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On the high peaks of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and on the Glyderau there grows a forest that is little more than a foot high. A forest of Juniper Juniperus communis subsp. nana nestled among the rocks in the crags and crevices. They are everywhere, if you look in the right places, creeping through the thin turf and sprawling over rocks.

 

Where can you find Wales’ Juniper forests?

If you scramble over the jagged ridges of Crib Goch and Crib Y Ddisgl you will find them. On Esgair Felen they tumble down the cliffs and on the upper reaches of the Watkin Path you will be walking through the middle of this ‘coedwig fach’ (little forest). Y Lliwedd, one of the satellite peaks of Yr Wyddfa, holds the largest of these forests and here you can’t fail to notice them, although you may not realise they are trees.

Their twisted and gnarled trunks keep close to the ground, bonsaied by the cold and the wind in the exposed locations in which they grow. These small trees are glacial relics from a time between the ice ages, like many of our Arctic – Alpine species.

They are clinging on literally for dear life in the least accessible locations in our mountains where they find refuge from the goats and the sheep and the deep time history of clearance of our mountain woodlands.

These Juniper plants, alongside Dwarf Willown Salix repens, are the fragmented upper reaches of a special type of woodland that has almost disappeared from the mountains of Eryri.

A woodland of low growing scrubby willows, junipers and other ‘Krummholz’ trees and shrubs. ‘Krummholz’ is a German word that is used to describe dwarfed gnarled trees that push high into the mountains to eke out their existence in a tangled and contorted state.

 

Protecting the foot high forests

This scrubby, fairy woodland would have once spread from about 450 metres in altitude, the natural treeline, almost to the summits of Eryri. Elsewhere in Britain it is found in the Scottish Highlands and there are fragments of it in the Lake District. It still just about exists here in Wales on the edges and ledges where people and grazers have never ventured.

The trees of Eryri are under recorded, with limited records of trees in the high mountains, so there is still so much more to understand about these sky-high forests.

Recently, whilst out climbing, I discovered a tree species I was not expecting on a ledge, a Bird Cherry Prunus padus. The discovery of this cherry links our mountain woodlands even more directly to those of Scotland where Bird Cherry is a common feature.

Read more about the work Natur am Byth! is doing through the Tlysau Mynydd Eryri project to better understand these tiny but fascinating forests, alongside Bangor University.

The importance of the coedwig fach in Cymru

Restoration of this mosaic of alpine woodland comes with great benefits. This habitat is ecologically vital, for invertebrates’ montane trees and shrubs are particularly important and many of these woody species support high diversity of endemic ectomycorrhizal fungi. Additionally, mountain woodland habitat and willow scrub can provide protection against extreme weather for rare tall herb and alpine plant communities which would otherwise be exposed and struggle to persist in alpine environments.

The increasing diversity enabled by these wooded upland communities has positive impacts for small mammals and birds such as Ring Ouzel. Succession in these wooded habitats builds soil organic matter through their leaf litter. These woodlands reduce erosion by building these soils and halt water runoff which reduces the impacts of flooding.

So, if you are planning a trip up Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) any time soon, keep an eye open for the forest you are walking through and take a moment to stop and think about what the mountains may have looked like before their woodlands almost disappeared, the other species that were lost with them and the way they could look again.

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