1230 Vegetated sea cliffs of the Atlantic and Baltic coasts
Description and ecological characteristics
Vegetated sea cliffs are steep slopes fringing hard or soft coasts, created by past or present marine erosion, and supporting a wide diversity of vegetation types with variable maritime influence. Exposure to the sea is a key determinant of the type of sea cliff vegetation. In the UK exposure is greatest on the south-west and northern coasts. The long fetch associated with these coasts generates high waves and swell, and the prevailing winds help deliver salt spray to the cliff face and cliff tops. However, the degree to which this affects the salinity of cliff-top vegetation also depends on the amount of rainfall, with high rainfall areas, such as north-west Scotland, being less saline or maritime than drier areas such as south-east England. Exposure is another important factor. The most exposed areas support maritime vegetation dominated by a range of salt-tolerant plants. More sheltered cliffs support communities closely related to those found on similar substrates inland, such as grassland and heath, with only a minor maritime element in the flora.
The vegetation of sea cliffs in the UK includes 12 maritime cliff NVC types, although the range of vegetation types present is much broader. There is considerable geographical variation. Southern types are rich in Atlantic-Mediterranean species, while northern sites support boreal species such as the endemic Scottish primrose Primula scotica. Cliff-top heath vegetation is included in the Annex I definition, and comprises maritime heath communities referable to NVC types H7 Calluna vulgaris – Scilla verna heath and H8d Calluna vulgaris – Ulex gallii heath S. verna sub-community. Cliff-top heath vegetation may extend landward into non-maritime zones, where it is considered as part of Annex I type 4030 European dry heaths.
Cliff structure and geomorphological processes are major influences on cliff vegetation. ‘Hard’ cliffs with vertical or very steep faces are characteristic of hard igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks and also of chalk, which, although a soft rock, nevertheless forms vertical cliffs. ‘Soft’ cliffs have a sloping or slumped profile, often with a distinct ‘undercliff’; they occur on a range of soft rocks, or on hard rocks interspersed with softer deposits. The more mobile soft cliffs occur where there are unstable soft deposits such as mudstones or glacial drift deposits. They may be subject to mudslides or landslips, which create complexes of pioneer and more mature vegetation.
The profile and stability of the cliff face is one of the major determinants of cliff vegetation. Even near-vertical cliffs support specialist crevice communities, with rock samphire Crithmum maritimum, and in the north, Scots lovage Ligusticum scoticum, while ledges occupied by breeding seabirds may develop specialist nitrophilous communities comprising plant species which are able to cope with heavy guano deposition. On less extreme slopes, species tolerant of exposure to wind and salt spray and of thin soils can find a foothold. The most characteristic maritime cliff communities occur in such situations. On relatively stable soft cliffs a wide range of progressively less-specialised communities can occur, including grassland, heath, scrub and even woodland. More mobile soft cliffs show a complex sequence of successional communities related to degrees of instability and the age of the slope. The vegetation of these sites forms a mosaic of pioneer, ruderal, grassland, scrub and woodland communities. Streams and flushes provide a freshwater wetland element, and seepage lines may be rich in orchids. The vegetation of mobile soft cliffs is inadequately described by the NVC at present.
The second major influence on maritime cliff vegetation is the nature of the underlying rock or drift deposit, notably whether it is basic or acidic. In the most exposed situations this effect is masked by the saline influence of sea spray, but more sheltered cliffs support communities closely related to those found on similar substrates inland, with only a minor maritime element in the flora. Thus, chalk and limestone cliffs support calcareous grassland communities, while acidic hard rocks support heath communities. Base-rich hard rocks, such as the limestones of the south coast or the basic igneous rocks of the Lizard, support particularly rich assemblages of rare plants and plant communities.
