What do a ‘Malham Sedge’, a caddisfly, and the ‘Malhamsensis’ parasite, have in common? 

Firstly both have only very recently been discovered. Secondly, and most importantly, both species are currently known to exist at only one UK location, Malham Tarn. Victoria Benn reports

Nestling at an altitude of 375 metres is Britain’s highest upland alkaline lake, Malham Tarn, which forms a key part of the Malham Tarn National Nature Reserve. The site also takes in Tarn Moss, a 15 feet deep peat bog, which is estimated to be about 12,000 years old; Tarn Fen, a calcareous fen, one of just a few such remaining sites of its kind in Britain; upland hay and wild flower meadows; limestone pavements, and an upland Ash woodland.

Malham Tarn Nature Reserve, which spans an area of 1,349 hectares, has a rich heritage of scientific interest dating back to the mid 1800s. In fact there is evidence to suggest that Charles Darwin visited the Malham Tarn estate in the late 1800s to investigate the impact of sheep grazing on heather.

The site makes up part of the Malham-Arncliffe SSSI, or ‘site of special scientific interest’, designated as such due to it being one of the most extensive and rich areas of limestone countryside in England.

Tarn House, the substantial country house which presides over the tarn, and forms the focus of the site, was built in 1775 by Thomas Lister, also known as Lord Ribblesdale, who used it as a hunting lodge.

In 1852 the Listers sold the estate to James Morrison, a self-made millionaire from Berkshire, who subsequently passed the estate to his son, Walter, in 1857. Walter held the estate for over 60 years.

To quote Craven Herald columnist Dr Bill Mitchell, Walter Morrison became “a legend in his own lifetime”, through his apparent love of his “mountain home”, and his great acts of philanthropy across the local area. Walter Morrison augmented the estate substantially during his time there, transforming it into the house and buildings we see today.

Following Morrison’s death in 1921, the estate passed to relatives, who in 1946 bequeathed it to the National Trust.

Martin Davies, countryside general manager for the National Trust in the Yorkshire Dales, emphasises the uniqueness of the site saying: “The upland wetland nature reserve here at Malham Tarn is very special, supporting many rare species of plants and animals such as the Malham Sedge, a flightless caddisfly, which only exists here at Malham and at another couple of other places in the Baltic and Mongolia.”

“We also have other rare species like the white-clawed crayfish and otters, which though not as critically low in numbers as they were, still need to be heavily protected. “There are many rare orchids and other unusual plants, and wild roe deer are commonly seen living on the estate too.” Open 365 days a year, pathways and bridle-ways enable visitors to explore the estate, and re-cycled plastic board-walks have made access to some of the most attractive parts of the reserve on the fen, finally possible.

Martin says: “We very much welcome visitors to the site. There is a programme of events which will hopefully attract and engage people, and we also have a variety of published walks of between two and six miles around the nature reserve which are a great way of seeing what the site contains.

“We really want people to come and see what we do and find out why it’s important, that way they will hopefully respect it and look after it in the years to come.”

If you are more of a hands on person and want to get to grips with some actual sphagnum moss or partake in a little pond dipping, then you may be interested to learn that Tarn House at Malham Tarn, has been leased to the Field Studies Council (FSC) since 1949. As the only environmental education charity currently in existence, their aim is to help people of all ages and abilities discover, explore and be inspired by the natural environment. To that end, the centre runs one day and multi day residential courses for children and adults ranging from Key Stage 1 to Post Graduate level. Head of centre, Mike Cawthorn, explains how it works: “We can accommodate up to 86 people at any one time, and are keen to impress on local schools and colleges the range of field learning opportunities we offer. The unique geography and water systems of the area means we can offer courses in geography, ecology, biology and environmental science.

“Learning in such a way is very dynamic, and teachers often tell me that our three day courses have the equivalent impact of a terms worth of lessons!”

If you don’t belong to an educational establishment, but are keen to get involved, then look out for the range of FSC courses scheduled for 2014.

The centre also offers ‘family fun days’ and ‘real family holidays’ for families who are keen to enjoy nature in a fun, hands on way. Guided activities such as rare bird spotting, pond dipping, nature trails, caving and star gazing are just some of the activities on offer.

The Malham Tarn National Nature Reserve is a wondrous and stimulating place to visit, and the drive there isn’t bad either. Take the road from Arncliffe and you are treated to miles and miles of the most desolate and breathtaking scenery. Take the Malham Cove Road up out of Malham, and you gain the most outstanding vantage point to view the Cove from. If you are proposing to walk there, then the Pennine Way actually circumnavigates the centre, and I have it on good authority that the toilet next to Tarn House is the first for miles.

Whichever way you get there one thing’s for certain, you won’t be disappointed.

For further information on walks and events, please refer to:www.nationaltrust.org.uk or www.field- studies-council.org.