Field Guide: Howardian Hills

The Howardian Hills are a patchwork of pastoral farmland, rolling hills, native woodland and landscaped parks, inhabited by a diverse range of flora and fauna

Howardian Hills by alh1 via Flickr 

Village, vale and valley

From barn owls to brown hares, veteran oaks to leaping trout, the sheer diversity of landscape and habitat found in the Howardian Hills of North Yorkshire is reflected in the range of its natural history. ‘Recently I watched a barn owl hunting – rather unusually – in the middle of the day,’ says Paul Jackson. ‘The birds have bounced back from some difficult winters and now you can see these graceful creatures regularly hunting along the road and path verges around Hovingham, Stonegrave and Nunnington.’


Paul is manager of the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which lies south of the North York Moors National Park, with the Yorkshire Wolds to the south east and the Vale of York to the west. It’s ostensibly a farmed landscape of arable and pasture fields, where yellowhammers, skylarks, tree sparrows and brown hares all thrive. The thin bands of bedrock produce low, narrow valleys whose steep scarp banks support plants like wild thyme and betony. ‘There's a bridleway north east of Stonegrave that runs through a lovely area of this flower-rich limestone grassland,’ explains Paul. ‘It emerges at the viewpoint of Caulkleys Bank and makes for a great walking circuit.’


At the foot of some of the escarpments are wet flushes and fens, particularly where springs emerge, and here you will find meadowsweet and ragged robin. Some farmers around Coxwold and Ampleforth have also been allowing arable fields to revert to boggy grassland, which has encouraged nesting lapwings. In addition, there are two notable rivers that run through the Howardian Hills. To the north is the River Rye, with good bankside paths around Nunnington from where you can watch the trout leaping for mayfly during the spring hatch. In the south east, the River Derwent flows out of Kirkham Gorge and Paul recommends a walk from Kirkham to Howsham following the west bank of the river, then back via the semi-ancient woodland of Howsham Wood.


‘Almost 20% of the Howardian Hills is covered by woodland,’ says Paul, ‘and it's extremely varied. Partly because we have lots of historic houses and parkland there are many veteran trees, and hence plenty of birds and insects associated with the likes of ancient oaks.’ The area gets its name from the aristocratic Howard family, and a visit to their traditional seat, Castle Howard, is a must, with 1,000 acres of landscaped grounds and stunning tree-lined avenues that from October boast a rich tapestry of autumn colours. ‘But also enjoy the colours of the beech woods in Hovingham Park and the yellow shades of larch plantations, as well as the exotic cedars, maples and cypresses at the Yorkshire Arboretum near Castle Howard. A walk in the Howardian Hills will really surprise you!’



For general information about the area, visit Find walking routes at, posted by local groups including York, Pocklington and Ryedale Ramblers.




A member of the mint family and typically found on grass, dry woodland and heath, betony is a tall plant with whorls of bright magenta flowers which come out between June and October. It was traditionally used for medicinal remedies, treating headaches and similar ailments, and the Anglo Saxons used it as a protective charm.


Betony credit Zeynel Cebeci 


Brown hare

Introduced to Britain in the Iron Age, the brown hare is larger than a rabbit with lighter, golden brown markings and very long, black-tipped ears. Their powerful hind legs allow them to run as fast as 45mph (70kph), often in a zig zag fashion to escape predators. The well-known ‘boxing’ behaviour occurs in the spring breeding season.


Brown Hare credit Nick Ford


Barn owl

Usually seen hunting at dusk, barn owls appear almost ghostly white as they glide over fields in search of small mammals like field voles and shrews. They don't hoot, like a tawny owl, but instead make occasional shrieks and hisses. They have the most sensitive hearing of almost any bird and use their wide, heart-shaped face and angled ears to collect sound.


Barn Owl credit Tony Hisgett


Knapweed broomrape

This is a parasitic plant that lives on the roots of its host – in this case, greater knapweed. Something of a rarity, it’s found in rough grass verges on the edge of roads and green lanes. Look for tall, stout stems without branches that are brown-yellow in colour, since broomrapes have no green pigment chlorophyll.


Knapweed broomrape credit Ian Capper



An unmistakable farmland bird and member of the bunting family, it has an eye-catching bright yellow head and underparts, streaked with brown and black, and a chestnut rump. It can often be seen perched on a fence post or top of a tree singing its well-known, high pitched song ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’.


Yellowhammer credit Andreas Trepte



Also known as the peewit or green plover, lapwings nest in shallow scrapes on open ground or rough grassland. In recent years their numbers have declined due to changing farming practices. A medium-sized wader, lapwings have a distinctive sweeping black crest and an equally recognisable ‘pee-wit’ alarm call, and in the spring they perform tumbling aerobatic displays.


Lapwing credit Jean Jacques Boujot


Brown trout
Found in fast-flowing, gravelly rivers, these fish are active both by day and by night and are opportunistic predators, feeding on larvae, minnows and flying insects. This makes them a favoured target for fly fishing. The specimen brown trout is brassy coloured with a dark back and a creamy yellow belly, while the back and sides feature red spots bordered by pale halos.


Brown Trout credit Aaron Gustafson 



These short-lived insects derive their name from one of the 51 British species which emerge from the nymph stage as adults when the mayflower (commonly known as hawthorn) is in bloom. An important food source for freshwater fish like brown and rainbow trout, mayfly fossils show they were one of the very first winged insects and date back over 300 million years.


Mayfly credit Scott R Tucker


Tree sparrow

The smaller and shyer relative of the house sparrow, tree sparrows have suffered as their hedgerow habitats have declined, with numbers plummeting by as much as 90% since 1970. They have a chestnut cap, white cheeks and black ear spots. A gregarious bird, they often flock with other birds like finches and buntings when feeding around field stubble or grassland.


Tree Sparrow credit Kev Chapman



This strong-smelling and fairly rare woodland perennial produces shiny red or black berries in the late spring, which are highly poisonous. It has large leaves with small feathery white flowers. Also called bugbane, baneberry is in fact a distant member of the buttercup family.


Baneberry credit W P Lynn   

Picture credits
Howardian Hills © alh1 via Flickr, Betony © Zeynel Cebeci via Flickr, Brown Hare © Nick Ford via Flickr, Barn Owl © Tony Hilsgett via Flickr, Knapweed Broomrape © Ian Capper via Flickr, Yellowhammer © Andreas Trepte via Flickr, Lapwing © Jacques Boujot via Flickr, Brown Trout © Aaron Gustafson via Flickr, Mayfly © Scott R Tucker via Flickr, Tree Sparrow © Kev Chapman via Flickr, Baneberry © W P Lynn via Flickr.