The maritime influence on cliff communities is shown in both vertical and lateral zonation. The effects of salt spray are greatest close to the sea and least at the cliff top, especially where a sloping profile sets this back from the shoreline. Superimposed on this pattern is the effect of local topography. The most maritime sites are those facing the prevailing winds or the longest ‘fetch’ of open sea, notably headlands projecting from the coastline and gullies or blowholes which funnel salt water up the cliff. On the sheltered side of headlands and in bays the maritime influence is progressively diminished and is replaced by a mild, humid climate in which plant species normally restricted to woodland are found in open situations, often associated with bracken Pteridium aquilinum.
European status and distribution
Vegetated sea cliffs occur discontinuously along the west-facing coasts of Europe. On more sheltered coasts they are more local and show less expression of maritime features. In general, the east coast cliffs of north-west Europe are particularly associated with glacial drift deposits and as a result are more mobile. The UK supports a significant proportion of EU sea cliff vegetation. In particular, the coast of England holds a major proportion of the European coastal chalk exposures (113 km, compared with 85 km in France and shorter lengths in the Baltic).
UK status and distribution
In the UK, the exposed western and northern coasts have extensive cliffs composed of hard, mostly acidic, rocks; similar rock types also form prominent cliffs in parts of eastern Scotland. The sheltered south coast of England supports hard cliffs of chalk, limestones and sandstone and, more locally, mobile cliffs subject to landslips. The east coast of England has fewer cliffs, often formed in glacial drift deposits.
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Beast Cliff - Whitby (Robin Hood's Bay)
Beast Cliff – Whitby is an east coast complex of hard and soft cliffs. The combination of geology, topography and plant communities found on the site are unique and it is one of the best examples of vegetated sea cliffs on the north-east coast of England. The underlying geology varies from base-rich to base-poor, and this variation is reflected in a characteristic and diverse flora across the site. Vertical hard cliffs support maritime crevice and ledge vegetation, and the more gently sloping parts of Beast Cliff itself are covered by scrub and woodland. Sandstone boulders support a luxuriant growth of mosses and ferns and pools on the cliff shelf support wetland plants and scrub. Due to the frequent land slippage occurring on the site, the woodland is constantly changing and being rejuvenated with mainly young trees forming secondary woodland. North of Beast Cliff to Ravenscar the vegetation is more open and reflects alternating strata of rich and poor base-status. Areas of calcareous clays support typical calcareous grassland and wet flush plant communities, whereas heathland species occur on more acidic sandstone outcrops. From Ravenscar north to Robin Hood’s Bay the cliffs are composed either partly or entirely of soft boulder clay. This clay is continually being eroded by wave action and slippage, and supports pioneer plant communities typical of this changing habitat.
Buchan Ness to Collieston
North Eastern Scotland
The vegetated cliff slopes support a wide range of coastal vegetation types with an abundance of such local species as Scots lovage Ligusticum scoticum and roseroot Sedum rosea. In several places the cliff edge retains semi-natural plant communities such as maritime heath, acid peatland and brackish flushes. All these are now rare on the coast of north-east Scotland and this section of coastline contains some of the best remaining examples. Possibly due to the local microclimate and the presence of lime-rich soils, these communities contain several plants which are associated with dry, calcareous grassland, including carline thistle Carlina vulgaris and cowslip Primula veris. Sea wormwood Seriphidium maritimum also occurs. These species, more typical of southern Britain, are scarce in north-east Scotland. The cliffs and offshore stacks support a scattered but considerable colony of cliff-nesting seabirds with bird-influenced vegetation.
Highlands and Islands
Cape Wrath includes Clò Mór, the highest vertical sea cliffs in mainland Britain. Here and on some of the surrounding cliffs and cliff tops the vegetation is heavily bird-influenced, and locally dominated by common scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis. There is a wide range of cliff habitats ranging from very exposed faces and crevices to comparatively sheltered gullies and even, at Cape Wrath itself, remarkable cliff-top sand dunes. Grasslands and heaths are well-represented, and the strip above the cliff edge has a good deal of sub-maritime short heather heath, rich in species including the montane dwarf willow Salix herbacea. The high exposure is sufficient to bring montane conditions close to sea level, and this is a classic site for the ‘altitudinal descent’ of upland species. On cliffs that are relatively sheltered from the north and north-west gales, there is strong development of a wood-rush Luzula-tall fern community leading down to roseroot Sedum rosea and wild angelica Angelica sylvestris ledges.
