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Home > Natural History & Wildlife > Plants & Trees


The limestone pavements which are such a feature of the Yorkshire Dales are mostly found towards the south-west of the area, in Ribblesdale, Chapel-le-Dale and Kingsdale. Langstrothdale (upper Wharfedale), Wharfedale and Littondale host a secondary concentration, however, with the Great Scar Limestone exposures forming a habitat which is increasingly rare and valuable in Britain. The pavements often preserve woodland species which grew in the area before the trees disappeared, and form a safe haven away from grazing sheep, although rabbits can be a problem. Ferns found here include wall rue, maidenhair spleenwort and brittle bladder-fern. Hart's-tongue and hard shield-fern are also to be found.

High up in Wharfedale the scars and screes support a range of plants including the nationally scarce alpine cinquefoil and hoary whitlowgrass. Also to be found are lesser meadow-rue, goldenrod, small scabious and bloody crane's-bill with, occasionally, mountain melick. These screes were for centuries the home of the rare Lady's-slipper orchid and are also important for the nationally scarce limestone fern.

At the Helks, above Beckermonds, partially-exposed pavement provides an interesting refuge for hay meadow species such as wood crane's-bill and melancholy thistle. The exposed pavements nearby have more typical species, including lesser meadow-rue, green spleenwort, wall lettuce and hairy stonecrop.

Lower down the valley, Conistone Old Pasture has five nationally important limestone pavements. Sheep grazing confines the flora to the grikes, the cracks between the raised clints. They are rich in species including alpine cinquefoil, lily-of-the-valley, mountain melick and herb Paris.

At nearby Grass Wood the screes have developed local gleying and species usually associated with waterlogged situations occur, including common valerian and wild angelica. The limestone outcrops have several locally uncommon species including rock whitebeam and angular Solomon's Seal.

The 4933.9 hectares (12191.7 acres) of the Malham-Arncliffe SSSI include extensive areas of limestone pavements which are a habitat for several species usually confined to woodlands, such as dog's mercury, wood anemone and ramsons. Rarer species to be found in the grikes include baneberry, angular Solomon's-seal and downy currant. Ferns are at home in the safe, moist grikes and include limestone fern and rigid buckler-fern.

Some good pavements are to be found in Littondale. At Scoska Wood there is limestone scar and scree along the middle of the wood and this supports ferns such as maidenhair spleenwort and hard shield-fern, as well as the local baneberry. The limestone scar at Hawkswick Wood hosts trees and shrubs such as yew, rock whitebeam and spindle, with herbs including blue sesleria, small scabious and ferns such as hart's tongue, hard shield, wall rue and green spleenwort.

The pavement at Dale Head, near Pen-y-ghent, has green spleenwort, lesser meadow-rue and alternate-leaved golden-saxifrage. Where grazing has been limited the number of species is higher, with reed canary-grass and stone bramble.

Pen-y-ghent Gill has pavements which house green spleenwort and brittle bladder fern, and many other shade-tolerant species in the grikes. The scattered ash and sycamore in the valley bottom has baneberry among the understorey species.

The inaccessible cliffs of the upper Gill are damp and the ledge flora includes a wealth of mosses and liverworts, with Orthothecium rufescens, Pedinophyllum interruptum, Seligeria acutifolia and the very rare Zygodon gracilis. Bryologically it is one of the best upland limestone gills in the north of England. The ledges also support woodrush, polypody and water avens.

The high ledges of Pen-y-ghent itself are noted for arctic-alpine plants. These include purple saxifrage, yellow saxifrage, hoary whitlowgrass and roseroot.

The thin limestone soils of upper Wharfedale are low in nutrients and many interesting plants, which might otherwise get overgrown, can prosper. The old-established grazing of these well-drained fields keeps down the coarser plants which might out-compete smaller ones. The local population of twite, a bird whose British population is of European importance, feeds on the limestone grasslands in autumn. Other birds which uses these areas include redstart, green woodpecker, wheatear and lapwing, together with buzzard, which has recolonised upper Wharfedale in recent decades.

