Saving Culm Grassland in Cornwall

Joe Costley

Joe Costley

Nature Reserves Manager

2nd December 2016

The grandly-named "Atlantic Highway" follows Cornwall's north coast between Newquay and Bude.  It serves a string of coves, beaches and popular destinations along its full length, including Padstow, Port Issac, Polzeath and the castle of Arthurian legend at Tintagel.  Inland, the landscape is sparsely-populated and, north of Bodmin Moor, overlooked by most tourists.  Plantlife's Greena Moor reserve, which lies in this area between Launceston and Bude, certainly feels like a venture off the beaten track.  The route is through quiet pastures, wooded valleys and narrow, sunken lanes that snake and dip like roller coasters beneath wind-clipped hedges.

Buried deep in this away-from-it-all landscape, Plantlife’s Greena Moor reserve represents the remains of an ancient and once extensive moor.  Its 91 acres have a delightfully scruffy quality; water-logged fields of rushes and tussocks of Purple Moor-grass are alive with insects and the heady aromas of Meadowsweet and Water Mint. This rather primeval habitat is known as Culm grassland, found in areas with heavy clay soils overlying carboniferous rocks that are known as “Culm Measures”.

These are so-called because they sometimes contain deposits of a soft, sooty coal that is known locally as “Culm”.  The habitat has always has a restricted distribution, being confined to North Devon and North Cornwall, with similar grassland types found only in south Wales, southwest Scotland, northwest France and a few other places.  Yet it is also increasingly-rare; a staggering 92% of Culm grassland has been lost in the past 100 years, with 48% disappearing between 1984 and 1991 alone.

The Plantlife reserve represents the second largest and one of the most species-rich areas of Culm remaining in Cornwall.  No fewer than six of the wild plants recorded here are listed as threatened on the England Red List.  These are Three-lobed Crowfoot, Petty Whin, Pale Dog Violet, Wood Bitter-vetch, Hay-scented Buckler Fern and Lesser Butterfly Orchid.  The latter, a plant of sparkling beauty with spikes of white, night-scented flowers, is currently the subject of conservation action at a national level; the species having been lost from about 75% of its former range in England.  

Glittering amongst the rushes are a host of other colourful flowers; the pinks of Meadow Thistle, Bog Pimpernel and Ragged-robin, yellows of Wavy St-John’s-wort, Marsh Ragwort and Bog Asphodel, an abundance of white Whorled Caraway and the blue Devil’s-bit Scabious that is particularly intense in evening light.  The latter is the food plant for caterpillars of the rare Marsh Fritillary butterfly, which occurs here in good numbers.

The reserve is a partnership venture; Plantlife’s land being leased to Cornwall Wildlife Trust who manage it on our behalf with the support of a tenant whose family has a long history of farming in this unique landscape.  
The land is fragmented into two parts that are divided by a large area of pasture in separate ownership. These two areas are, by necessity, managed in isolation and scarce species such as Three-lobed Crowfoot are essentially penned-in to their existing ghettos.  However, the presence of Bronze Age barrows is a clue that the flora of this area was once, by contrast, part of an unenclosed and more expansive landscape.  Our conservation aims must therefore not only look inwards to the reserve itself, but also outwards - at ways in which we can piece together more expansive and better-connected habitat.

The exciting news is that we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just this; connecting the two isolated areas of Culm through the acquisition and management of a 40-acre area that spans the gap between them.  This area is ripe for restoration as it retains a water-logged character and a good range of desirable plants including Lesser Spearwort, Gipsywort, Fen Bedstraw and Marsh Violet.  Acquisition of these fields would give us a fabulous opportunity to restore species-rich grassland habitat, creating the largest and best Culm grassland site in Cornwall.  It would also allow us to establish new populations of rare plants found on the existing reserve, to expand habitat for the marsh fritillary butterfly and make improvements for our visitors to the site.

All of this can only be achieved if we are able to secure the necessary funds.  Buying and restoring this land will cost more than £300,000 over the next few years. That’s in addition to a similar sum we have to spend every year keeping all of our existing reserves in the best condition. A legacy we have received will give us a generous £150,000 start towards this total. But we cannot reach the target without help.

You can also give at any time online or by calling 01722 342756. Every penny will make a big difference for our rarest plants and habitats. If we raise more than we need for Greena Moor, we can put it to good use protecting wild flowers on our other reserves.

Plantlife buys land very rarely. This site has such huge potential for restoration that we really want to grasp the opportunity. This is a vital step in creating a plant-rich habitat, a lasting legacy, not only for Cornwall but for the UK as a whole.