Clogwyni Pen Llŷn/ Seacliffs of Lleyn
West Wales and The Valleys
The SAC includes two, mainly soft cliff, sites on the Lleyn Peninsula – one on the south coast which stretches between Porth Neigwl and Porth Ceiriad, and one on the north coast which includes the cliffs between Porth Dinllaen and Porth Pistyll. The Porth Neigwl site includes an uninterrupted stretch of soft cliffs mainly composed of eroding glacial till, but about 1.5 km at the eastern end is overlain by sand dunes. An important feature of the site is that the cliffs are south-facing and the additional solar gain makes them very good for invertebrates, including some threatened and scarce species. Because the cliffs are very dynamic, most of the cliff face is devoid of vegetation, but where flushes occur creeping-bent Agrostis stolonifera and sea mayweed Tripleurospermum maritimum have become established, and there is a patch of great horsetail Equisetum telmateia at the western end. The cliff-top vegetation is very varied and ranges from mobile dune vegetation with marram Ammophila arenaria on the perched dunes at the eastern end to maritime grasslands with red fescue Festuca rubra, thrift Armeria maritima, and buck’s-horn plantain Plantago coronopus on the boulder clay, but in other areas agricultural land extends to the cliff edge. The cliffs at the Porth Dinllaen site are north-facing and therefore of only moderate interest for invertebrates, but still support several notable species. However, the vegetation is very diverse and on the slopes ranges from ruderal communities with colt’s-foot Tussilago farfara to grasslands and scrub with blackthorn Prunus spinosa and gorse Ulex europaeus. There are also some base-rich flushes. In the more stable areas these include a type of calcicolous mire with black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans, great horsetail Equisetum telmateia and common reed Phragmites australis, whereas in the more eroded areas, especially where slumping is taking place exposing base-rich soils, pioneer bryophyte and lichen assemblages occur. The cliff-top vegetation includes various grassland and scrub communities, but as a result of agricultural development it has been reduced to a fairly narrow zone in some places.
Dover to Kingsdown Cliffs
Dover to Kingsdown cliffs support a full zonation of maritime cliff communities found on chalk substrates, reflecting different levels of exposure to wind and salt spray. The most exposed, lowest parts of the cliff face support rock-crevice communities with rock samphire Crithmum maritimum, rock sea-lavender Limonium binervosum and thrift Armeria maritima, with the rare hoary stock Matthiola incana in places. On more sheltered slopes there is a community restricted to south-facing chalk cliffs characterised by wild cabbage Brassica oleracea. There are good paramaritime grassland transitions to chalk grassland. The endangered oxtongue broomrape Orobanche artemisiae-campestris, confined in the UK to unstable coastal chalk cliffs of southern England, has a stronghold on this site. The cliffs are internationally important as a stratigraphic reference site for chalk cliff exposures.
Tees Valley and Durham
The Durham Coast is the only example of vegetated sea cliffs on magnesian limestone exposures in the UK. These cliffs extend along the North Sea coast for over 20 km from South Shields southwards to Blackhall Rocks. Their vegetation is unique in the British Isles and consists of a complex mosaic of paramaritime, mesotrophic and calcicolous grasslands, tall-herb fen, seepage flushes and wind-pruned scrub. Within these habitats rare species of contrasting phytogeographic distributions often grow together forming unusual and species-rich communities of high scientific interest. The communities present on the sea cliffs are largely maintained by natural processes including exposure to sea spray, erosion and slippage of the soft magnesian limestone bedrock and overlying glacial drifts, as well as localised flushing by calcareous water.
