Limestone Pavements are found around Wharfedale, to the north of Malham and around Ingleborough. They have taken shape over the 12,000 years since the end of the most recent Ice Age. Many were formed by glaciers scraping the land down to bare limestone which has since been attacked by rainwater to produce a network of blocks (clints) and crevices (grikes). The damp, sheltered grikes provide a refuge for woodland plants, including several rare ferns.
Traditionally managed hay meadows form a blaze of colour along the valley bottoms during June and July. The colour comes from a wide range of wild flowers, the most obvious of which are wood cranesbill, buttercup, pignut and clover. The botanical diversity - some hay meadows contain 80 or more plant species - depends on limited use of fertiliser and late cutting. Some of the finest meadows can be seen in Swaledale, upper Wharfedale, Littondale and upper Wensleydale.
The close-cropped ‘billiard table’ turf of calcareous grassland contains a surprising variety of limeloving grasses and herbs, often grazed as much by rabbits as by sheep. Wharfedale, Ribblesdale, Littondale and Malham form the main areas for this type of pasture, which has usually received little in the way of fertiliser. Birdsfoot trefoil, rock rose, mountain pansy and the aromatic wild thyme create a distinctive flora.
Just 1 per cent of the Dales landscape is covered by semi-natural broad-leaved woodland, much of it now confined to steep slopes or gills. Special to the Dales are the ‘hanging’ ash woods that line the sides of dales such as Wharfedale. Also important are the extensive oak woods around Bolton Abbey and the small scattered woods of Swaledale. Woods act as vital refuges for a host of animals, including badger, roe deer, nuthatch and woodpecker.
Rough grassland, blanket bog and great swathes of heather cover nearly all the high ground of the Dales. Damp grassland and bog - often dominated by cotton grass - are home to species of upland wader such as curlew, snipe and redshank. Heather moorland, which colours large areas in the east and north purple in August, is usually managed for grouse, but is important too for bilberry, cowberry, cloudberry, merlin, golden plover and even adders.
The characteristic brown peat staining of Dales rivers and the natural foaming around waterfalls belie their clean, unpolluted state. The white-breasted dipper may be seen bobbing on rocks in the water, while the goosander and the brilliantly coloured kingfisher are rewarding sights. Brown trout inhabit most rivers, while those flowing westwards - the Ribble and the Lune and its tributaries also contain salmon and sea trout.