• IvyShepherd

Orchids at the quarry

A visit to a nature reserve to hunt down the wild orchids

Wild orchids are among the most beautiful and sometimes very rare of the plant species. But we are very fortunate in the UK to have around 52 wild orchid species growing on nature reserves that protect these wonderful plants.

Different orchids can flower between spring to late summer. So you’re sure to always catch one, if you know where to look. But summertime is the very best time of all to spot them.

The nature reserve

The nature reserve that I visited was established in 2003 and is the site of an old limestone quarry. Sheep are grazed here at certain times and the site is managed to aid the restoration of the habitats and the species of flora and fauna that live here.

There are two habitats at play here. Limestone grassland and wetland scrub down in the old quarry. Both play a huge part in attracting the flora and fauna and are so valuable, in terms of creating an ecosystem to support a wide range of biodiversity.

Great crested newts are one of the most important species here and habitats have been sensitively provided for them.

The site is awash with butterflies and dragonflies, drawn to the wildflowers providing nectar and pollen. The biggest of the dragonflies here was the Emperor dragonfly, but they are too quick for me to get a picture of them.

I saw many butterfly species, including Ringlet and Meadow Browns. And also some lovely little skippers. The very best species I saw though was the Six-spot Burnet moth, a day-flying moth extremely poisonous to the birds.

Birdsong is constant throughout. Chaffinch, chiff chaff and reed bunting, and at this time of year, swallows and swifts are darting about overhead, hunting out the insects and invertebrates that are also thriving in this wonderful place. The song of the skylark was also present.

Although I did not see them, I could imagine this being an ideal habitat for adders, the only venomous snake that we have here.

The flora

Right from the start of my walk, I was spotting wildflowers. Yellow wort was abundant and easily recognisable with its buttercup yellow flowers and opposite leaves joined together around the plant stem.

Common centaury was also here, blooming in lovely groups of pretty, pink flowers. I visited in the morning, but in the afternoon, these pink flowers will close up.

Bird’s-foot trefoil, grasses and vetches, sedges and rushes are all here.

But I was here to see the orchids.

The orchids

On the limestone grassland part of the site, there were Pyramidal orchids as far as the eye could see. Named for the distinctive shape of their flower, the bright pink flowers open from the bottom and they are one of the commonest species of orchids we have.

Now is the best time to see them. They love the chalky, limestone grassland habitat, so keep this in mind if you’re out to spot them.

Down in the quarry, the site also boasts a population of man orchids. But these had bloomed a few weeks ago, so I did not spot any today. Looking like little men dangling from the plant, it is a rare species. Next year, I will aim to visit the site earlier in May, in order to catch them while they’re in full inflorescence.

But I was not disappointed, as there was so much else to see.

Great swaths of common spotted orchids clung to the steep hill side of the quarry, in amongst an area of damp scrub and woodland. They were abundant here and it was very special to see.

In a part of the meadow, I managed to see one southern marsh orchid, which was starting to go over. This is an adaptable species of orchid, as its name would suggest that it could only be found in marshes and fens. But this one was growing away quite happily in the meadow.

Undoubtedly though the stars of the show were the bee orchids.

This is the best time to see these short, little orchids. The bee orchids get their name from their resemblance to female bees and this is so that they can draw in male bees to pollinate them. This species though is self-pollinating in the UK.

They love the chalky, limestone grassland of the old quarry and are quite a common species, sometimes occurring in large groups. They are probably among the most well-known of the orchid species, but are no less for it because of this.

It is so important that we protect sites such as this one. They are providing habitats to so many species of insects, birds, animals and plants. To lose these special ecosystems would be a crime.

We must all bear witness to these wonderful places, so that we do not lose them forever.

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