The Elan Estate is nationally important for its variety of lower plants (mosses, liverworts, lichens, ferns and fungi). Its semi-natural ancient woodlands are some of the finest in Britain and all are included in Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The upland bogs and mires are also very important for wildlife. There are several species-rich hay meadows on the Estate of a type unique to parts of upland Wales.
Sixteen different broadleaved trees grow including the rare English Whitebeam on the cliffs above the Visitor Centre. There is much Ffridd habitat on the hills (scattered hawthorn/rowan/birch on steep hillsides) and provides areas for plants such as the climbing corydalis and the rare corydalis weevil insect. The hawthorns and rowans on these steeper slopes provide abundant autumn food harvest for birds such as the redwing thrush, fieldfare and ring ouzel. The mature Downy birch trees provide habitat for the rare Welsh Clearwing moth in which depends upon it.
The rich plant life in the Elan Valley would provide an avid or enthusiastic botanist many hours of discovery and excitement. There are a number of events on during the year, which is an ideal opportunity to see and learn about some of the exciting plant life which is around.
There has been a shocking 95% decline in the UK hay meadows since the 1940s in the UK. The catchment of the Elan Valley can boast a fine variety of beautiful upland fringe hay meadows which are still being managed very much as they have been for generations. Here on the Estate agriculture still very much is unimproved and farmers continue to farm within the constraints of landscape and weather. Our hay meadows are carefully managed to protect the great variety of wild flowers which include the rare Wood bitter Vetch, Globeflower, Greater Butterfly Orchid and Fragrant Orchid, and two strange ferns, the Adders Tongue Fern and Moonwort.
More than 300 species of flowering plant have been recorded. A similar number of lichens and the same again for mosses and liverworts combined.
Ten species of orchid have been recorded to grow here; Fragrant Orchid, Early Marsh Orchid, Lesser Twayblade, Common Spotted Orchid, Heath Spotted Orchid, Early purple Orchid, Bog Orchid, Lesser and Greater Butterfly Orchid and recently a new record of a single Small White Orchid.
On the areas of permanent pasture which receives grazing to keep the grass short or on thinner soils you may find the happy little faces of the Mountain pansy looking up at you. There is a nice little spot on the road side between Penygarreg Dam and Craig Goch as you go around a bend just past the conifer plantation of Gwaelod y Rhos. These little flowers are mostly yellow in colour though there are records of the pansy with both the yellow and purple petals. On these same soils and other grazed areas you will find another pretty little yellow flower called Tormentil which can be identified by their distinct 4 petals shaped much like a cross. This flower has recently been found to support a few “known” colonies of the Tormentil Mining Bee (a biodiversity Action Plan Species).
On our wetter areas of mixed marshy Rhos pasture or in the wet flushes you can find an abundance of flowers such as Marsh bedstraw, Devils Bit Scabious, Marsh marigold, Louse wort, Milkwort, Globe flower, Bog Asphodel, Bog Bean and Meadow Thistle. The wet flushes contain a variety of plants such as the insectivorous sundew and butterwort. Hare’s Tail Cotton Grass and Common Cotton Grass are a sight to behold within wetter areas mixed with the splendid variety and vibrant colours of the sphagnum species of mosses. Liking the wet patches of marshy ground are the little Marsh Violets which are the food plant for the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary. The Fritillary butterflies are included on the Elan Valley Biodiversity Action Plan.
Those beautiful flower rich hay meadows are a tapestry of flowers. Comprising of the Hay rattle, hawk bit, eyebright, harebell, Greater burnet, upright vetch; these are only a few of the numerous species to name.
The heathlands are another valuable habitat on the Elan Valley Estate and within these there is another distinct collection of specialised plants. The common heather and bell heather provide a splendid show of purples through August and September on the sides and crests of the hills. Within this heather there is bilberry which provides berries for the wildlife in autumn time (and very popular with the children that visit who often pick them until their mouths and fingers are stained the deepest purple from the feasting). If you were to part the heather or bilberry stems you will find a dense layer of moss. There are two common feather mosses with distinct red stems. If the branches are themselves unbranched the moss is likely to be red stemmed Feather-moss and if the branches are many branched it would be Glittering wood moss. These heathlands have a characteristic bird community and you can expect to see, Stonechat, meadow pipit, skylark, merlin, red grouse, short eared owl and golden plover.
