Matthew Oates, National Specialist on Nature and Wildlife for the National Trust, shares his love for the Great Orme in North Wales and the wildlife that calls it home.
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The Great Orme is a place of pilgrimage for British naturalists. Try finding a botanist or a butterfly enthusiast who hasn’t been there, or at least one who doesn’t desperately want to visit.
It is also on the birders’ radar, for its increasing Chough population and because it is a place where rare migrants turn up.
Bat, beetle, lichen, moss, moth and marine wildlife enthusiasts also know and love the Great Orme, as do geologists, geographers and archaeologists. In effect, it is a wildlife paradise.
It is full of rare plants, with esoteric names like Goldilocks (a type of Aster), Hoary Rockrose, Nottingham Catchfly, Spiked Speedwell, Spotted Cat’s-ear, Welsh hawkweed and Wild Cotoneaster, which occurs nowhere else in the world. The latter is ironic, as cultivated cotoneasters are invading the place, having escaped from gardens to oust the indigenous rare plants. These special plants are all top chalk and limestone grassland rarities.
The Great Orme is the finest example of ‘limestone heath’ in the UK, a special vegetation type in which acid-loving heathers grow on limestone rocks and amongst lime-loving plants. The short turf grassland itself is special too, having Mediterranean characteristics.
In midsummer, parts of the Orme almost swarm with tiny blue butterflies – the tiny dark blue north Welsh race of the Silver-studded Blue, subspecies caernensis. It is hard to encounter a butterfly in greater profusion anywhere in the British Isles.
The limestone crags, where feral Kashmir goats hang out, also support a unique and dwarf race of the Grayling butterfly, known as subspecies thyone.
Several rare moths occur, notably the Silky Wave, a small, day-flying white moth that occurs only on Gower, in the Avon Gorge, and on the Great Orme. There is also the rare Horehound Plume Moth, which breeds on White Horehound, a rare plant, and rare and tiny ‘micro’ moth Coleophora serpylletorum which breeds on wild thyme on exposed sea cliffs.
Breeding birds include sizeable colonies of guillemot, kittiwake and razorbill nesting on the steep cliffs. The Great Orme has become an important site for chough, which breed on the cliffs and feed in areas of short turf, including on Parc Farm.
Above all, the place is visually stunning. As a Carboniferous Limestone landform it just doesn’t seem British, being French or Dolomite in appearance. The grey rock dominates, and in summer drought the grassland itself turns grey, presenting a rather Mediterranean look – which is appropriate as the rockrose-sheep’s fescue-carline thistle turf is a classic Mediterranean vegetation, rather than a British one. In June the short grassland is is yellow with Birdsfoot Trefoil and rockrose flowers, whilst in high summer the aptly named Bloody Cranesbill is rampant on many of the slopes.
But all is not as idyllic as it should be on the Orme. Some places are probably ‘over-grazed’, and others ‘under-grazed’. Some of the rare plants and insects are consequently struggling.
There is an urgent need to sort these grazing issues out, not least on Parc Farm itself where there is great potential for restoring the limestone grassland and heathland vegetation which formerly existed.
Now is a time of great opportunity for one of the UK’s richest and most wonderful places as the National Trust has taken over management.
Photos courtesy National Trust, by Richard Williams