Flora and Fauna on the Great Orme


© Peter Broster - [Flickr] CC 2.0


© Peter Broster - Silver Studded Blue

Unlike certain parts of Britain, which have seen dramatic environmental changes and the destruction of many natural habitats by man, the Great Orme has altered little. Growing all over the headland are a variety flowers, which developed in the wake of the last Ice-Age and still retain their arctic character despite the warmer climate.

The shallow lime-rich earth supports more than its fair share of botanical rarities, but the rarest of them all must surely be the Cotoneaster (c. integerrimus), which is unique to the Great Orme and is only found growing in the more remote and inaccessible corners of the headland.

During the spring and early summer, flowers such as Bloody Cranesbill, Thrift and Sea Campion cling to the sheer rock face, while Pyramidal Orchid, Common Rockrose and Wild Thyme carpet the grassland creating spectacular display of colour. Even the old mines and quarries provide suitable habitat for numerous species of plants and animals. Spring Squill is often abundant, growing on the old copper workings.

There are many interesting theories surrounding the origins of the Whit Horehound (marrubium vulgare), which is found growing on the western-most slopes of the Orme. Legend has it that the downy white plant was cultivated by fourteenth century monks, who supposedly lived in the now ruined Bishops’ Palace, whilst others believe it to be indigenous to the area. Each year the delicate and extremely rare Horehound Plume Moth (pterophorus spilodactylus) lays her eggs amongst the silky leaves. The caterpillar relies solely upon this one foodplant for survival.

Among the many quirks of the Great Orme, are the two species of butterfly which have developed characteristics peculiar to the area. The Silver Studded Blue (plebejus argus ssp. caernesis) and the Grayling (hipparchia ssp. semele thyone) have adapted to life on the headland by appearing much earlier in the year in order to feed on the tiny limestone flowers and grasses. They are also far smaller than their relatives in other parts of the country and are recognised as being a definite sub-species or race.

Every spring and summer a frenzied scene is enacted. The air is filled with the cries of hundreds of Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Guillemots, as they come back to nest on the narrow cliff ledges. Fulmars are often visible on the rocks above the Marine Drive. They did not breed on the Great Orme until the middle of this century, when the expansion of deep-sea trawling produced an abundance of fish offal, which encouraged the birds to follow the vessels south from Iceland.

Despite harsh extremes created by the tides, rockpools around the headland are a rich and varied world in which specialist communities of plants and animals flourish. Barnacles sieve Plankton from the sea with their feathery limbs, then withdraw when the tide retreats. Hermit Crabs scuttle about searching for new shells and Red Beadlet Anemones ensnare small creatures in their Medusa-like tentacles.

In the sea below Pen Trwyn, Grey Seal often take advantage of this more sheltered stretch of coastline and Bottlenose Dolphin are known to frequent these waters during the warmer weather. Occasionally Basking Shark may be seen cruising through the sea, with their vast mouths gaping wide, a great triangular dorsal fin giving away their presence.

The Great Orme has always had a dynamic nature, and the immense variety of habitat and wildlife that we see today has come about through the continual and unrelenting process of change on Earth. Such great diversity has been created by forces, rhythms and the passage of many millions of years.

Reproduced from the booklet
‘The Great Orme Llandudno’s Mountain’ by P. Bardell and T. Parry.
Illustrations by E. Parry


The Great Orme Kashmiri Goats

The Great Orme Goats © Crown copyright (2013) Visit Wales

 © Visit Wales - The Great Orme Goats

The first intimation of Capra Markhor is the rank odour. It is strong, musty and compelling. Sometimes he can be found wandering the wooded hillside. There is a flash of white in the undergrowth and a head slowly rises from behind a bramble bush. The eyes regard one with intelligence. The mouth grins wickedly and two enormous horns curve backwards, almost touching the nape of his neck. The horns are crenulated, with large ridges unevenly spaced along their length. A shaggy fringe covers his forehead and his beard grows long. Soon, others of his kind can be seen around him in the undergrowth, and it becomes apparent that there are seven or eight animals.