One of the prettiest and on a world scale, rarest flowers to be found quite commonly along some of the moist mossy streams in the Elan valley is the Ivy-leaved bell flower. It is a tiny little flower with its flowers measuring a quarter of the size of the harebell flower and it is of the palest blue in colour. In the British Isles it is frequent only in Wales, Devon and Cornwall.
Globeflower is a distinct and glamorous flower which should have its mention amongst the special flowers of the Elan Valley. It has declined within Radnorshire and on the Estate with only one healthy population remaining now in the valley. It grows quite high and robust in a wet flush and the large golden ball shaped flower heads are something to observe swaying in the wind during May to July. It is a member of the buttercup family and is found here on the most southerly part of its UK range. Its decline is thought to be a possible mix of factors from grazing, land drainage and climate change. It is a Biodiversity Action Plan Species for the Estate.
On the topmost parts of the Estate in some of the mountain pools where the habitat is above 500m with considerable exposure to the harsh elements is another place of interest. It’s in that part of the landscape where only a few specialised plants can survive and here you will find the only lakes in Radnorshire where Water Lobelia occurs. It is firmly rooted to the gravely areas on the lakes margins and during the summer months tall flower spikes emerge from the water each with a handful of the palest blue tubular flowers.
Mosses, Liverworts and hornworts are known collectively as Bryophytes. They are typically green (brown/orange and red are also colours especially the Sphagnums) and they are usually small and are considered the simplest of land-dwelling plants. This simplicity is given due to the fact they do not have seeds (spread as spores), do not produce flowers and have no internal means of carrying water or nutrients. There are no roots but Rhizoids which are very thin root-like structures which attached them to surfaces and absorb water.
Bryophytes are abundant with in the Elan Valley because they thrive in wet and damp conditions (though a number are adapted to drier habitats). Much of our landscape supports mosses and they are found in woodlands, Grasslands, bogs, rocks, mines, upland flushes, in or near water courses or reservoirs.
They are colonisers of bare soil and rock and help other species gain a foothold. Mosses and Liverworts are deserving of a closer look, under a hand lens they are indeed very beautiful to look at. They can help form our peat bogs and in the years of the war mosses were collected from Mid-Wales and the valley for the war to protect wounds. Mosses also have larger benefits for society, did you know sphagnum moss is a major component of peat bogs and can hold as much as twenty-times its own weight in water and is a useful component in flood alleviation. Peat bogs also lock-up large amounts of carbon and help combat climate change.
Within the woodlands, not far a walk from the Visitor Centre or the Tea rooms at Penbont you will find an abundance of mosses such as the fork-moss (Dicranum scoparium), little shaggy-moss (Rhytidiadelphus loreus) and Step Moss (Hylocomium splendens). In the most humid places you will find an array of tiny liverworts such as Creeping Fingerwort (Lepidozia reptans) and Greater featherwort (Plagiochila asplenioides).
Don’t forget to take your wildlife guidebook and see how many different varieties you can discover.
In total 26 species of fern have been found including the Royal Fern, Beech Fern, Oak fern, Brittle Bladder Fern and the very small Wilson's Filmy Fern.
Adders Tongue Fern is so-named because the tall stalk that bears its spores is thought to resemble a snake's tongue. It is an indicator of ancient meadows and it has been found in a few locations in the hay meadows on the Estate. It is quite a difficult species to find as it can be quickly covered by grasses and not so visible. It usually appears between June and August, spending the rest of the year underground as a rhizome.
