all pictures © robin williams
Those of us who live in this part of the country are lucky to have such amazing landscapes nearby. Here is a personal selection of places of wildlife interest in Mendip. The geology of the area is largely based on limestone; however, there are parts of the original, ancient sandstone cap that have not worn down completely. That area of the massif still has colonies of acid-loving plants. More generally, remnants from the ice age remain, with some specialised alpine plant species. Seen from the moors below, Mendip is an impressive sight, rising straight up from around sea-level to over 1,000 feet, seemingly much larger than its actual height. Western Mendip, with its characteristic rock-studded grasslands and dry-stone walls, has a high rainfall which renders it particularly green, while its largely underground waters feed the wet moorlands down below. Mendip has a fascinating history and has been surprisingly industrial over many centuries, starting with Roman lead mines, which continued to provide a living up to a hundred years ago. Sheep have long been a farming mainstay from the days when the monks of Glastonbury Abbey owned large areas of this land. Those animals were seen as living gold for the riches they brought.
A Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT) nature reserve of 180 acres at ST48 54. This dramatic landscape is the remains of an old rock quarry on the north side of Cheddar Gorge. It is known for its woodlands and limestone grassland, rich in flora and invertebrates.
Burrington Ham & Gorge
ST48 58. An extensive, winding gorge on the northern edge of Mendip much used by walkers and climbers. The Ham is a wild moorland area on the eastern side of the gorge, easily reached from a parking point at the top of the gorge, with much wildlife. Fine walking country.
An 86 acre reserve at ST52 52, run by the Somerset Wildlife trust as a working farm. It is a remarkable example of unimproved pasture, going back over many generations, and is carefully conserved. The meadows are full of wildflowers, including Bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, Cowslips Primula veris, Autumn-flowering crocus Colchicum autumnale and many others. The farm only opens to the public on one day a year. The name goes back to the days of Glastonbury Abbey when so much of Mendip was owned by the clergy. The picture shows a common-pond system designed to make the most of scarce surface water on this porous limestone. The ponds allow cattle to drink from four surrounding fields, yet keep the animals apart.
Open access around ST47 54. The north side is part of the National Trust while the south side is owned and managed by the Longleat estate. A famous feature of the Somerset landscape, the gorge is extensive and steep, towering above the road and Cheddar village, running in from the south-west and leading to Mendip-top through some truly magnificent scenery. Impressive when misty or under brilliant sunshine. Peregrine falcons Falco peregrinus breed on the cliff face and there are many unusual flower species, including the Cheddar Pink Dianthus gratianopolitanus, ancestor of some favourite garden flowers.
Peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus © robin williams
ST44 53. This large concrete-edged reservoir provides our domestic water supplies but is also used for sailing, dog-walking, rides and walks around the perimeter. It is a very fine wildlife site with varieties of exotica coming in during the winter such as Black-necked Podiceps Nigricollis and Red-necked grebes Podiceps grisegena, Great northern divers Gavia immer and rare gulls Laridae.
A National Trust reserve at ST38 55. Wonderful walks over wild hillsides with fascinating flora and many invertebrates. Terrific views over the Levels.
229 acre reserve of the Avon Wildlife Trust, with open access at ST45 58. Spectacular scenery, limestone flora, butterflies galore and careful conservation make this one of the finest places to visit but beware, much of it is very steep. It has a huge list of interesting invertebrates.
An 124 acre SWT reserve at ST48 51. A greatly varied area of bare limestone and wild meadow on the south side of Mendip, with fine populations of butterflies, varied flora and some of the most spectacular views of the Levels.
A village on the top of Mendip reputed to be the wettest spot in Somerset. In effect, it is the capital of west Mendip, for long one of the meeting places for remotely-based farmers when communications were less accomodating. It is famous for being one of the main centres for the extensive caving which takes place beneath the surface. Indeed one of the cave entrances is alongside the church. Famous also for Priddy sheep-fair which ran each August since 1348, when it took over from a Wells fair during the Black Death. The surrounding area has many ancient burial mounds and evidence of ancient mining.
ST55 44. Access and parking by permission of the Forestry Commision who own and operate this. It is splendid walking to and around the pool where dragonflies and other invertebrates are a major attraction. The pool is dominated by Smitham Chimney which was built in the mid-1800s for smelting lead ore and has been recently rebuilt. The fine dragonfly population includes many species, among them the exotic Black darter Sympetrum danae, the Emperor Anax imperator and the not so numerous Common hawker dragonfly, Aeshna juncea.
Also referred to locally as Stockhill Forest or Plantation. ST54 51. A large car park is signposted off the main road. Although largely conifer woodlands tend to be less popular, Stockhill is happily laid out, with sunny clearings and wide rides, and is very popular. It has a wonderful selection of wildlife including Nightjars Caprimulgus europaeus, Crossbills Loxia curvirostra, Long-eared owls Asio otus and many other birds. Its population of fungi is spectacular, both in terms of variety and colouring. Heathland bumblebees, hoverflies and dragonflies visiting from Waldegrave Pool opposite, round off the attractions.
An SWT reserve on the northern part of Mendip of 86 acres. ST50 55. It is largely unimproved grassland on old lead workings. Some of the most productive areas for invertebrates are the old rakes where earler workings had been re-worked, leaving miniature gorges between rock faces. Species-rich flora.
A 43 acre SWT reserve on old lead workings and old lead spoil beds. ST50 55. Much of it is now rough grassland ands scrub. Interesting landscape, very popular with walkers. Fine lead-based flora.
One of my favourite spots, though it has much declined in recent years. Owned and managed by the Waldegrave estate though it used to be managed by the SWT. Currently Water horsetail Equisetum fluviatile, has covered much of the surface and the huge numbers of dragonfly larvae are being heavily consumed by Carp Cyprinus carpio, released into the pool by fishermen. It is still a remarkable dragonfly location, though for how much longer no-one can guess. Emerald damselflies Lestes sponsa, Black darters Sympetrum danae and Downy emerald dragonflies Cordulea aenea are among the especially interesting species found here. The lower Priddy Pool is another great site for water insects and dragonflies. These two pools and Stockhill Woods form a perfect area for a wildlife walk, all within minutes of a common car park.