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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.

Our work in Wales

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

How to Grow a Wildflower Meadow
Wildflower meadow landscape with a variety of species near Cardiff, Wales

How to Grow a Wildflower Meadow

Whether it’s your back garden, local park, community field or lawn, wildflower meadows are amazing spaces with so much to offer.

‘Inspired by Lief Bersweden’s Couch to 10 Mosses on Twitter, I decided to give it a go and independently teach myself some mosses and liverworts out on my walks. 

I have always been interested in identifying plants, even as a child. As an adult, I’m now able to identify most common species on my patch, but still with a huge amount still to learn. Bryophytes, known as mosses and liverworts, were even more of a mystery to me. 

I’d always appreciated the aesthetics of their soft cloaks of green that envelop damp woodland, and the sheer resilience of the small, tufty species eking out a living in the harsh conditions of our sun-baked stone walls. 

Naming them, however, always felt like an art that was out of my reach. 

Lizzie’s ID tips for beginners

The first step is to spot just 1 or 2 interesting but abundant species when out for a walk, and to then bring home a very small piece of them to ‘key out’ – using an ID guide to identify the species.  

Here are some tips which have helped me, for when you’ve spotted your first moss species. 

1. Just give it a go

Don’t be intimidated! Mosses and liverworts have a bit of a reputation for being tricky, but it’s great fun when you get into it. Looking a bit closer through a hand lens also reveals whole new levels of intricacy and beauty in these glorious plants. 

2. Find an ID guide 

These 2 publications have been incredibly helpful as ID guides: the British Bryological Society’s ‘Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland’ has been my go-to book for keying samples out, and of course a hand lens is vital. 


I’ve also found that the Species Recovery Trust’s booklet ‘A Field Guide to Bryophytes’ has been helpful for quickly spotting some of the most common species I was likely to encounter based on habitat. 

3. It’s natural to make mistakes 

Going wrong and getting stuck has been an inevitable part of being a beginner. I’ve found that the Google Lens mobile phone app – whilst it does a poor job of species identification, can sometimes do enough to point me in a new direction if I’ve gone wrong early in the key.  

Carmarthenshire road bank 08-10-23

4. Learn from other people

A guidebook will take you to the right species, but it won’t always tell you which one or two features are the easiest to spot in the field – an expert will help you learn that shortcut much more quickly.

My county recorder, Sam Bosanquet, has been incredibly patient and helpful. Your local county recorder could have access to distribution maps such as Sam’s Carmarthenshire County Flora, which are a good sense check – find your county recorder here.

I’ve also recently joined the British Bryological Society, which gives me access to supportive recording groups and events.

 

5. Embrace the seasons

I’ve also had to accept that my learning is seasonal – but one of the great things about mosses and liverworts is that it has provided me with new things to do in the tail ends of the year. 

 

Enjoy your learning journey

Sometimes it’s felt like one step forward and two steps back, with long names and complex features that I struggle to keep in my brain. However, embracing it as a slow process has meant it’s always stayed fun. 

I’m gradually getting better at recognising some of the commoner species in the field, and every now and then, I’m even filling in a gap on the distribution maps – which help protect these species for the future. 

Bryophytes desperately need more advocates and recorders. So, if you’ve ever thought about giving it a go, but thought them a bit intimidating- don’t! Set yourself a target of 10 and give it a go. Who knows where it’ll take you next?

 

A couple of species to look for

More ways to get involved

Yellow rattle: The Meadow Maker

Yellow rattle: The Meadow Maker

Yellow Rattle, is the single most important plant you need when creating a wildflower meadow. Here’s everything you need to know.

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Ashy Mining Bee on a Dandelion.

How to make a pollinator friendly garden

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How to ID plants through DNA barcoding
Sarah Shuttleworth at DNA barcoding course

How to ID plants through DNA barcoding

It’s not just animals that have DNA in their cells, plants and fungi do too – and understanding it can help us with hard to identify plants.

Natur am Byth! is a cross-taxa partnership, which means many different organisations are working together to save a variety of species – from insects and plants to birds. This is important as  when any species is lost from an ecosystem, it can make the whole ecosystem weaker and less able to cope with change, regardless of what kind of species it is.

One element the Natur am Byth programme focuses on is the mini-wonders of the Welsh Marches. The area has a rich diversity of mosses and liverworts, lichens, fungi and insects. These species all have one thing in common: they are generally pretty tiny. Many people just aren’t looking closely enough to spot them –and that’s what we want to change.

