Wild about Cornwall, Mount Edgcumbe, for Cornwall Today
It was disappointingly cold and grey when I opened the car door at Rame Head. The warmth of the last couple of days, which hinted at the arrival of spring, had given way to a cold blast from the east. The wind whipped across the headland gathering even greater velocity as it funnelled through the dip between the coastguard lookout and the ruined chapel on top of the promontory (from where the Spanish Armada was first spotted).
Though I dare to describe the weather as grey I certainly canít decry my welcome in the same terms because even before I made it down to the coastal path I had been entertained by no less than four of Cornwallís most exciting birds. First there was a pair of kestrels. They were in their element hanging head first into the stiff wind, remaining motionless when common sense would suggest that they should be blown to smithereens. A much bigger bird tried to mimic the nimble little kestrels but this one, a buzzard, just didnít have the dexterity. With less subtle movements to control its flight the buzzard was blown out of a hover by a sudden gust before flying nonchalantly away pretending it had intended to change position.
As if they hadnít noticed the activity below a pair of ravens flew high over the headland before one descended to sit high on a rock overlooking the entire scene. The varied croaks and tumbles through the air of the second bird were no doubt intended to impress its mate but it looked as though I was the more bowled over. Talking of being bowled over I think we were all taken aback by the arrival of a pair of peregrine falcons but none more so than the buzzard who was the target of their attack. They obviously didnít like seeing a larger bird of prey than themselves in their territory. These two barrel-breasted hunters cut through the sky as if the air was motionless, starting from a height they stooped at speed and when one had completed its assault the other took over. The buzzard, though larger than the peregrine, was ridiculously ill-equipped for an airborne fight with a peregrine, let alone two, and it knew it! Doing its best to look unruffled the poor buzzard headed back for relative safety inland leaving the barren headland to the professionals.
After that I had expected the rest of my walk to be a bit of an anti climax but I couldnít really get back in the car after just five minutes. My plan was to walk the six miles, or so, through the Mount Edgcumbe Country Park to the stately home of the Edgcumbe family and so I set off, kestrels in tow flying like kites overhead. First stop was the Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve at Penlee Battery for which a small detour is required from the coastal path. This reserve is at its most interesting in early summer since it is home to a wide range of grassland flowers including the pretty bee orchid which flowers in mid June. Like much of the coast around here the vegetation is kept in check by a herd of Dartmoor ponies but in March the only obvious beneficiaries are the lesser celandines and dog violets which flower around the pony-bitten gorse bushes. These ponies are kept here not only to benefit the environment but also for breeding purposes, an attempt is being made to maintain the purity of the Dartmoor pony through selective breeding.
Returning to the coast path and rounding the bend by the rather eccentric grotto, an 18th century modified cave used as a watch point, a different and softer appearance is created by woodland. Not all the plants along the track, known as the Earlís Drive, are natives in fact one of them, the laurel is now regarded as a bit of a pest because it is so invasive and dominating. Like the laurel the Holm Oaks, which are common here, provide year round greenery but the ground beneath them is surprisingly barren. In the deciduous sections of the wood bluebells, wild garlic and dogís mercury were all in evidence if not all quite in flower yet and from the larger trees the drumming of a woodpecker rang out.
The picturesque villages of Cawsand and Kingsand offer an excellent opportunity for elevenses and then it isnít much further to the landscaped parkland of the country park. The area around Mount Edgcumbe has been the subject of human activity for millennia, the oldest feature is a Bronze Age barrow but there are other signs of activity such as that of the Vikings long before the park became the civilised and manicured environment that we see today.
Approaching the formal part of the estate around the house of Mount Edgcumbe the first obvious sign of grandeur is the deer park. Fallow deer were first introduced here in the time of Henry VIII in around 1515. They have lived here ever since becoming ever wilder as they strayed onto other areas of surrounding land. Today the deer are not so much fenced in on the estate as fenced out of the formal gardens. The parkland, surrounding the formal gardens, is a rare habitat in Cornwall, the mixture of short grass and mature trees is loved by a particular group of species including the green woodpecker which is extremely common here.
