Living Uplands

Natural History of Upper Weardale


By Heather Kelly and Bob Baxter: the Editor's synopsis

Evidence from pollen cores shows that the botanical make-up of Weardale has changed over time from c3,000 years ago when peat started to accumulate as the climate cooled. Mixed deciduous woodland, with some pine trees, dominated large areas until around 2,100 years ago. By the late Iron Age, most of the pine had been removed and the land was largely pasture or heath, with some cereal cultivation. Along the valley bottom and sides, land east of Eastgate was gradually improved in the 12th  and 13th  centuries and by the early 19th century, much of the lower moorland was enclosed for pasture and cereal cultivation. New pine and spruce woodland was planted, giving a landscape similar to that we see today.

Image: Common Primrose (c) Heather Kelly

Although regarded by some as a poor relation to neighbouring Teesdale, Weardale offers a wide range of habitats and a diverse flora which means there is always something new and interesting to find when you wander slightly off the beaten track.  It has the big advantage that, apart at from a few locations close to the river itself, you will probably have the countryside largely to yourself, to explore in peace.

Notable botanical finds in Weardale include rare Lady’s Mantle species, two nationally scarce ferns – Limestone Oak Fern and Rigid Buckler Fern - and Thread Rush. Other scarce species include Pale Forget-me-not, Marsh Saxifrage and Mossy Saxifrage, Ivy-leaved Bellflower and Intermediate Wintergreen. Grasslands, especially lower down the valley around Auckland Park, host many of the brightly coloured Waxcap fungi (Hygrocybe spp.), such as Blackening Waxcap (H. conica).

Image: Acid flush in upland, unenclosed grassland above St John's Chapel, upper Weardale (c) Bob Baxter

Flora and vegetation of the extensive upper ground are described in sections on upland grazing lands and the moorland margins, moorland, blanket bog, upland heath, and upland flush vegetation. Typical plants include Bell Heather, Bilberry, Deergrass, Crowberry, Round-leaved Sundew, Heath Bedstraw and Tormentil.  Purple Moor-grass, Mat-grass and Wavy Hair Grass. rushes and sedges are common, along with an understorey of bryophytes and lichens. Sphagnum mosses are key components in blanket bog, their semi-decay over many years producing peat. The importance of peatland restoration is explained in terms of conserving specific biodiversity (flora and fauna), improving water quality, mitigating flood risk and for its impact on reducing climate change through carbon sequestration.

Image: Round-leaved Sundew (c) Heather Kelly

The more lowland flora changes down the valley, as the river Wear flows from Killhope Lead Mining Centre to Wolsingham. Abandoned lead mines have left a specific habitat with its own Calaminarian flora of metal-tolerant plants such as Spring Sandwort, Mountain Pansy and Alpine Pennywort. Lichens include some metaliophytes such as Peltigera species and rarities such as Dirina massiliensis sorediata (only the second modern record for County Durham).

Other habitats include the banks of the Wear and its tributaries where you might find Yellow Star of Bethlehem in spring, riparian woodlands with Wood Cranesbill, Lady’s Mantle and more, disused limestone quarries with lime-loving species. Of the many orchids, Northern Marsh-orchid is common and Bird’s-nest Orchid is rare. Species-rich upland hay meadows, an important habitat in the North Pennines, are full of Yellow Rattle, Red Clover, Germander Speedwell, Meadow Cranesbill, Ox-eye Daisy, Eyebrights (Euphrasia spp., including Euphrasia arctica subsp. arctica) and more. Scarce plants include Globeflower, Melancholy Thistle and Starry Lady’s Mantle.

A walk around Tunstall Reservoir is a good place to see spring flora at its best. The ‘Bishop’s Oak’, at the north end of Baal Wood, a semi-natural deciduous wood, is believed to be about 400 years old.  Alder trees dominate in wetter areas and a small population of Small-leaved Lime is noteworthy. Hamsterley Forest, planted with Sitka Spruce, Larch and Pine, hosts some less common fungal species, such as the tiny Apricot Jelly or Salmon Salad fungus.


Preparing for the online Chapters on Flora, Fauna and Freshwater Life we created a PDF reference list for the hundreds of species name-checked in the book. For this Chapter, the FLORA list is by both Vernacular and Scientific names, with hand links to what an internet search might add to wider information on each.

Download Chapter in PDF