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Natural History

Background

Vegetation differences on Long
Mynd slopes of different aspect
Image: Frank Hay
topoclim
The Church Stretton area lies within the Stretton Gap, a narrow valley opening to the north-east on the lowlands of the Severn Valley.  To the west of the town lies the ridge of the Long Mynd, its steep western edge overlooking the tranquil Upper Onny Valley, beyond which lie the Stiperstones and the uplands of Mid-Wales.  The Stretton side of the Mynd is dissected by several steep-sided valleys (called "hollows" or "batches" locally) that house streams that rise high on the heathland plateau in wet "flushes".  The eastern side of the valley is overlooked by a string of volcanic hills (Ragleth and Hazler Hills, Caer Caradoc and the Lawley), beyond which lie a series of parallel vales and ridges, including Wenlock Edge.

The area boasts a great diversity of habitats resulting from two main factors.  Firstly, the geological underpinnings of the area are complex (see information on local geology on this website) but are dominated by ancient volcanic, folded and faulted  rocks which bring a variety of soil parent materials to the surface, leading to variations in soil acidity, nutrient status and moisture retention capacity.  The Church Stretton Fault adds to this complexity by bringing exposures of Wenlock limestone into the Stretton valley.  Secondly, the environs of Church Stretton exhibit great variations in topography.  The floor of the Stretton Gap lies at about 185 m (600 ft.) above sea level while the Long Mynd reaches 516 m (1700 ft.) less than 4 km (2½ miles) away as the crow flies.  On the opposite side of the valley, Caer Caradoc reaches 459 m (1500 ft.) only a kilometre (0.6 miles) from the floodplain.  The climate on these tops is much colder, cloudier and windier than on the valley floor and far less hospitable for plant and animal life, especially in winter.  Slopes of varying steepness, aspect and degree of shading, interacting with variations in surface materials, create a patchwork of microclimates across the area. 

Red Grouse, an iconic bird of the Long Mynd
(Image © northeastwildife.co.uk)
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Finally, it should be remembered that the Church Stretton area has long been occupied by humankind, as evidenced by the wealth of burial mounds, Iron Age fortifications, earthworks and ancient tracks that are apparent in the landscape.  Without human activity, the Mynd would be covered with small upland trees and heathland shrubs, with more heavily wooded adjacent valleys.  Clearing, burning and grazing have opened up the landscape of the Mynd and prevented regeneration of its natural climax vegetation. 

This intervention continues today, with heather burning and cutting, sustainable stock grazing, conifer removal, bracken control, pond maintenance and management for recreational uses and to maintain the habitats for such locally characteristic species as Red Grouse and Bilberry.

Flora and Fungi


Bog Asphode
(Image © northeastwildife.co.uk)
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The Church Stretton area has a wide variety of vegetation types, from ancient woodlands and meadows, to the wet flushes, heathland and rocky outcrops of the Stretton Hills.  The wet flushes are some of the more interesting and diverse sites, where the fiery spears of Bog Asphodel, supporting intense yellow star-like flowers on leafless stems, can be seen.  Its anthers were once used as a cheap substitute for saffron and as a dye for both fabric and hair.  Also characteristic of the flushes are unusual insectivorous bog plants - Round-leaved Sundew and Butterwort.  The latter (so named because it was once rubbed on to cows’ udders to protect the milk, and resulting butter, from evil) secretes a sticky fluid from glands on its leaves to attract and trap unsuspecting insects. These leaves slowly curl inwards and the insect is digested.  The mosses and liverworts of these wet places are also tremendously diverse and include some internationally rare species.

The Long Mynd heathland, a sea of purple Heather in late summer, is a good place to pick Bilberries (known locally as Whinberries) to make pies or jam.  In the autumn the drier south-facing valley sides are golden with Western Gorse and, on the rocky outcrops and parched grasslands, uncommon species such as Sheep’s Bit and Rock Stonecrop can be found.  On the surrounding grasslands, Harebells, Tormentil and Heath Bedstraw (employed in the past to give a more pleasant aroma to straw mattresses) are common and, in the autumn, many-hued waxcap fungi, including rarities such as the Pink Ballerina, add bright splashes of colour to unimproved moss-rich areas. Difficult-to-spot Earth Tongue fungi (resembling miniature pokers or lollipops) enjoy similar conditions, as does the Golden Spindle fungus.

