Places from the past can surprise you


Revisiting old haunts after a few years’ absence is not always a good thing as quite often things change and your memory tends only to remember the good things through rose-tinted glasses.

Recently, I went back to the Lewenshope Valley in Yarrow, where I spent many years foraging for wildlife when I was younger from the family holiday hut, which has now been erased from the landscape. Then the valley was accessed by a rough track which eventually grew in through lack of use. At one time it was heavily grazed by sheep before they were excluded, when the upper valley was sold for forestry.

The valley floor was sympathetically planted with native broadleaved trees and commercial forestry restricted to the hilltops. The next big change took place a couple of years ago when the outbye hirsel was sold as a dwelling and a new road, with timber bridges replacing the fords, was carved up the whole length of the valley.

I was amazed at how well the new dirt road had bedded in and began to blend in to its surroundings. The valley had lost none of its magic, but it had lost some of its birds. Always home to at least two pairs of cuckoo, sadly none were heard, but this is probably part of a nationwide decline and nothing to do with local changes.

Absent, too, was the green woodpecker which could always be heard in June with its “yaffling” call. This, I suspect, is more to do with local changes, as the lack of grazing in the valley has meant that the many anthills have now become buried under dense vegetation and most have died out.

They require constant grazing to ensure a stable temperature inside the nest – no ants means no food for green woodpeckers. No curlews were heard either, which was a bit sad as I always considered their wistful calls as the signature sound of the valley.

All was not lost, however, as some birds were still around, such as redstart, blackcap, willow warbler and black grouse, and some newcomers had moved in.

The most interesting one was the tree pipit which had obviously been attracted to the valley by the tree planting scheme and seemed very happy soaring above the burgeoning ashes and oaks before parachuting down with its weird “peeoo peeoo peeoo” flight song.

The plants, too, are undergoing change, due to the lack of grazing. Rock rose, which is the food plant of the area’s once large colony of Northern Brown Argus butterflies, is in danger of being swamped by vigorous grasses. I saw one butterfly on the wing, but there should have been more. New plants have appeared – obviously seeds have come in with the road-making material, such as weld, scentless mayweed and one of the yellow sow-thistles.

It is still a beautiful and wildlife-rich area, but I was struck at how finely balanced such places are and how simply changing the amount of grazing can have far-reaching effects on the whole spectrum of creatures able to survive there.