Why it’s important to find and record rare lichens

But before we can get started protecting rare species, we need to know where we’re currently at. ‘Baseline monitoring’ gives us a picture of how our target species, and the sites where they exist, are doing – we can then use this data to plan how we’ll manage those areas for nature. We can also track how these species recover in the future.

A bushy brown lichen

So, I went out to some very beautiful sites in Mid-Wales, hunting for some of the project target lichen species. This is what I found

  • The bushy brown Bryoria fuscecens lichen, which were dangling down in hairy
  • The Circumspect Dot lichen which is only known from 6 trees in Wales
  • The Geranium Firedot lichen, with tiny bright orange fruiting bodies set amongst a crust of pistachio green granules

What I discovered during a day of lichen hunting:

Lichen hunting can be like looking for a needle in a haystack – except the needle is as small as a pinhead, and the haystack is a woodland.

I got rained on heavily, I got lost hunting for trees, I had to shoo away cattle who were trying to eat my notebook, and I spent far too long peering through my hand lens checking every gnarly nook and cranny for some of these miniscule marvels.

At times I felt like I was living in that miniature kingdom. I’d come across insects and die of fright thinking they were enormous, and I’d pull my eye away from the hand lens only to be dizzied by the astonishing complexity of the enormous world we occupy.

An old oak tree in a woodlands

It has been a joy working to collect the data which can be used to demonstrate that the Natur am Byth project is having a positive impact and supporting these species.

Not only does the project have the potential to support these rare lichens with recovery, it also has the potential to change perceptions – magnifying the hidden worlds we overlook daily and showcasing the rare and special mini wonders that occupy them

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.

The Natur am Byth partnership is Wales’ flagship Green Recovery project. It unites nine environmental charities with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to deliver the country’s largest natural heritage and outreach programme to save species from extinction and reconnect people to nature. Thanks to players of the National Lottery over £4.1m from the Heritage Fund was awarded to the partnership in June 2023. NRW has contributed £1.7m and the Natur am Byth partners have secured a further £1.4m from Welsh Government, Arts Council of Wales and a number of charitable trusts, foundations and corporate donors. These include donations from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and significant support from Welsh Government’s Landfill Disposals Tax Communities Scheme administered by Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA).

‘I used to do lots of cultivating, reseeding, and fertilising. This impacts wild plant species and soil health, and releases greenhouse gases. I also realised that they were only short-term fixes and never really paid for the cost of the stress and inputs. Often as a farmer you feel you need to be producing at all costs, but financially, the cost of bought-in inputs has increased way past them being affordable.

 

Why I changed the way I farmed

I changed the system five years ago, after a conversation with a Civil Servant who said that, in the future, farmers would be paid for more nature friendly farming. The transition was challenging, both financially and mentally: the peer pressure to keep farming conventionally was huge.

Post-war the mindset was all about production, and tenant farmers would have lost their farms if they didn’t meet demands. This doctrine has influenced generations of farmers since. It’s meant we’ve lost the connection between how and why we produce the food, and we sometimes forget the benefits of wildlife within the farm system. 

 

What sustainable farming methods mean for wild plants

Hywel Morgan standing by a pond with trees behind him

Making the change has meant a large reduction in costs and I can see – and enjoy – the benefits of working with nature.

I try to keep everything simple. I have cut out chemicals and fertilisers. This helps to reduce soil fertility and then encourages the growth of wildflowers and other grasslands plants that need low nutrient levels. I’ve seen many more Birds-foot Trefoil, Yellow Rattle, Yarrow, and Plantain since making the change. I’ve also got loads of different species of waxcap in my fields now, some are even of regional importance.

My hedges are now allowed to grow taller and thicker, and only trimmed every three years. I have also planted a lot of trees and hedging over the last few years and created large pond.

Farming livestock right can benefit biodiversity

Plants need recovery time after grazing so they can flourish. To allow this to happen I now do mob grazing, which is moving cattle in short bursts of high intensity grazing, and bale grazing, which is allowing livestock to feed off a whole, intact bale of hay. I have cut out bought-in feed apart for some hay, and focus on producing high quality, pasture-fed livestock.

I needed a better balance between grazing types, because sheep and cows graze in different ways, so reduced sheep and increased cattle numbers. Without the right management, sheep will nibble out pretty much everything, cattle graze in a less destructive way and are generally better for biodiversity. I’m always working to find out what balance is right for my land.