East Caithness Cliffs
Highlands and Islands
This stretch of northern Scottish coast provides a range of habitats, though lacking the extreme exposure of the some of the island sites and Cape Wrath. Roseroot Sedum rosea and Scots lovage Ligusticum scoticum grow without any associates in the north of the site, and there are tall herb gullies in more sheltered positions often dominated by meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria. There are two very small patches of perched saltmarsh with saltmarsh rush Juncus gerardii, and locally there is also bird-influenced vegetation. Grasslands with many tall herbs are plentiful in ungrazed areas and short herb-rich grasslands and heath occur on the cliff tops. Around Berriedale, the vegetation lacks some of the more maritime components such as thrift Armeria maritima and sea plantain Plantago maritima, and becomes progressively less maritime southwards, with no maritime heath on the cliff top; because of the reduced maritime influence the gullies have developed scrub including willow Salix spp., juniper Juniperus communis, hazel Corylus avellana, hawthorn Crataegus monogyna and aspen Populus tremula.
Highlands and Islands
The sea cliff vegetation of Fair Isle is principally oceanic and varies from spray-influenced maritime grassland swards to sub-maritime heather Calluna vulgaris moorland. Prostrate juniper Juniperus communis ssp. nana, now rare throughout the rest of Shetland, remains common over extensive areas of the moorland.
East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire
Flamborough is an east coast representative of hard chalk cliffs, which occur more frequently on the south coast of England. The vegetation of east coast cliff sites is typically less influenced by salt deposition and there are few such areas with predominantly limestone vegetation. Flamborough Head is an exception and is therefore important for the conservation of calcareous cliff vegetation. Maritime vegetation is local and occurs where topography increases salt spray deposition. Elsewhere the chalk substrate supports calcareous grassland communities. Towards the eastern end of the site the chalk is masked by drift deposits, which support mesotrophic and acidic grassland communities.
Glannau Ynys Gybi/ Holy Island Coast
West Wales and The Valleys
Holy Island, off the north-west coast of Wales, has hard rock acidic cliffs and supports important examples of coastal cliff heathland vegetation. In addition to maritime heath with several rare species such as spotted rock-rose Tuberaria guttata, there are extensive maritime cliff-crevice and grassland communities. The maritime influence is not as extreme as in north Scotland, and this site represents an important part of the range of variation on the mid-west coast of the UK.
Surrey, East and West Sussex
Hastings Cliffs are an area of actively eroding soft cliff on the south coast of England. They include the most southerly exposures of the lower Hastings Beds. The site contains three valleys cut into the strata, which support woodland and scrub habitats with an unusual ‘Atlantic’ bryophyte flora. Closer to the sea the maritime influence stunts the trees, but other bryophytes become important here, with one species, Lophocolea fragrans, at its only south-east England locality. Maritime scrub and coastal heathland are found closer to the cliff edge, with grassland supporting maritime species such as thrift Armeria maritima. The clay cliff slopes are eroding and support a range of habitats from bare ground and flushes to maritime grassland and scrub, reflecting the successional development of vegetation following cliff-falls.
Highlands and Islands
Hoy’s high sandstone cliffs have a superb range of vertical faces with a range of aspects, and well-developed talus fans. The ledges provide habitat for cliff plants and birds despite the high exposure, and northern Scottish species are well-represented.
Isle of Portland to Studland Cliffs
Dorset and Somerset
Isle of Portland to Studland Cliffs, including the detached peninsula of Portland, with St Albans Head to Durlston Head, forms a single unit of cliffed coastline some 40 km in length. The cliffs are formed of hard limestones, with chalk at the eastern end, interspersed with slumped sections of soft cliff of sand and clays. The cliffs support species-rich calcareous grassland with species that are rare in the UK, such as wild cabbage Brassica oleracea var. oleracea, early spider-orchid Ophrys sphegodes and Nottingham catchfly Silene nutans. The Portland peninsula, extending 8 km south of the mainland, demonstrates very clearly the contrast between the exposed western and southern coasts, with sheer rock faces and sparse maritime vegetation, and the sheltered eastern side, with sloping cliffs supporting scrub communities, where wood spurge Euphorbia amygdaloides grows in grassland.
