Flora & Fauna

Flora & Fauna

Cynefinoedd, adar a bywyd gwyllt


The 1210 square kilometres (467 square miles) of the Cambrian Mountains includes a wide range of habitats from the bogs, heather moors and lakes of the upland plateaux down to the native woodlands of the valleys and the tumbling streams and rivers below.

A large proportion of the blanket bog in Wales is found here.  Generally an upland habitat, it began developing around 5,000-6,000 years ago and can be found where peat has accumulated to a depth of at least 0.5m – usually on flat or gently sloping ground where drainage is poor. Few plants are adapted to the acidic, infertile conditions of the deepest peat (which can be several metres in depth) and bog-mosses, heathers and cotton grasses predominate. Towards the drier east, dwarf-shrubs become more common and include bearberry, bog bilberry and mountain crowberry at higher altitudes, while on steeper slopes in the west, purple moor-grass can dominate.  The resulting landscapes are huge, empty areas under wide skies where shafts of light glint on myriad pools and intensify the deep colours of bog-mosses.

In addition, the hills include very significant areas of upland and lowland wet and dry heathland and some fine examples of the classic Atlantic oak woodlands clinging to the hillsides. There are still some superb wet woodlands of willow and alder and a variety of fen habitat types.

In all some 15 Priority Habitats which are included in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and on the List of Habitats of Principal Importance in Wales are found within the Cambrian Mountains.  A number of the most important protected areas are described below, but there are also many other small nature reserves scattered throughout the hills.  See the links at the bottom of the page for more information about some of them, and the organisations which manage them.


Red Squirrels are sometimes seen in the Cambrians, where the MidWales Red Squirrel Project is working to conserve the population. Photo courtesy of Vincent Wildlife Trust/Lizzie Croose

Designated Special Areas


The importance of the wildlife of the Cambrian Mountains is nationally recognised, with more than fifty Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and from an international perspective by the designation of six European Special Areas of Conservation.

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)

Elenydd SAC

Habitat features of European importance: blanket bogs, calaminarian grasslands; dry heath; and oligotrophic to mesotrophic standing waters with vegetation of the Littorelletea uniflorae and/or of the Isoëto-Nanojuncetea.

Coetiroedd Cwm Elan/ Elan Valley Woodlands SAC

Habitat features of European importance: old sessile oak woods (Quercus robur) with Ilex and Blechnum; dry heath; Tilio-Acerion (Lime-Maple) forests of slopes, screes and ravines

Cwm Doethie – Mynydd Mallaen SAC

Habitat features of European importance: old sessile oak woods (Quercus robur) with holly (Ilex) and Blechnum fern; dry heath.

River Wye/ Afon Gwy SAC

Habitat features of European importance: water courses of plain to montane levels with the Ranunculion fluitantis and Callitricho-Batrachion vegetation; Transition mires and quaking bogs.

Species features of European importance: White-clawed (or Atlantic stream) crayfish; Sea lamprey; Brook lamprey; River lamprey; Twaite shad; Atlantic salmon; Bullhead; Otter; Allis shad.

Afon Tywi/ River Tywi SAC

Species features of European importance: twaite shad; otter; sea lamprey; brook lamprey; river lamprey; allis shad; bullhead.

Afon Teifi/ River Teifi SAC

Habitat features of European importance: Water courses of plain to montane levels with the Ranunculion fluitantis and Callitricho-Batrachion vegetation. Species features of European importance: brook lamprey; river lamprey; atlantic salmon; bullhead; otter; floating water-plantain; sea lamprey.

Elenydd – Mallaen SPA: designated for its important breeding populations of merlin, a species dependent on heath and scrub habitats for its prey, and red kite.

Afon Irfon/ River Irfon SAC

The Irfon catchment is designated as a Special Area of Conservation for its exceptional freshwater biodiversity, which includes one of the few remaining UK Freshwater Pearl Mussel populations. Sadly, exposure to multiple pressures means the catchment is currently failing to meet Habitats Directive and Water Framework Directive targets.   The Freshwater Habitats Trust is current running a project to try to address the issues, alongside local farmers, landowners, rural businesses, foresters, statutory organisations, specialist freshwater NGOs and the water industry.

See further at Irfon Catchment – Freshwater Habitats Trust


Sites of Special Scientific Interest

Sites of Special Scientific Interest are found throughout the Cambrian Mountains.

These are some of the best known.




A mountain range site that supports a variety of upland habitats and distinctive plants and animals. Of particular importance are the extensive areas of blanket bog, dry heath and high altitude grassland, as well as mountain lakes, rare plants, including stiff sedge, spring quillwort, dwarf willow and starry saxifrage, rare and scarce mosses and liverworts, and the exceptional variety of upland breeding birds.

