Location and access
National Grid Reference: SH 767833
The Great Orme is a prominent headland which lies at the north-western tip of the Creuddyn Peninsula near Llandudno. Conwy County Borough Council manages most of the site as a Country Park and Local Nature Reserve , and this comprises a headland of Carboniferous limestone of some 291 hectares (719 acres) which rises from sea level to 207m (679 feet) at the summit.
The Great Orme can be accessed by a public road from the town of Llandudno and a toll road from the North Shore Promenade (A546). The summit of the headland can also be reached by tramway and cabin lift during the months March to October. Pedestrian access to the site is possible from either end of the toll road, on the public road and on footpaths from the Haulfre and Happy Valley Gardens.
The site has been important for tourism and recreation since early Victorian times and receives an extremely high level of recreational use. Visitor numbers have exceeded 500,000 annually for the past few years and are known to have been increasing since 2002.
It is said that the name ‘Orme’ is derived from an old Norse word for Worm or Sea Serpent and on a misty day it is easy to see why. The huge headland is composed of Carboniferous limestone, which began forming about 300 million years ago, on a tropical sea bed. Fossil remains of creatures that lived during this period are to be found everywhere, revealing the skeletons of primitive Fishes, Sponges, Corals, Molluscs and other invertebrates.
HABITATS & Conservation Status/ Interest
The predominant vegetation is limestone grassland with pockets of heathland occurring where soil of glacial origin has accumulated. Areas of limestone pavement, scrub and woodland occur as well as high sea cliffs. The grasslands, heathlands and sea cliffs are both nationally and internationally important and support rich communities of plants, insects and birds. Several species are of national significance. The Great Orme was recommended as a Special Area of Conservation because it contains habitat types that are rare or threatened within Europe. The habitats for which the area has been designated a SAC are listed below:
• European dry heaths – for which the Great Orme is considered to be one of the best areas in the United Kingdom
• Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland on calcareous substrates – for which the Great Orme is considered to be one of the best areas in the United Kingdom
• Vegetated sea cliffs of the Atlantic and Baltic coasts – for which the area is considered to support a significant amount.
The majority of the site is grazed/browsed by sheep, rabbits and a herd of feral Kashmiri goats. The goats are able to reach most cliff ledges and the intensity of browsing on rarer shrubs such as Juniper and Wild Cotoneaster is subject to conjecture.
The grasslands on the Great Orme occupy approximately one third of the site. The most extensive grassland is a closed sward of Sheeps’ Fescue – Meadow Oat-grass grassland which includes, amongst fine-leaved grasses, a variety of low-growing herbs such as Ladies’ Bedstraw, Wild Thyme, Birds’ Foot Trefoil, Salad Burnet, Ribwort Plantain and Mouseear Hawkweed. Where trampling by visitors and livestock occurs these herbs become lost and are replaced by coarser grasses such as Yorkshire Fog and White Clover. On the thinnest, driest soils around the cliffs and crags on the drought-prone south facing slopes the grassland is more open with bare patches. This grassland is Sheeps’ Fescue – Carline Thistle grassland with abundant Hoary Rockrose and herbs such as Salad Burnet and Wild Thyme.
Where grazing and visitor pressure is relaxed taller, ranker grassland occurs. This is dominated by Red Fescue and coarser grasses such as Hairy Oat-grass with fewer herbs as these tend to be shaded out by the grasses and accumulated thatch of leaf litter. On the cooler, damper north facing slopes grassland more typical of northern Britain occur. These are dominated by False Oat-grass but often containing abundant Cowslips along the Marine Drive on the northern side of the site. In association with patches of species-poor heath there are acid (calcifugous) grasslands dominated by Sheeps’ Fescue and Common Bent but without the herbs typical of the calcicolous grasslands mentioned above which are replaced here by acid loving plants such as Tormentil.
In certain areas the grassland has been invaded by non-native shrubs and trees including Cotoneaster integrifolius, C. horizontalis, C. simonssi, Strawberry Tree, Buckthorn, Corsican Pine and Scots Pine. These alien species, in particular C. integrifolius, have become dominant in some instances and the grassland communities and rare species have been smothered as a result.
The heathland on the Great Orme occupies approximately one quarter of the site. Dominant species are the dwarf shrubs; Heather, Bell Heather and Western Gorse.
About one third of the heathland is species-rich and amongst the dwarf shrubs many lime-lime-loving (calcicolous) herbs grow, such as Common Rockrose, Dropwort, Wild Thyme and Birds-foot Trefoil. Another third of the heath is less species-rich, supporting herbs such as Tormentil and Harebell perhaps indicative of more acidic conditions due to leaf litter accumulation and leaching. The final third is the tallest heath approaching 50cms in height. This is the most species-poor and is entirely dominated by dense stands of the three dwarf shrubs. Management by mowing (or accidental burning) may in some instances help maintain the species-rich heath and prevent its conversion to species-poor.
