Cheshire Wildlife Trust and the scheme to link the county’s best animal habitats

the river Gowy

the river Gowy - Credit: Andrew Walmsley

Gemma Sproston reports on the progress of an innovative programme

Gowy Meadows

Gowy Meadows - Credit: Andrew Walmsley

All too often we hear how our countryside is becoming fragmented and isolated – small pockets of habitat unable to support viable populations exist, wildlife isn’t able to disperse across our landscapes, and species are on the edge of collapse.

Throughout the past 60 years the River Gowy and its associated corridor has been extensively modified in an attempt to increase and improve agricultural land and supply water to working water mills using artificial flood banks, re-profiling and sluicing, reducing the river’s geomorphological diversity (that’s how the land has been shaped by natural flows and forces).

This has resulted in the degradation of habitat within the floodplain such as grazing marsh, lowland meadows, ponds and hedgerows and a reduction in the natural flood storage capacity.

But for several years now Cheshire Wildlife Trust has been working hard to reverse this trend and with the help of the Environment Agency and Natural England is making a positive impact for wildlife with its current Living Landscape project, the Gowy Connect.

Championed by the Wildlife Trusts since 2006, a Living Landscape is all about working with farmers, landowners, communities and other conservation agencies to join together the best pieces of the habitat jigsaw, using nature’s natural corridors and arteries like rivers and hedgerows.

Gowy Connect is stage two of Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscape in the Gowy and Mersey Washlands and since 2011 the Trust has been working with 15 landowners across 500 hectares of land along the River Gowy corridor to restore and re-connect habitats – enabling wildlife to thrive as well as providing resources of benefit to local people and the economy.

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As part of this four-year WREN and Environment Agency-funded project, which was match funded by the Broxton Barn Owl Group, the Trust has been working with owners of local wildlife sites along this corridor, one of which comprises semi-improved grassland, unimproved neutral grassland, rush pasture, swamp and a small area of wet woodland.

‘A lack of grazing at this site had resulted in severe scrub encroachment and loss of grassland habitat, explains Ben Gregory, Farm and Gowy Manager at the Trust. ‘In 2011 steps were taken to change this when the Trust worked with the landowner to introduce a herd of native longhorn cattle. We erected stock proof fencing around the boundary and fenced out the fantastic hedgerows which divide the site up into small meadows to prevent them from being ‘longhorned’!

water vole feeding at burrow

water vole feeding at burrow - Credit: Tom Marshall

‘We’ve been carrying out a whole host of monitoring at this site to ensure the work we’re doing makes a difference, including surveying for water vole, butterflies and dragonflies and birds. We’ve also set up a grazing monitoring project to ensure we get the grazing timings just right to restore the important habitats.

‘Three years since we began, the site’s condition has improved with a range of habitats and species present, including the beautiful common spotted orchid. Otters have also been filmed on the section of river running through the site and our most recent botanical survey yielded some excellent results with one of our quadrats containing no fewer than 22 different species of plant.

‘This work has served as an amazing catalyst for neighbouring landowners who have been inspired to work with us. Just across the river, another landowner has changed the management of his part of a local wildlife site after we made some simple recommendations.’

Duncan Revell, Biodiversity Officer at the Environment Agency, said: ‘We part-funded both the Gowy and Mersey Washlands and the Gowy Connect projects because we recognised and appreciated the potential for achieving ecological and water quality benefits along this important wildlife corridor.’

And Ben added: ‘The support for this project has received to date has been fantastic. From the army of volunteers who’ve helped us to clear huge swathes of invasive species, or Broxton Barn Owl Group, whose members check the owl boxes in the project area, to United Utilities who donated a vehicle for the duration of the project allowing us to move people and resources easily around our sites.

‘It’s thanks to these people and organisations such as WREN, the Environment Agency and Natural England that we’ve been able to make such positive progress.

‘We’re not resting on our laurels though and there’s still some way to go for the final stretch of the project this year. However, with the cooperation of landowners, a dedicated volunteer taskforce and a helping hand from grant funding it just shows you that we can make some great progress and leave a lasting legacy for future generations to enjoy these very special places.’