Life in the limelight

PUBLISHED: 17:08 02 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013

Bee orchid Celia Todd

Bee orchid Celia Todd

Flora and fauna have reclaimed the quarry land of Llanymynech

'In high summer the nature reserve takes on a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Yellow rock roses cascade over the craggy boulders and the warm air becomes scented with aromatic herbs

It's half in England and half in Wales. But there's no mistaking what dominates the landscape of Llanymynech - limestone. Sitting some six miles south of Oswestry straddling the A 483, two features stand out as you drive through the village. On one side of the road is an enormous chimney. On the other are even more enormous cliffs - they wouldn't disgrace even the most rugged coastline. It should come as no surprise that these two features are linked and by limestone, naturally.

The huge rock faces towering above Llanymynech are indeed limestone. These mark the extent of quarrying that spanned centuries. Quarries must have provided employment for most of the inhabitants of the houses that cling to the hillsides. Quarrying has all but ceased in the area and, where it does continue, it is large yellow machines that do the bulk of the work.

Fascinating flora

But every cloud etc... and the abandoned quarry is now a flagship nature reserve for Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Limestone and nature reserves often go together (there are another half dozen reserves within a few miles of Llanymynech) this is because of the fascinating flora and fauna it gives rise to. Counter-intuitively, it is the very lack of nutrients in limestone soils that make them so rich in wildlife. This means that aggressive plants (docks, thistles and some grasses) struggle to gain a foothold leaving the more delicate species to thrive.

In high summer the nature reserve takes on a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Yellow rock roses cascade over the craggy boulders and the warm air becomes scented with aromatic herbs, such as wild thyme, marjoram and basil. Orchids flourish here too. You can always find plenty of pyramidal orchids - named due to the shape of its flower spike - and bee orchid, with flowers that mimic bumblebees to attract frustrated male bees to copulate and pollinate the plant.

Old man's beard

Everyone knows that nature abhors a vacuum. And the soil becomes increasingly fertile as leaf litter builds up. This means that where there had been scant vegetation scrub and trees begin to grow - the orchids and herbs would stand no chance against these monsters. Perhaps the most pernicious plant of the lot is the innocent-sounding wild clematis, or old man's beard. This scrambles around, over and up everything. The answer to this weedy problem is simple - and Scottish! A flock of Hebridean sheep makes short work of this mile-a-minute plant and the invading scrub. Careful timing of the grazing allows the flowers to bloom, but prevents the scrub taking over.

The limestone cliffs provide the safest of havens for nesting birds. A large, social and noisy colony of jackdaws is a constant presence in the quarry. Living alongside them is an altogether more thrilling bird - the fastest animal in the world - the peregrine falcon. This master of the skies can achieve speeds of over 120 mph to pluck its favourite prey, pigeons, out of mid air. They're not averse to taking the odd jackdaw either. Peregrine numbers are rising throughout the country, partly because they are less persecuted by game keepers and partly because they have adapted to make use of man-made cliff nesting sites on city skyscrapers and church towers!

Dolomite

The limestone quarry, where the stone was hard won by generations of quarrymen, was merely the start of the process for this valuable material. Loaded into trucks, it was sent hurtling down to banks of lime kilns via incline plains and aerial ropeways. Initially the demand was for raw limestone, used as a flux in iron making. Later, the larger market was for quicklime, cooked at 900oC in a kiln. Llanymynech quicklime made a particularly effective fertiliser for the dairy pastures of north Shropshire and Cheshire. It is dolomite, and contains magnesium - essential to prevent the disease 'staggers' in cattle.

The demand for quicklime led to the building of a huge Hoffman lime kiln at the very end of the 19th century. It is easy to find - just head for the enormous chimney. This monster kiln allowed for a continuous ring of limestone being burnt and dug out as quicklime. This must have been extraordinarily harsh and hot working conditions. All quiet now, the kiln has become an important bat roost.

The full Monty

Limestone is a bulky product, and transporting it from Llanymynech to its destination is a real problem. The solution? Build a canal - The Monty. The Montgomery Canal was specifically built for this purpose, striking off both into England and Wales. This must have been an immensely risky investment in the early tears of the nineteenth century.

Today, from the quarries to the canal, nature has reclaimed many of scars left by human activity. But that brings its own wildlife problems. Naturally we are keen to preserve our industrial heritage, but so rich is the wildlife on the rocks and canal that they are now designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest. This rightly makes restoration complex and costly.

Sections of the Montgomery Canal have been re-opened with efforts being made to protect the wildlife in 'off-line' nature reserves. Restoration work has also taken place at the Hoffman kiln, incline plain and winding houses. Even the giant chimney should be good for another few decades. Once again, as you explore Llanymynech, you can trace the direct link between limestone quarrying, processing into quicklime, the canal that delivered to the outside world and the wildlife it has come to support.

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