These are the Great Orme Kashmiri goats, whose ancestors once roamed the mountains of Northern India. The creatures eat with discrimination. Delicately nibbling the juiciest berries, whilst carefully avoiding the thorns. At this season, it is an all male club. It is high summer. The entire herd is said to be about 60 strong, including other full grown billies, young billies, nannies and kids. For most of the year, the nannies browse on the other side of the mountain, with last year’s young, whilst the mature and immature billies roam in small groups away from the females. They will not mix until the Autumn rut. Then, the nannies will be attracted by the odour exuded from the glands behind the horns of the large males. When it is mixed with the scent of urine, with which the billies anoint themselves, the nannies in season find it hard to resist its heady scent. At this time, there is much aggressive display. Horns clash and heads are thrown back with lips curled to display strong yellow teeth.

The goats tend to mate around October, and the kids are sometimes born as early as February. At parturition, the pregnant nannies seek solitude to drop their kids, often on some inaccessible ledge. Quite soon after birth, the nanny will leave her kid and wander off to feed, returning regularly to suckle it. The kids are generally quite safe at these times. Unfortunately, interference of a human kind is their chief danger. Passers-by, no doubt well meaning, frequently pick up the kids thinking them to be abandoned. When this happens, there is virtually no chance of the nanny accepting back her human- smelling kid, and even if taken into care by the R.S.P.C.A. they are difficult to feed and more often than not they do not survive. Therefore, unless a very young kid is in danger from traffic or obviously injured, it should be left alone. After two or three weeks, the nannies and kids will rejoin the herd.

All goats have their own peculiarities, and it is possible to identify individuals. One billy, in particular, is easily recognisable. He is smaller than the others, and has a longer, shaggier coat. This goat is an outsider. He is one of three goats introduced into the herd from Whipsnade Zoo. It was not a very successful experiment. The first goat died within weeks of arrival. The second decided that he was probably not a goat, but a sheep. He mixed quite happily with the flock, until, unfortunately, he fell off a cliff and was killed. This is very unusual, as goats are extremely sure footed. The third goat survived, and eventually became accepted by the herd. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers have obtained most of their regimental goat mascots from Whipsnade stock. Other billies have dark markings on their faces and all have horns which vary in shape and size. The horns of the young billies and the nannies are slim and delicate, curving gently backwards. Several old billies have horns which are distorted and misshapen, perhaps from past pre-rutting battles. It is possible to estimate the age of a billy by the ridges on its horns. Each section represents one year’s growth. Barring accidents, the goats will live for about nine years. In the nannies, the ridges are less obvious and ageing these animal is not so easy.

It is often believed that goats will eat anything. However, they tend to be quite discriminating as far as diet is concerned, and have definite preferences, such as, in the case of the Great Orme goats, elder, gorse, hawthorn, bracken, bramble, ivy, stinging nettles and privet, according to the time of year. In the Autumn, they will browse on the grass, moving to the slopes where they can find a plentiful supply. The origin of the Great Orme goats and the story of their arrival in Britain, is interesting. In the early part of the last century, Squire Christopher Tower, from Brentwood in Essex, discovered a large herd which had recently been imported from Kashmir into France. The idea was to create a profitable woollen industry. Squire Tower decided to purchase two of these goats, and took them to Weald Park in Brentwood. The goats flourished, and soon produced kids, from which the Squire was, eventually, able to manufacture a cashmere shawl. George IV was highly impressed by this article, and was happy to accept a pair of the goats presented to him by Squire Tower.

So began the Windsor herd, which increased rapidly, and in the reign of Queen Victoria, cashmere shawls became extremely fashionable. It is often said that Queen Victoria was presented with the goats by the Shah of Persia, and it may be that these were added to the already existing herd.

