5 Really Cool Things To Look Out For In The Mountains


When Anne asked me to write this post my first thought was "Great. I'd love to do this." This was quickly followed self-doubt; I'm no expert naturalist or photographer. I'm an aspirant Mountain Leader, and in my trips into the hills I've had plenty of enjoyment learning about the plants and animals I've seen. Four out of five of these things were seen in one weekend, so there's a lot out there if you keep your eyes open. All the pictures are taken on a smartphone as I haven't wanted to haul a heavy camera around whilst preparing for my assessment, but bear in mind that if you are using your mobile phone to take pictures on the hills you might compromise your ability to call for help in an emergency. I carry an old Nokia phone, fully charged for emergencies, in addition to my smartphone. All the photos were taken in the Lake District, three of them on one of Chris's suggested quality mountain days, and two on other walks preparing for Mountain Leader assessment.

1. Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)

Small Heath (AP) 1500px cropped.jpg

 This small butterfly is found throughout Great Britain in small numbers. The charity Butterfly Conservation gives its conservation priority as high, and numbers are thought to have declined 29% since the 1970's. It lives in dry grassland, and will live on moorland if the area is relatively dry with low grass. It flies low to the ground, and its erratic flight is sometimes described as drunken.

The Small Heath always rests with its wings closed, and the "eye" spot on the lower surface of the upper wing serves to draw bird attacks away from the body of the butterfly. Once the butterfly is sure it has not been spotted landing by a predator, the upper wings are folded inside the lower wings and the eye spot disappears, making it very hard to see. Butterflies can be seen from early May until October, and the individuals live in discrete colonies; rarely do the butterflies move between colonies.

2. Common Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Juniper (AP) 1500px.jpg

According to Oleg Polunin this is "probably the most widely distributed woody plant of the northern hemisphere", and it is found from the Mediterranean to the Arctic, and Canada to Japan. Despite this wide distribution it is in decline in the UK, and is a priority in the UK Biodiversity Action plan.  

Its berries, which are actually cones with tightly packed scales, are used to flavour gin, and in the past the wood was prized for fuelling illicit stills; the wood burns smokelessly, reducing the risk of a visit from tax officials!

Trees are either male or female, and the seeds take about eighteen months to two years to mature, with germination occurring after a year or more of the seed lying dormant in the ground. Some studies have shown that only six in ten thousand seeds produced a seedling that survives a year.

It is slow growing, with the shoots growing only a few centimetres a year. A small juniper remains vulnerable to grazing for many years. It is likely that all junipers in the south of England owe their survival to the impact of myxomatosis on rabbit numbers. If you seen a juniper bush or tree in the hills the fact that it is there at all is a minor miracle. 

3. Dor beetle, probably Common dor beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius)

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The beetle I saw was about 2cm long, and was found at 830m, high on the slopes of one of the Western Fells. Identification of beetles is not necessarily easy, but I think this is a Common dor beetle which is one of the largest dung beetles found in the UK. These beetles can fly but they are noisy, clumsy fliers, and often bump into cows and other large objects. They are also known as Dumbledors. (The wizard at Hogwarts in the J.K. Rowling books is Dumbledore.)

Herbivores do not fully digest their food so that their poo is nutritious to insects with the right digestive system. The male and female beetles work together to produce a tunnel with side chambers into which herbivore dung is dragged. The beetles have wide strong legs adapted for digging and the tunnels can be as much as 50cm long, though I suspect they are shorter in rocky ground.

Single eggs are laid in side chambers, one per chamber, on top of dung and the tunnel is sealed off with more dung. The beetle larvae then have ample food when they hatch out. The larvae live underground for a year before breaking out of the tunnel.

4. Starry saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris)

Starry saxifrage (AP) 1500px.jpg

Saxifraga means stone-breaker in Latin. Saxifrage species are often the earliest colonisers of scree and boulderfields. These plants are tiny. Starry saxifrage is a true alpine plant. In the UK it can be found near the summit of Ben Nevis and as far south as Pumlumon in mid-Wales.

Starry saxifrage grows in wet places and is pollinated by small flies. It is also stoloniferous. A stolon is an over ground stem connecting a mother plant to a clone or daughter plant, eg a strawberry runner.

5. Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundiflora)

Round-leaved sundew (AP) 1500px.jpg

What's not to like about an insectivorous plant that consumes midges? The sundew on the right has a midge in the leaf at the seven o'clock position.

Sundews grow on wet, acidic soil which is nutrient poor. Insects are trapped in sticky mucilage at the end of long glands around the edge of the leaves. When an insect is trapped the leaf rolls up around the insect trapping it further, and protein-digesting enzymes secreted from glands in the centre of the leaf digest the insect. Herbalists were intrigued by the glistening mucus, which never dried out even on the hottest days, and it was thought to cure warts and coughs, act as an aphrodisiac for cattle and to to have anti-ageing properties.

I'm not sure what the tiny yellow/brown snail on the sphagnum is!

Leave no trace…

It shouldn't need to be said, but don't pick plants or disturb the wildlife. This beetle was not the first I'd seen but if they scurry off into the rocks, then fair play to them; they obviously don't want their picture taken, so don't fish them out. The Royal Photographic Society publishes The Nature Photographers' Code of Practice, and the bottom line is: "The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph." This applies to insects too. It is much better to take pictures of animals just going about their business than trying to stage a picture. One of my favourite nature photographers said of the unethical practice of chilling insects to slow them down to take photographs: "Imagine refrigerating your kids until they could not move and then photographing them - surely you could tell that they didn't look right in the resulting photo."

Sources and further reading

Closeups In Nature: The Photographer’s Guide to Techniques in the Field, Amphoto (1987)

The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland, Jeremy Thomas & Richard Lewington, Bloomsberry Natural History, London (2014).

Butterflies of Britain & Ireland: A Field and Site Guide, Michael Easterbrook, A&C Black, London (2010).

Small Heath

Trees and Bushes of Britain and Europe, Oleg Polunin, Paladin, St. Albans (1976).

Looking after Juniper: Ecology, Conservation & Folklore, Lena Ward, Plantlife

Nature of Snowdonia, Mike Raine, Pesda Press, Caernarfon (2010).

Hostile Habitats: Scotland's Mountain Environment, Nick Kempe & Mark Wrightham eds, Scottish Mountaineering Trust (2006).

Beetles, Richard Jones, Collins New Naturalist Library, William Collins, London (2018).

Lakeland, Derek Ratcliffe, Collins New Naturalist Library, William Collins, London (2002).

Wikipedia: Geotrupes stercorarius

Guide to British Dung Beetles       

UK Beetles      

Its Nature: Dor Beetle 

The Wild Flowers of the British Isles, Ian Garrard & David Streeter, Midsummer Books, London (1983).

Wikipedia: Saxifraga Stellaris 

Online Atlast of the British & Irish Flora

Wild Flowers and Where to Find Them in Northern England: Vol. 3 Acid Uplands, Laurie Fallows, Francis Lincoln, London (2004).

Wikipedia: Drosera

The Wildlife Trusts: Drosera Rotundiflora

About the author 


We first met Richard when he came on our Contour Masterclass and Mountain Leader Steep Ground Masterclass in March 2019. On his Mountain Leader training course in May 2019 he was full of information about the flora and fauna of the mountains. Afterwards, when he had sent me several emails with lovely photos of things he had spotted on his walks, I knew I’d found a potential blogger. This week Richard is on our Mountain Leader assessment course (19th-23rd August 2019).

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