Nature friendly farming should just be ‘farming’

 

Government policy should reward smaller family nature friendly farms – it’s a reward for doing good things that benefit all of us. Banks and supermarkets need to support this move too as healthy nutritious food is part of the solution for climate, environment and peoples’ health. More farmer-to-farmer advice and support regarding regenerative agriculture is also needed to move to a sustainable future.

Achieving food security means eating locally and seasonally and certainly, we can’t have a stable food system when nature is in decline. I believe nature friendly farming should just be called “farming” and anything else should be called industrial or chemical farming.’

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.

Species Champions are Members of the Welsh Senedd, chosen to represent threatened species found in their constituency and champion them both within the Senedd and across Wales. Carolyn Thomas MS is deeply passionate about supporting our wildlife, from nature friendly green space management to improving protections for our precious biodiversity.

This year, Carolyn was able to join us and North Wales Wildlife Trust for the big Butterfly Orchid count in our North Wales nature reserve Caeau-Tan-y-Bwlch, in June. Participating in the count meant she was able to contribute first-hand to the monitoring and understanding of a rare and beautiful species. 

We counted the highest number of Greater Butterfly Orchids ever recorded at the reserve in over 40 years – some 9,456 flowering spikes of this rare plant were found within the diverse upland hay meadow near Caernarfon. Carolyn reflected on this important day in her Senedd statement on 28 June: 

Last Saturday, as the Butterfly Orchid species champion, I took part in a Butterfly Orchid count at a wildflower meadow, owned by Plantlife Cymru and managed by the North Wales Wildlife Trust. The meadow was rich in diverse species, which has created habitat in return for many animals and insects, such as butterflies, ladybirds, damselflies, crickets, spiders and tiny frogs. The place was alive and very beautiful.  

It’s more important than ever to take action for meadows

Another visit to a beautiful meadow just outside Mold in north Wales on National Meadows Day gave us the perfect opportunity to discuss some of the threats that our species-rich grasslands face. Our Species Champion was able to see first-hand how a lack of management was allowing scrub to encroach onto the valuable grassland habitat, but also to hear how the efforts of volunteers were protecting the grassland that remained.

Staff and volunteers from Plantlife Cymru and North Wales Wildlife Trust also talked about how incredibly precious fragments of species-rich grassland can too easily slip through the nets of protection and face damage from neglect, but also from development, agricultural use and inappropriate tree planting.

Orchid sward at Cae Blaen Dyffryn

There was also plenty of time just to appreciate the joy of being in such a beautiful place! We were able to admire both Greater and Lesser Butterfly Orchids, as well as Common Spotted Orchids, carpets of Betony and Lady’s Bedstraw, and we were even treated to the sight of a Slow-worm. Some early Field Scabious was just coming into flower, and sheltered sunny meadow areas were alive with butterflies and moths. 

Championing Welsh meadows at the Senedd

In her statement to the plenary ahead of the visit which you can watch here, Carolyn emphasised to the Senedd the vital nature of thriving green spaces and advocated for the protection and restoration of our species-rich grasslands.

Thank you, Carolyn for supporting us in our mission to support grasslands and the wealth of species that rely on them! 

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.

The Fen Orchid Liparis loeselii, is one of the most endangered wildflowers in Europe, but successful conservation efforts have given hope for its survival. The orchid is only found in two areas of the UK:

  • Sand dunes in South Wales
  • Fens of the Norfolk Broads.

We believe that the orchid could finally be removed from the Red Lists for both England  and Great Britain.

 

Conservation Efforts in England

After a decade of research and partnership work, the orchid has been re-discovered at former sites in the Broads, and the total population has estimated to have risen to over 15,000 plants through proper management.

The orchid has also been reintroduced to its former sites in Suffolk, and the signs are encouraging that it will become established in some of its old homes.

 

Conservation Efforts in Wales

In South Wales, the conservation effort to restore the fragile dune habitat at Kenfig and to rediscover the plant at former dune locations.

At Kenfig numbers had dropped from a conservative 21,000 at the end of the 1980s to just 400 when conservation work began.

After almost 10 years of work, over 4000 Fen Orchids have been counted, more than double the highest number seen in the last two decades.

The orchids once grew at eight dune sites along the south Wales coast, but a lack of active management led to their disappearance. The success at Kenfig gives hope for other dune sites like Whiteford and Pembrey, the former of which the plant has recently been re-found after searching.

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Brown topped fungus with yellow gills in a green grassy area.

