Monday, 29 September 2014

Botanising at Abermenai

Abermenai Point is the southernmost extremity of Anglesey and being further from road access than anywhere in the county is the closest the island gets to having an ultima thule. A group of botanists went there a few weeks ago. We followed one of the traditional routes that used to be taken by workers going from Anglesey by ferry to the slate quarries in Snowdonia. Appropriately, the small car park at Penlon is bounded by a slate fence on which are inscribed delightful images of birds, butterflies, thus reflecting both the heritage and wildlife interest of the route.

Our first pause was near the mouth of the Afon Braint where the river channel takes a sharp turn. In text book fashion, erosion on the outside of this bend is matched by accretion on the inside with new ground being colonised by salt marsh plants. To reach Abermenai Point we then headed off across 1.3 km of tidal flats. On some maps these flats are called Traeth Melynog, perhaps this roughly translates as ‘yellow beach’. Although the tide was well out the crossing was wet underfoot because of the innumerable lugworm casts and patches of blanketing green seaweed. 

Abermenai Point itself is a fine example of a recurved shingle spit with superimposed dunes. On the inner side it hooks right round to almost enclose a marsh dominated by sea-purslane. Shingle spits like this occur at their mouths of several Welsh estuaries, but the SW end of the Menai Strait is unusual in having hooked spits on both sides.

Masses of Babington's Orache growing on debris wash onto the top of the shingle by storms last winter

On the point itself there is a ruined building associated with the former ferry. An interesting thought is that this may have sheltered several eminent botanists who passed this way in the 17th and 18th centuries. In his book based on researching the journals of early botanists visiting Snowdonia (The Botanists and Mountain Guides of Snowdonia, 2nd ed, 2007) Dewi Jones mentions several who crossed to Anglesey by way of the Abermenai Ferry. In August 1639 Thomas Johnson used the ferry, while staying at Glynllifon with the local MP who was also interested in botany. From the ferry these early botanists went on to Llanddwyn Island where they recorded Rock Sea-lavender. It is still common there in a limited area round the Old Light. We found a tiny amount of it on our visit behind Abermenai Point as well. The next recorded botanical visitor was John Ray. In May 1662 he noted two seashore species at Abermenai which no longer occur anywhere in North Wales, Cottonweed and Sea Stock. Joseph Banks was also there, in 1773, noting the presence of another plant no longer recorded here, Isle of Man Cabbage.

Sea Holly

On our visit, perhaps the most spectacular plant encountered as we came back along the inside of the long spit was Sea Holly. It is more abundant here where blown sand comes over the salt marsh edge than anywhere else we know in Wales. Sea Holly, with its geometrical growth forms and sky blue flowers, is arresting enough, but this huge swathe of blue was a magnet to nectar-hungry migrant butterflies, and we saw both Painted Ladies and Clouded Yellows.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Hill Forts and Butterflies on Lleyn

Looking NE towards Yr Eifl from Garn Boduan

The Lleyn peninsula has superb hills along its north coast - Yr Eifl (The Rivals) and 4 big hills behind Clynnog Fawr. Driving from Caernarfon to Nefyn one has great views of them, and in fact the road passes the foot of the hill capped by Tre’r Ceiri (The Town of the Giants). This 2.5ha hill-fort contains 150 hut-circles within the ramparts.
On 31st August, however, we were breaking new territory and chose to ascend Garn Boduan, a volcanic plug about 8km SW of Tre’r Ceiri and only 1km from Nefyn. The lower slopes are clothed in conifers, but half-way up the path emerges into gorse, bracken and heather, attracting myriad honey- and bumblebees. On the way up were various Vanessid butterflies – Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals, then once on top we spotted the hoped-for Wall Browns, males sunning themselves on the rocks. They were not still for long, as one would find another male and they performed aerial tussles, just as Speckled Woods were doing along the path through the conifers. Garn Boduan also has hut-circles, about 170 in the 10ha hill-fort, but these are not easy to see as they are mostly hidden in heather and gorse – Tre’r Ceiri’s huts are much more apparent. As we dropped down from the summit, a Painted Lady flitted past, and finally we found a rather faded Grayling, another of the Brown family at the end of its season.
 Although Tre'r Ceiri no doubt had many visitors that day, Kate and I had Garn Boduan and its butterflies all to ourselves.

Wall Brown on summit rocks