The origins of The Wrekin’s hilltop heathland are as old as the ramparts of the Cornovii fort that encircle it. It speaks of a time when, some three to four thousand years ago, Bronze Age settlers began to clear this land for cereal crops, and is essentially the result of three activities: tree removal, cattle grazing and the controlled burning of the land.
The idea of finding ‘lowland’ heath on the summit of The Wrekin might seem like a contradiction but the term is used to describe any situation below an altitude of 250 metres where this type of habitat predominates (above 300 metres it is called ‘moorland’). The sandy, free-draining acidic soils overlying the hilltop’s igneous bedrock are very low in nutrient value, which makes them ideal terrain for the colourful dwarf shrubs, such as Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris) and Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), that characterise this particular landscape.
The spartan conditions associated with lowland heath are crucial for a range of other highly specialised plants, animals and insects, too. Reptiles such as Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara) thrive in the sheltered open, sunny spaces found on the hilltop, while it is a primary habitat for many bird species. With their the parachuting display flights, Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratenis) and Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis) are among the most notable and numerous and, as their names suggest, these exhibitions of aerial courtship terminate on the ground or in a tree — which is by far the easiest way to tell these streaky little brown birds apart! Although only one or two pairs of the red-listed Tree Pipit breed on The Wrekin it is now the last known stronghold for the species in the area.
Another hilltop highlight is the freewheeling acrobatics of the hill’s resident Raven (Corvus Corax), which nest in the old quarries and tree covered crags so numerous in the wider area. They are far from the only raptor you might see here and Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Red Kite (Milvus milvus), Buzzard (Buteo buteo), Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) could all be encountered here throughout the calendar year. The vivid displays of densely structured heather on The Wrekin’s heathland are also an important source of food and shelter for invertebrates, including many butterfly, moth and beetle species (ladybirds being a particular speciality), while several grasshopper species can also be found here.
The ancient agricultural practices that led to the creation of the heathland on The Wrekin are, conversely, also those required to help maintain this essentially manmade natural landscape. At least one fifth of the planet’s lowland heath is situated in the UK but our remaining stock is merely a fraction of what existed around 200 years ago (In Shropshire, for example, there now remains less than 900 hectares across the whole county). Heath is typically found as part of a ‘landscape mosaic’, with grassland and scrub, and without regular management it can simply revert to woodland.
On The Wrekin, fronds of encroaching bracken are another major threat to the health of the hilltop’s heather stands, which require a broad mix of old and new growth to regenerate and maintain their vibrant purple haze for future generations. In this respect, the trampling feet of the hill’s 100 000 annual pilgrims have also had an adverse impact and we would encourage everyone who visits the hill to mind their step in this timeless place.
Plants: Climbing Corydalis, Wavy-hair Grass, Bilberry, Common Heather, Bracken
Birds: Meadow Pipit, Tree Pipit, Raven, Common Buzzard, Garden Warbler
Mammals: Pipistrelle Bat, Long-eared Bat, Whiskered Bat
Insects: Heather Ladybird, 7-spot Ladybird, 14-spot Ladybird, Larch Ladybird, Heath Bumblebee, Common Field Grasshopper, Mottled Grasshopper, Dark-barred Twist Moth, Brown Silver-line Moth, Common Carpet Moth, Meadow Grey Moth, Green Longhorn Beetle, Large Longhorn Beetle, Spined Shieldbug, Sloe Shieldbug, Green Shieldbug
Reptiles: Common Lizard
Aside from The Wrekin itself, lowland heath habitat can also be found atop St Lawrence’s Hill, which is situated directly north of the Forest Glen car park. Fragmentary remains of this scarce habitat also exist on The Ercall but, as outlined earlier, without management much of the area has become dominated by tree cover. With careful examination, however, many plants, insects and animals synonymous with heathland can be found in the area.