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Wild Cotoneaster

This is our only native species of Cotoneaster in Wales, Cotoneaster cambricus, and in the 1970s it was down to as few as only 6 plants in the wild, making it international critically endangered!

It’s only found in the Great Orme IPA near Llandudno, where our vascular plants officer, Robbie, works alongside the National Trust, Conwy County Borough Council, Natural Resources Wales, PONT, and the tenant farmer, Dan Jones, to graze the land in a way that benefits the species.

How we’re helping Wild Cotoneaster

This, paired with efforts to plant out young plants have been a resounding success, and we’ve gone from 6 to well over 70 plants. We are now working with research students, Dan and Treboth botanic garden to understand the impacts that changes to grazing practices have on this species, so that we can understand how best to manage for it in the future.

What we’re finding is that managing to support this species is having knock-on positive effects on other species on the Great Orme, which demonstrates how targeted species recovery work can have a cascading positive benefit beyond that species, out into the wider ecosystem.

Snowdon Hawkweed

Snowdon Hawkweed

This small, sunny Welsh plant, a member of the dandelion family, is internationally critically endangered. It makes its home on the most inaccessible mountain slopes of Eryri (Snowdonia), where it is safe from disruption.

However, due to the changing climate, even these sanctuaries are becoming inhospitable, it is both literally and figuratively out on the very edge.

Its preference for inaccessible places, makes it problematic (to say the least) to monitor. However, conservation and extreme sports aligned when Robbie, Alex Turner and Mike Raine went out on ropes to survey for this mountain treasure. Their efforts have revealed that the plant’s population has increased from 2 individuals, to 4!

While that is still terrifyingly few, it represents a doubling of the global population of this species, and gives us hope that with support, these populations can recover.

How we’re helping Snowdon Hawkweed

We are delighted to have received funding for Natur am Byth!, Wales’ flagship species recovery project which we are part of, along with nine other environmental charities. Robbie will be leading on the Tlysau Mynydd Eryri (Mountain Jewels of Snowdonia) to provide an invaluable lifeline to species like Snowdon Hawkweed.

Once the project begins in September we’re going to be working with the National Trust to manage the grazing of sheep and goats on the mountain, which will hopefully create more undisturbed habitat for this species to colonize.

Rosy Saxifrage - Robbie Blackhall-Miles

Rosy Saxifrage

This mountain jewel is part of a suite of species that was once widespread all across the UK and Europe, the Arctic-Alpines.

Following the last Ice Age it would have been found over a large extent of Britain, but colonisation of species from the south as temperatures have risen has saw it retreat to all but our highest mountain tops, where the annual temperatures are sufficiently cool.

How we’re helping Rosy Saxifrage

This species is classed as threatened on the UK level red list, even though globally it’s been assessed as Least Concern (it can be found across the alpine landscapes of Europe). Each species is really important part of our natural heritage and to lose a species native to a country represents a significant loss, not only culturally, but ecologically too.

Rosy saxifrage is one such species that we’ve lost, it is now extinct in the wild in Wales. But efforts are underway to reintroduce it to a trial site later this year. Fantastically, the plants that will be used are of Welsh provenance, saved from a cutting taken in the 1960s, meaning that our national genetic identity for this species will be preserved and allowed to repopulate our landscape one more.

Why do we even bother?

Wildflowers in pink, purple and yellow among grass in Cae Blaen-dyffryn.

Our species are the fundamental parts of biodiversity – the more species there are in a habitat, the more diverse that habitat is. It is this diversity that allows ecosystems to function healthily and be more resilient.

This means, when we lose species to extinction, it undermines our ecosystem’s ability to adapt and respond to climate change and other existential threats. This is the primary reason why recovering species is one of our priorities at Plantlife. With partners, we plan to recover 100 plant species, and move them out of high extinction risk categories, into lower risk categories.

We are proud supporters of the global Reverse the Red campaign – a movement dedicated to spotlighting all of the work that’s being done to try and stop extinctions and prevent further species decline.

Tune in across the month to find out more about the species that we and our partners are working on to Reverse the Red and fight back against extinction.

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.

Botanical plant names can tell you all kinds of things about a plant. Often, they are descriptive as in Saxifraga oppositifolia – literally, the opposite leaved rock breaker. Sometimes, they tell of the habitat in which the plant is found or its particular use as in Salvia pratensis – the cure from the meadows.  

Personally, I prefer the descriptive names; the ones that guide me to where to find the plant or how to identify it. Colloquial names for plants, and those in other languages, can be equally descriptive, and tell of the things that people thought they should be used for, and why they were significant enough to warrant a name. 

