This summer’s extraordinary drought has wreaked havoc with the moorland flora & fauna. Several large tracts of moorland have been ravaged by fire and, everywhere, open water has all but disappeared. It’s been a hard time for the wildlife and now, as the rain still refuses to fall, the vegetation on the high places is beginning to look more like the scrub and brush of the High Chaparral than “England’s mountains green”.
The effect on our endlessly changing landscape has been to introduce new colours not often seen in the Peak District. In particular, the bilberry bushes have been desiccated to a rich burnt orange-brown, probably not seen this extensively since 1976.
One of the regular camera wielding ladies who pass by here frequently told me that she’d come up to get some shots while this infrequent effect was still enriching the vista and had set up her tripod near the Five Clouds. Peering through the viewfinder and framing her shot, she witnessed one of the orange-brown hummocks undulate slightly back and forth …. and then rise up onto it’s four legs!
She had just made her first acquaintance with either Bella or May – the two young Highland heifers who moved into our neighbour’s fields at Spring Cottage a few weeks ago! These lovely, gentle animals are set to grace the Roaches for years to come, as their owners, Fran & Rich, intend breeding from them - look out for little ones next year.
Don’t ask me which one is which, but they have a Facebook page, would you believe?
July is when the bilberries that grow all over the moors and valleys of the Peak District come to their full ripe state. You can often gauge the optimum moment from the bright purple bird droppings splattered all over the car!
For those of you unfamiliar with God’s most wonderful fruit creation (forget strawberries, mangos & passion fruit), bilberries are tiny little “blueberries” which form at the end of the new shoots of the bilberry bushes which blanket the acidic, nutrient-poor, upland soils of Northern Britain.
A tiny handful of these divine little blue-black spheres, sprinkled amongst the chunks of apple, transform a traditional apple pie into a semi-Nirvana experience.
Because of the drought, this year’s crop has been a catastrophic failure on the moors and, even in the valleys, only those of us who have the experienced nose to “sniff-out” those bushes which are rooted in folds and hollows where some degree of moisture has escaped the desiccating sun and wind, have collected any of the fat, juicy little fruit.
Now harvesting bilberries takes time and persistence - not a common human trait in these days of instant gratification and next-day delivery. The berries grow very intermittently and erratically – many bushes have scarcely a single fruit but every now and then, you may encounter what I call a “super-fruiter”, where deft fingers can roll the berries off the stalks comparatively easily and quickly.
Even so, collecting even a couple of hundred grams might take a couple of hours or longer.
The experienced bilberry harvester enters a trance-like state during picking. The world dissolves into just the delicate action of rolling the berry and dropping it back into the palm of the hand, transferring berries from each plant into a plastic tub and moving carefully on to the next bush. Nothing else matters. One feels a sense of traveling along a path with The Great Creator of Bilberries – freed of earthly bonds and entering state of peace and tranquillity. True Khama.
Most folk just think it’s tedium personified.
But we Bilberry People know different!
It's been a busy week for the Emergency Services here on The Roaches.
Last Sunday night we had the moor on fire and this weekend, the blue lights and wailing sirens of the Buxton Mountain Rescue were disturbing the peace. A lady climber had fallen badly on the Upper Tier, injuring both ankles and her wrist and landing on a rock ledge. A BMRT Paramedic climbed down to the ledge and a horizontal stretcher rescue was put in place and the patient stretched off the crag to a waiting ambulance.
This is what these volunteers train for week-in, week-out.
Remember that when you are in one of the local pubs or tea rooms and you spot one of their collection boxes on the bar - be generous, it could help save a life.
It’s been hot up here on The Roaches. Very hot indeed! So hot in fact, that ginger spaniels have started to wilt in the daytime.
Spaniels like Scout just don’t know when to stop hurtling about, hunting through the undergrowth – they get hotter and hotter and collapse in a heap panting. Then, ten seconds later, they’re at it again – racing through the heather, looking for grouse and pheasant.
Hence, this last few days we’ve been out for a good long walk very early in the morning and again as the sun is going down on the northwestern horizon and the air is cooling.
This means that we’ve been “up top”, wandering along the ridge path when no-one else is about, especially in the evenings, when everyone else has gone home.
Feeling the still-warm breeze. Listening out for curlew and grouse. Smelling the hot, pungent scent of the Scots Pine below the ridge path. Watching the shadows on the fields below grow longer and longer as, down in the valley, the tractors turning the hay switch on their lights.
These are long days for farmers. Cutting grass, turning hay, bailing & trekking back and forth to the silage clamps until near midnight ..... and they’ll still have to milk the cows tomorrow.
But, all in all, it’s dog heaven!
With the fine weather we’ve been having up here on the Staffordshire Moorlands, the grass in the meadows is ready for making into hay and silage to feed the animals through next winter.
The local farmers have been working flat-out these past few days as the nutrient value in the grass has peaked. The fields all across the valley are changing colour by the hour as teams of tractors, mowers and trailers chase each other in ever-decreasing circuits round each field. The lanes are full of tractors and trailers hurtling back and forth between field and silage clamp. Big round bales have begun to dot the countryside, waiting to be collected and transported to farmyards.
The tractor drivers manoeuvre their enormous machines and swinging attachments perilously close to the inconsiderately parked cars of thoughtless visitors who have parked in and opposite gateways
The heady scent of new-cut grass and sun-drying hay hangs in the air and the sound of the machines runs on late into the sunset. These are long, long days for upland farming communities.
Time to take a last opportunity to walk thigh-deep in wild meadow flowers, as we wander down to the Lazy Trout for an evening meal – before the tractors arrive in the valley bottom.