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Saturday, 27 July 2019

Hunting Helleborines

I decided to do an Orchid Road trip to try to fill a few gaps in my Orchid List. Top of the list was the Lindisfarne Helleborine, Epipactis sancta, the only UK endemic orchid and of course it occurs only in one remote place - Holy Island. Now that's a fair distance so I hatched a plan to take in as many venues as I could and ended up with seven targets.

I set off early on the Sunday morning to avoid the traffic and this worked perfectly until my first stop, Lakeside Park, right in the middle of Doncaster. Information received said that on the island of the lake resided lots of Broad-leaved Helleborines, Epippactis helleborine. Within a minute of crossing the bridge onto the island I could verify the information to be accurate. The only problem was that none of the numerous spikes were in flower. However, my diligent searching turned up a couple hidden in the long grass - job done. Then I realised that there were quite a few growing immediately adjacent to the lake itself, wedged precariously between the wooden poles use to shore up the bank.



Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine




Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine




Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine




Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine




Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine



Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine




Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine


Whilst the good people of Doncaster may have wondered what I was doing, the other wildlife remained aloof.





I pondered whether the geology of the area had been drastically altered during the construction of the park and the nearby retail outlets. Not sure why the helleborines only occur on the islands.


RAF Doncaster Memorial - on the island.


With loads of time in hand, I set off north up the A1 once more. I decided to have another break in the journey at Bishop Middleham quarry, conveniently situated just off the A1, so not much of a detour. I anticipated parking problems as there only two small lay-bys adjacent to the quarry. No problem, just one car present and they were orchid hunters too.







 There is a huge population of Dark Red Helleborines, Epipactis atrorubens and I had barely gone 10 yards from the entrance before I found my first specimen.





Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens




Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens




Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens




Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens




Hundreds on the quarry floor




Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens




Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens




Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens




Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens



Given the geology I reckon this has to be Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea 





Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea






Good numbers of Sand Martins were taking advantage of the softer quarry faces.



Having taken plenty of records I hit the A1 once again an made my way up to my overnight stop, just twenty miles south of Holy Island. Bishop Middleham was planned as my first port of call for Tuesday, for once I was ahead of the game, so that night I consulted the Oracle - actually the internet and sorted out several more venues.

Next morning I was crossing the causeway to Holy Island just after 0830 with a clear vision of where to go to look for the Lindisfarne Helleborine. A few days prior to travelling I had called the National Trust wardens and asked about possible locations, they couldn't have been more helpful - park at the Snook and follow the trail until you come upon a wooden post. Would I find them - of course - just look for the metal cages. And so it was - my first Epipactis sancta were three specimens incarcerated behind chicken wire for their own good. Whilst I was photographing them and celebrating my success I was overwhelmed by the desire to go and find my own specimens. So off I went to search in the vicinity of the tower, a well known spot. Sure enough it wasn't long before I was finding them, albeit none of them as fresh as I would have liked. But beggars cannot be choosers - they only occur here. 




Lindisfarne Helleborine, Epipactis sancta - held in captivity




Lindisfarne Helleborine, Epipactis sancta 




Lindisfarne Helleborine, Epipactis sancta 




Lindisfarne Helleborine, Epipactis sancta 




Lindisfarne Helleborine, Epipactis sancta 



Having recorded several specimens I noticed one or two Northern Marsh orchids in reasonable condition and several Marsh Helleborines that were better than I had seen previously.



Marsh Helleborine, Epipactis palustra




Marsh Helleborine, Epipactis palustra




Marsh Helleborine, Epipactis palustra




Northern Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza purpurella




The dreaded piri-piri burr - I took spare boots to avoid cross contamination



The tides are critical at Holy Island and the access times are well published, I had planned to stay all day, leaving when the tide cleared the causeway at around 1800. I realised that I had recorded what I came for and that it was unlikely that I would discover any further interesting items. So I dived in the car, crossed the causeway once more, no sign of any advancing tides and set off south - yes - down the A1 this time. 

The internet had given me a couple of locations for the "Tyne Helleborine" Epipactis dunensis subsp tynensis or perhaps some other more obscure title that may now be in use. The botanists seem to have had a field day with the Dune Helleborine, first one name then another. I, a mere mortal, rely upon the books to inform me and gratefully accept that it is what it is - a "Dune Helleborine of sorts"

My destination was Wylam,  actually Northumberland Wildlife Trust's Close House reserve. As I parked up I could see signs for George Stephenson's Cottage. Of course, birthplace of the "Father of the Railways". I could kill two birds with one stone - first the orchid and then a visit to the cottage.

