FSC | Field Studies Council

Field Studies Council: Bringing Environmental Understanding to All

Star Species

Our star species are some of the most interesting plants and animals that make Slapton Ley so special.  Some of them are easy to see or hear every time you visit. We can show you some of them in the secret places on one of our events. Others are even more secretive and you may only catch a glimpse if you are very lucky.

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Cetti's Warbler - Cettia cetti

This bird has been spreading North West across Europe from the Mediterranean since the 1940's, arriving in the UK in the 1960's with first proven breeding in Devon in 1975. As a non migrant insect eating bird it can suffer severe population declines in hard winters, but at Slapton the population stays stable at about 40 singing males.

The best tactic to get a view of this skulking species is to spend time at Slapton Bridge, in most years one male has territory on both sides of the road. Also early morning watching along the shingle ridge can often produce singing males briefly on prominent perches.


Cirl bunting - Emberiza cirlus

The Cirl Bunting can be found throughout much of Europe, breeding in England as far north as Cumbria by the mid-1930s. Changes in agriculture brought about a rapid decline to the extent that just 118 pairs were present in 1989, 96% in south Devon.

Although it is now recovering, the coastal strip of land between Plymouth and Exeter is still the stronghold. There are as many as 4 pairs around the fringes of the nature reserve, favouring thick hedgerows with grasshopper-rich grassland adjacent. Listen for their rattling song delivered from a high perch anywhere along the paths from the Ley into Slapton village.


Great Crested Grebe - Podiceps cristatus

Annual nesting at Slapton began in 1973 with breeding success varying considerably from year to year, from 4 to 17 pairs. This can be linked to the availability of fish in the Ley, mainly Roach and Rudd, whose populations also fluctuate.

In the spring the resident population will abandon the Ley on a daily basis to fish in the adjacent Start Bay if poor conditions prevail in the Ley. For this reason breeding can often be much later than elsewhere in Britain. The Slapton population is the most south westerly population in the UK.




Dormice are relatively common in Southern England, but their exact distribution is unknown. They are rare, nocturnal and sleep in nests constructed from shredded honeysuckle bark woven into a ball. They are arboreal, in other words they live in the tree canopy, normally hazel coppice, foraging on flowers, pollen, fruit, insects and ripe nuts.

One way to determine their presence is to look for hazel nuts as they carve a perfect circle, with a smooth inner edge, into the hazel nut.



This nocturnal mammal is very common on the nature reserve with at least 12 setts being inhabited. Many of the setts have been used for decades and the badgers will have overlapping territories. Badgers will travel to feed on small mammals, frogs, insects, slugs, earthworms as well as plants and fruits.



Slapton Ley is an ideal place for the European otter (Lutra lutra) with abundant food and undisturbed areas for lying up and breeding. Over 90% of the otter's diet is fish. Male otters can travel up to 20 km and their territories include the rivers flowing into the Ley such as the River Gara. You are very lucky if you see an Otter but spraints are found at certain locations suggesting that the population is fairly stable.



11 species of bats have been recorded at Slapton Ley with Pipistrelle, Whiskered and Lesser Horseshoe bat roosts in Slapton Village and feeding within the nature reserve. The Lesser Horseshoe roost is particularly important, being the second largest in Devon. It consists of over 100 females as well as their young in the season. Other species recorded are the noctule, Daubenton's bat, Natterer's bat and the rare grey long-eared bat. The noctule and Daubenton's roost in trees within the NNR and can be seen from Slapton Bridge.





Strapwort (Corrigiola litoralis) is a very rare plant that only occurs on the shore of Slapton Ley. The UK is at the northern extent of its range with the current UK population is restricted to this single site.

Since 1962 it has been found at a decreasing number of sites, from being found in most areas along the shoreline to only one in 2006 with a declining number of plants present until that date. The primary reason for the decline is the loss of suitable open shoreline habitat due to the successional changes in vegetation.

Due to its declining numbers, English Nature initiated a species recovery programme for Strapwort in 1996. Germination and translocation of Slapton 'native' stock was recommended and a programme of re-introduction is halting the decline.


Shingle Ridge

Yellow Horned-poppy

An iconic plant of the shingle ridge is theYellow Horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum). Like the shingle ridge, it is a plant of contrasts.  Delicate silky petals on the one hand, but thick succulent leaves, covered in protective hairs, on the other.  The bright yellow petals signal a source of nectar to bees in summer.  The grey-green leaves indicate a tough waxy covering which sees the plant through the winter as a neat rosette, keeping a low-profile amongst the stones.

Research has shown that the plant thrives on moving stones.  Where storms and high seas dramatically shift huge quantities of shingle, Yellow Horned-poppy multiplies.  How does it do this?  The seed pod is one of the longest of any plant in the UK.  Take a close look in late summer, when the pods have burst open and you may still see the remains of hundreds of tiny seeds, some of which have been flung across the shingle and then dispersed by constantly shifting stones.


Sea Campion

Sea Campion (Silene uniflora) has taken seed production one step further.  Its seeds are double-wrapped.  A papery covering surrounds the back of the flower and then the developing seed capsule, making it more difficult for insects to penetrate.  This way, insects in search of the rich source of nectar at the base of the flowers have to brush past the anthers, collecting pollen on their way.  This creates the best chance for pollen to be transferred from one plant to another - the optimum opportunity for seed production.


Bird's-foot Trefoil

Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) forms a low-growing mat which spread out like a carpet from the tiny central plant.  Almost unnoticeable as a green carpet, it springs into colour in early summer, when its oranges, reds and yellows give rise to the nick-name "Eggs and Bacon".  The "bird's-foot" in the common name refers to seed pods which are thought to be shaped like a bird's foot. 


Sea Kale

Brightly-coloured flowers are usually a mechanism for attracting insects, looking for food. Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) has been a source of food over the years for both humans and insects.  Grown in Slapton village gardens as a vegetable, the plant is also at home in large isolated pioneering clumps at the top of the beach.  It dies down in winter, then re-emerges in spring as a deep-purple rosette of leaves, which gradually turn to grey-green.


Viper's Bugloss

Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare)is noticeable for its spikey height and, from May onwards, its entrancing pink-to-indigo-blue flowers.  The plant has evolved another survival strategy - it has very long roots, which delve deeply down amongst the shingle to find moisture and sustenance.  In times past, specific plant characteristics were thought of as "doctrines of signature".  From ancient times to the 17th century, herbalists thought of Viper's Bugloss as both a preventative and a cure against snake bites.  The speckled stem was thought to resemble a serpent's skin and the mature seed-head to resemble a snake's head.

For the 21st century observer, the plant is covered with tiny protective hairs - regulating heat and preventing water loss - and its flowers emerge successively, maturing over a long period.  Some may fail if conditions are particularly harsh, but some will emerge just when conditions are right.



250 species of lichen have been recorded at Slapton Ley, this is the largest number of lichen in an area of this size anywhere in England. Lichens can be found in all the habitats of the nature reserve and in the built environment of Slapton Village. Four rare species are found at Slapton Ley, Cryptolechia carneolutea, Parmelina quercina,Southern Grey (Physcia tribacioides) andGolden-hair Lichen (Teloschistes flavicansare).