In the streams of Long Mynd, Monkey Flower is an unexpected find. Not a native plant, it is believed to have escaped form a garden near All Stretton over a century ago and has since become established.  Ferns including Lady Fern and Lemon-scented Fern, with its delicate citrus aroma, are abundant along stream edges.

Scarlet Waxcap
(Image © northeastwildife.co.uk)
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Old pastures can often be identified by their anthills – home to the Yellow Meadow Ant. Some of these meadows contain rare species such as Adders Tongue Fern and Moonwort. On the shady slopes, Bluebell and Pignut are a common sight, and ancient Laburnum hedges are an unusual boundary feature, more often associated with the Stiperstones area.

The hills to the east of the town are mostly well wooded and in spring are carpeted with Bluebells, Primroses, Celandines and Wood Anemones.  Wild Garlic grows by the streams and Wood Sorrel is extremely common. Pockets of Pink Purslane are found here and there but it is much more prolific a few miles further east. Marshy fields behind Helmeth are noted for their Marsh Marigolds, while small pockets of limestone, near Caradoc and in the Coppice Leasowes Nature Reserve, yield many unusual plants.

Butterflies and Moths

As well as common garden butterflies, Church Stretton and the surrounding hills are home to some more uncommon species.

Wall Brown
(Image © northeastwildife.co.uk)
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Open tracks and dry stone banks are good places to see Wall Brown and the well-camouflaged Grayling butterfly. One of the best places to see the latter is on the rocky outcrops of the Carding Mill Valley.  Nationally-declining species such as the diminutive (but aggressively territorial) Small Copper and Small Heath (amongst the smallest of the butterflies found in the UK) are still plentiful on the grasslands.  Green Hairstreak, the only British butterfly to have green wings, can be found around hillside gorse.  You will need sharp eyes as these butterflies settle with closed wings, affording excellent camouflage.

By the wet flushes on the hills, the male Orange Tip butterfly will be easily identified, with its orange-tipped forewings warning predators of its distasteful flavour. The female lays her eggs on the leaves of Lady’s Smock.

Emperor Moth
Image: Caroline Uff
Emperor_moth
On heathland, large moths can be observed skipping over the heather.  Among these is the spectacular Emperor Moth, with its prominent wing markings resembling the eyes of an owl, and the Oak Eggar Moth, which is named after the acorn-like shape of its cocoon.  Fox Moth caterpillars, with their long reddish-brown hair, are easily spied at the edge of pathways. If handled, they can give you a mild rash.

Amongst the heather, Common Heath moths fly during the day, sometimes in large numbers during sunny weather.  Brown Silverline moths can often be disturbed in the daytime by walking through bracken, which is the food plant of the caterpillar. Bracken is also, together with Broom, the food plant of the Broom Moth caterpillar, with its distinctive brown and yellow striped markings.

Other Insects

Long Mynd boasts a thriving population of the uncommon Bilberry Bumblebee, which can sometimes be seen nectaring on flowers in the town’s parks and gardens. 

Garden ponds attract a wide range of dragonflies including Southern and Common Hawkers as well as various

Billberry Bumblebee
Image: David Williams
Bilberry_Bumble_DW
chasers, darters and damselflies. On the hills, nutrient poor pools (such as Wildmoor Pool) and stony-bottomed streams are home to the more specialist species such as the Black Darter and Golden-ringed Dragonfly. In the lower reaches of the streams, Beautiful Demoiselles can be seen.

At the end of April, swarms of large, hairy, black St. Mark’s flies can be seen dancing in the air with their long legs dangling down.  Although annoying, they do not bite.

Old pasture land is home to the beneficial Yellow Meadow Ant whose underground colonies keep the soil porous while their droppings fertilise the grass and their armies eat damaging insects.

Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish


Common Hawker
(Image © northeastwildife.co.uk)
common_hawker_00001
All three native newt species (Palmate, Common and Great Crested) are found in and around Church Stretton as well as the Common Toad and Common Frog. Slow-worm and Grass Snake are often found in garden compost heaps and Common Lizards are frequently seen basking on the slopes of the Stretton Hills.  Adders however are not known in the area.

