The Great Orme isn’t quite an island, the town of Llandudno occupies the low-lying land between this spectacular limestone headland and the main part of north Wales.
The word Orme is thought to derive from a Norse word meaning a sea serpent, and this lump of rock apparently resembles the head of the creature. Perhaps that depends on which direction you approach it from. The photo below was taken from a boat to the west.
The geology of the Great Orme is distinctive and affects the habitats found on the headland. These habitats support an abundant, varied and unique flora and fauna, and so most of the Great Orme has been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It is also managed as a Country Park and Local Nature Reserve by Conwy County Borough Council’s Countryside and Rights of Way Service to ensure that all of these natural elements can co-exist successfully with the thousands of people who visit the area each year.
There is a nature trail, and a visitor centre on the top, with a cable car and a tram to take you there from the town. The Marine Drive (top photo) is a drivable narrow road (one-way system) all the way around the edge. For the history buff, there is evidence of neolithic burial chambers, a bronze-age mine, Roman and Medieval enclosures, as well as a Victorian-style resort and a modern interpretive centre.
Personally, I just went for the flowers!
The botanical delights of the Great Orme
For most of the summer the dominant colour in the grasslands is yellow. This is due mainly to the flowers of the common rock-roseHelianthemum nummularium. There is another helianthemum – hoary rockrose H. oelandicum on the limestone pavements, though this is much less conspicuous.
There are several very rare (in British terms at least) plants on the Great Orme, described here, but either I’ve not been there at the right time, or I haven’t looked in the right place! Probably the former, as there is a small botanical garden containing some of the rarer plants so they are easier to see.
Common rock-rose is the foodplant of the silver-studded blue butterflies on the Great Orme. See below.
The limestone grassland on the Orme is made up of various grass and sedge species, and a wide variety of wildflowers. It is of great botanical importance, and is one of the reasons for the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designations on the Great Orme. Grasslands are maintained by grazing and browsing sheep, rabbits and goats.
Limestone Cliffs The Great Orme’s cliffs are home to some very rare wildflower species. Smaller rocky outcrops and scree patches associated with the cliff habitat support small flowering plants and mosses.
Bloody CranesbillGeraniuim sanguineum provides splashes of colour along the Marine Drive – from the flowers in summer, and the leaves which turn bright red in autumn. Wild cabbage Brassica oleracea is a speciality of limestone and chalk sea-cliffs.
Although not strictly a plant of the limestone cliffs, small pockets of common butterwortPinguicula vulgaris can be found where water keeps the soil wet in shallow hollows in the cliffs. This was along the Marine Drive on the shady north tip of the Great Orme. This carnivorous plant has slimy leaves to catch the insects on which they feed.
Limestone heath forms swathes of purple (heathers) and gold (gorse) in late summer. It usually occurs where there is a layer of clay over the lime. Like the grassland, it is an internationally important habitat because there are few places with the specific conditions it needs to survive. It requires cutting to boost regeneration, and to maintain the structural diversity of the shrubs.
Bell Heather – Erica cinerea
Seeds germinate, but as the soil is relatively shallow, there isn’t much nutrition for growth. Trees such as this yewTaxus baccata (right) do their best, but between the lack of nutrients, and the lack of shelter, they rarely manage to poke their heads above the level of the rock. Grykes are home to ferns and woodland flowers, whilst the clints are important for mosses and lichens (the orange and grey bits of rock surface in the photo).
Spring sandwort Minuartia verna is a dainty, often downy, mat-forming perennial that likes dry rocky and sparsely grassy places. Wild Thyme Thymus polytrichus also likes dry grassy places, though not confined to limestone. It will find a foot-hold in a small crevice with a little soil in it. Some areas of pavement have been fenced to exclude grazing animals to see what will grow.
Common rock-rose is the foodplant of the silver-studded blue butterflies on the Great Orme. The subspecies here also differs from other Silver-studded blues by being smaller, and the females more colourful.
Like many other blue butterflies, the caterpillars depend on ants (in this case black ants) for protection while they grow.