Later in the Century, Major General Sir Savage Mostyn acquired two of the Windsor goats, and took them to the grounds of Gloddaeth Hall. It is possible, however, that they were unsuitable as park animals. There is an old Welsh farming practice, known as “Llwgu’r defaid” (starving the sheep). This was a method whereby goats were run with the sheep, in the hope of precluding the latter from straying into dangerous places, where the goats could more easily forage. Perhaps this may have been the reason why the goats were transferred to the Great Orme. Certainly, they are frequently to be seen browsing on extremely narrow ledges, and they climb the steep limestone cliffs with amazing agility.

The folk lore of goats is interesting and contradictory. The association with the Devil is well known, as he is usually depicted with horns and cloven hooves. However, goats were also thought to bring good luck, especially to farmers. It is still believed by many that if a goat is put with cattle, the cows will not abort. In the same way, sheep will be disease free if a goat is allowed to run with the flock. In ancient Babylon, a goat was sent to die in the desert, in order that it could carry away the diseases of the people, and the Hebraic scape goat was driven into the wilderness, taking away the sins of the Jews.

In many parts of the world, goats are considered the deadly enemies of snakes. The Kashmir name for the wild goat is “Markhor”, which means “Snake eater”. Goats are believed to kill adders by trampling on them and afterwards eating the remains. But according to the Book of Genesis, the Devil took on the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden, and this would seem to be a contradiction to the “Snake eater” legend. Certainly there are adders on the Great Orme, but whether or not the goats keep down their numbers, I do not know. Goats are thought to be prophets of the weather. It is noticeable that the herd moves up hill before good weather, and tends to shelter lower down when it senses a change for the worse. There is much local Great Orme folklore about goat movements. Early in June, 1993, many inhabitants of Llandudno’s mountain remarked on the unusual presence of a large group of billy goats on the land near the old Great Orme Post Office. On June 10th, the heaviest rainfall ever recorded fell upon Llandudno, resulting in the infamous June floods. Now, the sight of goats in this area causes the prediction of dire consequences by the local amateur weather forecasters!

Goats are sociable animals, and not merely with their own kind. Cats and goats appear to live in harmony together, and it is believed that horses are content if kept with goats. There is little doubt that domesticated goats enjoy the company of humans, but on the Orme, the herd, or “tribe”, are shy creatures. They will not run like sheep, when approached, but usually will walk slowly away, and are almost impossible to observe at close quarters. Despite their aloof and retiring nature, the goats have on occasion aroused much emotion amongst the population of Llandudno and the surrounding areas. In 1990, a culling exercise resulted in the re- location of over twenty goats to Hereford and the Island of Flatholm. The resulting outcry amazed and impressed the Aberconwy Borough Council. Much adverse criticism resulted over their handling of the exercise. It emerged that very little was actually known about the animals, and that a proper scientific study of the herd had never been carried out.

The leader of the protesters was the late Audrey Stallard, to whom the welfare of the Orme Goats was paramount. She worked endlessly to discover what had happened to the animals culled from the herd, and to ensure that nothing like the clumsy methods used to remove them could happen again. In consequence, it was decided to bring in a student during the summer of 1992, who would carry out an in depth investigation into all aspects of the life of the herd. Bryan Pinchen, a young man from Marlborough in Wiltshire, was selected to carry out the research. At first, Bryan was not particularly happy at the prospect of the work before him. He had no experience of wild goats, all his previous projects having been carried out in the meadows of the sunny South ! However, he soon came to admire the goats and to recognise them individually. His final report was quite excellent. In his introduction, Bryan Pinchen wrote as follows.-

‘A herd of feral Kashmir goats has roamed wild for maybe one hundred years over the slopes of the Great Orme, during this period [there was, in actual fact, a certain amount of culling carried out by Mostyn Estates in the early days], they have never really received any attention from the landowners, or managers, until a small number of the goats were removed in 1990. After this removal operation of 26 goats in February 1990, there was, as I’m sure you are aware, a public outcry against this act. It was decided afterwards that a study on the goats should take place to prevent further removals to take place without good reason. The Great Orme goats had never been studied before, and it was felt that more information was needed regarding their health, reproduction rates, and general population size in relation to the grazing capacity of the Orme. The study of the goats will now continue for, as yet, an unknown number of years, but eventually it is hoped that there will be sufficient information available regarding the herd, so that its numbers can effectively be managed, and the population can be maintained at a sensible level in relation to the size of the Great Orme’.