Bird's-eye primrose, or 'mealy' primrose, from the dusty white stalk and under-leaves - "one of the dozen most exquisite natives of the British Isles", according to Geoffrey Grigson- is a characteristic flower of the limestone grasslands. It is often found in damp depressions, often with the insectivorous butterwort. Its distribution is solely within the northern Pennines.

In the Malham-Arncliffe area the nationally scarce blue moor-grass is often found, with sheep's-fescue and herbs such as limestone bedstraw, thyme, small scabious, salad burnet and common rock-rose. In areas of less intense grazing larger flowers grow, including bloody crane's-bill and, just over the border of our area, the nationally rare Jacob's-ladder. At Cool Pasture there is wild thyme, common milkwort, fairy flax, bird's-foot trefoil, salad burnet, autumn gentian, harebell, eyebright and the nationally scarce limestone bedstraw. Moonwort, a tiny fern, occurs in varying abundance from year to year. Several mountain and northern speciescan be found, including alpine cinquefoil, which is also found in Scotland, mountain avens, which is here at its southernmost point in England and mountain everlasting, which has declined in its lowland sites and is now found in the uplands.

At Conistone Old Pasture there is extensive calcareous grassland, with blue moor-grass and sheep's fescue, together with rockrose, dropwort and limestone bedstraw. The bird's-eye primrose and grass-of-Parnassus can be found in flushed areas.

In more open parts of Grass Wood a limestone grassland flora has developed in which blue moor-grass is accompanied by herbs such as common rockrose, bloody crane's- bill, salad burnet and betony. At Hawkswick Wood there is an area of limestone grassland containing rockrose, thyme and purging flax. Areas of seepage have purple moor-grass and butterwort. On the steep upper slopes of Scoska Wood grassland is characterised by the presence of blue moor-grass and a range of calcareous herbs including salad burnet and fairy flax. In Pen-y-Ghent Gill blue moor-grass dominates, with herbs such as salad burnet and fairy flax.

In upper Wharfedale the thin daleside soils have blue moor-grass and limestone bedstraw, both characteristic species of a community confined to the Carboniferous Limestone of Northern England, with frequent common rock-rose, wild thyme and autumn gentian. Locally dropwort and kidney vetch may be found, both species rare in the Dales.

Trees & Woodland

There are many small woodlands on the steep, terraced slopes above Kettlewell, with large stands at Grass Wood near Grassington and Strid Wood near Bolton Abbey. Lower down the valley, Middleton Wood at Ilkley is noted for its springtime bluebells.

The limestone woodlands of Wharfedale make up 5% of the total ancient semi-natural woodland in the Yorkshire Dales. Dominated by ash, downy birch, hazel, hawthorn and rowan, the woods include shrubs such as wild privet and spindle. They also contain some species for which upper Wharfedale is particularly important, the nationally scarce angular Solomon's-seal, baneberry, downy currant and dark-red helleborine among them.

Kirk Gill Moor Wood is one of the few oak-birch woods in the Dales and includes some sessile oak with much downy birch and silver birch. Small areas of yew occur at Firth Wood which probably originated as natural stands. Strans and Rais Woods are especially species-rich wood pastures with ash, hazel, birch and holly over a ground flora including wood crane's-bill and marjoram. Lightly grazed areas on woodland edges are home to common meadow-rue, globeflower and the nationally scarce northern hawk's-beard. This species has declined and is now only found in a scattering of sites up the northern Pennines.

Grass Wood is an archetypal Dales ash wood with a hazel understorey which was coppiced for many years. It was partly planted with beech and sycamore in Victorian times, and in the 1960's with conifers, but the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are gradually removing these. Much of the wood is on limestone scars which introduce varied habitats. The rich ground flora is regionally important, and includes lily-of-the-valley, wood sorrel and yellow pimpernel, indicators of ancient woodland, together with bloody crane's-bill, melancholy thistle, angular Solomon's-seal, burnet rose and mountain melick. The undisturbed woodland produces a wealth of fungi each Autumn and nuthatch, treecreeper, woodcock green and great-spotted woodpeckers and many warblers use the wood.