The Kashmir Goats of the Great Orme
The feral Kashmir goats with their white, shaggy coats and impressive horns are the most spectacular mammals on the Great Orme. They are descended from a pair of goats from the Windsor Royal Herd, acquired by Major General Sir Savage Mostyn around 1880. The herd flourished and was released on the Great Orme 20 years later. The goats have been roaming wild ever since.
The goats are useful for conservation grazing as they feed mainly on scrub such as gorse, brambles and hawthorn. Keeping these shrubs in check enables the less competitive wildflowers to flourish, and because of their climbing ability, goats can also graze in areas that sheep can not reach. However, by 2002 the number of goats had increased dramatically with the herd consisting of over 200 individuals. Many of the nannies (female goats) have been implanted with progesterone (a birth control hormone) over the last few years. The effect of these implants lasts for up to three years, therefore helping to decrease the birth rate. By 2008 the total number of goats recorded on the Great Orme was down to141 – well on the way to the target population of around 100 animals.
As a result of the goats grazing on the Great Orme, a huge number of wildflowers thrive there including spiked speedwell, thrift and common rockrose, so the goats are actually important for the silver-studded blue butterfly, too.
Incidentally, these goats gained considerable notoriety during the first Covid Lockdown in 2020. With no visitors to the Great Orme, and few people out and about (only locals – no tourists), the goats came down into Llandudno and explored the streets and gardens.
Birds on the Great Orme
The Great Orme isn’t really the place to go if you just want to watch birds. Yes, there are seabirds, mostly concentrated on the cliffs under the lighthouse, but you only see them from a distance. We did see fulmars and choughs on the cliffs along the Marine Drive, and a scattering of birds elsewhere over the Head. But really, you’d be better off at RSPB Conwy reserve to the east, or RSPB South Stack on Anglesey to the west.
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According to Wikipedia: Environmental volunteers conduct a range of activities including environmental monitoring (e.g. wildlife); ecological restoration such as revegetation and weed removal, and educating others about the natural environment. They also participate in community-based projects, such as improving footpaths, open spaces, and local amenities for the benefit of the local community and visitors. The uptake of environmental volunteering stems in part from the benefits for the volunteers themselves, such as improving social networks and developing a sense of place.
Participation in such projects can be at a local level (even your backyard), or you can travel to the ends of the earth. You can put in a lot of time and energy, or just a little time or energy, and you can do it for just a few hours, a few weeks, or for a few hours a week or month for several years.
Volunteering may mean getting close and personal with wildlife – perhaps a bit of radio-tracking work, behavioural observations, etc – but more often is about the interface between people and wildlife. The bears in the photos are two of about 70 in a sanctuary in Romania where volunteers support local staff, allowing them time to do educational work and to rescue more bears.
Other projects may involve the restoration of habitat, or building facilities so that visitors may enjoy and learn about wildlife.
But it is also possible to volunteer on your own, collecting data in your own time and at your own pace. Data that organisations can use chart changes in numbers over time, which can then be used to influence environmental policies.
Here are some examples of volunteering that I have been involved in, and some guidance from responsibletravel.com who advertise selected eco-volunteer holidays on their website.
This information is inevitably UK based – other countries will also have volunteer organisations and schemes.
Local volunteering – citizen science
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is the largest organiser of bird surveys in Europe. Through the efforts of volunteers participating in BTO surveys, the bird populations of the British Isles have been monitored more effectively and for longer than those of most other parts of the world. This has produced a uniquely rich and detailed body of scientific work. This will help us to understand the complex challenges facing wild birds at a time of great change in the environment.
The Wetland Bird Survey requires a day a month of counting birds on estuaries, lakes and reservoirs, while the Garden Bird Survey only needs you to look out of your window a few times a week. Monitoring bird nests requires a little more skill (easily learned) and effort, while bird ringing requires a lot more time and dedication to learn the necessary skills before you are allowed to go and practice on your own. See the website for the full list of surveys to get involved with.
An example of a short-period citizen science is the Bioblitz. Organised at sites all around the country, these may be days when “expert enthusiasts” get together to find as many species as possible on that site, or they may primarily function as events to introduce the general public to nature.
Sign up now!