Isle of Wight Downs
Hampshire and Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight Downs represents one of the best examples of chalk grassland in the south of England under maritime influence. The exposed and weathered cliff tops provide a range of sheltered and exposed conditions. The most exposed chalk cliff tops support important assemblages of nationally rare lichens, including Fulgensia fulgens. The western end of the site adjoins the cliffs of the South Wight Maritime cSAC. Here, species-rich calcareous grassland vegetation is present on the cliff tops. The instability and maritime influence has altered the chalk grassland vegetation to include maritime species such as yellow horned-poppy Glaucium flavum, rock samphire Crithmum maritimum, wild cabbage Brassica oleracea, and buck’s-horn plantain Plantago coronopus, together with calcareous grassland species such as common restharrow Ononis repens, wild carrot Daucus carota, carline thistle Carlina vulgaris and lesser hawkbit Leontodon saxatilis. This site represents an uncommon transition from chalk grassland species to sea cliff vegetation, which can include the Annex II species 1654 Early gentian Gentianella anglica.
Limestone Coast of South West Wales/ Arfordir Calchfaen de Orllewin Cymru
East Wales, West Wales and The Valleys
The extensive cliffs of south-west Wales represent hard calcareous cliffs in the south-west of the UK. The nature of the rock and the warm south-facing slopes have resulted in the occurrence of a sequence of important species-rich plant communities. At the base of the cliff, on rock platforms, characteristic maritime communities with thrift Armeria maritima, rock samphire Crithmum maritimum and buck’s-horn plantain Plantago coronopus occur. These grade into calcareous grasslands and heathlands, which support a rich assortment of rare species. These include the yellow whitlowgrass Draba aizoides, a Mediterranean species restricted in the UK to south Wales, where it grows with more characteristic coastal species such as spring squill Scilla verna. Other rarities include small restharrow Ononis reclinata, 1654 Early gentian Gentianella anglica, goldilocks aster Aster linosyris and the endemic rock sea-lavenders Limonium parvum, L. transwallianum and L. procerum ssp. cambrense. Important lichen communities occur, with good populations of Fulgensia fulgens.
Mull of Galloway
South Western Scotland
Mull of Galloway has considerable biogeographical importance, straddling the boundary between northern and southern biota. It is the northern limit in Britain for golden samphire Inula crithmoides and rock sea-lavender Limonium binervosum, and the southern limit for Scots lovage Ligusticum scoticum and purple oxytropis Oxytropis halleri. The Mull of Galloway has large areas of maritime heath and grassland with extensive areas of spring squill Scilla verna, bloody crane’s-bill Geranium sanguineum, thrift Armeria maritima and sea campion Silene uniflora; also base-rich flushes and rock-face vegetation, with semi-prostrate growth of juniper Juniperus communis fringing the cliff tops. As well as ledge and crevice vegetation, there is well-developed cliff scrub.
North Antrim Coast
The North Antrim Coast represents an extensive area of hard cliff along one of the most exposed coastlines in Northern Ireland. The site exhibits contrasting geology. The western part is centred on the Giant’s Causeway with its geochemically alkali and intermediate basaltic high cliff, interspersed with a series of coves. The eastern section hosts the limited active and extensive fossil chalk sea-cliffs. The basalt series supports a range of communities including those associated with rock crevices and cliff ledges, and with a range of typical maritime grasslands and heath. Notable species for the site include Wilson’s filmy-fern Hymenophyllum wilsonii, thyme broomrape Orobanche alba, hare’s-foot clover Trifolium arvense, zigzag clover Trifolium medium and common juniper Juniperus communis. The chalk cliffs support mesotrophic and calcareous grasslands.
