Not one, not two, but three Hen Harriers were spotted on our recent trip to Smardale, along with some fabulous insects such as the Scottish Argus butterfly and the Hummingbird Hawk Moth.
Smardale has been a favourite with the Society’s members for quite a few years. It is a Cumbria Wildlife Trust nature reserve that follows the line of an abandoned railway through a beautiful valley. The rangers have cleared many of the invasive tree species so that flowering plants and butterflies in particular thrive. None the less the hot dry summer made us fear for both plants and insects as we travelled up on a fine sunny morning.
The coach parked in Newbiggin on Lune and we were quickly into this lovely and relatively unvisited area. Our level railway walk took us along one side of the valley above the Smardale beck to a stunning old viaduct where the options were to return the same way, or cross the stream and return via an old packhorse bridge and cow pastures.
The valley has interesting history, and its geology includes both limestone and sandstone. There were signs of the rabbit warrens created and managed in the middle ages, though not a rabbit or hare was seen. Roe deer were the only mammals observed, even though it is an area where the red squirrel survives with the help of the staff. A toad was the only amphibian.
August is not the best month for birdwatching, but a total of 31 species were seen. This included the spectacular and still very rare hen harrier. There were still a few swifts feeding up before their imminent migration. Other summer migrants were less visible: we hoped in vain to see redstarts, and the warblers and flycatchers stayed hidden too. Wheatears have been few and far between this summer so it was good to see one. A heron was fishing in the much diminished stream.
It was the plants and insects that really dazzled. The sides of the railway path were awash with colour. Harebells fluttered in between banks of the common summer flowering species, like willow herbs, thistles, knapweed and scabious. Great burnet flowers, like vertical purple raspberries, were abundant. Tiny flowers like eyebright peeked through, as did vetch species and herbs such as marjoram and woodsage. On the return there were banks of heather (calluna) in full flower.
Bees of several species were buzzing, but it was the butterflies that exceeded all expectations. The Scotch Argus has its most southern colonies at Smardale and they were very easy to see, just where they were promised. A very good total of 16 species of butterflies were observed, including painted ladies and the common blue.
Day flying moths can be hard to identify without a book, but the well-named humming – bird hawk moth was spectacular, if hard to photograph. Several members saw one for the first time. No dragon flies were noted, but a few common blue damsel flies were around a deeper pool within the stream, as were some small brown trout.
Smardale lived up to its billing as one of the best loved reserves that RFNS visits. We reassembled thirsty and tired in the busy cafe near the coach and vowed we’ll be back again.