I also extended my vocabulary as I learned about calaminarian grassland. Best I quote NWT's website:


"Close House Riverside nature reserve contains calaminarian grassland on the River Tyne floodplain, one of a few rare habitats only found in areas where there are high concentrations of heavy metals. Calaminarian grassland is restricted to the Tyne and Allen river systems, the heavy metals (zinc and lead) are washed from old mine spoil heaps from the North Pennine Ore field into the rivers which then carry them onto riparian habitats. Heavy metal resistant flora present on the grassland are alpine pennycress, and re-introduced spring sandwort. Dune helleborine are found on the edge of the grassland under some young beech trees and can be found further into the woodland."








Not only a great explanation but a precise location. Ten minutes later I was under dense beech canopy photographing the Tyne Helleborine, mighty thankful that I had brought my twin flash with me.



Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis



Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis



Having finished with the orchids I made my way back to the track that runs parallel to the river and found the extremely neat and tidy cottage that was the birthplace of one of our greatest engineers.   



Birthplace of George Stephenson






As an engineer I hold some of the eighteenth and nineteenth century engineers in awe. Men who designed and built ships, canals, railways and industrial plant were true pioneers. Broken from my reverie by some cyclists I ambled back to the car park fancifully thinking I could smell that magic mixture of steam and coal smoke.


Thankfully the precise directions meant I was finished early and afforded me a visit to yet another venue. So I set course for the wonderfully named village of Slaggyford. Destination was the Williamston Reserve and yet again the target was Tyne Helleborines, hopefully in a less gloomy environment.

If the Wylam helleborines were easy then this place was a complete doddle. I parked up in the lay-by at the turn for  Barhaugh, crossed the bridge, went through the wooden gate and after one field was surrounded by a host of spikes of my target, mostly undercover of birch and willow.


Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis



Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis



Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




The South Tyne River - the helleborines are under the trees on the right bank.

Job done I headed off for Coxhoe and my overnight stay at the Old Mill Hotel, great beer and great food. Everything was going swimmingly well - next up the Creeping Lady's Tresses at Cliburn Moss.

Into each life a little rain must fall. Orchid hunting relies heavily on having precise locations, all I knew about Cliburn Moss was that CLT grew there. I had found them in Scotland, know what their preferred habitat is, how difficult could it be? Well after three hours of searching on a hot sunny day I turned up zilch. Of course any reference to the place on the web was annoyingly vague "in the usual place" "nudge nudge wink wink". Almost as if the blog authors were saying "we know where they are - and you don't . I decided to cut my losses and head off for my next day's venue, Sandscale Haws in Cumbria.

My previous venues had been a tad warm but Sandscale was hot and dry, everywhere was parched and all the water in the dunes had long disappeared. Oddly enough the information I received at the visitor centre was, as I learned sometime later, a bit iffy. Thankfully, halfway through my long march, I met some wardens doing a survey, not of orchids but other natural stuff and they put me right - thanks guys. I managed to find at least a dozen spikes of Epipactis dunensis and a couple worth photographing - a big disappointment as I was expecting many, many more. The warden thought I was early but as I dropped back to another location they had given me I found lots of specimens - most of them small and well toasted.  Harrap says "the flowers are short lived and can be affected by drought". Yup - that's about how I found it.




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis




Dune Helleborine, Epipactis dunensis

So all that remained was the long drive home down the M6 with it's interminable delays for road works.  Three days of hunting helleborines - most enjoyable - will probably have to do the same again next year to complete the list. 

Of course back at home the hunt continues and there were still a couple of targets to be had, the following Monday I was out with Martin to find both Narrow-lipped Helleborine in Surrey and Violet Helleborine in Hampshire. Both at well know venues but I have to thank Dawn and Jim for some great information that made life easier. First up was Sheepleas, a Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve at West Horsley.



Narrow-lipped Helleborine, Epipactis leptochila



Narrow-lipped Helleborine, Epipactis leptochila



Narrow-lipped Helleborine, Epipactis leptochila



Narrow-lipped Helleborine, Epipactis leptochila



Narrow-lipped Helleborine, Epipactis leptochila



Narrow-lipped Helleborine, Epipactis leptochila



Narrow-lipped Helleborine, Epipactis leptochila



Narrow-lipped Helleborine, Epipactis leptochila




Next we journeyed down the A31 to Four Marks to check the roadside verges for Violet Helleborine, we found plenty of spikes but only one in full flower, another week or so will see them in bloom.


Violet Helleborine, Epipactis purpurata




Violet Helleborine, Epipactis purpurata