Overstrand cliffs are one of the best examples of unprotected vegetated soft cliffs on the North Sea coast in the most easterly part of the UK. The cliffs are up to 70 m high and are composed of Pleistocene sands and clays with freshwater seepages in places and are subject to moderately frequent cliff-falls and landslips. Much of the length is unprotected by sea defences and is therefore natural in character. The vegetation exhibits cycles of succession with ruderal communities developing on the newly-exposed sands and mud followed by partially-stabilised grasslands and scrub. Seepage areas support wet fen communities and in places perched reedbeds occur. The diverse range of habitats supports an outstanding range of invertebrates.
Polruan to Polperro
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly
This site on the south coast of Cornwall represents a range of cliff habitats influenced by the complex lithological variation and tectonic structure at this location. The cliff habitats are particularly important for their assemblage of plants and the site also supports the Annex II species 1441 shore dock Rumex rupestris. The cliffs and slopes support a variety of maritime rock crevice and ledge communities, with maritime and sub-maritime grasslands and flushes. In places the lower cliffs, backshore and cliff crevices are influenced by freshwater seepages, flushes and springs. The maritime grasslands are found alongside or amongst areas of scrub and bracken Pteridium aquilinum, and the species composition reflects the variation in the calcareous influence of the underlying strata. Extensive areas of unimproved grassland are present on the cliff tops and headlands. The exposure at this site is less than that experienced on the north coast of Cornwall, and provides an important contrast to the other Cornish sites selected for this feature.
Rathlin Island represents an extensive area of hard cliff along the exposed northern coastline of Northern Ireland. The site exhibits contrasting geology, with Cretaceous chalk overlain by Tertiary basalts. The site consists of very high vertical sea cliffs and sea stacks to the north and east, with more gentle slopes on the eastern coast. As a result of these variations in height and slope, in addition to the diversity of aspects, exposure and rock type, a wide range of maritime cliff vegetation communities is present. Red fescue Festuca rubra is often the dominant species in the grassland communities, while heath is also present in some places. Some species recorded for the site are scarce in Northern Ireland, including common juniper Juniperus communis, Scots lovage Ligusticum scoticum and roseroot Sedum rosea.
Rigg - Bile
Highlands and Islands
The flora of the cliffs includes mountain avens Dryas octopetala, hairy rock-cress Arabis hirsuta, moss campion Silene acaulis, false brome Brachypodium sylvaticum and melancholy thistle Cirsium heterophyllum. At Rubh na h-Airde Glaise on the dry, exposed cliffs there is a good assemblage of rupestral bryophytes including Schistidium robustum, Ulota americana and Antitrichia curtipendula. The transition to woodland, which is dominated by dense hazel Corylus avellana scrub with birch Betula spp. and grey willow Salix cinerea, also features a wide range of bryophytes and lichens.
Sidmouth to West Bay
Devon, Dorset and Somerset
Sidmouth to West Bay is separated from the other two cliff cSACs on this part of the south coast of England, Isle of Portland to Studland Cliffs and St Albans Head to Durlston Head, by Chesil and the Fleet, which does not have a cliffed coastline. Sidmouth to West Bay is an example of a highly unstable soft cliff coastline subject to mudslides and landslips. The principal rock types are soft mudstones, clays and silty limestones, with a small chalk outlier in the west. The central part comprises the extensive Axmouth to Lyme Regis landslip, where chalk overlies the unstable rocks mentioned, resulting in slips ranging from frequent minor events to occasional mass movement events when entire blocks of the chalk scarp move seawards. The eastern part has no chalk capping and is subject to frequent mudslides in the waterlogged soft limestones and clays. Vegetation is very varied and includes pioneer communities on recent slips, calcareous grassland and scrub on detached chalk blocks and extensive self-sown woodland dominated by ash Fraxinus excelsior or sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus.
South Devon Shore Dock
The bedrock at this site in south Devon is composed of mineral-rich Lower Devonian schists forming cliffs rising to 120 metres. The cliffs support maritime grassland communities containing maritime species such as thrift Armeria maritima, sea plantain Plantago maritima and autumn squill Scilla autumnalis. The grassland merges into bare rock and coastal heath, which also support a number of uncommon plant species, including a lichen assemblage with Mediterranean affinities, and an invertebrate fauna consisting of species limited to southerly coastal sites. The site also supports a number of populations of 1441 shore dock Rumex rupestris, for which the site is also selected.
