Country diary: A stony desert in the heart of the Peaks – and it’s thriving

·2 min read

Glance north as you walk east-west over this ridge and my guess is that few would see much to lure them into the landscape beyond the fence. Perhaps just as well, given the lack of public access, but you’d be wrong about any absence of interest.

Deep Rake is an old industrial place and the Explorer OL24 map still mentions “opencast workings”. While these have gone, you can still see the concentric drag lines through the limestone gravel where some heavy land-sculpting plant has operated. Between the machined lines, which are liberally peppered with a thousand dead white snail shells, there’s a spartan greenery dominated by bird’s-foot trefoil and hawkweed and the odd stately spiralling upwards of woolly, spear and creeping thistles.

The vegetation is devoid of farming opportunity and the whole landscape is arid and infertile, and even un-English. In fact, had I met such surroundings at Le Crau in the Camargue, or somewhere on the erg plains of Morocco’s Anti-Atlas, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Here in the heart of Derbyshire, however, they feel immensely strange and wonderful.

I’m thrilled to imagine how its owners and the Peak District park authority worked conscientiously at the quarry infill to create this stony desert. By dint of a countryside stewardship agreement – with my kind of livestock densities, three sheep on my last visit – it has locked High Rake into a steady state of infertility and wildlife abundance.

Tree pipits, spotted flycatchers and redstarts were feeding in its boundary of young trees. Every single one of our footsteps evicted a comical multicoloured splutter of four grasshopper species – common green, field, meadow and mottled. The flowers were teeming with bumblebees of seven kinds, and beetles and hoverflies, and 10 species of butterfly.

Pride of place belonged to the spined mason bee, Osmia spinulosa, a solitary bee that may have only one other Derbyshire site. It’s small and anonymous but for six trouser-legs of downward pointing ginger hairs, lozenge-like pale-grey eyes with darker marbling and an abdomen underside of velvety orange hairs with which it sweeps up pollen. The most delightful of its traits is that the female fashions nursery cells for her offspring inside the vacant cochlea of old snail shells.

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