Sadly, after only two years, the funding for this project was withdrawn. In August, 1996, the newly formed Conwy Borough Council, which had taken over the responsibilities of the old Aberconwy Borough Council, suddenly announced that a goat cull, was planned and that twenty goats would have to be removed from the herd. Not surprisingly, this announcement generated fierce opposition and the events that followed were a virtual carbon copy of 1990. Once again the pro-goat lobby greatly outnumbered those in favour of a cull by shooting. The local press and Welsh Television channels soon picked up on the controversy and there were headlines like, “PROTESTERS BLAST PLAN TO CULL GOATS BY THE BULLET”, and ‘QUEEN URGED TO BACK CULL FIGHT’. “AMERICAN’S PLEA TO SAVE GOATS” was one particularly astonishing caption, which came about as the result of a visit to Llandudno by a very forceful young American lady. On her return to Michigan, Meg Wnuck sat down and wrote a pithy letter to the press, in which she commented that “These beautiful animals embody the strength and spirit of the Orme. Their shy respectful demeanour is charming. Why anyone would wish to upset nature’s balance is beyond comprehension “. I think that this says it all.

There were many more well phrased letters, which concisely, and without undue sentimentality, expressed the views of most of the inhabitants of Llandudno. What concerned those who wished to protect the goats, was the fact that no recent tests had been carried out to ascertain the state of health of the animals. Nor had there been any goat studies since 1993, when another student had briefly continued the investigations. As a result of the letters and a petition signed by very many sympathisers, the will of the majority eventually prevailed. At a full meeting of the Conwy Borough Council on 7th November, 1996, it was decided that no goats were to be shot unless they were sick or injured.

Over a period of almost a hundred years, these animals have existed virtually in isolation, and have evolved into the unique breed they now are. A comparison with the original Windsor herd shows many distinct and important differences. The Great Orme Goats are of a far heavier build. Their coats are less shaggy, and their horns longer and more massive. As previously mentioned, a few of the goats have dark, facial marks. Bryan Pinchen describes this as, “a black triangle beneath the eyes to the mouth”. The reason for these variations is not exactly known, but it is possible that they arose as a result of the release of domestic goats into the herd, despite the management policy of the Mostyn Estate Company, who tried to maintain a pure strain.

Once again the shouting has died down, and the Great Orme Goats, unaware of what might have been their fate, continue to wander placidly over the old sheep walks, happy in their environment and giving pleasure to many. Long may they do so.

Reproduced from the booklet
‘Aliens on the Great Orme’ by Eve Parry


Creatures of the Night on Llandudno’s Great Orme

© ianpreston - [Flickr] CC 2.0

© ianpreston - A night watcher in Great Orme

During the last light of day, when the trams stand silently in their sheds and most walkers have hung up their boots, the Great Orme reawakens and is filled with the sounds and smells of the creatures of the night.

As the last glimmer of light lingers over the grassy slopes, many animals emerge from their dens and begin foraging in the undergrowth. With the eerie glow of dusk comes the Fox, who will head straight towards the old min cottages, drawn by the scent of discarded food in people’s dustbins.

Deep beneath the Orme lie a maze of tunnels and caverns, where only a very specialised forms of life are able to exist. Some cave pools support small communities of Niphargus. These are small blind shrimps which live in total darkness and feed on organic matter floating in the water.

The Cave Spider hangs motionless on a few strands of web, waiting for a passing meal, while Gnats and Craneflies spend the winter hibernating in these passages, sheltered from the wind and rain.

