Today's Guardian Country Diary describes a walk along Thornhope Beck, a tributary of Waskerley Beck that flows into the river Wear at Wolsingham in Weardale. The walk starts here, on the road from Wolsingham to Tunstall Reservoir. When this line of ash trees, all of equal stature, were planted they must have been part of a hedgerow that has long-since disappeared. Now they are slipping past their prime and have some dead branches which ....
.... make them excellent drumming sites for great spotted woodpecker courtship.
A little bit further along the footpath, where these stepping stones cross Thornhope beck, there is a magnificent old beech tree ...
...... whose trunk seems to be melting into the ground.
On the south facing slopes of this little valley primroses have been in bloom for a couple of weeks.
The gorse has been in bloom all winter and shelters an extensive rabbit warren.
At this point there are two ways to cross the meandering Thornhope beck, which doesn't have a lot of water in it because it has been a very dry spring: either take the footbridge or the ford.
This Scots pine plantation used to host red squirrels, but I haven't seen one here for 15 years. There were plenty of 7-spot ladybirds though, sunning themselves on the south side of the trees in the late afternoon. A few years ago the ladybird population in Durham plummeted but it seems to have recovered well; I can't recall a spring when I've seen so many. When I walked along here there were several sunbathing on every fencepost.
Beyond the Scots pine plantation the path runs through what my kids used to call 'the sunken lane' when we brought them on walks through here 25 years ago. It's a track worn down by feet, hooves and cartwheels, where stock was moved between pastures and grazed in the woods in the way. Because of the depredations of sheep and cattle there isn't much regeneration of new trees and many of the old ones are decaying and shedding limbs ....
... which makes this excellent woodpecker feeding and nest hole territory.
Beyond the woodland the oaks become more sparse and well-spaced, so I suppose you could call this habitat woodland-pasture.
I sat under this oak as the shadows lengthened and listened to more woodpeckers drumming.
Under the oak there were spruce cones that had been carried here out of the nearby conifer plantation. The scales on this cone have been gnawed away by a grey squirrel ...
..... while this one shows the tell-tale feeding activity of a woodpecker, which has wedged the cone in the oak tree, hacked it with its beak to extract the seeds then let the cone drop to the ground. This oak must have been the woodpecker's favourite feeding tree - there were over 20 similarly shredded spruce cones on the ground underneath it.
The scolding call of this mistle thrush, perched in the topmost branches of an oak, could be heard right across the valley. It probably already has a nest with eggs; mistle thrushes are early nesters.
There's a fine view from here. This is the view eastwards, down the valley, with the swelling buds of the silver birches beginning to impart a warm reddish tint in he tree crowns ....
.... and this is the view westwards, up onto the high pastures and moorland.
Which direction to go from here? Eastwards, down the valley towards home. It had been a glorious day, but as the sun dipped below the hills the temperature dropped like a stone.