Newborough Warren 7

Newborough Warren is a very special place, a wilderness of sand dunes, grassland, and damp hollows (or ‘slacks’) crucial for threatened species such as skylark, dune pansies and marsh orchids. It is one of the wildest places I have walked in where the only sound in high summer is the song of a multitude of invisible larks. This is a place that feels far from machinations, procedures, assessment and accounting.

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

– Gary Snyder, ‘For the Children’

  Newborough Warren 3Newborough Warren 4

We explored this place on a sultry, overcast day in a circuitous ramble that began at the Marram Grass statue car park and followed the path towards the forest before branching off through a gate into the dunes to the left. Then we headed out towards the strait, following marker posts all the way up across the dunes and down into the slacks.

For centuries rabbits have grazed here (hence the term ‘Warren’), helping to maintain a species-rich habitat. In the 1950s myxomatosis drastically reduced their numbers leaving the dunes in a vulnerable condition, no longer able to support plants and animals. However, rabbit numbers are slowly increasing, and they now graze side by side with horses, helping to keep the dunes healthy by controlling unwanted vegetation.

Newborough Warren 1 Newborough Warren 2

Semi-wild horses graze on the Warren

This is the largest area of dunes in the British Isles, the result of significant environmental change in the 14th century.  At that time Newborough area was an area of rich farmland, the prosperous settlement of Newborough populated by people evicted from Llanfaes, in the north of the island, by Edward I to make way for the construction of Beaumaris castle. But, in the 14th century a series of violent storms buried a large portion of this area under sand dunes. The residents feared that the dunes would completely swallow the town, prompting Elizabeth I to enact a law protecting the marram grass, the roots of which help to stabilize the dunes. This stopped the advance of the dunes and also provided raw material for a new industry in the town, the weaving of marram grass leaves to form mats.

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Rabbits soon colonized the dunes, giving rise to the name Newborough Warren and providing locals with another valuable resource – at one time, as over 100,000 rabbits a year were being taken from the warren.

Now Newborough Warren is a National Nature Reserve, consisting of a large expanse of sand dunes, saltmarsh and mudflats. It is the dune slacks – areas which are submerged by winter rains, but drying out during the summer months – which are of most interest to those wishing to see the many wild-flowers for which this site is renowned. The slacks provide the ideal habitat for vast colonies of Northern Marsh Orchids and Marsh Helleborines.  We were keen to find some of these rare flowers.  They didn’t take much finding.

Northern Marsh Orchid 2

Northern Marsh Orchid

Pyramidal Orchid

Pyramidal Orchid

White Common Spotted Orchid

White Common Spotted Orchid

Marsh Helleborine 2 Marsh Helleborine 1

Marsh Helleborine

There’s a lot of glamour and mystery associated with wild orchids, including the belief (which I adhered to) that they’re all rare and endangered.  However, when I consulted Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, I discovered that although this is true of some species, others are, according to Mabey, ‘proving themselves highly adaptable and capable of moving into the most improbable habitats’ (he cites abandoned waste tips, old colliery land, reclaimed airbase runways and bunkers, motorway roundabouts and power station ash-tips).

Apparently, there are Bee Orchids here, too, but our chosen path through the dunes did not bring us to them. Nevertheless, scattered amongst the marram grass is a wide range of plants such as Dune Pansies, Sea Spurge, Rest Harrow and Viper’s Bugloss. Here’s a gallery of the flowers we chanced upon (hover for details; let me know of any mis-attributions):

As we worked our way over dune and through slack, it was interesting to come across areas colonised by a single large community of a particular plant, whether Helleborines, Orchids, Yellow Rattle or Sea Holly

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A colony of Yellow Rattle clustered on the slope of a dune

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A field of Sea Holly in one of the slacks

As we neared the shore of the Menai Strait and the ground grew damper, reeds and rushes began to predominate.  With the mountains of Snowdonia brooding purple across the water in the heat haze, the landscape felt timeless, or out of time – no sign of human habitation or intervention, no sound but the larks’ song and the rustle of reeds shifting in zephyrs that eased in from the water’s edge.

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At last we emerged from the dunes onto Llanddwyn, the beach beneath the mountains. There was no one there but us.

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See also

7 thoughts on “Through the dune slacks of Newborough Warren in search of Marsh Helleborine

  1. Wow, sounds like you had a wonderful time in Anglesey. We were in Abersoch (well, Bwlchtocyn actually) around midsummer, just got home yesterday, were away about 2 weeks. Today to the allotment (Sudley Road) to find it needs some serious weeding! LOL. The garlic is all over (had bad rust this year), on digging it the majority is rotted with keel slugs climbing in through the root plate. :( Ah well, such is life – we’ll get the rest of the garlic up tomorrow and then consider what to plant next. At least we will have new potatoes with our slow roast garlic lamb this evening.

    Our friend Kevin told my OH that he noticed me commenting on your blog. I think you shared a Prinny Road address years ago. About 40 years ago eeek! ;)

    1. Those slugs! We returned to find slugs and wood lice had been feasting on our strawberries. That must be Kevin Clinton you’re talking about – I did try to meet up with him in Stockport when I was passing through on Mersey walk. I hope he’s well and enjoying life!

  2. An interesting blog, thank you. It certainly is a very special place and I feel fortunate to have it on my doorstep. But as a local resident, I have a somewhat different opinion of recent ‘conservation’ work and would disagree with the number of skylarks apparent, as we believe the numbers have reduced to almost none since the introduction of ponies (horse meat income?) a few years ago, who have churned up huge areas of the previously grassy dunes. CCW seem determined to return the whole massive dunes to their ‘natural state’ but most locals were up in arms when they removed all small trees and shrubs and brought in the ponies, turning it into this horrific sandy moonscape that we now have. They are also doing away with the forest by stealth, by not protecting it from weather and tidal erosion, because they believe it’s ‘unnatural’. But who’s to say which is the natural state? The forest is over 70 years old and a huge resource for locals and tourists, never mind the red squirrels and other unusual woodland species. It was also planted to protect the village from being drowned in sand, so I don’t know how they’re going to stop that! End of rant…

    1. Thanks, Catherine. Visitors can only ever gain a superficial understanding of a place, so your response is very interesting. I had read somewhere else about the CCW policy of reducing the forested area which seems a bit strange. Thinking about it now, I can see how there might be a conflict between the ponies and the skylarks (especially in light of the admonishments to keep dogs on leads to protect the larks in the nesting season). After millennia of human intervention it’s almost impossible to say what is the truly natural state of an environment. Suffice it to say that Newborough Warren is still a wonderful wild place.

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