An interesting mix of heath and grassland species contribute towards a separate community type known as calcicolous grass heath. The calcicolous grass heath comprises grassland very similar in appearance to the short closed sward of the species-rich Sheep’s Fescue–Meadow Oat-grass grassland but containing a high proportion of the dwarf shrubs, Heather and Bell Heather but with the notable absence of Western Gorse.
A botanically varied community supporting both calcareous grassland species including Hoary Rockrose and Dark Red Helleborine, and such shade tolerant species as Black Spleenwort, Wall-rue, Maidenhair Spleenwort, Sanicle, Dogs Mercury and occasional Brittle Bladder Fern.
The cliff community is rich and varied. Botanical rarities such as Wild Cabbage, Wild Cotoneaster, Dark Red Helleborine, Hoary Rockrose, Horseshoe Vetch, Spotted Catsear and Spiked Speedwell all occur here. Invasion of non-native shrubs in particular Cotoneaster integrifolius has occurred in places. These shrubs have become locally dominant in some instances. Red Valerian has also become locally dominant in restricted areas. Its status is being monitored.
The main woodland areas are situated on the south-eastern and eastern slopes of the Great Orme. The woodland to the south-east is known as Haulfre and the woodland to the east is at Pen Dinas. The area covered by these woodlands is 4 hectares and 0.5 hectares respectively. The canopy of both woodlands is largely composed of Ash, Sycamore, and Wych Elm with several localised areas dominated by conifers. The shrub layer varies from sparse to dense with
Hazel, Hawthorn, Elder and Holly. The ground flora of both woods is rich with Dog’s Mercury
Bracken Dominated Grassland
This botanically poor community, dominated by Bracken is presumed to be derived from heathland and neutral grassland, which has been burned and/or heavily grazed in the past.
Scrub Dominated by Gorse
This is also botanically poor but may have some temporary value for small birds. Some rotational management might increase its value and return parts to a more heathland appearance.
Well over 600 species of insects and other invertebrates have been identified on the site. However, the fauna has not been surveyed comprehensively therefore lists of the various groups are not complete. Information on different groups is added to almost on an annual basis, mainly as a result of independent survey work.
The diverse flora of the predominantly limestone grassland supports a wide variety of insects including six rare species of Lepidoptera namely, Coleophora serphllectorum, Xestia asworthii, Silky Wave Moth, Stenoptilia zophodactylus, Grayling (ssp. Thyone) and Silver-studded Blue (spp.caernensis). The Grayling and Silver-studded Blue butterflies are represented by dwarf races which are considered to be endemic to the site. The Silver-studded Blue is a Priority BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species. Twenty-one species of butterfly have been recorded on the Great Orme.
The birdlife of the limestone grassland includes some of the commoner Finches, Meadow and Rock Pipit and breeding populations of Wheatear, Linnet and Skylark. During the autumn and spring, passage migrants, including Golden Plover, Dotterel, Snow Bunting, Lapland Bunting and Ring Ouzel have been recorded regularly. In addition, Snow Bunting, Black Redstart and Chough have been recorded throughout the winter months.
Mammals found within this community include Fox, Rabbit and Weasel. Common Lizard, Slow Worm and Common Toad have also been recorded.
Limestone Heath is of less value to insects, but nevertheless provides a nesting habitat for Stonechat, Meadow Pipit and Skylark. Mammals recorded in this community include Rabbit, Weasel and Common Shrew. The Limestone Pavement is of limited value to insects, birds and mammals. No reptiles or amphibians have yet been recorded in this community.
The cliffs provide a suitable habitat for a variety of birds including, Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Cormorant, Shag, Raven, Peregrine, Chough, Wheatear and Rock Pipit. The seabird population has been monitored since 1974 and the numbers of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Cormorants have been recorded. Numbers of Fulmars have been monitored since 1987. Kittiwake productivity is monitored, as a joint project with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Populations of Razorbills and Cormorants breeding on the headland remain stable whilst populations of Fulmars, Guillemots and Kittiwakes have shown a decline in numbers over the past 5/6 years. Breeding numbers of Kittiwakes particularly declined by 28% over the two years 2002-2004. Recolonisation by Peregrines has met with varied success, as has colonisation by Choughs.
In addition, a great wealth of archaeological and historical features exist on the headland. These range in date from the early Stone Age to the present day. Eight of these archaeological sites are Scheduled Ancient Monuments.