There are a few here in Wales that I love. Cronnell (Globeflower) just for the way it sounds, Merywen (Juniper) – because it’s so different from any of the common English names and Derig (Mountain Avens). 

Derig, Welsh for Mountain Avens

In our house ‘Our Derig’ has become a pet name for a plant that we visit each year. The etymology – the study of the origins of words – is wrapped up in something more than that though and in this case it comes down to its leaves rather than its flowers.  

It seems surprising to me that the resemblance of its leaves to miniscule oak leaves was picked up on by the people of Wales as well as Carl Linnaeus who gave it its binomial name in his ‘Systema Naturae’ published in 1735. The name Linnaeus chose to give to Mountain Avens was Dryas octopetala. 

In his book ‘Flora Lapponica’ (1737) Linnaeus wrote “I have called this plant Dryas after the dryads, the nymphs that live in oaks, since the leaf has a certain likeness to the oak leaf…. We found it, a gorgeous white flower with eight petals that quivered in the cool breeze”. The Dryads were demigods, and their lives were tied to the life of the oak tree they inhabited. In Greek mythology a tree could not be cut without first making peace with the dryad that inhabited it. 

The Welsh name for the plant takes the same likeness to oak into account with the name coming from ‘dâr’ and ‘ig’; ‘Dâr’ means oak (Derwen means Oaktree) and ‘ig’ is a reduction of the Welsh ‘fachigol’ which means diminutive.  

A fascinating history of Derig in Wales

The Welsh name Derig was first published in J.E. Smith’s Flora Britannica between 1800 and 1804, and was published again by Hugh Davies in his Welsh Botanology (1813). This early publication of this name leads to the idea that it was in general use before that point and the plant was known from Wales by the local people.  

In 1798 the botanist Reverend John Evans made a tour of North Wales but never managed to climb Yr Wyddfa. Despite this Evans wrote of the routes the Snowdon guides took up the mountain and the plants that could be found there. It is interesting that he lists Mountain Avens amongst these plants despite there being no evidence of it ever having been found on that mountain.

It wasn’t until 1857 that the plant collector William Williams with discovering Mountain Avens in the mountains of Eryri, high above Cwm Idwal. Later, Williams was accused of having planted the species at this site, as it wassuspected that he planted rare species to further establish his notoriety as a botanical guide. It wasn’t until 1946 that a second site for Derig was discovered by Evan Roberts in the Carneddau.  

Mountain Avens in Wales today

Derig is still only found at just two sites in Wales yet there are a few other sites, including on Yr Wyddfa, where the plant community with which it shares its two known homes exists.  

So, what is in a name? In this case it’s a tantalising glimpse of local knowledge surrounding plants, particularly a ‘diminutive oak’ whose first discoverers may not have been eminent botanists of the time. In this case it seems likely that the people who lived and worked alongside it knew it well, certainly well enough to recognise it and give it a name of its own. 

Thanks to Lizzie Wilberforce, Dewi Jones and Elinor Gwynn for helping with the research for this blog. 

Picture credit – Derig in Welsh Botanology, Hugh Davies, 1813, Page 182 pt. 1-2 – Welsh botanology … – Biodiversity Heritage Library (biodiversitylibrary.org) 

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.

In recent years, the public has been alerted by the media to worry about declines in insects, especially bees. As a former bumblebee research scientist, this wasn’t news to me because the range of many bumblebee species contracted significantly in the middle of the last century. There is little doubt that big changes in UK agriculture (and therefore most of our landscape) were responsible. 

To put it very simply, there aren’t as many flowers in the countryside now as there were (for over 1,000 years) So, for us, it was always an ambition to have a little bit of countryside of our own that we could manage for biodiversity, and after my getting early retirement, and Helen being made redundant, we were off like a shot to rural Wales in 2012. 

Yellow Rattle growing in grass

Planting the seed

Our fields had been sheep grazed for as long as anyone locally could remember, and they were still being grazed by a local sheep farmer who rents lots of small fields along the Tywi valley. 

We decided to manage one of ours as a hay meadow. Research has shown that in a new meadow the plant diversity increases more quickly if you introduce Yellow Rattle, which is partly parasitic on grasses and inhibits their growth. So, in 2013 we collected Yellow Rattle seed from a neighbour’s field about a mile away and sowed it in the field. We began excluding the sheep every year from the end of March and by April 2014 the Yellow Rattle was growing well. 

