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  • Julie Muller

SIMONSIDES - Tall Tales of Hard Lives - Moor and Mire, Birds and Bog

Nearest postcode - NE65 7NW.

A red welsh sheep dog plays beneath tall green pine trees with glimpses of far reaching views stretching to the distant Cheviot Hills
Playing 'hide and seek' with a view to the Cheviots

It was the first Sunday in March when Bruno and I and our humans went for a walk up on the Simonside Hills which are a very short drive away from where we live – in fact you can see them from our back garden.

Simonside is clearly a very popular destination as the car park was already quite full when we arrived although most of the other humans had already set off on their morning walk. Having parked the car under the pine trees, we set off on the longer of two trails that were signposted from the car park.

We were very excited because this was our first proper foray into the Northumberland National Park.

From the car park, we took a wide gentle sloping track and began to climb up the hill. The views below us were spectacular and we caught glimpses of the Coquet River Valley and the Cheviot Hills as we played Hide and Seek between the trees. Rothbury slumbered in the valley below.

However above us, the hillside was cluttered with trees stumps, boughs, and branches. Higher still a whole platoon of bent, broken, and falling trees stood supporting each other as if in suspended animation. This was the aftermath after Storm Arwen had blasted her way across Northumberland in 2021.

There were no humans on this stage of our walk, so we were free to run around and explore a little bit. However, this freedom is lost on me. I prefer to stick to the paths – and Bruno usually follows my lead – but not always.

The ground was quite dry and sandy beneath our paws. Soon we left the main path and started to climb up a steeper stony path. In places, water trickled down between the stones. I kept a close eye to make sure that our humans stuck to the route which led us through thick woody stemmed heather. It was fun jumping over and between the plants. The heather stretched like a thick carpet all around us – at the moment sombre green – but in the summer months it will transform the whole hillside into a riot of rich purple.

This extensive heather moorland and the wetter blanket bog on the ridge make this place very special because of the diversity of plants, animals, birds, and insects that it supports. It is protected both as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific interest) and a SAC (Special Area of Conservation). This is because heather moorland like this is very rare in the whole of Europe.

Soon our walk became even more exciting as we scrambled up precipitously steep steps up to the top of the Simonside Ridge.

Two sheep dogs sit on steep stony sandstone steps admiring the view with heather moorland behind them
The climb begins up to the Simonside Ridge

A large puddle had accumulated beneath a huge boulder, and this was too great a temptation for Bruno who rushed forward in his efforts to race me to the water’s edge. However, in his haste, the steep slippery sides catapulted him headlong into the icy cold water. He emerged a lot faster than he went in and looking rather sorry for himself. I chuckled inwardly and found somewhere rather safer to take a drink.

A black and white border collie stands by a huge pool of peaty water which has gathered at the base of an enormous boulder with distant views behind across  the moors
The plunge pool - sweet peaty water for a drink - but too cold for a swim!

We continued to climb, and the wind whipped at our coats as we reached the top. The views stretched out in all directions – Rothbury and the Cheviots in one direction and in the other we saw the light glinting on a rather grey North Sea, with Lynemouth power station silhouetted against the sky in the distance – interestingly, this power station generates electricity solely on the combustion of solid wood pellets.

Once we reached the top of the ridge, a stone slab walkway guided us across the mire through low, dense heather thickets, their roots anchored in rich black peat which is over 10 metres thick. It takes 10 years for just one centimetre of peat to accumulate, so this peat must have started forming over 100,000 years ago! – This is why it is so important to use it sparingly – if at all. it As we continued our walk, water splurged beneath the stone pathway.

There are three types of heather that live here, and these are ling, bell heather and cross leaved heath. All of them are well adapted to their life on the moors which is often bleak and exposed to the elements. To combat the worst of the weather, all of the heathers have small needle like leaves, and they grow very tightly packed together.

Heather can live to a great age, but it is the youngest and most succulent plants that probably support the greatest diversity of wildlife. Traditionally landowners have burnt areas of heather in order to stimulate them to produce fresh green growth which is a vital food source both for wild birds, insects, animals and for grazing livestock, whereas the taller older stands provide important shelter and homes.

However, over recent years there has been some debate about the effect that burning the heather has on the precious peat beneath it and the practice has been banned in some places. We saw no sign of burnt heather on our walk today.

This type of habitat is perfect for both the red and the rarer black grouse. In fact, as we trotted across the stone slab pathway, we thought that we heard them calling to each other but they were so well camouflaged in the heather, we just couldn’t see them. Probably the best time to catch sight of them would be first thing on a spring morning when the male birds gather together at ‘leks’ and the female birds come along to watch them. Here the cocks flaunt their white rump feathers, elevate their wings and strut up and down to intimidate their rivals and catch the ‘eye’ of the hens. Both sexes sport feathery stockings and slippers to protect them from the bitter cold. Like so many birds that inhabit the moors the grouse build their nests on the ground and so it is vitally important that our humans keep us on short leads especially from March until the end of July so that we don’t disturb them or accidentally trample their nests.

The moors are quite a hostile environment and whilst we dogs and our humans venture here when we choose to, the resident wildlife battles with it on a daily basis. In fact wildlife has to be particularly resilient to be able to live here and some of the resident plants have adopted a carnivorous lifestyle because they just can’t get enough nutrients out of the ground. One such plant is the beautiful purple common butterwort which exudes a sticky secretion from its yellowy green leaves to trap unsuspecting insects. Similarly, the round leaved sundew traps insects before enfolding and digesting them.

Amongst the seemingly uniform stands of heather hide other smaller and less conspicuous plants such as the lesser twayblade which is a little orchid with tiny star shaped flowers, hare’s tail cotton grass with its feathery white seed heads and white flowered cloudberry.

The bright orange fruit of the cloudberry is only rarely seen in the UK. This is because the cloudberry has separate male and female plants and there just aren’t enough female plants to go around. Mind you, apparently the berries are a bit of a disappointment as they don’t taste of very much – some unkind humans call them nought berries!!

Although this land looks wild and untouched, it has been occupied and managed by humans for centuries. On the lower slopes of the Simonside Hills sits Lordenshaw’s Iron Age Hill Fort, which was constructed over 2,000 years ago. If you look very carefully you can still see the marks where the round houses once stood. Above the fort, etched into the rock are Cup and Ring Rock Art which predates even this Iron Age Fort and down the slopes there are the subtle tell-tale ridges and furrows of long abandoned cultivation strips clearly visible to the naked eye. There is even a Bronze Age cemetery at the base of the hill where swords have been discovered which were never even picked up in battle.

A black and white border collie sits on the Simonside ridge with far reaching views behind . Spent bronze bracken edges the path.
Shep the Border ollie poses on the Simonside Hills

Of course, the Simonside Hills, themselves, being over 300 million years old, are much more than heather moorland, blanket bog and even these amazing archaeological discoveries. There are craggy outcrops, woods and loughs (lakes) which lend themselves to tales of unearthly beings that loiter and linger in the mists of dawn and dusk and which lead humans to untimely ends.

Simonside certainly has many amazing stories to tell – both current and historical. We dogs and our humans can appreciate its rugged beauty, and enjoy the sun on our backs and the wind and rain whipping up our coats – for short intervals in our lives.

But the wildlife here has to endure life through all of the extremes of weather and in all seasons, so we need to respect ‘the locals’ , and to tread lightly on the hills , take nothing away and to leave nothing but our pawprints.

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