The Yorkshire Wolds

The Yorkshire Wolds is blessed with some of the most tranquil landscapes in eastern England with the deep and hidden valleys which characterise this area of rolling chalk upland hosting a wealth of wildlife, including iconic species such as Red Kites, Redstarts, Marbled White butterflies and Orchids, while along the coast seabirds breed on the chalk cliffs, including the likes of Gannets, Puffins and Auks. Flamborough Head is also well known as a bird migration hotspot, the natural geography of the area making it a draw for migrating birds, while the exposed headland is a superb location for sea-watching & monitoring the movements of seabirds as they move up and down the North Sea. The Yorkshire Wolds will appeal to anyone whom loves the natural world and whom wishes to enjoy a slower pace of life in a rural and unspoilt corner of the British Isles and I hope this blog will encourage others to come and explore this tranquil area for themselves.

The Yorkshire Wolds lie in the south-eastern corner of Yorkshire and along with the North York Moors & Pennines form one of the three upland areas which can be found in this diverse northern county of England. The Wolds are primarily formed by chalk and it is this bedrock which gives the area its distinctive landscape and natural history, though decades of agricultural intensification have robbed the area of some of its best habitats, especially chalk grassland which once covered this area in the past. However remnants of this rich habitat can still be found here and there and in recent years a variety of schemes have been implemented in order to restore some of this rich habitat.

In the north the rolling chalk hills eventually reach the North Sea at Flamborough Head and here one can marvel at the huge chalk cliffs which mark the dramatic conclusion of the Yorkshire Wolds, indeed these chalk cliffs, which in places are over 100 metres (330 feet) high, are amongst the highest sea cliffs in England. Owing to the naturally porous nature of chalk there are very few wetlands in the region, though springs do rise up in numerous locations, particularly along the Wolds western escarpment, and here a few small, man-made lakes can be found providing habitat for water birds and dragonflies, one small lake in particular being a regular haunt of Water Rails during the winter.

The dry valleys with their mixture of grassland and hawthorn scrub provide good habitat for many birds and wildlife, including the likes of Redstarts and Warblers in summer, Wagtails & Wheatears in spring and autumn, and birds of prey in the winter (if you’re lucky you might spot Rough-legged Buzzard or Short-eared Owls in some of these dales). Hares & Roe deer are both common while other mammalian life includes Fox, Badger, Stoat, and Weasel. In summer these same dry dales provide havens for butterflies, chief amongst these the beautiful Marbled Whites which thrive on these northern hills, while other species worthy of note include Brown Argus, Dingy Skipper, and Grayling.

A YORKSHIRE WOLDS YEAR

SPRING

The coming of spring is a fluid and variable date in the Yorkshire Wolds, sometimes arriving as early as February while in others not really getting going to late March, but when spring does finally arrive in this corner of eastern Yorkshire there is no doubt that this is one of most interesting and pleasant times to be out and about as the countryside slowly awakens from its winter slumbers. Though Snowdrops come in winter, usually in late January or February, these seemingly delicate but in reality tough little white flowers herald the initial stirrings of the season, with some notable snowdrop woods being encountered at Burton Agnes, Tun Dale Plantation, and in a number of local church-yards (Givendale church has a beautiful display of Snowdrops & Winter Aconites).

By the beginning of April the sound of singing Chiffchaffs begins to be heard once more in the local woodlands, these warblers being joined by Blackcaps soon after, and then Willow Warblers and eventually Whitethroats by the end of the month and going into May, while the Wolds most colourful summer visitor, the Common Redstart, returns to its breeding grounds in the west and north-west of the region by late April / early May. Curlews may also be heard on the high Wolds in spring (and early summer), their evocative calls a reminder that the Wolds holds a small breeding population of these upland birds, though unfortunately other breeding birds such as the Cuckoo & Turtle Dove are becoming harder and harder to find, a reflection of the dwindling fortunes of these two species in England (however both may still be encountered here and there, with Turtle Doves having a preference for the area around Kiplingcotes).

Butterflies meanwhile begin to appear from late March onwards, with typical early species including Brimstone, Orange Tip, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma, & Speckled Wood and as spring begins to give way to summer by early June a number of other species begin to appear including Dingy Skipper, Small Heath, and Common Blue to name but a few (see The Wolds in Summer for more about these).