Moonwort is a very small fern which has a magical reputation in Devon in which it was said “it will open locks, and unshoe such horses that tread upon It”. Its name comes from the shape of its leaves which are fan-shaped and resemble a half-moon. It prefers the well-drained parts of the Hay meadow within the Elan Valley and best seen in the summer months when its spores are developing.
Common Quillwort has also been found and this is a fern found in the upland lakes It produces masses of grey spores in a sac at the base of the leaves.
Hay scented fern has only been recorded as a single plant on the Estate and it emits its 'Hay' scent once dried.
Some lichens have been used by man in the past for making dyes, perfume and for using on wounds. Recently discoveries have been made to show that some lichens can be used in medicine. Reminding us they are not just little and insignificant but could be one day of utmost importance to mankind and are important therefore for us to protect.
Old open heather clumps are frequently colonised by more light demanding lichens such as the many branched reindeer lichen Cladonia portentosa, the Calenonia lichens are so tough they can even grow in artic conditions. The beard lichen is easily recognised (Usnea florida) with its forked pale branches and its disk like fruits up to a centimetre across with the most distinct whisker like shoots that give it the common name of ‘Witches whiskers’.
Lichens typically grow slowly and some are excellent environmental indicators, often sensitive to changes in air-quality. Air and water pollution continues to threaten lichens and has restricted the range of once common species.
The Meadows and flower rich permanent pastures of the Valley also play host to splendid Wax cap species. There can be anything from 20 to 30 fruiting species recorded in a single field where habitat and conditions are good. Pink Meadow Cap (blushing wax cap) is a species of importance for the Estate and fruit from August to November and found on grasslands that are unimproved by fertilizer.
There is a Date Coloured wax cap and this has a red brown cap with a pale stem and gills of a bright egg yellow (5cm high). This combination of colouration is diagnostic when coupled with its habitat of summer droughty short turf. The fruiting bodies usually occur soon after heavy rain followed by a spell of warm sunshine. The Date Coloured Wax cap along with the Olive Earth-tongue are two rare wax caps and can be found in the Elan Village green and around the Visitor Centre.
Woodlands of course are known to be abundant habitats for fungi and lichens. Some years they have provided an abundance of the easily noted Fly Agaric (the fairy toadstool, orange/red with the white spots). Frequently you will find earth balls, milk caps, chanterelles, chicken of the woods, Kind Alfred’s cakes and scarlet elf cups. Autumn is the time to explore and see fungi.
There is known to be a complex relationship between fungi and other woodland organisms. Most of the trees depend on fungi within their roots. In exchange for the sugars provided by their host plant the fungi release nutrients from the soil and also help the plant to take up water.
Crested Dogs Tail is a distinct grass of the hay meadow. Once grown as a crop and used for making bonnets, Crested Dog's-tail is a common, tufted, perennial grass of grasslands and meadows. Crested Dog's-tail is the food plant of caterpillars of several butterfly species in the brown and skipper families.
Some interesting sedges to keep an eye out for……
- Common Cotton Grass has very distinct fluffy white cotton seed heads which blow in the wind. It is actually not a grass but in fact a sedge. It is common in the moorlands and bogs throughout the UK and best seen from April to June. The Fluffy heads were once the poor man’s substitute for stuffing pillows instead of feathers in the South East of the UK. In Scotland it was used to dress wounds in the First World War.
- White beaked Sedge is nationally quite a scarce plant as its preferred habitat of acid mire is not that widespread and more common on the mountains and moors of the UK. There are a few patches of White beaked sedge around Pont ar Elan which are close to the roadside. Where it grows it can be found in abundance and the masses of green shoots each bearing white beak-shaped flowers is indeed a lovely sight.
- Star Sedge is really a great sedge to look out for when one starts to try and identify sedges, as it is one of those with distinctive features. It’s only small, hardly ever much more than 30 cm tall and is found to grow in acid or neutral boggy areas. The fruits do look like a 3d star as the name suggests.
- Bottle sedge typically grows in the water of a pond or bog pool and has these light green spikes of fruit which are said to remind some people of a bottle brush.