I have been on a sojourn to the North and spent several days in The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Sandwiched between the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Parks, it attracts far fewer visitors than its glamorous neighbours. That said, the Glorious 12th having just passed, the area was thrumming with Land Rovers and tweed-clad folk enjoying their best Grouse season for many years (not that their famous quarry was featured on local menus.)
The AONB is comprised of large tracts of upland moors and grassland cut through with river valleys including those of the Tees and Wear. Here lies the Moor House-Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve featuring a unique arctic/alpine flora including many rarities, notably the stunning Spring Gentian. I was of course too late for this gem but I did enjoy several other striking plants including Great Burnett (Sanguisorba officinalis), Mountain Pansy (Viola lutea) and England’s largest Juniper (Juniperus communis) wood. These are all to be found on the banks of the Tees around the area’s biggest crowd puller, the High Force waterfall.
I have always been fascinated by the Juniper and its habit of popping up in unusual places and I have not come across a pure stand of juniper before. Apparently this wood is in trouble as it is not regenerating.
Juniper is a very variable shrub with some plants in Teesdale resembling Yew trees (Taxus baccata) while some look like garden shrubs and other anarchic specimens have taken on fabulously twisted silhouettes. There are conflicting reasons put forward for the lack of young plants: rabbits grazing on seedlings is one and more implausibly it is suggested the plants are just not able to set seedlings due to climate change. I have come across this theory on the South Downs too where Juniper is declining, however I have seen occasional examples growing up on roadside verges on chalk in Wiltshire and Kent. Juniper has been becoming more scarce for the last 200 years or so in the UK and the reasons for this are complex. Perhaps climate change is a factor, more likely changing land use has a part to play. It will take time to reverse this decline – certainly longer than the career span of your average naturalist.
Have a look round Upper Teesdale – the Junipers are the dark bushes on the hill…