The Cotswolds IPA
Location: The IPA is located the surrounding areas of the cities of Bath, Gloucester, Chippenham and the north area of Swindon, where it mainly lies. It also occupies some areas near the villages of Sheepscombe, Cranham and Cheltenham.
Grid Reference: SU 200 862
The Cotswolds are a much loved and very characteristic area of England, their bones forged from the honey-coloured limestone rock that underpins the hills. The ancient beech woods and grasslands support an exceptional range of plants, including twelve different species of orchid.
The Jurassic here rock forms a plateau which rises gently westward from the meadows of the upper Thames valley to a steep escarpment slope in the west above the Severn valley and Evesham Vale. This ridge is drained by streams that cut deep into the rock, producing sheltered wooded valleys in contrast to the exposed hills above. This is a landscape of ancient beechwoods, wildflower-rich limestone grassland and arable fields.
The magnificent beechwoods have a long history of management for timber and whilst the canopy is dominated by beech other trees are found including ash, oak, wych elm, field maple and whitebeam. Beneath these, holly and yew often grow, providing evergreen shelter to wildlife. On the ground there are often thickets of bramble and ivy, but where management is more sympathetic many woodland flowers thrive and spring can be a rich tapestry of wood anemone, sanicle, primroses, violets, early-purple orchid, bluebells, enchanter's-nightshade and dog's mercury.
More local species growing under the trees include green hellebore, common wintergreen and bird's-nest orchid. A number of much rarer plants also occur, including fingered sedge, wood barley, stinking hellebore, yellow star-of-Bethlehem and narrow-lipped helleborine. Star of the show, though, is red helleborine, an orchid found only here and at two other sites in Britain.
Centuries of grazing on the limestone grasslands have resulted in the development of an exceptionally rich flora. Fields that have escaped agricultural intensification support a wide range of grasses, including upright brome, torgrass, sheep's-fescue and the beautiful little quaking grass.
Amongst this ancient turf a riot of cowslips, common bird's-foot-trefoil, common rock-rose, wild thyme, yellow rattle, knapweed, harebell and field scabious can be found. Less common jewels include autumn gentian, kidney vetch, bastard-toadflax and dwarf mouse-ear, along with a plethora of orchids that relish the lime-rich soil. These include plentiful early-purple orchid, common spotted orchid, bee orchid and pyramidal orchid, along with rarer green-winged orchid, greater butterfly orchid, frog orchid, fragrant orchid and, in just a few spots, musk orchid. Also to be found in just a handful of sites is the beautiful Pasqueflower, which legend has it grows on ground where Viking blood has been spilt.
Image: © Beth Newman/Plantlife