Great Orme's Head / Pen y Gogarth IPA
Location: Dominates the town of Llandudno on the North Wales coast. Reached by the A470.
Grid Reference: SH 768 835
One of the top five places for wild flowers in the whole of Britain, this dramatic limestone headland is clothed with flower-rich grasslands, heaths and cliffs supporting a huge diversity of species.
The Great Orme (or Pen y Gogarth in Welsh) lies like a huge slab of limestone jutting out into the Irish Sea. Bathed in sunshine, surrounded on all sides by warm gulf-stream water and with lime-rich soil, the Great Orme has a unique microclimate and ecology. Centuries of grazing by sheep, cattle and goats have produced a remarkable flower-rich turf where lime-loving plants like common rockrose and bloody crane’s-bill jostle with heathland species like heather and gorse, while the steeper slopes are clothed with scrub and woodland.
The diversity of flowering plants on the Great Orme is breathtaking. Over 480 species have been recorded. These include the unique Great Orme berry, our only native species of cotoneaster and an endemic found nowhere else in the world. A plethora of other rarities include spiked speedwell, spotted cat’s-ear, dark-red helleborine, goldilocks aster, basil thyme, hoary rockrose and Nottingham catchfly, all finding their home in the rocky limestone grassland. More familiar flowers include wild thyme, salad burnet, lady’s bedstraw, cowslips and dropwort, interspersed with early-purple orchid, pyramidal orchid and common spotted orchids.
Over time, soils on the hard limestone can become quite acidic as the lime is leached away, leading to large areas of dry heathland. Dominated by heather, bell heather and western gorse, these areas are home to more acid-loving plants like tormentil and heath-grass. The Orme is also famous for its copper mines, first worked in Neolithic times, and copper-rich spoil heaps support abundant sea campion and thrift. On the northern side of the headland, the cliffs are notably cooler and wetter than elsewhere and wild cabbage festoons the rock with large branching spikes of soft yellow flowers.
Patches of scrub and woodland provide important habitats. Ancient blackthorn bushes just a few feet high are common, bent and stunted by the Atlantic gales, while nearly prostrate junipers survive in some areas. Steep slopes around the edge of the headland support woodland, predominantly of ash and sycamore, but also include rare rock whitebeams whose silver leaves flicker in the wind.
It’s not just the flowering plants that are important. The open rocky grassland and cliffs support a huge range of rare and threatened lichens and bryophytes and the grassland soils are home to many fungi, including some shockingly large ancient fairy rings up to 35 metres across. The diversity of flowers and food plants support significant invertebrate populations, such as an endemic race of silver-studded blue butterflies, whose caterpillars feed on rockroses, thyme and heather.
Image: Hoary Rockrose on the Great Orme © Trevor Dines/Plantlife