Meirionnydd Oakwoods IPA

Location: East of the Snowdonia National Park, with Blaenau Fffestiniog to the north and Machynlleth to the south. The A470 runs to the east and the A496 to the west.

Grid Reference: SH 731 223

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Deep in the heart of the ancient Kingdom of Meirionnydd, ancient oak woodland hugs the valley sides. Shrouded in mists and soaked with over a metre of rain each year, the surface of every tree and rock in this Celtic rainforest is cloaked with mosses, liverworts and lichens. This is a world of miniature wonders.

Clinging to the steep slopes of river valleys and mountainsides, these ancient woodlands are remnants of the forest that originally covered most of the Atlantic fringe of Europe from Northern Scotland to Portugal. This coastal fringe is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream, keeping the area both warm and wet and giving these Celtic rainforests a unique identity and ambience.

The woods extend along a series of inter-connected valleys with a wide variety of slopes and aspects, including many narrow ravines and gorges. Sessile oak is the dominant tree here, along with ash, alder, hazel, sycamore and the occasional rowan. The woods also include an extensive area of alder woodland, rich in dead wood. The damp humid conditions create perfect habitat for ferns, mosses and liverworts, lichen and fungi.

Bryophytes are extremely abundant and deserve a closer look; many are very beautiful when seen through a hand lens. More than 200 species of liverworts have been recorded here, including wedge flapwort, deceptive featherwort and western featherwort. Mosses include the total known British population of the rare prostrate feather-moss, along with silky swan-neck moss and club pincushion moss, which was refound here in 2015 after being thought extinct for over 100 years.

Lichens are similarly exuberant, but not on every tree. Different tree species support different lichen communities and some trees drip with leafy lichens while others are strangely bare. Some of the special lichens growing here include red-eyed shingle lichen, blobby jelly-skin lichen, elf ears, green satin lichen and black-eyed susan, this last one sometimes also growing on rocks.

The woodland floor is often rocky and strewn with boulders; where soil has developed it tends to be wet, acidic and infertile so woodland flowers are often rather thin on the ground. In places, there are no woodland flowers but just a carpet of mosses and liverworts. But where flowering plants do gain a foothold there is bilberry, heather and tufted hair-grass with ferns such as hard-fern, male fern, lady fern and, occasionally, oak fern, royal fern and narrow buckler fern. Common cow-wheat and the dainty white-flowered wood-sorrel can be plentiful in places, and more unusual flowers include globe-flower, touch-me-not balsam and, on a few steep outcrops, wood bitter vetch trails down the rocks. Both Wilson’s filmy fern and Tunbridge filmy fern are also frequent on rocks, growing amongst the rich carpet of mosses and liverworts.

Image: Meirionnydd Oakwoods ©Dave Lamacraft/Plantlife

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