Cheshire Wildlife Trust launches A Living Landscape in the Gowy and Mersey Washlands

In 2008, the Wildlife Trusts launched the most ambitious conservation strategy in their 100 year history – A Living Landscape. Cheshire Wildlife Trust has now launched the second stage in their own scheme in the Gowy and Mersey Washlands.

‘It’s rather like a big rural jigsaw,’ says Ben Gregory as he looks out across a grazing marsh where the calls of winter ducks and waders are just about audible over the constant hum of the imposing towers of the Stanlow Refinery just yards away at Thornton le Moors.

‘For the past 100 years we’ve been working to protect the best bits of our landscape and the wildlife that makes a home there. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but in our changing world we’ve now realised that those special places are no good unless they’re joined up.’ And so for the last four years, the Wildlife Trusts have been aiming to fill the missing pieces in the jigsaw, to create the ideal picture – ‘landscape scale’ conservation.

‘It seems obvious when you think about it,’ adds Ben, the charity’s Gowy Connect project officer. ‘We’ve spent decades standing on the edge of nature reserves looking in, now we’re standing at the fenceline looking out’.

Although its largest reserve at Gowy Meadows is a not insignificant 165ha, this is just a fraction of the 8,000ha across which the Cheshire Wildlife Trust wants to make an impact. With the vital grazing meadows – a key flood defence for the industry to the north – at the heart of the project, other cornerstones include the Trust’s reserves at Hockenhull Platts near Waverton and Grange Farm at Mickle Trafford where the charity works with landowner Huw Rowlands.

Linking all these sites, and critical to the concept behind A Living Landscape are the region’s rivers. These natural arteries through the landscape are the corridors through which much of our wildlife can travel, making them a natural focus for conservation efforts.

However, the history behind the habitats the Trust is hoping to reinstate and improve doesn’t just run into centuries but millions of years. This latest stage of A Living Landscape, Gowy Connect, is looking at the Meres and Mosses Natural Area, an officially recognised swathe of the north west characterised by mosslands, wetlands and grazing marsh, parts of which were created as a result of the last Ice Age. This is all part of a wider scheme called Wetland Vision, led by the government’s conservation agency Natural England.

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Over four years, Gowy Connect aims to work with 15 landowners across 500ha of Cheshire countryside (an area more than half the size of the Delamere Forest Park) including work across 10km of watercourses and managing 193ha of Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) habitats – the UK’s most vital places for wildlife.

‘We’re here to build on our early successes’ says Richard Gardner, who led the first stage of Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscape. ‘We’ve piloted a number of schemes such as the use of natural riverbank reinforcements to help manage regional flooding, and bringing in specialised heavy plant to reinstate the historic routes of the River Gowy at one of our reserves.’

And the work is already bearing fruit, with researchers discovering water voles, signs of otters and an array of insects within newly created waterways adjacent to the Gowy less than 18 months after they were created.

Such successes however, can only be achieved by working closely with the landowning community. The Trust has set a target of getting 15 new landowners on board with A Living Landscape, some of whom are new to conservation, others already taking steps to become more wildlife-friendly through taking on RSPB survey schemes or allowing homes for species such as barn owls to be installed on their land.

Advice is key to making a positive impact, and much of the team’s work is involved with helping farmers to understand and make the best from the government’s own environmental stewardship schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship, providing financial support for projects such as different grazing regimes or reinstating hedgerows – another ‘corridor’ in the landscape.

In parallel to the tasks on the ground is the need to understand if wildlife is reacting favourably to the changes, and surveying and monitoring also remains critical to what the Trust calls a science-led approach to their work.

‘Understanding how we manage land for wildlife is about understanding the needs of the species living there,’ says Ben Gregory. ‘What’s good for water voles may be good for otters too, but we have to understand the intricate food chains at play in the landscape so we’re getting the maximum benefit for as many of the struggling BAP species as we can.’

‘It’s no good walking on to a farm and telling someone how to work the land they’ve been nurturing for generations, but if you can take that farmer to a ditch and say ‘did you know you have water voles living here?’ and then work through the changes they can make that won’t affect their day-to-day livelihood then there’s an opportunity to make progress.’

Creating a connected, restored and reinstated Living Landscape is clearly a lot to ask of one man, and so volunteers and the local community have also been encouraged to get their hands dirty and take ownership of the nature on their doorstep, with many hands certainly making light work when it comes to fencing and hedgerow creation.

The importance of natural defences in our ability to cope with a changing climate has also encouraged business to get on board, and in September, water company United Utilities made their own commitment to the Gowy Connect scheme by supplying a brand new �20,000 4x4 truck for the duration of the project, allowing Ben and the team to move people and resources into the heart of a Living Landscape.

‘We’ve started with the easy bit of the jigsaw, the corners,’ smiles Ben. ‘Now we’ve just got to get the hard bits filled in too, but at least we’ve got the next four years to finish it.’

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Gowy Connect project is supported by WREN (Waste Recycling Environmental) and the Environment Agency.

Words and photography by Tom Marshall

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