Natural England - Great Asby Scar NNR

Great Asby Scar NNR

Great Asby Scar NNR contains some of the best examples of limestone pavement in Britain.

Great Asby Scar NNR

County: East Cumbria

Main habitats: Limestone pavement and grassland.

Why visit: The extensive limestone pavements of the Orton Fells present a wonderful and wild landscape that was once typical of upland Northern England. Limestone pavements are nationally rare and have been extensively damaged in the past by removal for garden rockery stone. Great Asby Scar contains some of the best remaining intact examples in Britain.

Star species: The limestone pavement is home to a wide diversity of special and rare plants that are adapted to survive in this harsh, rocky environment. Peer down into the hidden habitat of the grikes to find rarities such as angular Solomon's-seal, dark red helleborine, bloody crane's-bill, rigid buckler fern and limestone fern. On top of the limestone pavement you can find other specialities including bird’s-foot sedge, autumn gentian and salad burnet. Dwarfed trees dot the limestone landscape, their growth stunted by the rock itself and the very dry conditions found here.

Great Asby Scar is also home to a rich diversity of bird species so don’t forget your binoculars! Meadow pipit and skylark can be seen alongside birds or prey such as buzzard and merlin. Waders including golden plover and curlew dot the upland landscape, and if you’re lucky you might even spot a red grouse amidst the heather!

Seasonal highlights


The first of the limestone plants begin to flower. Look out for early purple orchids and brightly coloured bird’s foot trefoil amongst the grasses. Inside the grikes, wood anemones, dog mercury and honeysuckle begin to flower, the later giving off a sweet scent to attract the spring-time moths, such as the emperor moth. This is also an important time for the reserve’s birdlife as mating displays, nesting and breeding begin in earnest.

Some birds, such as the skylark, merlin and curlew will travel to Great Asby to breed, others, such as the red grouse and buzzard will live here year round. The skies above the reserve are filled with the sounds and sights of these birds displaying. Listen out for the vocal buzzard circling the skies and the complex song of the skylark from high in the heavens!


This is the time of year when the limestone flora really shines. From deep in the grikes striking dark red helleborines can be seen emerging, and on the limestone grassland wild thyme, eyebright and fairy flax dot the landscape with colour. Look out for sweet-smelling fragrant orchids flowering on the limestone pavement.

On sunny days the upland landscape buzzes with invertebrate life. Keep your eyes peeled for common blue, small heath and small pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies. If you are lucky you may even see an impressive humming-bird hawk moth hovering whilst it feeds on flowers. This large moth is a migrant from southern Europe and is sometimes mistaken for its name sake.


In early autumn the heather comes into flower, giving the landscape a purple hue. Look carefully for the autumn gentian, whose spikes of flowers are also deep purple. Later in the season, the stunted trees of the pavement add their own colours to the upland panorama as their leaves change to orange, yellow and brown.

Things begin to change as conditions on this exposed upland pasture rapidly become less hospitable. Many of the summer breeding birds leave for the milder climes of the lowlands and coast. However, some hardy species, such as the buzzard and red grouse stay on.


In winter, this bleak, open landscape is often covered in a layer of snow. Look out for the tracks and trails of those animals brave enough to stay here during these cold months and the runs of the many small rodents who live in the dense sward beneath the snow. Large, black ravens can often been seen in the skies above the NNR; listen for their eerie guttural croaks in the otherwise silent winter scene.


The limestone was laid down some 350 million years ago, beneath a shallow tropical sea. Subsequent uplifting of the Earth’s crust has formed these limestone hills, as can be seen from the gently folded rocks across the nature reserve.

Glacial action in the last ice age left a landscape of deeply scoured limestone surfaces strewn with rubble. On the pavement glacial erratic boulders of pink Shap granite and red sandstone can be seen. Erratics are rocks that were transported from other areas by glaciers and were then deposited on the limestone when the ice melted. Being of different rock types from the limestone, they support completely different communities of lichens, giving them a distinctly mottled appearance.

Since the glaciers of the last ice age melted (about 12,000 years ago), weathering of the limestone has created deep fissures of grikes, which divide the limestone into blocks called clints. Small gutter-like features called runnels pattern the pavement surface and channel water down into the grikes.