Bioblitz (events have been suspended during the pandemic)
Citizen scientists help uncover mysteries behind House Sparrow population declines
Although House Sparrows are conspicuous birds and can still be found cheeping away in many areas, their numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, leading to their inclusion on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Declines are greater in urban than in rural areas, and in eastern and south-eastern Britain than in other parts of the country (where the population is stable or increasing). A new study by the BTO has used data collected by volunteers participating in Garden Birdwatch (GBW), the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) to investigate possible reasons underpinning these trends.
The research focussed on measures of breeding performance. In keeping with population trends, GBW data showed that annual productivity was highest in Wales and lowest in the east of England, but that there was no difference between rural and urban areas. The regional difference in GBW productivity was mirrored by NRS data, which revealed that House Sparrow clutch and brood sizes were significantly lower in the east of Britain than in the west. The number of breeding attempts per year and post-fledging survival did not differ between regions, so are not thought to contribute to the differences in population trends.
The results suggest that the processes driving regional differences in House Sparrow productivity are likely to be complex and operating over a large-scale (e.g. climatic processes), but interacting with local factors (e.g. habitat changes). The absence of productivity differences between rural and urban areas suggests other factors contribute to the varying population trends in these habitats, for instance, differences in food availability affecting adult survival. This work demonstrates the importance of large-scale datasets collected by citizen science projects in understanding drivers of population change, which is vital for implementing effective conservation measures.
More information about this and other science results on the BTO website
There were eleven of us – two Irish, one Norwegian-American, three German, three French, one English, one Turkish. We did not have a common language though everyone spoke at least one (and mostly two) of English, German or French. We were all students, aged between 16 and 23. None of us had any idea of what we were going to be doing – or any experience of eco-volunteering.
We were collected from Cologne railway station, and driven for a couple of hours to a forested area near Munster. A large corrugated tin hut was to be our home for the next three weeks, and that – the leader pointed to a ramshackle assortment of logs and tarpaulin – was the washroom. The toilets were two huts over pits in the ground. By mutual consent, we hastily rearranged the bunks and cupboards in the hut so that girls and boys were in separate sections. And then found a spare blanket to hang in front of the showers give some privacy from the rest of the “washroom”.
Looking back, our mission was clear. We were clearing trees that were threatening to take over an area of heathland. At the time, however, we were just following instructions. I learned the names of trees in German before I knew them in English – Eiche, Birke, Kiefe (Oak, Birch, Pine). I learned to use a machete and an axe – but was more than happy to leave the chainsaw to the boys.
This camp was one of many organised by the IJGD which was set up after WW2, and is still running camps today. The ethos of the organisation is based around getting young people to live and work together, organising their daily lives as a group (we had to organise our own shopping trips, do most of our own cooking etc) and undertaking ecological or social work under the guidance of a local leader. We had one leader (who spoke only in German) for the forestry work, and another (who also spoke English and French) who was probably more of a liaison person with the local town council.
The town council arranged various excursions for our spare time – we “worked” only an average five hours a day. One day we had afternoon tea in the town hall, and a tour of the premises; another day there was an evening of music in a local tavern; a helicopter ride from the local army base; a ride in a small plane; a pony and trap ride; an afternoon of cycling to explore the countryside; a visit to a brewery to see how the local beer was made; etc.
But that was 1973 – I don’t suppose today’s economy would allow so many luxuries!
Skokholm Island lies a short distance off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Until recently there was no running water, no electricity, no telephone, no television. I visited twice in the 1980s as a paying guest, and maybe twenty times since then as a volunteer. Volunteering can be as simple as a day helping the wardens get themselves and their food and equipment to and from the island at the ends of the season, or it can be staying on the island to work.
Work usually includes scrubbing and painting the buildings at the start of the season in preparation for paying visitors, and then cleaning and storing stuff at the end of the season to keep it safe from the damp and the house-mice. But it has also included upgrading the accommodation.
For any place to accept paying guests, there are certain hygiene, and health and safety, requirements. One year (early 1990s) we were told that food could not be cooked in the same room as it was served, so suddenly we had to convert the larder into a kitchen, and a small storeroom into a new larder. The work was done by volunteers – one of whom was so keen to get started he was pulling walls down and creating dust before we’d finished washing the breakfast crockery – and by a group on a government youth opportunities program. I was cooking that week, and had an assistant who insisted on putting either garlic and/or lemon in everything.
