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A walk through the mendips

By Helen Roberts

A few weeks ago our family, had a great day out walking on the Mendip Hills. We set off in autumn sunshine, through pretty deciduous woodland, to an Iron Age hill fort called Dolebury Warren - an upland area of calcareous grassland. Having lived on the edge of the Mendips during my childhood, I am always keen to show my children where I used to explore as a youngster.

Part of Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England, seen from a
light aircraft. Photo by Adrian Pingstone (1975).
The Mendips are a range of mainly carboniferous limestone hills comprised of at least four convex fold structures formed between 363 and 325 million years ago, during the end of the Carboniferous Period. Weathering of the limestone has resulted in features including gorges, dry valleys, screes and swallets (sink-holes) and incorporates the famous Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe, each with extensive cave systems. The area also has interesting landscape characteristics like limestone pavements and other karst structures.

The geology of the Mendips makes for interesting ecological communities and consists of large areas of open calcareous grassland with many rare flowering plants. For instance, Dolebury Warren owned by the National Trust and managed by Avon Wildlife Trust, sits within the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its important limestone flower communities. These flower communities attract up to 70% of all British butterfly species. Dolebury Warren has a gradation of communities from species rich calcareous grassland, through acid grassland to limestone heathland, with large areas of mixed scrub.

Cheddar Pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus).
Photo by Paul Harvey, via Wikimedia Commons
The charity Plantlife has identified the Mendips as an Important Plant Area (IPA), which is an area of landscape that has very high botanical importance. Some plant species found on the Mendips are found nowhere else. Due to factors such as over grazing, poor land management, scrub encroachment and agricultural intensification, these plants are declining in numbers and some are threatened with extinction. The University of Bristol Botanic Garden has a local flora and rare native plant collection, which includes a sub-collection from the Mendip Hills, Limestone Cliffs and Coastal Islands. The collection was developed to help grow and interpret some of the rare and threatened plant species found in these habitats. The collection represents an important habitat and phytogeographic display and is helping meet the objectives of the ‘Global Strategy forPlant Conservation.

Rare plants of the Mendips 


One of the Mendip plants in the Botanic Garden’s collection is the Cheddar Pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus). This is a very pretty scented pink flower that grows in a few places on the Mendips but mostly at the original site of Cheddar Gorge. This plant was originally discovered about 300 years ago and is considered the pride of Somerset and was voted the County Flower. It grows best in rock crevices, high on the limestone crags of the Gorge, and can be seen in June and July using binoculars to search patches of colour visible on the cliffs, just above the road.

Also growing at the Gardens is the interestingly named Starved Sedge (Carex depauperata). This is an exceptionally endangered plant that is only found in one local area - in the woods and on a hedge bank near the small town of Axbridge. This is one of only two sites in the whole of the UK. Fifteen years ago, Starved Sedge had declined to such an extent that there was only one plant in the whole of Britain. As appearances go, it’s not much to look at. It’s a tussocky plant with trailing leaves and gigantic seeds and can easily be mistaken for some common woodland grasses. A reintroduction programme has improved the status of this plant by using cuttings and seed collecting to re-establish it at other sites in the UK.

The University Botanic Garden are also helping to preserve another plant at high risk of extinction and classed as nationally rare, known as Somerset Hair-grass (Koeleria vallesiana). Again, this is a fairly innocuous grass restricted to the Mendip Hills with very slow spreading habit. The Bristol Botanic Garden’s specimens were collected from Brean Down, which is the most westerly part of the Mendip Hills, as well as the interesting tiny islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm.

Brean Down is an outstanding example of calcareous grassland and supports endemic plant communities that provide for many important insect communities. Other important plant species growing at Brean Down and now growing at Bristol Botanic Gardens include the White Rockrose (Helianthemum appenninum). This is an attractive white flowered perennial sub shrub, which frequently grows on southern slopes. White Rockrose, Somerset Hair-grass and Dwarf Sedge (Carex humilis) are all particularly at risk due to scrub colonization. This highlights the importance of grazing to maintain grassland habitats. The National Trust introduced grazing by long horned White Park Cattle and British WhiteCattle (feral goats are already on Brean Down) to help keep the grass short and scrub species controlled. 

The rarity of the plants found on the Mendip Hills highlights how important collections, such as those held at the University Botanic Garden, are for ensuring the survival of plants teetering on the brink of extinction. Equivalent to a botanical savings account, these collections help ensure that if plant species are lost, they can be reintroduced back into the wild.


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