Walking beside The Avenue, we sought out a patch of helleborine in the hope that their flowers would have opened; they hadn’t. These fairly inconspicuous members of the orchid family have spread from the other side of the track. Numbers are not great, but they are on the rise. Other orchids – mainly common spotted – littered our way. Continuing through the Hollow Walk, numerous butterflies – ringlet, meadow brown and the occasional small skipper – distracted us. But we were going somewhere else.
|Common Spotted Orchid|
In the three weeks since we last visited this particular patch, the bracken and nettles had grown dense and high – up to two metres in places – requiring us to scythe a path through. What should have been a simple task at times had the makings of a jungle expedition. The nettles really hurt. But we managed.
Dotted around Gibside, largely out of sight of visitors, are a number of sites managed to encourage grass snakes to bask and breed. These sites consist of a number of artificial cover objects (ACOs) – that is, bits of corrugated iron, and nest heaps. Ideally the site should not be too far from water and also be near somewhere suitable for hibernation, such as a log pile. The ACOs offer grass snakes somewhere to warm up and get going for the day; the piles of warm, rotting vegetation that make up the nest heaps are intended to provide a suitable temperature and environment for the snakes to lay and hatch their eggs.
Our purpose in cutting our way through the jungle was to inspect the sites to see if we could spot any snakes, and to peer under the ACOs for signs of activity. Clearly, by the time we had hacked our way through, any creature capable of escape would have done so. And they had. As always, there were exceptions. Ants and spiders, of course, pay little heed to human activity, and toads presumably think it safer to stay put and not attract attention. The presence of toads under a number of corrugated covers was a sure indication that grass snakes hadn’t visited recently; grass snakes like to eat toads.
The other creatures, apparently oblivious to our being there, were vast numbers of Peacock Butterfly caterpillars dripping from their stinging nettle hosts. Black and numerous, they are one of nature’s less attractive sights, and give no hint of the beautiful adults they will become.
We’re not entirely sure that grass snakes appreciate our efforts to make them welcome in the neighbourhood. Up to now we haven’t seen a single grass snake although, a few years back, decaying eggs were uncovered in one of the nest piles. So they are around somewhere, perhaps.
Phil Coyne & Steve Wootten