More recently, a considerable amount of work has been done to conserve (in some cases rebuild) and upgrade the accommodation. Most of the work has been done by volunteers, although professionals have been brought in where necessary – where health and safety issues were concerned (eg roofing, and rebuilding the landing stage), or specific skills required.
The island now has electricity, thanks to the advent of solar PV panels. The buildings now have running water – previously it was pumped by hand from the well into plastic containers, and taken to the buildings by wheelbarrow. The kitchen has a hot water supply thanks to solar panels, and the hot water supply has now been extended to the bedrooms, which also have a piped waste system (previously it was a bucket under the sink), and there are composting toilets which are much more pleasant to use (and to empty) than the old chemical toilets.
All this work has been enthusiastically undertaken because people consider the island is a wonderful place to be. In summer it is teeming with seabirds, in spring and autumn migrant birds of all sorts can turn up. Despite the living improvements, it still retains its air of isolation and remoteness. The weather is unpredictable, the boat can’t always come and go on a regular schedule – often visitors have to wait a day or two to get on, and maybe have to leave a day early (or even stay an extra week) because the weather is bad.
We spent three weeks there in April 2012 – it was wet, windy and horrible a lot of the time. On several days I found myself preparing vegetable soup for lunch wearing several layers of clothes, topped with waterproofs, wellies and a woolly hat.
Conversely, we had a week there in September 2018 – a glorious week of wonderful weather, bird migration was slow, but there was a wryneck on the island. One team of people were cleaning and painting the lighthouse, another team built a new hide overlooking North Pond. Bob and I were part of another team on a long-term project to transfer all the island biological data from hand-written logs onto spreadsheets.
It’s an amazing place with amazing people. There is nobody actually in charge, but a group of people who are here because they love the island. They all have different skills, appropriate to the jobs this week. There is a list of jobs that need to be done, and when anyone has finished what they are doing, they tick it off on the board, and pick another job to get on with. And the amount of work that is being done is just amazing. (Skokholm volunteer, 2012)
Skokholm Island is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. There is accommodation and facilities for researchers, ringers, and for people who just want a quiet holiday on a lovely island. There are more opportunities for volunteers on the nearby Skomer Island.
The island has now regained its status as a bird observatory, and has full-time wardens – See the island blog.
Conservation and wildlife volunteering
Article from Sarah Bareham of responsibletravel.com
With an ever-expanding array of volunteer opportunities available it can be increasingly difficult to understand which projects are of genuine value to conservation efforts, which are having little impact and worse, those which work against community and conservation aims. However, with the right preparation and research well-intentioned prospective volunteers can ensure their time and effort will not go to waste, or cause harm.
Responsibletravel.com’s main advice to any traveller looking for volunteer opportunities is to ask questions, and plenty of them. To be truly sustainable a project should be driven by the needs and expectations of the host community and for a conservation or wildlife project to be successful in the long term local people need to see the value in supporting it, they should be the ones which own and lead it, with volunteers providing support to help them meet their aims. For example, through its close work with local people this brown bear conservation project in Romania has started to change attitudes towards bear welfare among the general public, with more and more realising that capturing wild bears for entertainment purposes is not only a betrayal of animal welfare, but of the country’s own natural heritage.
We encourage prospective volunteers to speak with their placement and find out what the long-term aims of the project are, and how their work will fit into this. Volunteers should have a clear and defined role, and should undergo a selection process that matches their skills to the opportunities available. It should be possible, upon questioning the potential placement, to find out more about the project’s history, how it is monitored, where your payment goes, what role the volunteers play and to be able to speak with previous volunteers to understand more about their personal experiences.
Conservation projects with long term sustainability at heart are also likely to offer education programmes for local communities and schools. Educating the younger generation as to the importance of the project, and engaging them at an early age increases the likelihood of long term success. Ask whether this is part of the work your prospective placement does. It may mean you will also be volunteering closely with local children – there are a number of issues to consider if this is the case.
