Ertach Kernow - On the edge

A few years ago, I took my cousins visiting from the USA to the Lizard peninsula, mainland Britain’s most southerly point. It was a really beautiful day and I thought it would make a change from Land’s End , which can be somewhat overcrowded at times. Apart from the wonderful sea views the Lizard has some extraordinary flora making it a must go to place for those interested in nature. The area of land covered by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the National Trust has helped protect the environment by creating the Lizard National Nature Reserve one of the largest nature reserves in southwest Britain.

This is a just brief overview of some types of places, flora and fauna that can be appreciated often only at the Lizard besides the many interesting settlements within the peninsula. As with many places in Cornwall it is always best to see when not packed with visitors and it’s only a short time now before the schools breakup and the summer season really gets underway.

High Cliffs at the Lizard. It's though to originate its name from Lys ardh
Serpentine rocks at the Lizard
19th century Cornish serpentine Pugin style church miniature font

The Lizard Peninsula contains something special and for what the Lizard has become well known due to its geological make up. The rocks here are metamorphic, ones that have undergone change through heat and pressure, and at the Lizard pushed up from the ocean floor. These include serpentine, gabbro, schist and gneiss. The serpentine rock created an industry of quarrying and production of objects and building material for over 200 years. Serpentines smooth slippery surface of attractive green and red multi-veining rock made it an alternative to marble. Used to face buildings in the 19th century serpentines weakness in not being resistant to polluted exterior locations led to the demise along with changing fashion. However, an industry of limited extraction and carving into attractive ornaments carries on today and Cornish serpentine objects can be found throughout the world. For those that want to see serpentine in its natural form, visit Kynance Cove and other areas close by to see both green and red varieties often together. 

The chough, Cornwall’s national bird returned in 2001 after an absence of nearly 30 years with the last ones being seen at Newquay in 1973. With the last successful breeding in 1947 Cornwall had to wait until 2002 when a pair nesting at the Lizard fledged three young. Since then, the population of Cornish Choughs has slowly risen and spread to other areas of Cornwall. Recent viewings at Newquay Headland of a good number is encouraging, with them seen to be feeding at the top of the cliffs. It was a change in farming practices that contributed to the decline in chough numbers, who require short grass which is rich in insects and other invertebrates. Farmers had moved their grazing animals to inland fields resulting in the growth of bracken and other scrub plants taking over around the cliff tops and heathland. Work on clifftops by the National Trust at the Lizard from the 1980’s had included scrub management and reintroduction of grazing to keep invasive plants under control and turf short, allowing other rare smaller local plants to flourish. This had the unintentional but wonderful outcome of providing choughs an ideal feeding habitat leading to the return of a pair in 2001.

Group of Choughs feeding at Newquay Headland by Ian Boreham
Group of Choughs feeding by Ian Boreham
Lizard Point & Kynance Cove
Hottentot Fig at The Lizard

Erica vagans or Cornish heath is a flowering heather a shrub that thrives on acid soil and is only found naturally in Britain growing in abundance at the Lizard. The Lizard contains amongst the largest number of specialised flora in Britain with many listed in the ‘Red Data Book’ of rare plant species. The total number of plant types is in excess of six hundred nearly a quarter of all the UK’s different plants. Crucial to this is the Cornish Stone Hedge of which there is estimated to be about 30,000 miles in Cornwall. These man-made structures are now so engrained into the Cornish landscape becoming the largest semi-natural habitat along with the margins and ditches that often accompany them. The construction of these hedges lends itself to allowing all types of plants, small animals and multitude of insects to live outside and within them. Many of these hedges are hundreds of years old, some in Cornwall stretching back to Neolithic times, have created habitats that take many years to establish. Sadly, today they are often under threat from building developers who have little interest in Cornwall’s environmental heritage. These hedges unlike English hedgerows, which have a distinct legal status, are not protected, an anomaly that should be urgently corrected. New hedges although welcome will take many decades to achieve the benefits to flora and fauna that historic hedges have realised. The Lizard’s countless miles of stone hedges helping support this wide variety of plant and animal life will thankfully have protection through the creation of the Lizard National Nature Reserve.

Fortunately, there is an increased interest and activity around Cornish wildlife and our environmental heritage. This often merges with those interested in preserving Cornwall’s historic sites and monuments. What is often known in archaeological circles as ‘scrub bashing’ is becoming better known and appreciated by a wider range of folk throughout Cornwall. Removal of invasive plants such as blackthorn and buddleia is an important part of this work that help protect ancient structures. At the Lizard it has become apparent in the last twenty years or so that the Hottentot fig is becoming a problem, Although it is pretty it does spread and is taking over some areas to the detriment of other local species.

Kynance Gate Settlement - The Modern Antiquarian
Plan of the southern (Ivor Thomas 1960 ) part of the Kynance Gate Settlement
The Lizard's overgrown stone hedges plant and animal habitats

Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network (CASPN), a charitable trust formed to look after the ancient sites and monuments of west Cornwall, along with Cornwall Council Historic Environment Service, Cornwall Archaeological Society, Meneage Archaeological Group, Natural England and the National Trust set up the Lizard Ancient Sites Network (LAN). The aims of this group are to ensure preservation of the Lizards ancient sites through a series of scrub bashing events. A number of sites that were in danger of being lost through vegetation growth including the Kynance Gate Settlement have been worked on with great success. This not only helps preserve the site but also opens them up to those interested in the Lizard’s and Cornwall’s historic heritage. As always groups such as LAN and those mentioned previously who set up this group need support from the wider general public. More information can be found at www.cornishancientsites.com and on the CASPN and LAN Facebook pages.

The Lizard peninsula is a wonderful area of Cornwall, rich in history and heritage, I look forward to sharing more in due course. Its towns, villages and other places of interest together with the groups working hard to preserve it into the future all have interesting stories to tell.

Stile on the Lizard coastal path
Ertach Kernow - On the edge
Ertach Kernow - On the edge