Exploring the heathlands of Cheshire

Cleaver Heath Photograph by Andrew Walmsley

Cleaver Heath Photograph by Andrew Walmsley - Credit: Andrew Walmsley

Katie Piercy from Cheshire Wildlife Trust, explains what makes heathlands so special and how we can help to save them from destruction

Common heather. Photograph by Amy Lewis

Common heather. Photograph by Amy Lewis - Credit: Amy Lewis

Heathland, though we may not always realise it, has long been one of the UK’s most iconic habitats. Where would Katherine and Heathcliff have been without the vast expanses of heather in which to lose themselves? In what dark place could Sherlock have pursued the hound of the Baskervilles if not through the sinister moorlands? Even so far back as the ‘wyrd sisters’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, hunched over their cauldron among the Scottish heaths, the landscape of rolling heather has captured the British imagination, both in its beauty and its wilderness.

Heathland in its simplest term is defined by its heather. A cover of over 25 per cent of heather or other dwarf scrubs is required to officially give the title of heathland. Beyond this things can become more complex, with heathland divided into wet and dry, as well as upland and lowland.

In Cheshire we are lucky enough to hold all four, each with its own array of specialist plants and animals. Our small area of upland heaths is dedicated almost entirely to the Peak District corner of the county, barely scraping in above the required altitude of 300m. But for the majority of Cheshire lowland heathland is our buzzword, and buzz it does.

Bell Heather Photograph by Andrew Walmsley

Bell Heather Photograph by Andrew Walmsley - Credit: Andrew Walmsley

Buzzing with life

Lowland heathland (dry and wet) is one of the UK’s most threatened and most valuable habitats for wildlife. Common heather, the namesake of the area in which it grows, blooms from July through to November, its small conical flowers dying the landscape a vivid shade of violet. Tucked between these voluptuous scrubs are their smaller sisters, bell heather and cross-leaved heath, their pink bell-shaped flowers offering handsome rewards for the visiting bees and insects.

Not only bees visit the blossoms. The iridescent green hairstreak butterfly hangs from the bulbous red flower heads of the bilberry plants, their bright wings flashing as they catch the sun. Common lizards bask atop sandstone outcrops, while secretive adders sliver through the undergrowth. Snipe zigzag past, escaping from hidden predators, warblers sing noisily atop the spiky crowns of the gorse and the rarer than rare sighting of a hen harrier, its magnificent grey wings outlined against the dark ground on its way up to its northern home, brings a sense of grandeur to the scene.

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The rise and fall of Britain’s heathlands

Over 20 per cent of the world’s heathlands are found scattered across the British Isles. Despite this, sadly 80 per cent of our lowland heathlands have been lost in the last 200 years. This loss can be attributed to a variety of factors but one of the greatest is the change in farming practices, and the reason can be dated back to their expansion, thousands of years ago in the Bronze Age.

Man-made wildlife paradise

Heathlands are a natural stage in the succession of woodland. Given an area of open land (where the soil is suitable), created by the fall of a tree opening up the canopy, or other natural disturbances, heathland will take advantage of the newly created space. However the reign of heather can be brief, saplings quickly growing through and in time shading out these lower shrubs.

A brief and vivid life springs up and falls back, unless the saplings can be kept in check. Grazing deer or other large herbivores can do just this, roaming these open areas looking for the fresh young leaves and bark. The heather, too tough to be palatable, largely escapes their attention. In this time the majority of heathlands survived in smaller standings, openings in forest glades, or places which were unsuitable for forest growth. Until the invention of the axe.

While stone axes had long existed it wasn’t until the invention of the bronze axe that felling began in earnest. Humans began to deforest large areas both for farming and hunting. Forests, with their many places to hide, were difficult areas to hunt, open grasslands and heathlands were much easier places to make a killing. By opening up the wilderness humans began to thrive and the heathlands expanded, kept open by the very animals ancient people pursued through them.

Skip forwards a few thousand years and farming now began to dominate the landscape. Now the work of the wild grazing animals was taken by domesticated beasts, grazed upon the heathland in small groups. In the present day the intensification of farming has made it possible to turn some of these poor quality farming areas into productive grazing fields and crop lands. Those which could not be put into production were often abandoned, the small living which could be made from them being too little to sustain a farming community in today’s world. Our heathlands began to fall into disrepair, slowly turning back into the woodlands they were thousands of years ago.

Hidden gems

Cleaver Heath was once an area of rough grazing. Kept open as far back as the 12th century it supported many of those wonderful heathland species we admire. However in the 1990s the heathland came under threat of development.

Local people came forward to save this ancient habitat, campaigning for its protection and eventually helping it gain Site of Special Scientific Interest status. The area was internationally recognised as being important for wildlife and therefore protected from the threat of housing. However, succession had already begun to claim this area and local volunteers assisted the Cheshire Wildlife Trust in fighting back the scrub, beginning an annual programme of clearing.

Mike Maher, the voluntary warden of Cleaver Heath, who oversees the 3.7ha of lowland heathland said: ‘It is the mixture of open heath with its common lizards, heather and both European and Western gorse, managed scrub, woodland and stunning views over the Dee estuary, which make this such an attractive and important reserve.’

Surrounded on three sides by houses and on one by farming, Cleaver Heath demonstrates two things very well, how isolated our heathlands have become, and how well loved these pockets of wilderness are. Research indicates that access to green spaces not only helps improve people’s mental health, but also their sense of connection to nature and general wellbeing.

While Cleaver Heath is an excellent example of the restoration and maintenance of lowland heathland, it isn’t the only example in Cheshire. The Sandstone Ridge holds the largest areas of lowland heathland in Cheshire, while Lindow Moss is an excellent example of wet heath. And in Delamere Forest the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, in partnership with the Forestry Commission are seeing the return of the green hairstreak butterfly, among other specialist species, to areas restored to heathland after hundreds of years.

What will the future bring?

For many of these sites it is the work of conservation charities or private landowners which is saving them from destruction or restoring them to their former glory. No longer economically viable to graze, heathlands are either kept open by human hands or grazed with small herds of conservation cattle, the sole purpose of which is protection, not profit.

However, the benefits of maintaining our heathland sites still far outweigh the costs, as they shelter our wildlife, lift our spirits and add a splash of colour into our landscapes. Perhaps heathlands have long relied on humans in one way or another, but in the future we may find ourselves relying on them far more than we realise.

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