Management of the reserve

Great Asby Scar is managed to encourage a wide diversity of limestone plants and habitats to flourish. Removal of grazing over the Royalty Allotment part of the site since 1998 has allowed the re-establishment of upland heath, and the growth of dwarf trees on some of the pavements. Elsewhere on the site cattle grazing is intentionally light to maintain a herb rich limestone flora. This increases the biodiversity value of the pavement and allows plants and ferns to flower and thrive. A study is also being conducted to compare the biodiversity of the ungrazed areas, with that of the grazed areas. It is hoped that this will lead to a greater understanding of habitat preferences for some special wildlife, which can then be applied to similar upland sites throughout the country.

Many of the pavements in this area have been severely damaged by stone removal but some fine and relatively undamaged pavements still remain on and around Great Asby Scar. Most of the landscape is protected by both Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation: (96kb)pdf document designations because of its international importance for flora and birdlife. You can help to conserve limestone pavements by not buying water-worn limestone from DIY and garden centres. There are many alternative materials, which will not contribute to the destruction of spectacular landscapes such as those seen on Great Asby Scar.

How to get there

Great Asby Scar NNR is part of the Orton Fells in east Cumbria. The reserve is 4 km south west of the village of Great Asby and 4 km north east of Orton village.

By train

The nearest train station is Kirkby Stephenexternal link, 10 km to the south east.

By bus

A public bus service runs between Kendal and Penrith, stopping at the village of Orton and is provided by Stagecoachexternal link.

By car

By car, leave the M6 at Junction 38 and follow the B6260 to Orton and beyond. The National Nature Reserve can be found to the east of this road before you have reached Great Asby village. Alternatively, leave the M6 at Junction 39 and follow the B6261 to Orton, then follow the B6260 to Great Asby and beyond. The nature reserve can be found to the east before you reach the village of Orton. The B6260 can also be accessed from the A66 from Penrith and the A685 from Kirkby Stephen.

Limited parking can be found on road-side lay-bys on the B6260 between the villages of Orton and Great Asby. Parking is also available within the villages themselves. The reserve can be found at NY 656099.

On foot

The nature reserve can be accessed on foot or by bike on footpaths and quiet bridleways from Orton and Great Asby. An extensive network of paths link the reserve to the surrounding Orton fells. A suggested walking route around the national nature reserve can be viewed on the reserve map.

Great Asby and Orton are both on Route 68external link (Walney to Weir) of the Sustrans National Cycle Network.

Visiting the reserve

The reserve is bounded by the small villages of Orton in the south west and Great Asby to the north east. Public footpaths and bridleways provide access to the reserve and to the wider Orton fells area. A public bridleway crosses the reserve from northeast to southwest. A suggested walking route provides further opportunities for exploring the area, and can be found on our reserve map: (391kb)pdf document on our website. Please also see our reserve leaflet: (534kb)pdf document for more information.

Please note: The nature reserve is open access land, as is much of the wider area. However, limestone pavements can be hazardous places so please take care when crossing the limestone, particularly when it is wet and slippery. Great Asby Scar is an isolated and exposed area so please wear appropriate clothing, and be prepared for the weather changing quickly.

Walking your dog: From 1 March through to 31 July, ground-nesting birds breed at Great Asby Scar. In order to minimise disturbance to these birds all members of the public are required to keep their dogs on a short lead (of no more than 2 metres) during these months, under the Countryside Rights of Way Act. Please help us to protect the vulnerable wildlife of the NNR by following this.

The nearest toilet and refreshment facilities can be found in nearby Orton.

School and community groups

Students and professionals are also invited to conduct studies on our National Nature Reserves. Please contact the Senior Reserve Manager to discuss and gain relevant permissions.

Want to get involved?

Natural England holds a number of events and activities at Great Asby Scar each year. Past events have focused on moths, butterflies, fungi, trees and birds of the nature reserve. For details of current events please visit our North West Events Page or see posters at the nature reserve.

We have volunteer opportunities on National Nature Reserves throughout South Cumbria. Whether you have specialist skills you wish to use, or are looking for a chance to get some hands on experience, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Senior Reserve Manager, Rob Petley-Jones, email or tel: 07747 852905 for more details.

Further information

Please contact Senior Reserve Manager, Rob Petley-Jones on 077478 52905 or email for more information or to request a site permit.