In the streams around Church Stretton Bullheads and Brown Trout are common.

Birds

Church Stretton is ideally located to support a diversity of bird life with upland high elevation heathland, native woodlands, valley-floor meadows and the town itself as habitats.  In summer, the Long Mynd valleys are alive with Meadow Pipits (which attract Cuckoos seeking host parents for their young), while Tree Pipits can be seen (often "parachuting" in song flights from stunted Hawthorns) on the tops.  Red Grouse and Curlew breed on the Mynd, as does Snipe in the wet flushes.  The wet areas also support Reed Bunting and Teal while the streams are good places to seek Pied and Grey Wagtails and Dippers.  Grasshopper Warblers also frequent the tops in small numbers and probably breed.

Curlew
(Image © northeastwildife.co.uk)
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Ring Ouzels are seen annually in spring in the "batches" but this species no longer stays to breed in the area.  Other regular passage migrants are Golden Plover and Dotterel. 

The slopes are also homes for Redstart, Whinchat, Stonechat, Skylark and Wheatear while Mistle Thrushes gather in late summer to feed on Bilberries.

Birds of prey are characteristic of the hills, particularly Buzzard and Kestrel but Merlin, Hobby and Peregrine are also in evidence.  Red Kites (mostly native birds from Mid-Wales rather than from introduced stock) now nest in the area.  The lucky visitor to the hills in winter may also see Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier quartering the heather.  Ravens are abundant and can be seen early in the year in aerobatic display flights.

Winter also brings visitors from northern Europe (Redwings, Fieldfares, Bramblings and even occasionally a Snow Bunting).

Stonechat
(Image © northeastwildife.co.uk)
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Resident woodland birds include Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatch and Treecreeper, along with more common birds such as Wren, thrushes and tits. Joining them each spring are Pied Flycatchers and Wood and other Warblers, whilst Sparrowhawks are on hand to prey on them.  The built-up areas of the Strettons are home to most common "garden" birds, including the attractive little Siskin (especially at peanut feeders).  "Screaming parties" of Swifts can be observed frequently in the centre of Church Stretton and Swallows and House Martins breed in the Carding Mill Valley.  The farmland on the valley floor supports typical birds for this habitat, including Bullfinches, Yellowhammers, Goldfinches and Linnets.

Mammals

Otters are increasing throughout the area and often travel around using the network of small streams.  They are known to travel upstream to feed in the upland pools, such as New Pool Reservoir.  Polecats, although rarely seen, are also present in the area, along with Stoats and Weasels.  Deer are increasingly seen in the hills and woods around the town.

Of the many small mammals present, Yellow-necked Mice are worthy of a mention. These relatively large acrobatic mice are unknown in some parts of Britain but, in Church Stretton and throughout the Welsh Marches, they are common, often making a nuisance of themselves in houses.  Three species of shrew are present, including the uncommon Water Shrew.  The latter is an illusive mammal, which requires high water quality and may occasionally be seen around streams and even garden ponds in the area.  The nocturnal and arboreal Hazel Dormouse is a national rarity that thrives in parts of south Shropshire. Occasional records from sites such as Comely Quarry and Ragleth Wood suggest that it may be present in some of the small woodlands around Church Stretton.

The hedgerows and lanes are good for foraging bats and eleven species have been recorded from the area.  Pipestrelle and Brown Long-eared Bat colonies are regularly reported by householders.  Of the larger mammals, the area can claim healthy Fox and Badger populations.

(Left) Small Copper. (Right) Red Kite, a common bird of the Mynd.
(Images © northeastwildife.co.uk)
small_copper_00029 gigrin_red_kite_00038

Final Thoughts

The natural history of the Church Stretton area is distinctive and variable and well worth visiting the area to explore.  The diversity of habitats resulting from geological and topographic complexity supports unusual and fascinating assemblage of plants and animals.  Superimposed upon this is the heritage of a long period of human manipulation of the land, which continues today, and the driving force of seasonal climatic cycles, amplified by winter extremes in the area's uplands.  All these factors have implications for both the nature and abundance of our wildlife.  For the visitor and resident alike, there are many opportunities to pursue an interest in natural history in the area (see, for example, the local organisations section of this website and the National Trust Carding Mill Valley website).


John Arnfield, Caroline Uff and Jan Heaney