As the season progresses more and more wildflowers begin to appear in the woodlands and sheltered valleys of the Yorkshire Wolds, with the Snowdrops & Aconites of late winter / early spring giving way to a greater variety of species and colours as the weather slowly warms up and the sun gets ever higher in the sky. By the end of the period carpets of Bluebells may be encountered in favoured woods, including North Cliffe Wood, Bratt Wood (near Nunburnholme), Etton West Wood, Nut Wood (near Willerby & Swanland) and a few others, and not far behind will be the strongly scented Ramsons (or Wild Garlic), these white flowers forming carpets at places such as Old Wood (near Bishop Wilton), Millington Wood, and the woods of the Warter Priory Estate. Orchids also begin to appear by late spring with typical early species such as Twayblade and Frog Orchid being encountered at favoured sites such as East Heslerton Brow, and North Newbald Becksies.

Meanwhile at the coast the seabirds begin to return for the new breeding season, most notably at the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs, but a visit at this time of year may also bring sightings of a few passage migrants as they make their way northwards, including the likes of Wheatears, Shrikes, Wagtails, and indeed many other species which are otherwise scarce visitors to this neck of the woods. Similarly a few less common migrants may be encountered elsewhere, the wetland site at North Cave providing an excellent site to look for passage waders such as Temminck’s Stint, Ruff, Godwits, Sandpipers & Plovers.

SUMMER

Summer is perhaps the most enjoyable and interesting time to enjoy the nature and wildlife of the Yorkshire Wolds, with places like Bempton Cliffs positively alive with breeding seabirds, including iconic species such as Gannets, Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars and Kittiwakes providing a spectacle which is truly unforgetable, while the secluded and hidden sheltered valleys of the Yorkshire Wolds provide havens for wildflowers and butterflies. However summer is an all too brief affair up here at these northern latitudes and the peak of all this activity comes in late June, July and early August so for the amateur naturalist or indeed any other nature lover these six to eight weeks are a busy time if he or she wants to enjoy all that the Wolds has to offer.

June is the best time to enjoy the aforementioned coast, with all the seabirds still in residence and busy raising the next generation, and if you are lucky you may spot a Peregrine or two cruising the cliff tops looking for a meal. Late May and early June is also the time to look for Dingy Skippers, with Wharram Quarry, Bishop Wilton Wold and Kiplingcotes being the best places for this grey but far from dingy species. Orchid species such as Marsh (both Northern & Southern varieties can be encountered in the Wolds region), Common Spotted, Fragrant, Bee, and Pyramidal begin to appear too, though due to the sensitive nature of some of these sites it is perhaps best not to publish the whereabouts of some of these locations, while a beautiful wildflower spectacle can be enjoyed at Bishop Wilton Wold as this high vantage point becomes covered in Oxeye daisies and other typical flowers of chalk grassland.

July is the month for butterflies, Marbled Whites appearing in large numbers in many parts of the Wolds but particularly the herb rich grasslands of the central and northern Wolds (Millington Pastures and Deep Dale being prime locations), while other species such as Common Blue, Brown Argus, Wall Brown and even a Grayling or two may be encountered in favoured locations. In some years Painted Ladies may appear in large numbers and these can be encountered pretty much anywhere in the region, while even less frequently the area may enjoy an invasion of Clouded Yellow butterflies.

Wildflowers also continue to show well around the area during this month, though by months end many will have already gone to seed, with notable species including the aforementioned Orchids, Clustered Bellflowers (Millington Pastures, Fordon Banks, & Burdale being good spots for these purple beauties), Bloody Cranesbill, Salad Burnet, Wild Thyme, Knapweeds, Scabious, Milkwort, Birds-foot Trefoil and many, many more.

By August things are already beginning to obviously slow down as summer reaches its final days, the countryside dominated by the golden hues of the cereal fields which are usually being busily harvested at this time of year, but butterflies and wildflowers can continue to be seen, albeit it in increasingly less numbers and diversity. Late summer can be a good time to enjoy dragonflies, with wandering Hawker species turning up in otherwise unpromising locations, though to really enjoy these fascinating insects a visit to Londesborough Park, and especially North Cliffe Wood and North Cave Wetlands is strongly advised with a large variety of species usually on show. Meanwhile the coming of autumn sees bird migration return is earnest, with Flamborough Head being a favoured location for sea-watching as Skuas, Shearwaters, and other birds make their way along the coast, while returning waders may begin to turn up at North Cave Wetlands again.