With wildlife rescue projects volunteers should be aware that the more contact wild animals have with humans, the less their chance of successful reintegration back into the wild. If the project you are considering aims to rehabilitate and release animals be aware that hands-on contact with wildlife will be very unlikely, reserved only for those with specific knowledge and skills, such as veterinarians. If you are invited to play with, interact and pet the animals it is unlikely that successful reintroduction into the wild is their real aim. The Born Free Foundation’s guidance notes on issues in wildlife volunteering, sanctuaries and captive breeding programmes for conservation are a useful resource for prospective volunteers.
All holidays and volunteering opportunities on responsibletravel.com have been carefully screened for their commitment to responsible tourism. We have also worked closely in the past with the Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild, whose Right Tourism campaign holds a wealth of information on what travellers can do to ensure their work is contributing to the protection rather than exploitation of wild animals. The Born Free Foundation also has a Travellers Animal Alert system where volunteers concerned about the in poorly run sanctuaries can report the establishment for further investigation.
For carefully screened wildlife and conservation volunteer placements in Europe go to responsibletravel.com
These are just a few of the books based on data collected by volunteers who simply enjoy being out birdwatching, mammal-watching, moth trapping, etc. Click on covers for more information about the books
One of the most fantastic spectacles anywhere is a huge gathering of birds – especially birds of prey. Gigrin Farm in mid-Wales probably has the biggest gathering of red kites anywhere. And you get so much closer to them here because of the hides/blinds.
Red Kite can be seen across most of Europe – distribution map here – usually in small numbers, up to half a dozen, but occasionally dozens of them together at food resources like rubbish tips. I thought the dozens of birds floating over the rubbish tip at Reinosa in northern Spain was pretty impressive when I saw it in 1989, but that pales by comparison.
The late Mr Powell started feeding the kites on his farm in the 1980s, and the farm became an official feeding station open to the public in 1992/93. There were six red kites regularly using the area at the start, but by 2015 six hundred wasn’t an unusual number.
The feeding station is located near Rhayader, in central Wales. It is surrounded by mostly livestock farming – often the only viable farming in this cool wet climate, but is close to the large reservoirs of the Elan Valley (supplying water to cities such as Birmingham), forestry plantations and open hill country.
But why feed kites? Can’t they find their own food?
Kites are basically scavengers, large but lightweight birds that float on air currents looking for scraps to eat – though they can kill small prey if they have to. They are not strong enough to open a carcass of any size, and have to wait for a raven, crow or buzzard to do that before they can feed.
There aren’t many carcasses left on the land these days – farm hygiene and bio-security mean that such things are cleared away, buried, etc. So young kites in particular have difficulty finding enough food, therefore survival rates were low.
Kites start looking for food when they wake up hungry in the morning. At Gigrin food is put out in the afternoon, so any bird that has fed well doesn’t need to come here for more. But those that are still hungry, know where to find supper.
Kites begin gathering over the site an hour or so before feeding time. It looks impressive then, and you can hear their long drawn-out whistling calls. When everybody is settled in the hides, a tractor appears, stops in front of the hide, the driver gets out and starts shovelling lumps of meat onto the ground. Almost immediately, one or two kites swoop in for a closer look, maybe even pick up a piece or two. The tractor moves to another part of the feeding field, and more meat is thrown out. By the now, the number of kites is increasing, and more and more are coming closer. The birds rarely land, just grab a piece of meat in passing. Sometimes one will try to grab a bit from another bird.
The spectacle lasts for 30 minutes or more. As the food is taken, kites begin to drift away, although there are usually still a few hanging around after an hour or more.
Red kites were once the cleaner-uppers of cities and countryside, until someone decided they were vermin. Then they were persecuted until only a few pairs remained in the isolated hills of Wales. Following decades of hard work – much of it by volunteers – kite nests were monitored and protected. The small population meant that there was little genetic diversity, and so this protection was only half the story of their recovery. The other half came when a bird of German origin, and probably migrating off-course, paired up with a Welsh bird and injected some new blood into the population. Now, that has been augmented by birds reintroduced elsewhere in the UK from Spain and Sweden.