The formal gardens bring with them a quandary for me because as a conservationist my reaction to non native plants has always been suspicion and usually dislike because they can cause damage to natural eco systems but when such plants occur in a garden setting such as at Mount Edgcumbe I canít help but feel differently. Here the rhododendrons, laurels, camellias and magnolias have grown for many centuries, since the 16th century in fact, and ecosystems have grown up with them. The gardens are richer in some native species than any Ďnaturalí area will ever be, that doesnít mean that I think we should plant more rhododendrons in wild places, definitely not and I think we are right to remove them from areas in which they are destroying native species, but we might as well enjoy them in places where they have occurred for centuries and can be controlled.
In the gardens I heard blackcaps singing from the dense rhododendron thickets; jays screeched as they flew across the wooded garden; green woodpeckers were omnipresent, laughing maniacally as only they know how and great spotted woodpeckers were drumming to establish their territories. I didnít see any but I believe that lesser spotted woodpeckers also occur here. This small woodpecker is similar to the great spotted but is about the size of a sparrow and its drumming is proportionately lighter, it lives higher up in the tree canopy of old trees and so needs a good range of aging tall deciduous trees in which to live.
It is clear that the estate is managed sensitively for wildlife because there is so much of it about. In particular the old and dying trees are left in situ, where it is safe to do so and piles of rotting logs, so good for insects and fungi, can be seen throughout. Access around the estate is almost unlimited and so the potential for walking is fantastic with great views over Plymouth Sound. The only problem for me was that after milling around the house and gardens for a couple of hours I had to walk back to Rame Head but then if Iíd have parked nearer to the house I wouldnít have had that wonderful peregrine experience.
Mount Edgcumbe is situated in the south eastern corner of Cornwall on the headland opposite Plymouth. Parking is available at Mount Edgcumbe, Kingsand (SX 432 503), Penlee Battery (SX 437 491) and Rame Head (SX420 487). Toilets and refreshments are available at Mount Edgcumbe Country Park and Kingsand. The walk from Rame Head to Mount Edgcumbe will take between three and four hours (double this for a round walk) if you simply want to see the Country Park then it makes most sense to park closer to the house. The coastal path is relatively easy going for the Cornish coast path but does is uneven in places. Wheelchair access is possible around much of the area adjacent to the house but not the coast path. The Country Park is jointly owned by the Cornwall County Council and Plymouth City Council.
Places mentioned in the text: The Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve is at Penlee Battery, SX 437 491. The grotto is at Penlee Point, SX 442 488.
If you have any questions about the places mentioned in the text you can contact:
Mount Edgcumbe Country Park on 01752 822236 or visit their web site on www.mountedgcumbe.gov.uk
Cornwall Wildlife Trust on 01872 273939 or you can visit their website on www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk Joining the Trust will give them financial assistance to manage their many reserves and enable them to continue work to raise awareness of wildlife related issues.
THROUGH THE SEASONS AT MOUNT EDGCUMBE AND RAME HEAD
Early flowers along the coast include dog violet and lesser celandine; later in spring you may find sea campion, thrift, kidney vetch, birdís foot trefoil and many more. This is a good time for seeing the fallow deer as they get together in herds. Migratory birds in spring include the now rare turtle dove.
The Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve is good for wild flowers in summer including bee orchids (June), yellow bartsia, wild basil and the parasitic species called common broomrape. On the headland as well as the commoner birdís foot trefoil there are the flowers of slender birdís foot trefoil, another rare plant is the shore dock. The underground tunnels of the battery are home to large roosts of bats. Breeding birds of prey around the country park include sparrowhawk, tawny and barn owls.
In early autumn flowers of the autumn ladyís tresses grow on the lawn in front of the house so park managers leave the grass uncut to give these flowers the best chance. In autumn the headland is attractive to migrant birds so any woodland or scrub could hold warblers, finches and buntings; the more exposed parts might play host to wheatears, pipits and larks.
Watch out for the early courting rituals of ravens, which include tumbling flight displays and passing food to partners. Peregrine falcons, kestrels and buzzards are here all year round. Dartmoor ponies are in residence on the cliff tops during the winter, preparing the ground for the spring flowers.