Deep Dale

Location: Sheldon, Derbyshire.

Grid Reference: SK 165 698

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Deep Dale is one of those special places where, if you visit the right part at the right time of year, you will see swathes of colour spreading over the hillsides.

The reserve is an area of grassland between 150-325m above sea level. It lies within the Peak District National Park where the underlying rock is mainly carboniferous limestone. Most of the grassland is on thin soils over this rock, and so is very calcium-rich. At the top of the slopes the soil becomes more acidic, while at the foot the soil is deeper and more fertile. Each zone has its own flora.

Deep Dale is a place with a long history. North of the reserve, on a steep-sided hill called Fin Cop, archaeologists have found evidence of a horrific Iron Age massacre. Within the reserve are the remains of a settlement dating from Roman times. And further up the dale, there was extensive lead mining.

Lime lovers

The most celebrated plants of the dale are the many lime-loving species that grow on the grassy slopes. These include the bright yellow flowers of common rock-rose, purple sheets of wild thyme, salad burnet and, where there’s a bit of shelter, the tall, carrot heads of burnet-saxifrage. Limestone bedstraw grows here too, only the backward-pointing prickles on the edge of its leaves readily distinguishing it from the much commoner heath bedstraw. A few less common limestone specialists are harder to find. Limestone fern looks a little like oak fern but with duller green leaves in a more regularly triangular shape. Spring cinquefoil forms neat mats of five-fingered leaves and delicate yellow flowers, and stone bramble is a more straggling plant than its familiar relative, with only weak prickles and rather dirty white flowers.

Spoil and scrub

A little way up the dale, there is a series of grassy hummocks formed from spoil left by lead mining two centuries ago. Lead is toxic to most plants, so only a few tough specialists can survive here. This is where the mountain pansy grows, along with moonwort, a delicate fern often no more than an inch or so in height, and spring sandwort, a low, cushion-forming plant with unspectacular white flowers.

Further up the dale, in among a scrubby cluster of hazel, woodland plants, such as wood sage and dog’s mercury, have a foothold. There’s a single, circular patch of lily-of-the-valley. Here too are the nodding flowerheads of columbine; unusually some of its flowers are white, rather than blue or purple. A few spikes of dark-red helleborine also occur here.

In the south of the reserve, the flora includes kidney vetch, autumn gentian and oxeye daisy, while the higher slopes are home to bilberry, tormentil and heath speedwell. This is also where grass-of-Parnassus can occur.

A local farmer grazes cattle on the reserve from July until November (or earlier in wet years) and an important part of our work involves cutting back hazel and hawthorn scrub that would otherwise smother the rich limestone turf.

View map of area

Purchase of the reserve was made possible by Unilever (Timotei), Dr Jill Robson and Plantlife members.