South Wight Maritime
Extra-Regio, Hampshire and Isle of Wight
South Wight Maritime on the south coast of England represents contrasting Cretaceous hard cliffs, semi-stable soft cliffs and mobile soft cliffs. The western and eastern extremities of the site consist of high chalk cliffs with species-rich calcareous grassland vegetation, the former exposed to maritime influence and the latter comparatively sheltered. At the western end, the site adjoins the Isle of Wight Downs, providing an unusual combination of maritime and chalk grassland. The most exposed chalk cliff tops support important assemblages of nationally rare lichens, including Fulgensia fulgens. The longest section is composed of slumping acidic sandstones and neutral clays with an exposed south-westerly aspect. The vegetation communities are a mixture of acidic and mesotrophic grasslands with some scrub and a greater element of maritime species, such as thrift Armeria maritima, than is usual on soft cliffs. This section supports the Glanville fritillary butterfly Melitaea cinxia in its main English stronghold. A small, separate section of the site on clays has a range of successional stages, including woodland, influenced by landslips. These cliffs are minimally affected by sea defence works, which elsewhere disrupt ecological processes linked to coastal erosion, and together they form one of the longest lengths of naturally-developing soft cliffs on the UK coastline.
St Abb's Head to Fast Castle
St Abb’s Head to Fast Castle is a spectacular area of cliff coastline in south-east Scotland, comprising high cliffed sections and rich vegetated areas in more sheltered localities. While some sections are dominated by large seabird colonies which restrict the vegetation in their vicinity, elsewhere extensive vegetated areas are found. A very high number of flowering plant species are present, including many of local distribution, reflecting the range of micro-habitat conditions.
St Albans Head to Durlston Head
Dorset and Somerset
St Albans Head to Durlston Head, with Isle of Portland to Studland Cliffs, form a single unit of cliffed coastline some 40 km in length. The cliffs are formed of hard limestones, with chalk at the eastern end, interspersed with slumped sections of soft cliff of sand and clays. The cliffs support species-rich calcareous grassland with species that are rare in the UK, such as wild cabbage Brassica oleracea var. oleracea, early spider-orchid Ophrys sphegodes and Nottingham catchfly Silene nutans.
St David's / Ty Ddewi
West Wales and The Valleys
This south Wales site represents hard acidic cliffs on the west coast of the UK. It is provides the most extensive examples of the typical west coast transition on acidic rocks from maritime crevice vegetation through maritime grassland into maritime heathland with heather Calluna vulgaris and western gorse Ulex gallii. Out of reach of both salt spray and grazing animals, heavily wind-pruned wild privet Ligustrum vulgare and blackthorn Prunus spinosa scrub have developed. This site is also important for a number of rare and local species, such as hairy greenweed Genista pilosa and an endemic sea-lavender Limonium paradoxum. There are good populations of the lichen Teloschistes flavians.
Extra-Regio, Highlands and Islands
The St Kilda archipelago is a westerly outlier of the Outer Hebrides and represents hard acidic cliff habitat with extreme levels of maritime exposure. The sea cliffs of Hirta are the highest in the UK, reaching 426 m. Virtually the whole of each island is influenced by salt spray and the plant communities are dominated by maritime vegetation typical of Scotland. Roseroot Sedum rosea and Scots lovage Ligusticum scoticum are present on many of the vertical salt spray-drenched cliffs, with sea campion Silene uniflora and thrift Armeria maritima present in abundance. Diversity is increased by the presence of arctic-alpine plants, such as purple saxifrage Saxifraga oppositifolia and moss campion Silene acaulis. High humidity is reflected in widespread distribution of plants such as the liverwort Frullania teneriffae. St Kilda has some of the most extensive and best examples of this extreme form of Atlantic maritime vegetation in Europe.