Above Grass Wood is Bastow Wood, which is younger, since it overlies a celtic field system. It is wood pasture, rather than woodland, a type of habitat known in only one other site in the Dales, with scattered ash, birch, sycamore and rowan, and hazel understorey. Bird cherry, hawthorn, blackthorn and geulder rose are rather less frequent. Thin limestone soils support blue moor-grass and red fescue grasslands which are rich in herbs, including rockrose, bloody crane's-bill, and fairy flax. Anthills confirm the ancient nature of the pasture.

In Littondale, Hawkswick Wood has developed on stable limestone scree and is an open ash wood. There is a scattered shrub layer of hawthorn and hazel, with bracken and dog's mercury dominating the ground flora. The more interesting plants, such as lily-of-the-valley, primrose, wood anemone and herb paris occur on the screes.

Over the valley, Scoska Wood clings to the limestone scars and upper slopes, with herb-rich neutral or calcareous pasture below. At the boundary a number of springs emerge, with flush communities. The wood contrasts with the drier Hawkswick Wood, since it is cooler and moister. Ash dominates, with an understorey of hazel and hawthorn. Downy birch and bird cherry also occur. The rich ground flora contains dog’s mercury, ramsons, sanicle and herb paris. There is a tall-herb community at the wood's edge, with wood crane’s-bill, melancholy thistle and meadowsweet.

Above Bolton Abbey is the famous Strid Wood, which contains the largest area of acidic oak woodland and the best remnant of oak wood-pasture in the National Park. The river dissects the wood, with oak forest on the north-east side and more altered woodlands on the south-west. The largely acidic ground flora on the north-east, with woodrush, bilberry, wavy hair-grass and several species of fern, is modified by calcareous flushes, with opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, wood melick and mountain melick. Relict wood-pasture retains old pollards of oak, holly and birch, growing amongst bracken and acid grassland. The south-west bank has many introduced species of trees including beech, sycamore, poplar and conifers such as larch and Douglas fir. Nevertheless the soil is less acid and the ground flora is rich, with dog's mercury, ramsons, sanicle and sweet woodruff, together with the uncommon yellow star of Bethlehem. The bryophyte flora is rich, with several rare and local species, including Dicranum montanum, Cinclicotus mucronatus, Fissidens rufulus, Nowellia curvifolia and Sphagnum quinquefarium. The selective, rather than clear, felling has preserved a valuable lichen flora and Strid Wood is considered one of the best lichen woods in Yorkshire. Over sixty species of birds have been recorded, forty-four of these breeding, including pied flycatcher, redstart, wood warbler, common sandpiper, grey wagtail, dipper and goosander.

Middleton Wood is an ancient oak wood, with both sessile and pedunculate species. Sycamore has invaded the east end and there is some elm and ash, with alder and willow in wetter parts. Shrubs include elder, hazel and holly, with hawthorn and blackthorn below Curly Hill. The springtime bluebells are joined by wood anemone, wood sorrel and dog's mercury. In damper areas lesser celandine is followed by ransoms, or wild garlic and yellow pimpernel can be found. There is a patch of giant horsetail, over a metre tall. By the streams are bog stitchwort and opposite-leaved golden saxifrage. Rarer flowers include moschatel and goldilocks, with the parasitic toothwort. Autumn brings a variety of fungi - Amanita crocea is yellowish and uncommon species. The old trees attract a variety of birds, including tawny owl, sparrowhawk, greater spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, treecreeper and, in wetter places, snipe and woodcock. Chiffchaff, willow warbler, garden warbler, wood warbler offer challenges for the birdwatcher. In winter siskin, lesser redpolls and brambling visit.

Very much like Strid Wood, Dob Park Wood in Washburndale has conifers and mixed woodland with some impressive bluebell stands. All three woodpeckers can be heard, and wood, willow and garden warblers, with blackcap, sparrowhawk, redstart, woodcock and tawny owl. Spotted and pied flycatcher nest here and in winter there are flocks of siskin, redpoll and brambling.

The extensive plantations in the National Park cover three times the area of the semi-natural woodland. They are dominated by coniferous trees, generally a combination of pine species and Norway and Sitka spruce. Greenfield Plantation, at the top of Wharfedale, is the largest in the Park. There are also plantations in Washburndale, above the reservoirs.

With thanks to :
Wharfedale Naturalists' Society


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