AUTUMN

Autumn is typically a somewhat drawn out affair in the region, usually beginning in late August and continuing through to November, but it is a wonderful time to be out and about and exploring the nature and wildlife of the area as the weather gradually turns cooler and more unsettled as the season progresses.

At the coast autumn migration gets into full swing in August and continues right through September, October and early November, and though the vast majority of these avian visitors will be fairly common passage migrants such as Wheatears, Stonechats, & Whinchats (to name but a few)  occasional rarities will show up from time to time and then the regions twitchers will turn up in numbers to tick off the bird in question (look for lots of men and women with scopes). Autumn is also the best time for sea watching with Skuas, Shearwaters and Petrels all passing within sight of the headland and some of the most dedicated birders will spend hours scanning the seas, the observations of whom are crucial in the understanding of bird migration along the North Sea coasts.

Back inland the countryside slowly begins to take on the hues and atmosphere which so characterises this most beautiful seasons, the autumn colours usually reaching their peak in October and early November, with the Beech woodlands of the western Wolds being the best region to enjoy this annual spectacle (the woodlands of Brantingham Dale, Drewton Dale, Nunburnholme and Warter being of particular note). Fungi also begins to appear in the local woodlands from late August onwards and though the Wolds are not particularly rich in this regard a decent variety can be found if you know where to look. North Cliffe Wood is probably the best place to look for these transient organisms but other good sites include Burton Bushes near Beverley and the grounds of the Buddhist retreat at Kilnwick Percy.

As autumn progresses the movement of birds becomes more obvious inland and if you are lucky you may spot skeins of wild Geese passing overhead or even calling in at places like North Cave or Welton Waters. Smaller wildfowl also begin to arrive for the winter at such locations, including the likes of Wigeon, Teal, Pochard and Pintail, while wader numbers will also increase along the Humber shore and at other wetland sites. By late October Redwings and Fieldfares both begin to arrive and may be encountered feeding amongst Hawthorn scrub pretty much anywhere in the region, and it is always worth keeping an eye out for more exotic visitors such as Waxwings.

WINTER

As with most places winter is a quiet time on the Yorkshire Wolds, though that is not to say that nothing is going on and indeed winter can be one of the best times for seeing some of the Wolds more elusive and secretive fowls and beasts. Roe Deer and Hares are frequently seen in the Wold dales and up on the windswept fields, while early morning visits may bring sightings of Foxes and if you are very lucky even a Badger or two in western districts.

In the woodlands wintering birds such as Siskins, Redpolls and Bramblings maybe encountered, the first two species being particularly common at places such as North Cave Wetlands, North Cliffe Wood, Kilnwick Percy and Kirby Underdale, while Bramblings are most likely to be encountered in the Beech woodlands of Warter, Nunburnholme, Wayrham and Givendale. Red Kites and Buzzards are common sights in western districts, while Millington Pastures and other nearby dales can be good places to look for Rough-legged Buzzards, Short-eared Owls, and Barn Owls in the brief daylight hours of winter, though of course numbers vary from year to year. Another highlight of the winter months is the annual gathering of dozens of Red Kites as they come into roost between Nunburnholme and Warter.

At wetland sites wildfowl and wintering waders can be encountered, especially at North Cave or Welton Waters in the south and High Mowthorpe Reservoir in the north, while the small pond near Millington Wood is a regular haunt for Water Rails at this time of year. Meanwhile at the coast a few interesting birds may be spotted on the headlands or out on the sea, with Divers and sea-ducks being common sights, while a few rarer birds may also occasionally turn up in this area (Bempton Cliffs was home to a long staying Desert Wheatear in the winter of 2011/2012). However winter is perhaps one of the best times of year to simply enjoy the landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds, the deep dales of the western Wolds looking particularly beautiful in the low winter sunlight and even more so when the area is covered in a pristine blanket of snow.