Little was known of Snowdonia outside Wales until the 18th century when many tours of the area were undertaken by gentleman travellers. These were frequently documented in a plethora of publications ranging from rather unreliable, third rate romantic descriptions to the often more reliable observations of writers such as John Craddock’s ‘Letters from Snowdon’ 1770. Snowdonia is also the classic ground for the study of geology and the effects of the ice age – the setting in the 19th century for the first scientific investigations of some of the world’s oldest rocks.
Building on those early studies, geologists have been able to piece together a very full description of its creation over the course of hundreds of millions of years of submersion, lifting and erosion. Today you can clearly see a variety of geological features like the flat glacial valleys that below the jagged peak of the mountains. Nowadays Snowdonia National Park is well recorded and its importance for wildlife and geology is well understood.
The National Park contains several National Nature Reserves (NNRs) including the stunning waterfalls at Coedydd Aber NNR at the foot of the Y Carneddau mountain in the north of the Park, mountain reserves such as Cwm Idwal, Snowdon, Cadair Idris, the Rhinogs and Berwyns as well as a variety of woodland NNRs such as Coed Llyn Mair and the beautiful coastal reserves of Morfa Harlech and Morfa Dyffryn.
Wildlife in Wales
In the first half of the 17th century scientific botany was born which gave rise to some of the first publications with any detail of the mountains of Snowdonia. From this time the location of alpine plants was first documented to sufficient detail that, according to William Condry in his excellent book on Snowdonia, they could still be found 300 years later.
Snowdon is the first mountain in Britain to have been visited by a botanist, Thomas Johnson, with the serious intent of listing plant species. His writings were accompanied of tales of scrambling above horrifying chasms amid tempests and floods of rain – no change there then!
Edward Lluyd (or Lloyd) was something of a genius who took up botany in his late teens in an age when botany had scarcely been born. In the 1690s he sought plants in Snowdonia on repeated visits over several summers. He was the first botanist to gain an intimate knowledge of the mountains and the plants that survived there and was the first botanist to formally record many flowering plants and ferns.
He was also the first person to identify the rare Snowdon Lily although it was not given this name until after his death – its scientific name, Lloydia serotina, was chosen to honour his discovery. This is an Arctic-alpine plant that is a remnant from the ice age. It manages to cling on to mountain habitats but is now restricted to five locations below the peaks of Snowdon, the Glyders and Carneddau. However, as the climate is warming there are fears that it will soon become extinct in Britain.
Flora & Fauna in Snowdonia
Arctic alpine plants are one of the most important features of the Snowdon National Nature Reserve. These are only found on some of the highest mountains in Wales. Alpine saxifrage, alpine cinquefoil, tufted saxifrage, alpine meadow-grass and alpine woodsia can still be found on narrow ledges out of reach of the ravages of sheep and goats. On other reserves such as Cwm Idwal additional Arctic alpines occur like the delicate purple saxifrage. Unusual invertebrates live on places like Snowdon and Cwm Idwal: such as the rainbow leaf beetle that relies on wild thyme for its survival. In the cold depths of some of the lakes in the mountains the pea mussel lives another relic of the last Ice Age.
Although birds may not appear to be common in the uplands raven, peregrine falcon, ring ouzel, meadow pipit and wheatear are frequent visitors. Snowdon is also an important site for chough. At the edges of lakes and along streams in the National Park grey wagtail, dipper and common sandpiper can be found. Woodland adds to the variety of bird habitats and in summer attract redstart, pied flycatcher and wood warbler.
The woodlands of Snowdonia are remarkable for their size, variety and sheer diversity of plants, mosses and liverworts. Many are ancient woodland sites on steep sided valleys – hanging oakwoods. Due to the humidity of the climate, one of the main features of these Welsh Atlantic woodlands are the mosses and liverworts. Coed Camlyn is one of the few Snowdonian woods where all three British species of woodpecker breed, though lesser spotted is still rather rare.
The coastline and estuaries provide another huge wildlife resource. The sand dunes contain rare plants and are home to species such as the rare sand lizard. The estuaries provide important food sources for a variety of wading birds.