Hoe Grange Quarry – Derbyshire’s only butterfly reserve

A small copper roosting

A small copper roosting - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson visits Hoe Grange Quarry – Derbyshire’s only butterfly reserve

Hoe Grange Quarry

Hoe Grange Quarry - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire is a mineral-rich county that has been exploited for thousands of years by the hand, axe and explosives of man. Lead, flourspar, Blue John and limestone have all been and – particularly in the case of limestone and flourspar – still are worked to provide us with the raw resources that drive our hungry, modern world forward.

Limestone was first quarried by the Romans, who realised its tremendous value for both building stone and lime production. Quarrying continued in a spasmodic fashion across the county until the beginning of the 19th century when coal became far more available and the use of gunpowder allowed for blasting on a larger scale. Limestone was then used both as building stone and to produce lime to satisfy the growing demands of agriculture.

Today Derbyshire is still the UK’s most important limestone producer and its uses, which are numerous and include road building, cement, plastics, rubber, steelmaking, glass manufacture, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, really justify its designation as a multi-purpose resource.

However, there is a price to pay for mineral extraction. The most obvious is the huge scars on the landscape that result from working and worked-out quarries. It is easy to rail against these, however, we must remember that not only do they boost the local economy and provide much needed employment, often in areas where it is in short supply, but that also, of course, we all use limestone regularly in our daily lives, even if we are often not fully aware of it.

A common blue

A common blue - Credit: Archant

Once a quarry is abandoned – and they are abandoned for a variety of reasons beyond the obvious one of running out of limestone – the question arises ‘What do we do with a huge bare hole in the ground?’ One answer, which is also actually the cheapest, is nothing. Just leave it alone and nature will rapidly take over. Other options vary depending on the topography of the site – landfill or recreation are possibilities.

Hoe Grange Quarry fell into this debate in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was owned by Robert Shields, the owner and chairman of the Longcliffe Group, and had ceased to function as a working unit in the 1970s. At roughly the same time a group of butterfly enthusiasts, including Ray Walker (better known as Badger) and Ken Orpe (Derbyshire’s butterfly recorder), had started to explore the quarry and soon realised just how rich the site was for our lepidopteran friends. Initially a caravan site had been proposed because of its location and topography, but Badger suggested that the site could become Derbyshire’s first dedicated butterfly reserve and Robert rapidly agreed. Initially Butterfly Conservation provided some advice but the management, which is really minimal, has been taken under the umbrella of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.

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So why is Hoe Grange so important? To date 26 butterfly species have been recorded and among these are three species that are very important: wall brown, small heath, and the poorly named, dingy skipper. All three butterflies are on the UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) which means they are threatened on a national basis and require conservation action.

Hoe Grange is butterfly rich for a variety of reasons but the principal two are its south-facing, sunny cliffs and quarry floor and its incredibly thin, nutrient-poor soils. The first reason is easily understood. We all know that butterflies love warm, sunny weather. For the second, the answer lies with what grows and doesn’t grow on these soils. Vigorous grasses just cannot succeed and tend to wither and die in the sun-baked, dry soil, leaving the way clear for low-growing, calcium-loving plants such as bird’s-foot trefoil. Plants like these provide food for the caterpillars of Hoe Grange’s butterflies.

The old railway carriages - relics of the quarry's industrial past

The old railway carriages - relics of the quarry's industrial past - Credit: Archant

Watching butterflies at Hoe Grange is a fantastic and rewarding experience. If you do go, make sure you take a pair of binoculars, particularly ones that allow close focussing. Walk quietly along the footpaths – being careful not to trample the plants – and scan ahead for fast-flying species like the wall brown or, one of Derbyshire’s speciality species, the dark green fritillary. At the same time keep glancing across the ground vegetation for weaker, lower-flying species such as the common blue and dingy skipper. These can often be difficult to spot as they tend to blend into the background. Try to follow them as they flit along and when they come to rest use your binoculars to get a closer, more intimate view.

As you walk into the quarry from the small car park have a look at the newly renovated dew pond and see if you can spot a damsel or dragonfly. Once inside the quarry, make sure to have a look at the ponds and marvel at the old railway carriages, relics of the quarry’s former working life, which help to add an important industrial context to this amazing site.

Time does not stand still at Hoe Grange. Although management is minimal there have been a number of improvements that will hopefully boost the butterfly population even further. Wych elm has been planted to attract white-letter hairstreaks (first recorded in 2019), buckthorn has been added to help boost brimstones, and a hay meadow is proposed alongside the reserve to help grassland species.

Hoe Grange Quarry is best visited in the summer – April to August will provide butterfly sightings. However, if you want to search for a particular species then it’s best to arm yourself with a good butterfly book that shows you the flight season for each UK species.

Orange tip

Orange tip - Credit: Archant

To find out more about Hoe Grange, its open days (one each summer, listed as 5th July, 11am-4pm, but check nearer the time) and how to get there, go to the Wildlife Trust website at derbyshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves/hoe-grange-quarry

The rare wall brown

The rare wall brown - Credit: Archant

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