Making hay in Carmarthenshire  

A man drives a red tractor in a meadow

In mid-June 2014 we got the neighbouring farmer to cut and bale the field, but decided that it would be better in future to choose when to cut and so acquired a 1963 tractor and some small-scale haymaking implements. 

I’m not particularly keen to produce a hay crop, but for floral diversity the main thing is to ensure that all the cuttings are removed from the field to reduce the soil fertility; and the easiest way to do this is to cut and bale the hay. All we produce is sold to the farmer whose sheep return after the hay cut when grass regrowth begins. I leave the hay cut as late as possible, to allow more species to drop seeds. 

Which species appeared?

Each year, different species’ dominance rose and fell as the county plant recorder predicted they would.  For a couple of years there was so much Yellow Rattle, but soon it settled down to more of an equilibrium, while other things rose in frequency then settled down. Eyebright appeared after a couple of years, as did Whorled Caraway (the County Flower), and Cat’s Ear. 

A field of buttercups

Some plants (like Meadow Buttercup) were probably there already, but never got to flower because the sheep ate themBroad-leaved Helleborines appeared in 2016, and in 2017, a single Southern Marsh OrchidCommon Spotted and Heath Spotted (with hybrids between them) followed, and each year the orchid numbers have increased, it was up to 50 a couple of years back and well over 100 now. 

The field looks different as different plants come into flower in succession, but it even looks different on the same day in the morning and in the afternoon because the Cat’s Ear flowers close about lunchtime, so the field is much more yellow in the morning. 

Our countryside and wildlife need fields like this one.

Plantlife has done valuable work towards achieving that aim (especially with the recent “Magnificent Meadows” campaign). County Meadows Groups also do their bit to help small landowners to get results like this field, and in the group I chair (Carmarthenshire) we’re also trying to raise the profile of species-rich grasslands generally with the UK wide “Big Meadow Search” (www.bigmeadowsearch.co.uk).   

There are few people left who can remember when every farm had a hay meadow, but I hope we can succeed in bringing some back.  

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.

We are well and truly into summer, and we’ve already witnessed a spectacular succession of wild plants flowering over the last few months. Now that we’ve waved goodbye to the anemones and hawthorn is beginning to fade, we’re welcoming the orchids.

Butterfly orchids are delicate, elegant plants, with a single floral spike bearing many pale, creamy green flowers. Each flower resembles a tiny moth (or butterfly) in flight, with its wings outstretched. They are sweetly scented and can be found growing in a diverse range of habitats, from moors and bogs to woodlands, but most commonly they are found in undisturbed grasslands and meadows. 

The difference between Greater and Lesser Butterfly Orchids

Butterfly orchid differences.

There are two species, Greater Butterfly Orchid Platanthera chlorantha and Lesser Butterfly Orchid Platanthera bifolia. The differences between them takes an expert eye to spot, and are to do with the angle between the pollen bearing organs of the plant (the pollinia).  

Both species are pollinated by moths. At night, the first signal a moth will pick up on is the fragrance of the orchid – once closer the pale flowers will stand out against the darkness.

UK orchids are in trouble 

Unfortunately, both species are experiencing dramatic declines nationally.  Greater butterfly orchid is faring the better of the two but is still classed as Near Threatened in the UK. Lesser butterfly orchid has been assessed as Vulnerable on the UK Vascular Plant Red List and has disappeared from over half of its previous range in the last 50 years. 

Declines across both species are because of changes in agricultural grassland management – these species need consistent management over a long time to thrive. Damaging land use change could include too much (or too little) grazing, drainage of fields, and even addition of chemical fertilisers. Orchids rely on a soil fungus to survive, and agricultural chemicals can kill off this unseen life support network. 

Thankfully, as their habitats are safe and protected within our reserves, these species are still thriving. To be sure of this, every year we participate in the butterfly orchid count to monitor how our populations of these beautiful plants are faring.  

2023’s Butterfly Orchid Count Results 

Why do we count our Butterfly Orchids? 

Monitoring how they are faring is an important part of understanding our reserves and making good management choices. Both our Welsh nature reserves are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and both list the Butterfly Orchids as a notified feature- so there is a legal duty to ensure the populations remain in good condition 

Volunteers counting orchids at Caeau Tan y Bwlch nature reserve

We want to be able to demonstrate that the way we are managing land is benefitting them, and counting the number of orchids each year, and gathering supporting habitat information, can help us adjust our site management when we need to. This enables us to give the orchids the best possible chance they have going forwards. 

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.