Llyfnant Valley

Elan Valley Grasslands

A suite of 12 SSSIs particularly noted for their upland fringe hay meadow habitats. They form a key habitat for the Section 42 plant species Vicia orobus, and are a Wales Biodiversity Partnership Priority Grassland and Heathland Habitat. The Elan Valley supports some of the richest examples of neutral grassland in Wales, accompanied by equally species-rich acid grassland.

Birds and wildlife

The Cambrian Mountains were the last refuge of the red kite in the British Isles – down to just a single breeding female in the 1930s. It was the wildness of the area and a few local enthusiasts and farmers who saved it from extinction within our shores. Even thirty years ago you could travel all day in mid-Wales and not see a red kite. Today, following the widespread appreciation of this magnificent bird, and its struggle to survive the pressures of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is now thriving in Wales and has been reintroduced to several parts of England and Scotland with great success. The red kite was voted overwhelmingly as “Bird of the 20th Century” by members of the British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB. Without the red kite’s survival in the Cambrian Mountains, it is likely that the reintroduction project might never have happened and boda wennol – the swallow-tailed hawk – would have been long forgotten.

But the red kite is not the only creature of interest to be found here.  The habitats of these remote uplands are rich in wildlife with over 100 species of breeding bird recorded, 35 mammals, 30 butterflies, 20 dragonflies and damselflies, 40 hoverflies, 10 ladybirds and 15 different dung-beetles!


Pine marten: photograph courtesy Jason Hornblow/www.jchphoto.co.uk

Flowers, mosses, lichens and fungi

As to flora, there are 350 species of lichen, 300 of mosses and liverworts, 30 ferns, 450 flowering plants,  Many are rare in Wales and within the UK, and some are of international importance.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) welcomes plant records as part of the ongoing tracking of habitat changes and the spread of invasive species.  You can see their introduction to plant identification here and if you do come across plants of interest, their plant recording page is here.  For those who are less sure what to look out for, we’ve compiled a short list with photographs and identifying characteristics (with the help of Brecknockshire Plant Recorder John Crellin) Plants to look out for in the Cambrian Mountains.  You can download it and take it with you when you’re out and about in the uplands – be sure to let BSBI know what you’ve seen.

Link: The flora of Montgomeryshire

Wildflowers of Wales: Waterside and wetlandwildflowers wales4

Lichens of Wales (wales-lichens.org.uk)

Wildflowers of Wales: Mountains and Moorlands

Cambrian-mountains-scarlet-fungiIn autumn, the grasslands and forests team with fungi of all kinds including various kinds of waxcap, poisonous fly agaric, elfscap, russulas and puffballs.   Most go unremarked and almost all go unrecorded.  If you come across any variety of waxcap within the uplands, please do inform Plantlife for their Waxcap Watch mapping project.  Their interactive map shows just how under-reported the Cambrian Mountains are.

In all 35 species are on the UK and Wales Priority/Principal Lists including the golden plover (nearly all of the Welsh population are now found in the Cambrian Mountains), black grouse, otter, the climbing corydalis weevil and several rare fungi and upland lake water plants.  The video below shows an otter visiting Nant y Walch in Cwm Irfon by night (best expanded to full screen).

The higher hills have skylarks, merlin and dunlin breeding as well as a few hen harriers and ring ousel. There are still a few red squirrels and the polecat is a widespread species.

Thanks to the Vincent Trust, the pine marten has successfully been re-introduced and the population is expanding.

Pine martens on a bird feeder in Cwm Irfon, courtesy of Gyles Palmer

(This link downloads a MOV file to your device)

Many other plants and animals found in the Cambrian Mountains are included on Red Data lists of threatened and endangered species.  The MidWales Red Squirrel Project sightings map shows that the uplands of the Elenydd and Mynydd Mallaen are the stronghold for midWales’ red squirrel population, and work is ongoing to support the growth of the population in the face of the threat from alien grey squirrel.  See here for the Project website with regular updates.

The RSPB’s reserve at Gwenffrwd-Dinas south of Llyn Brianne is home to all manner of birdlife including red kites, pied flycatchers, redstarts, common sandpipers, dippers and grey wagtails.  A visit to the woodlands of Dinas in May is an opportunity to see the carpets of bluebells, a stunning violet haze beneath the trees. Curtains of lichens cover the trunks and branches of all the trees. Look out for Witches Beard or Usnea florida, with its tangled tresses and ‘eyes’.

Links: Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust

The Vincent Wildlife Trust

Radnorshire Wildlife Trust

The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales

RSPB nature reserve Gwenffrwd-Dinas

Bird Watching Guide for the Southern Cambrians

Nant Irfon National Nature Reserve