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New tree species found in gorge

Cheddar Gorge may be a well-known tourist spot but discoveries are still being made about the wildlife-rich site - including three new species of tree uncovered by a recent scientific survey.

The species were discovered when scientists conducted the first survey of whitebeam trees - so-called because of the pale underside of their leaves which are covered in fine white hairs - in the UK's largest gorge.

The Somerset site is difficult to survey because of its steep cliffs which are up to 120 metres (400ft) high.

The researchers from the Welsh National Herbarium used DNA techniques to analyse samples of the trees. They also used Satnav technology to record their exact locations.

In all, eight species of whitebeam were found in the gorge, which is one of a number of hotspots for the type of tree along with the Wye Valley, Craig-y-Cilau in the Brecon Beacons, Avon Gorge in Bristol and the north Devon-Somerset coast.

The trees, which belong to the Sorbus family, are related to apples and pears and have small fruits that look like miniature red apples. There are now more than 30 known species of the tree in the UK.

Mark Courtiour, the National Trust's Somerset countryside manager, said: "We always wondered what whitebeam rarities might be lurking in the gorge as it's such a stunning place for wildlife.

"This important survey work will help with our management of the site now we know what we have and where they can be found."

Dr Tim Rich, head of vascular plants at the Welsh National Herbarium, said: "These discoveries show that we're still learning about the natural world and finding new species of plants in the UK."

He added that Cheddar was a "very special place".

The three new species of whitebeam are:

* Cheddar whitebeam (Sorbus cheddarensis) - this tree has oval shaped leaves and can grow to at least 7m high (23ft). At least 19 trees were found in the survey.

* Twin cliffs whitebeam (Sorbus eminentoides) - these trees grow to around 9m (30ft), have roundish leaves and greyish brown bark. The survey recorded 15 of these tree.

* Gough's Rock whitebeam (Sorbus rupicoloides) - these trees grow up to 7m (23ft) and have long narrow leaves. Some 13 trees were found in the gorge.