Whitehaven’s industrial past is having a beneficial effect for wildlife today – the thin and nutrient poor soil left behind is ideal for wildflowers to establish.
In 2006 the National Trust undertook a wildlife report and recognised the potential for improving the cliff top habitats further by encouraging coastal heath and wildflowers to spread inland. Switching to an annual hay cut instead of regular mowing helped to strip back nutrients, causing the decline in the dominating grasses and allowing an increased number of plants and animals to flourish.
The transformation has been remarkable.
Early blooms begin in January or February with coltsfoot, a plant traditionally used for treating lung conditions so rather appropriate that it grows in a mining area. A large yellow dandelion-like flower, it is soon joined by more yellow with lesser celandine, dandelion, primrose and cowslip.
Wild daffodils have been planted around woodland areas where blackthorn, hazel, alder and willow are also early flowering in March and April.
More yellow can be seen from April with creeping buttercup flowering at ground level and meadow buttercup flowers floating above.
In May the rest of the wildflowers start in earnest and from late May through June the meadow is at its most colourful before the grasses grow higher than the flowers. Purple orchids stud the meadow like gems with a rich colour, Germander speedwell and self heal also add more blue and purple hues, pink comes with red campion.
Vetches thrive here as they form a relationship with bacteria that enables nitrogen to be fixed at the roots meaning they grow well in poor soils. This group of plants gives a range of flower types with different colours and forms, from birds foot trefoil, known as bacon and eggs to wood vetch which grows on the colliery spoil covering the cliffs and has a raspberry ripple appearance to its flowers with pink, purple swirls on a white background.
There are also the usual culprits; mouse ear hawkweed with white blooms and hairy stems; ragwort with yellow flowers which are great for insects but not so good for horses; hogweed and curled dock more noticed for its seed heads.
There is sorrel with its glorious red seed heads held high in the meadow sward. scurvy grass flowers with white blooms against glossy green leaves, traditionally eaten by sailors to boost their depleted vitamin C after a long time at sea. Black knapweed lifts its lofty flowers above the rest but the pink thistle-like blooms don’t last long.
On disturbed ground there is scarlet pimpernel, with red star shaped flowers, wild carrot with white flower heads like plates with a single red one in the centre, wild parsnip with yellow umbel flowers, red bartsia comes late with dusky pink flowers in July or August.
There is the hard to find Goats beard, with an underwhelming flower but a giant dandelion clock type seed head. There is also the sand leek a type of wild allium, but perhaps the hardest of all to find are the bee orchids that sport tiny pink flowers which look like bumble bees to encourage pollination through trickery.
We have also introduced yellow rattle which is a semi parasitic plant which feeds on grasses encouraging other wildflowers, its leaves are toothed, its flowers yellow and its seed heads rattle. The tiny eyebright also fulfils the same function.
The coastal heath is gradually spilling back over the cliff tops and re-claiming its place in the mixture of flora. With newly established areas of heather regularly being planted and the all year round flowering gorse we are delighted that with so many different flower types, colours, forms and flowering times there is food aplenty for lots of different insects throughout the year and in turn the birds, mammals and reptiles that feed on them.