Walking at Weetslade Country Park this past weekend, the rolling grasslands of the former colliery site appeared almost Mediterranean. Parched grasses, sapped by what seems like an eternity of vigorous sunlight, appearing yellowed, dry and lifeless. The vista laid out before me more like a sight from the South of Spain, or Portugal than one from usually tepid, often grey Northumberland.
Where grasses wilt and fall, however, others persevere and all around the site, the matt of drained yellows and browns was streaked by colour. By the countless blooms of wildflowers, themselves undaunted by the Summer heatwave. The pale purple of Creeping thistle interspersed with much more delicate heads of Yellow Rattle and Lady’s Bedstraw, and studded by the vibrant, sickly yellow blooms of ragwort. All of which, alongside the odd, almost alien spikes of Vipers Bugloss, lent an uncharacteristically tropical feel to the morning. Something only amplified by the presence of a huge number of butterflies.
All around Weetslade, energetic Small Skippers darted from bloom to bloom, feeding hungrily but occasionally stopping to bask and preen. Elsewhere, Ringlet and Meadow Brown quartered the rank margins, and many Large White’s, crisp and fresh from the chrysalis, danced as they pursued potential mates. A fantastic sight, plucked straight from a lepidopterists dream, only enhanced by the punchy colours of the occasional Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and golden Large Skipper.
Despite their numbers, butterflies, however, were not the most numerous winged creature on the wing this weekend: that honour goes to the Six-spot Burnet. A remarkable little moth, clad in a beautiful yet a cautionary mix of black and red and boasting a set of preposterously long antennae.
This day, these moths were everywhere: flying in a typical clumsy manner between the heads of ragwort and thistle and, where flowers shone, gathering and copulating en masse. A true Summer spectacular, and not something you see every day. Indeed, a very rough count of the moths on show revealed well over one-hundred – including twenty in a single riving ball of dotted wings and extraterrestrial-looking appendages.
Six-spot Burnet’s cluster on a thistle-head
Of course, no visit would be complete absent a highlight and, heading back to the car, a definitive one landed right in front of our noses. The sight of a delicate butterfly taking flight between thistle-heads drawing us closer until the identity of the curiosity was revealed: a White-letter Hairstreak. A very scarce butterfly in Northumberland which, spurred on by the pleasant weather, appears to be enjoying somewhat of a resurgence – popping up at various local sites including Prestwick Carr and Gosforth Park, wherever it’s foodplant, Wych Elm, clings on.
All good things must draw to a close and, as the hairstreak took flight, we did too. Pausing briefly, car-door ajar, to savour the song of a Yellowhammer drifting over from a tangle of hawthorns to our right. A little bit of bread and no cheese, never has a birds song had a better mnemonic attached to it.
White-letter Hairstreak, Weetslade Country Park
Large White feasting on Burdock