are very popular with squirrels and other small mammals.

Funnel-04550Autumn is the season for spotting fungi. We have very little information on the fungi present on the reserve, so if you do see any while visiting, please let us know through the Contacts page or on Facebook.

I hope you can come and enjoy the autumn at Barnack Hills and Holes very soon – there is always something to see!

The sheep are back

Sheep-04409The sheep arrived back on site Tuesday 9th September to carry out the essential grazing management that helps to keep the wild flower grassland in good shape.

If you take your dogs onto the reserve PLEASE keep them on a lead where there are sheep and under close control at all times.

Last year for the first time in several years we avoided any sheep fatalities caused by dogs, and are keen for this to continue. 

As always visitors’ vigilance and co-operation are appreciated in keeping an eye out for any problems. Let the Reserve Manager know by email, or for less urgent matters via the contact form, if you see any of the following:

  • Sick or injured sheep
  • Stray sheep
  • Damaged fences or signs, open gates
  • Loose or uncontrolled dogs
  • Leaking or dry troughs

The additional ‘eyes and ears’ that you provide can assist us greatly in managing the grazing season without incident. The grazing will start in paddock 4 (South-East corner near the Cricket Club) and continue over the rest of the Reserve for 6-8 weeks.

Chris Gardiner

Senior Reserve Manager

August – late summer purples and yellows

In keeping with the drowsy heat of a humid August, the Hills and Holes are now painted in their late summer palette of bright purples and yellows set against the pale brown canvas of the drying grasses. harebellThe purple knapweed is particularly prolific, much to the delight of feeding insects, accompanied by good numbers of field scabious, clustered bellflower, harebells and, in places, thick banks of richly scented wild marjoram. Scattered amongst them are the bright yellow flower heads of the much-maligned ragwort (now greatly reduced thanks to the efforts of the volunteer ragwort-pullers) and the paler clusters of the wild parsnips. Most of the orchids are gone, leaving only dried out husks, but, surprisingly, a few of the frog orchids are still making a brave show of it. While you are on your knees, look out for the froth of small white flowers of the parasitic common dodder clustered together in patches on the gentler slopes. As for the insects, the chalkhill blues are now coming into their own with large numbers rising in clouds from the grasses on the hot afternoons and plenty of the crimson and black 5-spot burnet moths competing for attention. In the right places, there is a scattering of whites, speckled woods, gatekeepers, small coppers and peacock butterflies to be seen. Down by your feet, the grass is alive with grasshoppers and crickets while, further up on the ragwort, there are quite a few of the yellow and black striped caterpillars of the cinnabar moth still munching away.

July, the best of times

chalkhill blue
Chalkhill Blue © Petersrockypics from Flickr Group

Arguably the best time of all to visit the Hills and Holes: a profusion of pink, white and yellow wild flowers, swarming with clouds of butterflies – on some days it really has to be seen to be believed. July is the peak month for orchids, with the ever abundant pyramidal orchids being joined this year by good numbers of fragrant and bee orchids. Even the frog orchids got in on the act, the extra summer rain adding to their stature if not their numbers. It’s not just about orchids: the rock rose, bird’s foot trefoil, scabious, ox-eye daisy and clustered bellflower all clamour for attention. Look more closely and you will see some of the more delicate blooms – the blue flowers of milkwort or the tiny white petals of fairy flax.

Much bolder than any of these are the stiff orange-brown spikes of knapweed broomrape, a strange parasitic plant that draws all of its food from the roots of knapweed. And all around them are  the busy wings of butterflies, bees and hoverflies seeking nectar. Marbled whites (a Hills and Holes speciality) are everywhere, joined by their rather duller brown cousins, the meadow brown, hedge brown, and ringlet. A glint of sky blue is sure to be a chalkhill blue, first emerging in July but these will continue well into August.