MY wife and I were lucky to spend the weekend with friends who have a cottage within earshot of the Ribblehead viaduct.

This has always seemed like one of the wildest parts of the Dales - barren and wind-swept, with just the odd meadow pipit and curlew to bring life to the high moors and pastures.

It came as something of a surprise, therefore, to turn off the main road and make our way to the tiny, sheltered and tree-filled valley where the cottage nestles and to find it alive with birds.

The clearance of the woods from this part of the Dales has been so complete that you need to venture into the few oases where tree cover still persists, to remind yourself that woodland is indeed the climax vegetation at this altitude in the Dales.

It is the nibbling action of rabbits and sheep that preserve the grass and moorland, which now appear so natural.

The trees around the cottage had attracted a range of songbirds, and with them some unexpected surprises. A spotted flycatcher was busy feeding young in a crack in the ancient hump-backed bridge that also sheltered grey wagtails. The flycatcher is becoming a scarce bird throughout much of England, but in this verdant corner of the Dales, it seems to have found a place with plentiful supplies of insects.

We were forced to apply liberal amounts of insect repellent to fend off the midges as we set out on our walk to Ribblehead Quarry in search of orchids.

The National Park has created a fascinating wildlife habitat in the old quarry that nature is now slowing reclaiming near the station. It must be reminiscent of the scoured landscape left by the mighty glaciers that sculpted this part of Yorkshire thousands of years ago.

As we approached the quarry, stout twayblade orchids protruded proudly from the roadside verge, their greenish flowering spikes making them blend in to the grasses among which they grew. Inside the quarry, many marsh orchids were in bloom, together with plenty of common-spotted orchids and a range of other colourful plants.

I was pleased to see several ravens overhead during our visit to upper Ribblesdale.

This huge member of the crow family behaves rather like a bird of prey and is hard to find over much of England. It seems to have something of a Dales stronghold in the area.

On the Sunday we marvelled at the limestone pavement flora on the slopes of Ingleborough, and even managed to find some tiny frog orchids around the entrance to a cave. These diminutive red and green plants are a real speciality of limestone grassland and should be at their best about now.