The rare Horseshoe Bat is another animal which lives in this dark inhospitable world. This small flying mammal finds its way through tunnels by using echo location, which is produced by making a series of rapid sound pulses. These sounds hit the walls and bounce back, giving the Bat a mental picture of its surroundings.

During the daytime, Horseshoe Bats congregate in large numbers, and wings tightly wrapped around their furry bodies, they suspend themselves from the roof of the tunnel by their toes. Only at dusk will the Bats venture into the outside world, emerging from cave entrances and old mine shafts, to feed on a variety of Beetles and night flying Moths.

During the twilight hours, Mice and Shrews begin to gorge themselves grubs and insects. These small rodents make equally easy prey for the sharp eyed Tawny Owl.

Carnivorous animals, such as the Toad, Hedgehog and Badger take advantage of the night, by melting into the shadows and lurking in darkened corners ready to spring out at the first sign of potential food.

As dawn breaks, a swirling mist envelops the countryside and the solitary Blackbird whistles a melodious tune. This signals the start of a new day, and almost immediately, the ear splitting dawn chorus goes in to full swing. This sudden burst of activity and tremendous noise, drives the nocturnal animals back to the quiet of their warm, dark dens, where they will rest and prepare themselves for another busy night on the slopes of the Great Orme Head.

Reproduced from the booklet
‘The Great Orme Llandudno’s Mountain’ by P. Bardell and T. Parry.
Illustrations by E. Parry


Looking from Seaward at Llandudno’s Great Orme

© Dave S. - [Flickr] CC 2.0

© Dave S. - Grey Seal

It has often been suggested that the full grandeur of the Great Orme cannot be appreciated unless viewed from seaward. Many of the more mysterious places and the most impressive views on Llandudno’s mountain are only visible from the sea. Boat trips run from the beach at Llandudno and it is possible to enjoy the surprising variety of scenery on the trip from the beach to the lighthouse.

In the precipitous cliff face between the Town Toll Gate and Pen-trwyn is a small cave, called Ogof Hanner Dydd, the Midday Cave. It is said that at twelve noon on the days of the Spring and Summer equinoxes the sun shines directly into its mouth. If this is so, who first realised it, and how?

A little further westwards around the headland of Pen-trwyn is a long wave lashed fissure known as Dutchman’s Cave. Who was this legendary Dutchman, and why was the cave named after him?

In the little bay of Porth Heli, is to be found Pigeons’ cave, a favourite haunt of sea anglers. Early in the nineteenth century, stone was quarried here for the construction of Conwy Bridge. A stone chute used for loading the boats is still visible.

Two similar boulders, and a crescent shaped indentation in the boulder clay form one of the more startling and well-known fishing marks, “The Frog’s Head”. Bearing an amazing resemblance to the head of a frog, and sited on the precipitous grassy slopes below St Tudno’s Church it is visible only from seaward. It is said, usually by the boatmen, that the frog’s mouth always points upwards during fine weather!

Another popular fishing venue is the area around Austen’s Rock, a large, jagged, hazardous and menacing expanse of submerged limestone pavement, only visible at low water, and named after the first keeper of the Great Orme Lighthouse.

The cove a little further westward reflects a memory of the inundation legend. The steep cliff overlooking the sea is known as Cilfin Ceirw, the Precipice of the Deer. Did deer ever leap from this cliff onto a lush forest floor now submerged beneath the waves?

Dominating the scene and towering three hundred and seventy feet above the water are the cliffs of the Great Orme’s Head. On the highest point are to be seen the castellated walls of the former Great Orme’s Head Lighthouse, once one of the highest navigational lights in Britain, now a private residence.

The rocky ledges provide the nesting site for a large colony of sea birds. Every year guillemots, razor bills and kittiwakes, flock here to raise their young. The scene is one of frenzied activity as the birds fly to and fro fishing the surrounding waters and carrying food to their ever hungry offspring. The Great Orme from seaward is certainly memorable!

Reproduced from the booklet
‘The Great Orme Llandudno’s Mountain’ by P. Bardell and T. Parry.
Illustrations by E. Parry