Nature Notes

by Brin Best

Wharfedale Naturalists’ Society

A SHORT drive from the Wharfedale settlements of Otley and Ilkley lies Yorkshire’s finest wildflower woodland. In terms of its floral splendour, and the number of rare species which grow here, it is surely one of England’s most precious woods.

I’m talking of course about the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve at Grass Wood, situated a few miles up the valley from Grassington. Here, an ancient woodland grows on soil influenced by limestone and affected by rocky outcrops, resulting in conditions which are favourable to all sorts of specialised flowers.

As we made our way up through the wood swathes of bluebells and wild garlic blanketed the woodland floor. In some places we noticed ‘early’ plants like lesser celandine were still in flower, as spring comes late to this part of the Dales.

The flora is so diverse in Grass Wood that a slow walking pace is needed to appreciate everything around you. And you need to keep your eyes peeled to make sure you haven’t missed something special in the myriad of microhabitats on offer.

We could easily have missed a patch of scarce herb paris that tried to hide itself among more common species in one section of the wood. This unusual plant has four distinctive egg-shaped leaves and unusual wispy green and yellow flowers. It is very hard to find elsewhere in Yorkshire and was used in times of old as an antidote to poisoning from mercury and arsenic.

When visiting Grass Wood be sure to head over the stile at the upper limit of the woodland to gain access to Bastow Wood, which has protected status in its own right. Bastow Wood is more open in character than the woodland below, and this has led to a different assemblage of flowers. There are many rarities growing here, but to see some of them you’ll need to get down on your hands and knees!

Look out especially for the tiny yellow mountain pansy and the bird’s-eye primrose, with its small pink flowers and mealy leaves. This beautiful little plant has its British distribution centered on the Yorkshire Dales, making it emblematic of the area.

Songbirds which are scarce elsewhere in Yorkshire do also especially well in Bastow Wood and Grass Woods. During our visit the songs of redstarts and tree pipits were never far away, and in more thickly-wooded areas pied flycatchers and wood warblers are regularly seen.