Country diary: this forgotten grassland is a butterfly Serengeti

Country diary: this forgotten grassland is a butterfly Serengeti

Low Willington, County Durham: Small skippers, ringlets and small heaths are thriving here – the bright wings of summer

If I give my imagination free rein on this sultry afternoon, I could almost believe this shoulder-high grassland – a shimmering sea of false oat, cock’s-foot and meadow foxtail – is African savanna. No elephants or wildebeest though; voles are the most numerous mammalian herbivores here, tunnelling through a thatch of decades of dead grass.

This revegetated site – one of the largest local collieries until 1967 – has reverted to an uncommon example of unmanaged grassland, never mown or grazed by domesticated animals. It’s a perfect habitat for butterflies, whose caterpillars feed on grasses, here in an abundance that I can recall from childhood but nowadays rarely encounter. Ringlets, the colour of plain chocolate, spiral upwards in courtship pursuit or territorial disputes. Large skippers whirl just ahead of my footsteps, settling to nectar on white clover. Small heaths and meadow browns dangle from arching panicles of Yorkshire fog.

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