A new trail opens on the Cholmondeley estate's Bickley Hall Farm


It's almost seven years since Cheshire Wildlife Trust took on Bickley Hall Farm on the<br/>Cholmondeley estate. As a new trail opens, Tom Marshall from the conservation charity<br/>finds out more

There’s something about exchanging a glance with a Longhorn. Somelook positively regal with their perfectly symmetrical horns and sturdyframe, others verging on the ridiculous with horns facing in completely opposite directions, seemingly with a mind of their own.

Here at Bickley Hall Farm, the Longhorns come in all shapes andsizes and there’s plenty of them – almost 300 in fact. They’re easilydistinguished from their fellow fodder munchers the Dexters, with their matt-black or chocolate brown coat, and they certainly rule the field when it comes to the Hebridean and Shropshire sheep.

It’s damp and muddy and the fields at Bickley are playing host to all these native breeds, back at their winter quarters after a busy summerof ‘conservation grazing’ across the North West including more than halfa dozen of Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s own nature reserves. It’s a charmedlife spending the summer on heathlands, wildflower meadows and grazing marshes, but now it’s the standard winter fayre of hay and silage.

There are a lot of mouths to feed, but at Bickley the aim is to keep thefour-legged guests happy and the wildlife even happier. A new trail which has opened this year gives visitors to the farm – accessed off the Sandstone Trail – a chance to walk among the mosaic of features like hedgerows, wildflower margins, ponds, wader scrapes and grasslands that make Bickley special.

The low-intensity approach at the farm near the Shropshire bordermeans many birds and other wildlife lost from our larger, morecommercial farms have managed to hang on, bolstered by the Higher Level Stewardship scheme which encourages work to maintain the right habitats that keep the species here.

Birds like the tree sparrow and yellowhammer, lost from many parts of our countryside are doing well, and encouraged just that little bit closer to the 300-year old farmhouse HQ of the Trust with the promise of seed on the bird feeders.

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But it’s the rich, diverse hedgerows and field margins that keep the birds here all year round, with an abundance of summer insect prey and seeds in the autumn.

The same menu means the hedgerow bottom is alive with mammals, from voles to shrews and even harvest mice – a new colony was discovered just last autumn thanks to careful searching by staff.

This bounty of prey does not go unnoticed by those higher up in the food chain, and barn owls, kestrels, buzzards and sparrowhawks all have Bickley on their regular route. In high-summer, they’re often joined by the dashing hobby, whose specialist skills and taste for dragonflies brings it swooping across the farm’s ponds.

This array of species is a big draw for schools too, with more than 1,000 youngsters visiting the farm every spring and summer, many of them from some of the region’s urban hubs where Longhorn cows and barn owls are few and far between.

The success of this wildlifefriendly approach to farm management is  reflected in some astonishing numbers as Neil Friswell, a volunteer and trustee of the Wildlife Trust has shown through his regular surveys of thefarm. ‘It’s not unusual to be measuring some of the winter birds and summer butterflies in the hundreds,’ said Neil, who reckons some of the figures are among the highest at a single location in the region.

‘So far this winter we’ve already seen flocks of over 300 linnets, 100 brambling and 50 greenfinch, all using the ‘sacrificial’ crops in just one of the fields. Apart from the bramblings – who are probably visiting due to poor food supplies in northern Europe – these counts are typical of recent years and demonstrate the value of these crops.’ Neil adds that the numbers also seem to confirm that the reduction in farmland species  cross the UK is due to a shortage of winter food for seed-eating birds.

As spring turns into summer and the livestock once again make theirway to the four corners of the region, the farm comes alive with more than a dozen skylark territories. ‘With the right management the clock can be turned back a bit while still maintaining a profitable farming business,’ Neil added.

When the days grow longer, at least 14 species of butterfly take up  residence at Bickley. The sheer abundance and diversity of these delicate aerial insects alone would be enough to designate the farm as a Local Wildlife Site, a status currently shared by many of the farm’s ponds.

Although few of the butterflies are rare, they can occur in huge numbers with counts in 2010 including 215 small coppers (around ten times more than most Cheshire counts) and 270 small tortoiseshells.

It’s this spectacle the Trust is been keen to share with visitors, and the new trail takes in the full range of habitats on the farm in less than an hour’s easy stroll – from hay meadows and wetland scrapes to the open water of Bar Mere and even a spacious hide which allows visitors to observe lapwings and skylarks at close range.

The work has been completed as part of the newly formed Nature Improvement Areas programme, with the farm sitting within the Meres and Mosses of the Marches NIA, one of just 12 announced across the UK last year.

The new NIA recognises the international importance of the unique landscapes of meres and mosses (the farm’s Bar Mere being an excellent example) which were formed during the last ice age and to this day hold some of the rarest wildlife in the UK.

The long term aspiration of the NIA project – boosted by a £2 million injection across south Cheshire and north Shropshire – is to revive these habitats and bring both people and wildlife back together, with the hope that one day some of our lost species from former generations might return.

Such ambitions may seem high, but the unexpected arrival of a pair of common cranes at Bickley last summer – not seen for decades in the area – suggests that bringing back our lost natural heritage may not be a challenge to far. The Bickley Farm Trail is open now, and can be accessed via the Sandstone Trail from Bickley Lane, SY14 8EF. There are four information boards at key locations showing the trail route and a new viewing platform at the Bar Mere is expected to open later in the spring. For more information call 01948 820728 or email info@cheshirewt.org.uk.