Sue Tatman's alphabet of Cheshire wildlife reaches the letter M
Although moles are rarely seen, their presence is easy to detect. Little mounds of freshly-turned soil, so hated by gardeners and green keepers, are the result of the mole excavating the network of subterranean tunnels in which it lives. Moles are superbly adapted for digging: their short front paws function as spades and are immensely strong. The eyes are tiny, and vision poor, as you would expect for an animal that lives in darkness, but the mole has a keen sense of smell and its sensitive mobile nose helps it find its way.
Moles feed mostly on earthworms but will also take other invertebrates such as cockchafers and carrot fly larvae. Their usual foraging method is to patrol their extensive network of tunnels, picking up any worms and other invertebrates that have fallen into the tunnel from the surrounding soil.
Although mole hills are generally unpopular they can be used to the gardener's advantage: the excavated soil has been finely broken up, and coming from deep underground contains few weed seeds. It can be collected up and mixed into home-made potting composts.
The field maple is our only native maple: while sycamore and Norway maple are more common trees, neither are British natives. It is a smallish tree, often growing to only 10-15 metres, which makes it suitable for many gardens. The leaves are easily recognised, having five rounded lobes and much smaller than other maple leaves. In the autumn the leaves turn a beautiful yellow before falling.
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The wood of the maple is very fine grained and traditionally was used for making musical instruments, especially harps and violins. It was also popular for wood-turning and carving and was made into drinking bowls known as 'Mazers'.
Meres and mosses
Cheshire is famous for its meres, lakes which were formed as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Gigantic ice blocks broke away and were buried in the outwash of clays and sand from the melting glaciers, then as the blocks themselves melted they left distinctive 'kettle hole' lakes.
Some of these glacial lakes have remained as open water, such as Hatch Mere, Budworth Mere, Combermere, Bar Mere at Bickley and Chapel Mere at Cholmondeley. Others, those with more acidic waters, have been colonised by sphagnum mosses which have over the centuries built up layers of peat, sometimes forming extensive raised bogs. In a few places subsidence has resulted in a floating bog or 'Schwingmoor', where a dense layer of peat forms a raft floating on much deeper water, such as Wynbury Moss near Crewe.
These meres and mosses, along with the associated swamps, fens, wet woodlands and marshy grasslands form a unique range of habitats, home to many rare plants and animals. The value of these wetlands is recognised in that they form part of the northwest midlands Meres and Mosses Ramsar site, indicating a wetland site of international importance.
For many of us our first close encounter with wildlife is as children feeding the ducks in the park or village pond. Mallards become so trusting when used to people and the food we bring that they might appear domesticated, and this bird is indeed the ancestor of almost all the domestic breeds of duck, including the white Aylesbury and the Khaki Campbell. But these are wild birds and away from towns and villages they can be as wary as any other waterfowl - and they have every reason to be, as mallards have been hunted for meat and sport for centuries.
From the Middle Ages onwards mallard ducks were netted and trapped in large numbers for the table. This hunting was highly organised and the most sophisticated trap developed was the 'decoy'. This was a specially created pond with one or more channels leading off from the main pool. These channels gradually narrowed and were enclosed by screens and nets. The ducks were herded into the channel, or lured in by glimpses of a dog moving along the banks (ducks on water will approach a predator on land, rather than swimming away). They were finally corralled in a trap at the end of the channel, where they could easily be caught and killed. These decoys were extraordinarily effective: there are records of decoys catching 600 ducks in one day, and thousands over a season.
For more information about Cheshire Wildlife Trust visit www.cheahirewildlifetrust.co.uk or call 01948 820728.