Having always had an interest in nature and the outdoors, and more recently becoming an amateur naturalist and birder, I started to write articles about my experiences in January last year. I am the author of www.greenewildblog.co.uk, a site which contains my articles and pictures. I am fifteen, and currently in year 10 at school. Whether it’s looking for bats underground, bearded tits in the reeds on the levels or redstarts in the woods, armed with binoculars, a telescope and a camera, I try to seek out the best wildlife experiences this county has to offer.
This is my first article for the Somerset Wildlife Trust and is about a particular favourite place of mine: Ubley Warren and the adjoining reserves.
A snake basks in the morning sun on the side of one of the limestone rakes. It slowly starts to slither away as I approach across the boulders. Nearby a lizard is also sunning itself. After photographing it, I run up to the top of rise and look over the whole reserve.
This is Ubley Warren, one of my favourite nature reserves for the spring and summer. The rakes, mini gorges in the landscape, are great to explore or alternatively you can just sit on a grassy top and have a picnic in the sun. Caves and mineshafts drop down into the ground, hiding roosting horseshoe bats which you might be lucky enough to spot at dusk. They sound incredible if you can pick up their sounds with a bat detector. The scrubby heathland, teeming with adders and lizards, contains many wildflowers and insects. The damp woodland of Nether Wood (a Somerset County Council reserve) is colourful with red campion and is often home to redstarts in summer. There is also a little stream filled with sticklebacks and a few leeches. Beyond the woods are pools of fish where dragonflies dart, and marshlands with orchids and grass snakes. Even the barren lead spoil heaps in the adjoining Blackmoor reserve (SCC) support alpine plants and provide basking sites for reptiles. Such variety and diversity in habitats is contained in a relatively small area.
The best place to start your tour is the rakes which lie to the south of the Ubley/Charterhouse/Blackmoor complex (it took me several visits before I realised that they were there). The rakes were cut into the gently sloping hills by lead mining where these rich veins were once exploited for lead ores. Sharp crags and mini cliffs of limestone, sometimes covered in ivy or bramble, line either side of the rake and between them are mounds of short grass. You can walk along the top of a ridge in the sun, looking at the small fossils that punctuate the upper layers of the rock, or descend into one of the valleys, with their trees and brambles and little caves. The network of canyons and cliffs is great to investigate, and the sides facing the sun sometimes have basking reptiles.
The majority of the reserve is heathland: heather, gorse and grasses. This kind of landscape dominates the Ubley Warren reserve away from the scrapes and the adjacent Blackmoor. The heathland is one of the best places to look for reptiles. Early in the morning, adders, common lizards and slow worms are sluggish and don’t run (or slither) away when you approach. Later on in the day, the most you’ll usually get are rustles in the grass or, if you’re lucky, a tail disappearing into a clump of heather. Fortunately, nearer the start of the day, snakes and lizards need to bask to thermo-regulate and at this stage you can see them quite easily. Walk quietly around areas of scrub, like heather or gorse, which the reptiles stay close to so they can retreat to cover. Adders can easily pick up the vibrations of you approaching if you are not careful, so keep a light tread. If you do see an adder, stay where you are. Approaching it will probably make it flee into cover and then it won’t come out again for a while. At this time of year (mid-March), adders are coming out of hibernation. The males are the first to emerge but within a few weeks the females join them. Late March onwards into May is the best time of year to look for adders because the cooler weather means that they are not as active and have to bask more.
Adders and other reptiles
Adders (Vipera berus) are Britain’s only venomous reptile. They grow to a maximum of about 80cm long but most are around 40cm. Males are smaller than females and have striking black zigzags down their back, often against a grey or blue background (although it is also sometimes brown). Females tend to be larger, with a browner colouration and less contrast between the zigzag and the background colour. Adders have red eyes and slit pupils that give them a decidedly malevolent look when viewed up close (not that I’m suggesting you do adder bites are not usually dangerous but they are still painful and require hospital treatment). I have been lucky enough to see a melanocytic adder, a black adder, at Ubley. Adders and lizards are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act against deliberate killing (in fact it is illegal to kill any of Britain’s native reptiles).
Viviparous or common lizards are small and brown and live in the same habitat as the adders. It is a fairly risky business as adders often eat these lizards. If you do have a strong urge to handle the lizards do not pick them up by the tail as they can shed it.
Near the reserve of Ubley Warren lies the little Nether Wood reserve out towards the north of the Charterhouse reserve. In the arching canopies and twiggy scrub live many species of bird: treecreepers, chiffchaffs, blackcaps and nuthatches all make this area their home. The best of the lot though is undeniably the redstart. The male is a magnificent bird - bright red underside, red-brown wings, a black face with a striking white bar (supercillium) above his eye that merges with a grey cap - truly spectacular. He is just slightly larger than a robin. If spotted he tends to perch in a tree and bob, uttering alarm calls, but otherwise he flits around the treetops looking for insects to eat. The female of the species is a far drabber looking bird; mainly brown with a red tail. Redstarts can be seen from about May onwards.
Pond and Streams
In the centre of the woodland is a pond filled by several small streams. These are teeming with sticklebacks. The males with their electric-blue eyes and red breasts chase the females through the trickling current. I have also found leeches in this stream, long black worm-like creatures waiting to suck blood; they look like swimming slugs.
Around the little streams I have often seen grass snakes. These are distinguishable from the adders by their olive green body and yellow collar. Grass snakes tend to live around water; I have seen them swimming across the surface of the ponds in the reserve and seen them diving in my own garden pond. They also need to bask, and they hunt around the damp areas in the woodland. Grass snakes are harmless unless you’re a frog.
The larger ponds are outside the woods. Next to them is a marshy area where various orchids grow and dragonflies and damselflies hawk on sunny days. Piles of shiny black lead spoil rise from the side of the pond creating an alpine slope where sedums thrive. These are a clue to the industrial past of the area. Lead mining has created this landscape, the scrapes and mineshafts, the lead spoil heaps all are made by mining. Mining was started here in Roman times in AD 45 and only stopped in the late 1800s.
The path next to the pools heads back to the car parks and in the direction of the Velvet Bottom reserve another good place for Redstarts and Adders that is managed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust.
As I have written this, I have ordered my description by imagining the route that I would take around the reserves and I have ended up back where I started. If you do choose to visit the reserve (and I strongly recommend that you do) I suggest you get there early to look for reptiles, and that you pack a picnic. The rakes are great sun-traps that humans, not just reptiles, can enjoy, and one of the little grass hillocks between the gorges is a great place for lunch. Explore the area; it may take time to find the best spots for wildlife, but when it comes to watching wildlife it’s the experience that really matters and few places give as good an experience as here.
If you'd like to find out more about Ubley Warren (including its history, wildlife and directions), you can check out its webpage by clicking the following link - Visit Ubley Warren
Ubley Warren © Jake Chant
Common Lizard © Hallam Greene
Adder © Hallam Greene
Redstart © Hallam Greene