Great Orme BioBlitz With Chris Packham
To be honest, I’d never really attempted anything like this before and, having set myself the challenge of finding and recording as many different plant species as possible in one day on the Great Orme, I was nervous. But Chris Packham was due at lunchtime – this was one stop on his mammoth UK BioBlitz – so the game was on.
The vast list of species known from the Orme was daunting. Over the years, more than 700 species had been recorded, an exceptional diversity that showed why this special place is an Important Plant Area of global significance. But two other factors were worrying me. Firstly, the worst drought nearly 60 years had turned everything brown. My botanical skills would be tested not just with a narrative of “what is that?”, but also of “what was that?” Then, to add a twist of irony to the whole day, it began to rain... heavily.
The idea of a BioBlitz is to record as many species as possible. I had planned a route around the Orme to take in as many different habitats as I could, starting with the woods and gardens of Happy Valley, then the sand dunes at West Shore and on to the species-rich limestone grassland around the summit Visitor Centre, down past the copper mines to Maes-y-facrell and Haulfre gardens, then do a loop of the whole Orme on Marine Drive and finish at the wet clay cliffs by the old military gun sites on the tip of the Orme.
I started with gusto finding species at a pace – everything was new at first. Wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) and rock sea lavender (Limonium procerum) were nice plants to start with on the cliffs, and then I took to the woods for shelter from the rain. Dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis), violets and ferns, then – oh! – a clump of ivy broomrape (Orobanche hederae) in the gloom. The day rapidly became a blur - a crazy dash to add more and more species. I set myself a rule - if I didn’t find a new species within three minutes it was off to the next habitat. Odd species cropped up in gardens - Mediterranean spurge (Euphorbia characias) and all manner of introduced cotoneasters – then on to the dunes with beautiful sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) and rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum).
On the thin limestone soils the grassland was all but dead with drought; curiously only harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), burnet saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga) and Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) were flowering well.
I spent too long looking for autumn gentian (Gentianella amarella), but eventually found a few small plants.
Then Chris appeared and in a bluster of enthusiasm Sally Pidcock (the Great Orme warden) and I took him to see a plant of Great Orme Berry (Cotoneaster cambricus) – our only native cotoneaster - of which just six wild bushes are known in the world. Surely the rarest species on his whole UK tour, he was delighted and revelled in the few ripe red berries we could spot.
As the hours ticked on it was back to hardcore ‘bioblitzing’ and I clocked up some of the other Orme rarities in well-known locations. One withered plant each of dark red helleborine orchid (Epipactis atrorubens) and spotted cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata) were enough for my list, then I plunged down the cliffs at the tip of the Orme for a final rallying haul of species revelling damp flushes above the sea – horsetails, rushes, sedges and reeds. In the dying light as I made my way back to the car the final plant I added was sticky groundsel (Senecio viscosus) growing by the path. Maybe not the grand final flourish I’d imagined, but this was the 333rd species I’d seen that day.
I was amazed. I don’t think I’ve ever recorded that many species before in one go. And I’ll probably never record that many again – I was exhausted! But it was an incredible day. As I rested for a moment a group of choughs wheeled overhead. The Great Orme really is a special place.
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Great Orme, Conwy
One of the top five sites for rare and threatened plants in Britain, the Great Orme's flowers are threatened by a lack of grazing. Plantlife brings in the sheep to save them.
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