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Grizzled Skippers

Summary: The spread of wildlife along tramway tracks, mentioning the Grizzled Skipper butterfly. . . . . . .

© Gillian Thompson

‘We get ‘Grizzled Skippers here sometimes,’ commented Phil in a casual way. I wondered how come old sailors sometimes found their way to Ruddington at the northern end of the Great Central Railway. Etymologists amongst you will immediately realise he was talking about butterflies, rare ones for a site as far north as the outskirts of Nottingham. ‘They like the trackside flowers and plants, and the ballast, for some reason. It’s important we protect them – another reason for a preserved railway.’ I wondered if Grizzled Skippers preferred heritage lines or the main tracks.

The story of the unusual butterfly came to mind when I was reading an article on the NRM website recently about nature and railway tracks, a topical subject (‘The Green Corridor: Railways and the Landscape’, from March 2021). The article began back in time in the early days of tramways and railways, long before the arrival of the miles of spiked metal fences we know today. The Railway Regulatory Act of 1842 stipulated that public access to the lineside had to be restricted on safety grounds, forcing railway companies to fence off their tracks and maintain suitable barriers. It’s interesting that in the early days, frequent mention was made of the dangers and costs of animals straying on to the track, rather than human beings, but as we can see, there was no shortage of incidents involving both down the years – and even, still, today.

Moving swiftly on from a selection of gory details, railway companies soon discovered that hawthorn hedges were a good option – fast growing ‘hawthorn quicks’. Hedges appeared and soon hedges became overgrown in places and ‘railway trees’ followed on. Railway tracks became perfect conduits for the transmission of seeds. The NRM article describes Oxford Ragwort, a native of the volcanic ash soils of Sicily. Imported to the Oxford Botanical Garden it soon found the ash strewn Oxford railway tracks to its liking and so spread easily. Phil and I discussed ‘fire weed’ (Rose Bay Willowherb) and how it was possible to trace its rapid progress across the UK, following railway tracks. It settles easily, a blizzard of seeds swept along by trains and falling on newly burnt land from engine sparks.

A few years ago I spent some time researching the history of old trees up and down the country. It became apparent, after some time thrashing about in undergrowth (on the correct side of a railway fence), that there were patterns to tree growth beside railway lines, not so much in the particular species (though hawthorn, ash and oak feature strongly) but more in terms of how the trees came to be there in the first place.

The Ivanhoe Line between Leicester and Burton. Image: Leicester Mercury online.

During my outdoor research, I spent some time at the back of a now closed cemetery in Coalville, Leicestershire, where the graveyard backs on to the old Midland Railway (MR) line from Leicester to Burton on Trent. There were some old trees there and using some of the time honoured age estimation techniques (girth at breast height, growing conditions, that sort of thing) I came to the conclusion they were just about around when the line was built in 1845. Did the MR really plant trees on the trackside? Leafing through the late Oliver Rackham’s much admired ‘The History of the Countryside’ (1986) I came across a more likely explanation. It was all about those early fences. The Midland would have erected fences at the track side and there birds would perch, occasionally dropping seeds which would eventually become hedges and then trees. Far fetched? Maybe, but there are stranger stories in railway history.

The railway world today is a different place. Many organisations recognise the natural world at the lineside; Network Rail, for example, declares an intention to ‘let nature flourish’ (whilst recognising that some controls are needed to stop trees and plants fouling running lines) and uses satellite imagery to survey its estate. Disused lines feature prominently as nature reserves, official and unofficial, on the web sites of local Wildlife Trusts.

My conversation with Phil turned in that direction too. ‘Are you planning to encourage the Grizzled Skippers?’ I asked.

© Steven Cheshire

‘At a railway level, you could come along and just weed kill and that would be the end of it but because there’s an awareness of it, we have local wildlife groups that do some clearance to support the habitat. But, of course, that also clears some of the lineside at the same time so, from a completely different direction, volunteer based, you can work together. And whereas historically I suppose wildlife bodies and railways have never got on terribly well, there’s a working relationship that says ‘ok, look this is how you can do things and actually work towards the same thing, just from a slightly different focus’.

Time, then, to put away the railway books, don hi-viz overalls and boots and set off for some bush bashing to help the Grizzled Skipper. It’s funny how an interest in railways morphs into so many other things, a ‘butterfly mind’ I suppose.

‘Polyphemus’ …. And a Happy Christmas to you all.

You can find the Green Corridor article here

John Swanwick

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Frank Paterson
Frank Paterson
Dec 21, 2021

Does Polyphemus consider that the incredible spread of Buddleia (the butterfly bush) on embankments and sidings all over our railways is nature doing it's own 'bush bashing' to encourage more Grizzled Skippers??

Replying to

That's a really interesting point, Frank. I have a (small) list of species (flora, fauna etc) that like railways. Another one is the birch tree which colonises disused ground such as old railway sidings. There's a particularly fine mini-forest of these growing near Wakefield Westgate station if you are ever in the vicinity (along with buddleia, of course, though they rather like sprouting out of the brickwork!). Polyphemus

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