Red kites are now seen across much of Britain (they occur naturally across the whole of Europe), and I don’t need to go to Gigrin to see them (sometimes one even passes over my garden). But it’s still worth stopping there occasionally to see this spectacle – it’s about a two-hour drive for me, so a convenient stopping place on a long drive north.
Of course, there are other birds to be seen at Gigrin. Buzzards (above), crows, rooks, ravens, and jackdaws all regularly join in the feast. Small birds – finches, sparrows, tits, wagtails, etc – are found around the farm, and particularly at the feeders by the car park.
Wildlife trail around the farm
In summer, there is a trail around the farm. It leads past the top of the kite feeding station to a small hide overlooking a small wetland. Then across a field or two to some high level ponds, where a path branches off to up onto the moorland. You then wind back across a couple of fields and down through a small dingle to the kite feeding hides. There is a badger sett on the farm, and polecats and otters have both been seen recently.
You may also see birds such as goshawk, black cap, dipper, hen harriers, redpoll, skylark, kestrel, woodcock, curlew, merlin and many more.
The small cafe is a good place to round off your visit – particularly on a cold winter’s day.
Opened in 2002 by a local partnership with support from the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Welsh Red Kite Trust and various other notable wildlife organisations and individuals. Visitors may sit in the specially built hide only feet away from diving birds and observe them competing naturally for the food provided by the feeding centre at regular times throughout the year.
In 1999, Bwlch Nant yr Arian became a red kite feeding station as part of a programme to protect the small number of red kites in the area at that time. Nowadays, the red kites are fed by the lake at Bwlch Nant yr Arian every day at 2pm in winter (GMT) and at 3pm in summer (BST). The Barcud Trail (an easy access route around the lake) and the café offer fantastic views of this spectacle. There is also a bird hide overlooking the feeding area.
A useful leaflet about where to see kites in the English countryside of the Chilterns (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire).
Most sites now require advance booking to ensure that only a safe number of people can visit a site at a time. Details are on the individual websites, along with feeding times and details of all facilities available.
The websites of several other feeding stations are not available now, so these are no longer listed here.
If you come across other red kite feeding stations, in any European country, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.
Photo above: Looking across Jack Sound from the Deer Park. The first lump of land is Middleholm. Beyond that is Skomer, with the Mew Stone to the left (south), and the smaller Garland Stone to the right (north).
Skomer Island, off the tip of Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales is a true wildlife haven. With no ground predators such as foxes, rats or stoats, the island provides a safe haven for ground-nesting birds such as puffins and Manx shearwaters, as well as for other seabirds that nest out in the open. In the autumn is is a safe place for grey seals to have their pups.
Best time for seabirds – May – July, though fulmars and shearwaters are still feeding chicks until September
Best time for other birds – April-May and August-October migration periods when anything can turn up.
Best time for seals – can be seen in all months, but pups are born between August and November.
The Dale Princess is owned by Dale Sailing Company and runs from the first of April to the end of October, weather permitting, except on Mondays (so the puffins get a day off too!)
Wikitravel – general information for visitors to Wales
How to get there
It’s only a ten-minute boat crossing to reach Skomer.
2021 – Due to Covid restrictions, you now have to book in advance. Details are here. If you don’t have a ticket, you are unlikely to get on the boat.
Parking is still at Martin’s Haven National Trust car park, so you need either a National Trust membership card, or some cash.
As well as puffins, guillemots, razorbills and Manx shearwaters, there are other species of bird breeding on Skomer – great black-back, lesser black-back and herring gulls, kittiwakes, cormorants, shags, oystercatchers, curlew (but only one or two pairs), land birds such as wheatears, meadow pipits, rock pipits, blackbirds, jackdaw, crow, raven, chough, and raptors such as peregrine, buzzard, little owl and short-eared owl.
The Pembrokeshire Islands are home to about half a million pairs of Manx Shearwaters. These birds are nocturnal on land (to avoid predation by gulls) and are most easily seen by either staying overnight on Skomer (contact the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales) or by taking an evening “Seabird Spectacular” on the Dale Princess.
Rabbits, woodmice, common shrews and the Skomer vole (a subspecies of bank vole) all live on the island, while around 150-200 grey seals have their pups on the beaches each autumn.