John Beech – Land Management Adviser
The spectacular coastline that makes up the eastern edge of the North York Moors National Park consists of a great number of composite habitats which in turn are home to a great number of complex plants and animals. The number of habitats – from grasslands to woodlands, farmland to coastal slope, rocky shore to marine environment – means the biodiversity interest on the coast is particularly abundant.
On the clifftop farmland plateau, a network of traditional field boundaries provide corridors for a variety of wildlife. Small mammals such as Field voles, Mice and Shrews take advantage of the cover that old walls and growing hedges offer, whilst high in the hedgerows farmland birds such as Yellowhammer, Linnet, Whitethroat and Goldfinch call out to mark their territories and deter predators from their nest sites. Old stone walls and also buildings offer cover for herptiles along the coast such as Slow worms and Adders. The large open fields on the clifftop are often lookout points for Brown hare and Roe deer at dawn and at dusk.
Intersecting the plateau there are coastal woodland gills (narrow valley with stream) running down to the sea which contain their own microclimates. Sycamore often dominate the frontage to coastal gill woodlands as they seem to tolerate the cold north easterly winds; further up the gills where the growing conditions are less harsh, indicators of ancient woodlands are prevalent. English Oak and Ash are common along with a healthy understory of Hazel, Holly, Hawthorn and Blackthorn. Below this layer during springtime a plethora of ground flora comes to life with Wild garlic, Lesser celandine, Wood anenome and Dog-violets providing dashes of colour to the woodland floor.
Hayburn Wyke near Cloughton retains many native tree species growing alongside more recently planted introductions such as Larch and Rhododendron, a Victorian favourite! Introduced into the United Kingdom from Southern Europe and South East Asia in the late 19th century, Rhododendron flowers may be pretty, but the plant has become a serious problem in many woodlands due to its vigorous ability to colonise via seed and underground suckers. In doing so the evergreen canopy of the bush shades out much of the native ground flora leaving a barren ground layer below. Which is why the National Trust at Hayburn Wyke are actively controlling this non-native invasive species and bringing the native ground flora back to life.
The coastal cliffs and crags are temporary homes to seabirds such as Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Common gulls and Herring gulls before they take to the wing and patrol the waters below. Sand martin colonies also exist in the soft cliffs if you know where to look. Kestrels and the occasional Peregrine falcon will also use the craggy outcrops as they search for prey on the undercliffs and rocky shore.
Coastal slope grasslands on the undercliff (below soft cliffs) offer some of the most unimproved habitats in the whole of the National Park. They have evaded the plough and fertiliser spreader and have therefore remained an almost natural habitat with an abundance of wild plant life. The grasslands are home to a variety of orchid species but these can become choked by ranker vegetation such as bracken and bramble. This is where management is needed to conserve the best features of the habitat through grazing by livestock to keep the invasive domineering species in check. In the sheltered hollows within the cliffs mosses and lichens grow, the lichens being good indicators of unpolluted, clean air in the atmosphere.
Marine life abounds along the rocky shore between land and sea – intertidal habitats. Covered by seawater twice a day, plants and animals that live in the rock pools are super resilient and have adapted to the constant flooding and desiccation that the harsh coastal environment brings. Barnacles, Blennies, Butterfish, Anemones, Periwinkles, Dog whelks and Limpets have all developed intricate methods of survival as the tides recedes for 6 hours before returning to overtop their pools and hiding places and plunge them underwater again. Common seals and Grey seals also regularly visit our shores during the summer and autumn months, hauling out at the remotest headlands to rest and give birth to pups.
Out into the sea along the North York Moors coast marine cetaceans thrive during the summer months. Along with Bottlenose dolphin and Harbour porpoise, five different species of Whale have been recorded off the coast not that far from the shore – Pilot, Fin, Sei, Minke and even Humpback whales – as they follow the herring shoals around the North Sea.
What with cliffs, crags, caves, coves, crabs and cobblestones this post on the coast was meant to be part of the next instalment of our North York Moors National Park A to Z – but it just felt like it needed its own space.