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A ramble among the rocks

It never ceases to amaze me how much you find out about where you live when you go looking for somewhere different to take a walk. West Lothian is full of interesting discoveries - both historical and geological.

Chatting to a friend who works for the Geological Survey I heard about the Petershill Wildlife Reserve near Bathgate and decided to take a look. Lying off Drumcross Road around 1km east of Bathgate, the reserve was once a limestone quarry.

Quarrying began here around 1768 until two of the workings were converted into drinking water reservoirs in 1886 and 1905. However the reservoirs were redundant by 1981 and were drained in 1986. The 5.4 hectare site was first notified as a part of a larger Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1976 and was gifted to the Scottish Wildlife Trust as a nature reserve in 1990. By 1999 it was also designated a Regionally Important Geological Site (RIGS).

There is a small car park on the side of the road where the reserve is marked with a wooden signpost, but it's easy to miss as it can get a little overgrown. There is only room for a couple of cars - take care not to obstruct entrance to the field adjacent. Park up and head over the stile to follow the footpath around the perimeter of the reserve. It was a beautiful day when I visited, but I imagine that it can get pretty wet and slippery. It is best for both safety and to protect the fragile environment to stay on the footpaths.

At Petershill in the winter
At Petershill in the winter

As you begin walking you can take in all the geological exposure which plunges down to the left, before heading into a more wooded area and then through a rather lovely meadow towards the northern end of the reserve. In the summer this meadow blooms with a variety of flower including orchids. The path then heads south over a wooden footbridge and veers down towards a lagoon which tends to be dry in summer but filled in winter months. The path then heads up a steep hill and along the opposite side of the reservoir with fabulous views toward the Bathgate Hills. It eventually comes out at an opening in the wall and onto Drumcross Road where you simply turn left and find your way back to the car park.

The geological importance of the site is down to the limestone reef which is full of fossils. The reef was formed over 330 million years ago in shallow sea or lagoon when volcanoes were active and the ash and lava flows built up to eventually form the Bathgate Hills.

The fossils that have been found at Petershill include corals and sponges, crinoids (sea lilies) and molluscs - species that all lived in shallow tropical waters during Carbonifereous times. If you have any interest in geology then it’s worth a visit to this interesting site. However, tempting though it is to take a fossil home, you are encouraged to leave any you find just where they are.

At Petershill in the summer
At Petershill in the summer

As for living wildlife, the combination of high humidity and limestone is quite rare so you will find various unusual mosses. Keep an eye out on the higher ground for the gorgeous greater butterfly orchid and many other pretty flowers such as fairy flax and twayblade.

If you are more interested in the fauna you can find at Petershill, look out for squirrels, badgers, brown hares, rabbits and roe deer which are regular visitors to the nature reserve along with fifteen species of butterfly and moth and numerous species of birds.

Nature reserves are always a great place to take a walk away from it all as you can be close to built up areas but feel miles away. Petershill offers this but is also geologically fascinating.

Published in Konect August 2016

Author: Karen Murray

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