The Wild West

PUBLISHED: 12:11 12 July 2013 | UPDATED: 12:11 12 July 2013

Chun Quoit and moorland, photo by Karin Saunders

Chun Quoit and moorland, photo by Karin Saunders

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The stunning scenery of west Penwith, the Land’s End peninsula of Cornwall, is exceptionally rich in wildlife. Stand on any hill in this landscape and you will look out on the bucolic small field systems on the north coast to the internationally significant heathland on the central granite moors and the wetland habitats in the gently sloping river valleys that run to the south coast. This traditionally farmed landscape supports a mix of productive farmland interspersed with significant blocks of wildlife habitat that are home to rare and fascinating species. Included within this patchwork are three Cornwall Wildlife Trust nature reserves.

Chûn Downs and Bosvenning Common Nature Reserves are both characterised by their heathland habitat which include three different heathers. The true heather, or ling, has many branched and tangled stems, with tiny, flat-lying triangular leaves and loose spikes of pinky-purple flowers. Bell heather grows in the driest areas and has tightly rolled dark-green leaves with crimson-purple flowers that are bell-shaped. Cross-leaved heath is similar, and blooms from June until October. The delicate, rose-pink flowers are oval to urn-shaped and the grey-green leaves are held in whorls of four. This downy plant thrives in damp, boggy areas. Bristle bent grass adds its golden haze to the heathland in autumn and combines with the gorse to give the nature reserve the colours so characteristic of west Penwith’s unique landscape.

The open nature of both Chûn Downs and Bosvenning Common means they are great sites to see birds of prey such as buzzard, kestrel and sparrowhawk and in the winter months, merlin and hen harrier. The merlin is the smallest UK bird of prey and feeds mostly on small birds whilst the hen harrier spends a great part of every day on the wing, searching for small birds and mammals.

Chûn Downs and Bosvenning Common have significant archaeologist interest for visitors to enjoy. The focal point of Chûn Downs is Chûn Castle, a prehistoric hill-fort. Chûn is from the Cornish Chy-an-Woone, meaning ‘the house on the downs’. Close by are the remains of Chûn Quoit, an ancient burial chamber. This atmospheric monument consists of four huge upright slabs topped by a massive capstone. The surrounding area is filled with Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, such as Lanyon Quoit, a chambered tomb, just a mile to the east. At Bosvenning Common a Bronze Age cairn extends a line of three along the east to west ridge. The site is likely to have been used as summer pasture from prehistoric times to the medieval period while, from more recent times, tinners’ pits and quarrying complexes can be found.

Caer Brân nature reserve is the third site that Cornwall Wildlife Trust looks after in this area. On the slopes of Bartinney Downs, the land here was once heathland with ancient hut circles. Sadly, the heathland was ploughed up in the 1970s with the hut circles being bulldozed to the edge of the fields. The land was purchased in 1998 as a nature reserve with the specific intention of trying to recreate heathland on the site. This very slow process, that involves stripping nutrients from the grassland, is starting to reap rewards including a fantastic display of southern marsh orchids in 2012. The tussocky grassland that is developing at Caer Brân is great for breeding skylark and feeding short-eared owls. The skylark young depend on camouflage and thick ground cover for protection, because they do not fly well until three weeks old. Its mellifluous warbling flight call can often be heard as the skylark rises vertically into the air and its diet is mainly seeds and insects. Short-eared owls hunt at dusk and sometimes in daylight over the nature reserve. They prey on small mammals, working to-and-fro on rhythmically beating wings, or hovering briefly over some spot while their great, golden eyes search for food. The rich archaeological heritage of this site means we are very careful, when doing any work, not to disturb the ground too much and to always record what we find. The recent laying of a new water pipe unearthed some interesting Neolithic and Bronze Age flints, including an arrowhead.

The habitats of these three nature reserves are predominantly heathland but on each site there are small areas of wetland. These wetlands, along with others in west Penwith, support a variety of important wildlife. There are historical records for the rare marsh fritillary butterfly in areas of wet, tussocky grassland whilst in the scrubby margins, willow warbler can be seen and heard. Open water and damp, swampy bogs are home to delicate insects like the small red damselfly and fascinating plants such as round leaved sundew.

There is always plenty of wildlife to see in west Penwith, whether your interest lies in the wet valleys or the open heathlands. All three nature reserves have open access, although due to the nature of the terrain and vegetation it is often best to stick to the obvious footpaths (see cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk). The local West Penwith Volunteers provide opportunities for people to get out and get their hands dirty on these and other sites, helping to protect and enhance the wonderful wildlife of west Penwith.

Cornwall Wildlife Trust currently has the opportunity to purchase and restore new nature reserves in west Penwith. We would like to buy an additional 26 acres of heathland / grassland next to Caer Brân nature reserve and create an entirely new nature reserve by buying 58 acres of wetland at Bostraze Bog. The Heritage Lottery Fund has committed nearly £200,000 but we need further funds to make this happen. Please visit our website(cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/appeal) for information on how to donate so we can protect similar sites to the ones in this article. n

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