Birds, butterflies, bramble and birch... Jo Keeling enjoys the wildlife of the varied, beautiful landscape of the Arnside & Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Considering it’s one of the country’s smallest AONBs, Arnside & Silverdale offers a surprisingly diverse landscape. In just one day you can gaze over salt-marsh, watch avocets preening in the estuary shallows, dip into green wooded valleys that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Forest of Bowland and stride up to the summit of rocky outcrops. Perhaps it’s not surprising considering the area’s location, nestled between the Lake District foothills and the upper reaches of Morecambe Bay. Here you will find flavour of both, along with an extra quality that makes this part of the world unique.
That little extra something all comes down to the limestone, which underpins a host of habitats and shapes the character of the whole region. At Warton Crag and Trowbarrow Local Nature Reserve, the limestone is sheer and formidable; home to circling ravens, jackdaws and peregrine falcons. On Arnside Knott it breaks through the moor-grass in ragged peaks and slopes of scree while, perhaps most charmingly, at Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve and Fairy Steps, it hides within woodland and creates an almost otherworldly atmosphere. No wonder tales of fairies abound.
Opportunities to explore the area’s wild side are plentiful and there’s much more to experience than we have space to show you! Here are just a handful of highlights so you can start exploring…
Leighton Moss is top of the agenda for most visitors – and rightly so. If you’re arriving by train, you’ll get the first tempting glimpses of the reserve as the line skims the reed beds just south of Silverdale. It might look like a well-established landscape, but rewind only a hundred or so years and all this would have been drained farmland – known locally as the Golden Valley, as it was so productive for grain. In fact, it was only allowed to return to its natural wetland state towards the end of the First World War, when there wasn’t enough fuel to power the pump.
Managed for the last 50 years by the RSPB, Leighton Moss is now the largest reed bed in the north of England and home to an impressive array of waterfowl and waders. Whatever time of the year you visit, there are wildlife spectacles on offer that will keep twitchers and casual visitors rapt. In spring, you can hear bitterns booming in the reed beds and watch the arrival of the first avocets to nest. In summer, once you’ve recovered from the cacophony of squabbling black headed gulls, you can see marsh harriers performing acrobatic mid-air food passes, while red deer graze the meres (you might even catch them swimming across the dykes).
Autumn brings parties of bearded tits picking up grit from the paths, while murmurations of starlings wheel overhead. Winter is the best time to actually see bitterns as they venture out onto the frozen meres, and to catch sight of great flocks of greylag geese on the saltmarsh.
Don’t miss the new interactive family area, immediately outside the visitor centre. Here young nature lovers can build dens, pond dip, learn how to build a bug hotel, explore a sensory garden and make a racket on a wooden drum kit.
Trowbarrow Local Nature Reserve
There’s something delightfully eerie about the footpath to Trowbarrow, a disused limestone quarry just a short walk from Leighton Moss. If the woods surrounding Fairy Steps are populated with fairies, then ‘The Trough’ at Trowbarrow, with its looming pines, tumble down ruins, twisted boughs and moss-covered boulders must surely have once been home to giants.
What waits at the other end of this winding path is rather unexpected – a great amphitheatre of rock, with a web of sandy bike tracks and the calls of circling jackdaw echoing in the air. Note the Shelter Stone – a huge boulder, worryingly close to the quarry edge, where workers would shelter after hand drilling holes into the limestone and packing them with dynamite.
Quarrying ceased in 1959 and, over the last 40 years, a rich patchwork of habitats has developed: species-rich limestone grassland, juniper scrub and coppiced woodland. Look out for rare orchids, but also more common plants such as hawkweeds, coltsfoot, willows, ash and birch. You might even spot wild strawberries, which are regularly nibbled by the resident rabbits. The cliffs are home to kestrels, bats and a colony of jackdaw. Even the mountain bike trails are popular with solitary bees and digger wasps.
Immerse yourself in limestone geology at Gait Barrows Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve is one of the best spots to really explore the limestone pavement that makes this area of the country unique. Lowland limestone has an entirely different character to its upland counterpart. At Malham Cove and Ingleborough, it’s epic and exposed, while here it’s otherworldly and hidden within woodland, creating a moonscape of clints and grykes. Stunted ash and hazel trees push up through the gaps (many of which are 100s of years old, although they still look like saplings), while rare limestone-loving plants such as the rigid buckler fern, dark-red helleborine and limestone fern find homes within the sheltered grykes. If you could explore deeper, you’d find liverworts and mosses thriving in the deeper fissures.
This unique wilderness is home to an array of woodland birds, rare butterflies and wildflowers. Look out for brimstone, high brown fritillary and the elegantly named Duke of Burgundy butterflies, which thrive in the sheltered conditions, while marsh harriers display mid-air acrobatics over Hawes Water. If you visit in spring, you might even be lucky enough to spot the Lady’s slipper orchid – Britain’s rarest flower.
Seeking out butterflies at Arnside Knott
The Knott is a popular spot with locals and visitors, but with a vast web of footpaths, it’s possible to enjoy its solitude and never walk the same route twice. It’s a fascinating landscape. Sculpted by glaciers in the last Ice Age, then skimmed with thin limestone soil, the hillside supports a mosaic of shrub, wind-sculpted yew and juniper and tussocks of grassland. Look among the clumps of distinctive blue moor-grass and you might spot tormentil, tiny yellow four-petalled flowers, which were once used in folk medicine as a cure-all remedy.
The area is renowned for butterflies – too many to list here so pick up an ID guide from the AONB office at Arnside station if you’d like to find out more. You should keep an eye out for a few species of note, however: the Scotch argus, one of only two colonies in England, is on the wing late July and early August; while the Knott is also a stronghold of the rare high brown fritillary, which has suffered the swiftest decline of any British butterfly. If you miss the first two, the bright yellow brimstone should be easier to spot – they hibernate in the ivy and will be on the wing in early spring.
Look out for roe deer and other mammals in the lower woodland – a tangle of bramble, bracken, dog rose and grown-out coppiced hazel and oak. This is also an ideal place to just stop and listen to woodland bird song: listen out for the calls of marsh tits, wrens, nuthatches, willow warblers, chiffchaffs, blackbirds and blackcaps.
Watching nesting peregrine falcons at Warton Crag
At 163m, Warton Crag is the highest point in the AONB and walkers are rewarded with impressive views over a patchwork of farmers’ fields and salt marsh, before the shining intertidal expanse of Morecambe Bay. Inland, you might be able to pick out Clougha and Hawthornthwaite in the Forest of Bowland, and Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales.
The reserve offers a sharp contrast to the lowland pavements at Gait Barrows; here the limestone has been eroded to form natural cliffs, scars and outcrops. Many birds make the crag their home: peregrine falcons nest on the quarried crag face, while kestrels hover in search of small prey. In the woodlands, you might see (or at least hear) green warblers, willow warblers, blackcaps, and bullfinch and marsh tit.
Between spring and autumn, wildflowers add colour to the grassland and shrub: look out for the rich yellows of kidney vetch (small clusters of yellow flowers atop little woolly cushions) and Bird’s Foot Trefoil (yolk-coloured flowers with reddish buds and claw-like seed pods), purple mats of thyme and bluebells, primroses and wood anemones in the woodlands. Warton Crag is also another important breeding ground for moths and butterflies. Seek out the warm, sunny corners and you could spot such rarities as the nationally threatened high brown fritillary – their caterpillars feed on the leaves of violets beneath the shade of the bracken. You never know, those sunny spots might reveal the odd slow worm as well, so keep your eyes peeled.
Words by Jo Keeling