An unexpected discovery

My knees are beginning to complain at this point in the descent. Having walked up Cwm Glas Mawr, scuttled up into Cwm Uchaf, scrambled across Crib Goch before wading through the crowds to reach the summit (or near enough) of Yr Wyddfa, I am relieved to be en route back to the car. Dipping off the Llanberis footpath and heading down the less-travelled Gyrn Las spur into Nant Peris felt like dunking myself into a refreshing pool after the hustle and bustle of the peak only a few hundred metres away. The delicate white flowers of mossy saxifrage, bursting in bunches from the rocky ledges, are offering a welcome distraction from my tiredness. Behind me, I can hear my brother and his friend continuing a debate they’d been stewing over all day; whether Jack was in fact the 6 foot he claims to be. Those two were the reason I was here today. Working for Cymdeithas Eryri/Snowdonia Society I am lucky enough to work on Yr Wyddfa, leading volunteer litter picks and footpath maintenance days. I love the mountain, but I have learnt that on a sunny Saturday in June, it is going to be jam-packed. However, my brother’s friend had his heart set on either a sunrise summit or the summit of Yr Wyddfa. I quickly decided that I didn’t want to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning, so that’s how I came to be descending from the summit of Yr Wyddfa on a busy summer’s day. I grin as their discussion carries on and focus on trying (and failing) to identify the various plants in front of me. I let my eyes drift away from the flowers and back to the incredible mountain vistas,but a glint on the path at my feet snags my gaze. I look back down and catch my breath; it is a tiny beetle, with irridescent stripes of blue, gold and bronze. It is unmistakably the Snowdon rainbow beetle (Chrysolina cerealis).

Now, for some of you, the significance of this will be apparent, but for many it might mean nothing at all. I was somewhere in the middle. I knew what it was, an Arctic Alpine species and relic of the UK’s glaciated past. A lonesome beetle, surviving on an island of suitable habitat far away from its relatives in continental Europe. I also knew that it is now only found on one mountain in the UK, Yr Wyddfa. What I didn’t know until after was just how perilously small the population is and that its numbers appear to be dropping. A study conducted by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) in 2015 found only 5 individuals after 63.5 hours of hand searching. The reasons for its decline are currently not well understood, with scientists believing climate change, changes in grazing patterns and atmospheric nutrient deposition could all be contributing factors. NRW concludes its study by advising that these factors be researched to gain a better understanding of this species’ decline.

On a positive note, our sighting shows not only that this species is still present, but also represents a small increase in its known range on the mountain as the ridge we found it on isn’t marked with any sightings on the NRW distribution map. This tiny extension could mean several different things. It could be that it has always been here in low numbers. Or perhaps that it’s responding to increasing global temperatures and is moving upwards to more suitable cooler conditions. Thankfully my pondering isn’t the only action happening for this beetle. Hope is provided by the Natur am Byth partnership, which unites 9 environmental charities and NRW to deliver the country’s largest natural heritage and outreach programme to save species from extinction. Hopefully one component of this scheme will improve our understanding of this charismatic beetle and deliver positive conservation actions to help secure its long-term future.

Our mission as the Snowdonia Society is “to protect and enhance the beauty and special qualities of Snowdonia and to promote their enjoyment in the interests of all who live in, work in or visit the area both now and in the future”. For me, this beetle epitomises many of the special qualities of Eryri – a survivor, beautiful but under threat. It also deepened my appreciation of Yr Wyddfa; a mountain, more so than others in Eryri, that is easy to see as simply the backdrop for a hike, something to conquer or even as a sacrificial site to take the brunt of tourism in the area. However, it is far more than those things. It is a living mountain, supporting a range of important and vulnerable habitats and species, with at least one beetle that only has it to call home in the UK.

Hopefully these precious jewels of beetles will remain a beautiful surprise, hidden amongst the wild thyme of Yr Wyddfa for future generations to come.

Cai Bishop-Guest

*Please note this species is protected by law from killing, collection and disturbance and I was only moving it from the footpath to an area of safety.

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