Highlands and Islands
Strathy Point is an important example of northern, hard acidic rock cliffs, subject to extreme wind and wave exposure. Extensive maritime communities are found on the cliffs and cliff tops, as a result of the exposure and landward reach of sea-spray. In addition, the headland provides a range of aspects, slopes, gullies and crevices which affect the degree of exposure and result in a high diversity of relatively more sheltered cliff communities. Due to its geographic position and climatic conditions, the flora contains northern elements, such as the endemic Scottish primrose Primula scotica, which is absent from the majority of other sites selected. The site contains good representation of transitional communities from exposed maritime grasslands and heaths to essentially non-maritime heath. In addition, the inaccessibility of stacks and steep cliffs to grazing animals results in different grazing regimes and a diversity of maritime grassland communities.
Stromness Heaths and Coast
Highlands and Islands
This cliff site on the north Atlantic coast of Mainland Orkney is selected as an example of extremely exposed cliffs in the north of Scotland. The combination of high, hard acidic rock cliffs and exposure to wind and salt spray results in one of the largest examples of maritime cliff in Scotland, associated with well-developed cliff-top transitions. Grazed cliff-top maritime grassland supports red fescue Festuca rubra, thrift Armeria maritima, spring squill Scilla verna and sea plantain Plantago maritima. Further inland there are transitions to maritime heath rich in species. Rarities such as Scottish primrose Primula scotica occur, with an unusual maritime form of crowberry Empetrum nigrum-rich heath present on deep, free-draining mineral soils and cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix on wetter soils.
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly
The Lizard, at the extreme south-west tip of England, has been selected for its unusual representation of base-rich igneous and acid metamorphic cliffs. The combination of its complex geology and a southern location has resulted in the diverse nature of the plants and plant communities found here, many of which are particularly species-rich and some of which are rare in the UK. The site includes a typical sequence of cliff vegetation, with a variety of truly maritime plants, which grades into grazed and ungrazed communities on exposed cliffs with dense red fescue Festuca rubra and wild asparagus Asparagus officinalis ssp. prostratus. There are also transitions to heathland, normally dominated by heather Calluna vulgaris and bell heather Erica cinerea, though in addition the Lizard has extensive heath rich in the rare Cornish heath Erica vagans. The Lizard is one of the richest botanical areas in the UK and is of considerable value at EU level, owing to its unusual ecology and outlying representatives of rare species.
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly
This site represents an extensive length of largely hard coastal cliff in south-west England, with a range of maritime influences and vegetation developed on hard neutral to acidic sedimentary rocks. It demonstrates a range of vertical or near-vertical cliffs with intervening slumped sections. The greater part of this very long site, totalling approximately 60 km, is west-facing, fully exposed to Atlantic storms and therefore strongly maritime in character. The section east of Hartland Point faces north and north-east and is relatively sheltered. Inland of the crevice and grassland communities, maritime heath and short coastal grassland with wild thyme Thymus polytrichus and spring squill Scilla verna are particularly significant, and locally these show transitions to scrub and woodland in the adjacent valleys. This includes an unusual wind-pruned cliff woodland, the Dizzard, with an exceptionally rich lichen flora.
SACs where this Annex I habitat is a qualifying feature, but not a primary reason for site selection
- Ardmeanach Highlands and Islands
- Dee Estuary/ Aber Dyfrdwy Cheshire, East Wales, Extra-Regio, Merseyside, West Wales and The Valleys
- Exmoor Heaths Devon, Dorset and Somerset
- Glac na Criche Highlands and Islands
- Great Orme's Head/ Pen y Gogarth West Wales and The Valleys
- North Rona Extra-Regio, Highlands and Islands
- Rum Highlands and Islands
- South Hams Devon
Many designated sites are on private land: the listing of a site in these pages does not imply any right of public access.
Please note that the map shows sites where the presence of a feature is classed as ‘grade d’, but these sites are not listed. This is because ‘grade d’ indicates a non-significant presence.