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Bird's-eye primroses in June

From the pretty village green in Arncliffe, Littondale's main settlement, I gazed expectantly towards the fell side which rises steeply to the south of the village. Here I hoped to find my favourite Dales plant.


I made my way along the green lane out of the village and headed upwards on the old monastic route from Arncliffe to Malham. As I climbed the hillside a stunning view of the Dale opened up to the south. Littondale is a perfect U-shape in profile, the hallmark of a glaciated valley. Barns, dry stone walls and small patches of woodland add to the picture-postcard scene. The River Skirfare, which within a couple of miles ends its brief life when it joins the River Wharfe, meanders through a compact flood plain.

Several ladder stiles further up the Monk's Road I worked my way through a damp area of grassland where a spring was seeping through the limestone. Here at last was the splash of purple that indicated I had found my quarry - over twenty bird's-eye primroses were in full flower on the hillside.

Bird's-eye primrose

This small member of the primrose family is often at its best in early June. Five lilac-purple petals surround the bright yellow 'eye' that gives the plant its English name. Its Latin title, Primula farinosa, refers to the mealy underside to the spoon-shaped leaves, 'farina' meaning flour. These grow in a distinctive rosette at the base of the stem, which rises to elevate the showy flower heads up to six inches off the ground.

If the Yorkshire Dales were to have an official plant then the bird's-eye primrose would be the prime candidate. Its distribution in Britain is centered on the Dales, together with neighbouring areas of Cumbria and Durham. Elsewhere in the country it is unknown and many botanists from southern England make their annual pilgrimage to Littondale or Wharfedale to reacquaint themselves with this little gem.

I knelt down to enjoy the delicate fragrance. Flies and day-flying moths also visit the flowers and thereby act as pollinators. Later in the year the seed is laid down which gives rise to the following year's plants. A few plants had been uprooted and left on the ground. These were probably disturbed by sheep which are attracted to the flower heads, but usually find them unpalatable.

My wet knees reminded me that these Littondale plants were growing in damp grassland. Elsewhere in the Dales the bird's-eye primrose grows around springs and along stream sides among grasses and sedges, often with other moisture-loving plants such as butterwort and marsh valerian. It is locally abundant in suitable habitats, but avoids completely acid soils.

This section of Littondale forms part of the largest Site of Special Scientific Interest in Wharfedale. Special protection is afforded to the plants here and the bird's eye primrose thrives. Overstocking with sheep in some parts of the Dales have led to a decline in the number of bird's-eye primroses. Unfortunately the plant has disappeared altogether from damp grasslands in valley bottoms which have been drained or fertilized.

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