Exploring the prehistoric bogs of Delamere Forest

Beneath Delamere's pines lie a myriad of unique acidic pools shaped by the Ice Age - Andrew Walmsley

Beneath Delamere's pines lie a myriad of unique acidic pools shaped by the Ice Age - Andrew Walmsley - Credit: Andrew Walmsley

Locked away beneath Delamere Forest lies a world shaped by the last Ice Age, and some very special wildlife. Now, with the help of the local community, Cheshire Wildlife Trust is revealing these lost habitats once again, as Tom Marshall reports

Dr Vicky Nall from Cheshire Wildlife Trust with one of this year's young white-faced darter larvae b

Dr Vicky Nall from Cheshire Wildlife Trust with one of this year's young white-faced darter larvae before being released into its new home in Delamere Forest - Credit: Tom Marshall

When you think of carnivorous plants, jumping spiders and creatures that flew with the dinosaurs, you could be forgiven for picturing an unexplored remote rainforest or even a storyboard from a film. It’s unlikely then the first place that would spring to mind would be Cheshire’s Delamere Forest.

This perhaps unexpected location is now at the heart of a new scheme which aims to return some of our rarest wildlife back to where it once belonged. Although this recovery is all about a world that exists in miniature, size certainly isn’t everything.

Hidden beneath the sky-reaching pines of Delamere are myriad meres – shallow wetlands of moss and spiked sedges that shimmer in the low summer sunshine and twinkle with the pristine transparent wings of dragonflies and damselflies.

Unconnected to our rivers and streams, these huge bowls were left behind as ice scraped and carved its way through our landscape thousands of years ago, creating a unique ecosystem unlike any other. Plants and animals moved in, adapting to an often harsh, acidic place that few other species could exploit.

Like the vibrant lime greens of a springtime woodland, our meres too have their own forests, but one that’s just a few centimetres high that you need to get on your knees to explore. Instead of the stalwart oaks and ashes, the foundation of our meres and mosses is the peat bog super-plant, sphagnum.

These star-shaped, multi-coloured carpets help to form the base of a healthy mossland, acting as giant sponges, holding in water and maintaining the wet conditions that allow so many other species to thrive. So impressive is sphagnum as a means of storing water, it became the emergency field-dressing of choice among the bloody battlefields of the First World War.

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A century ago, sphagnum was simply a soldier’s saviour, but generations on we now understand that more than a mere medical must-have, sphagnum may also hold the key to our battle against climate change.

Healthy peat bogs and our meres and mosses have an almost unparalleled ability to successfully store carbon, the main protagonist behind climate change. Britain’s peat bogs and mosslands alone are already locking in several million tonnes of carbon, reducing the impact of global warming. Unfortunately, when these carbon ‘sinks’ are lost or dry out, that lock is opened and the carbon once safely stored away is released back into the atmosphere.

It’s this impact that Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Delamere’s Lost Mosses project is hoping to reverse. As well as the obvious benefits to our environment, this important recovery of habitats is also giving a boost to local wildlife.

Top on the list of beneficiaries of the new scheme is the white-faced darter dragonfly. This black and blood-red insect is one of our smallest dragonflies, but like all of these aerial acrobats is a close relative of much larger predecessors that will have flown among the dinosaurs. A feature of the forest a little over a decade ago, it has been extinct in Cheshire since 2003, but is now at the centre of a ground breaking reintroduction scheme being led by Cheshire Wildlife Trust and the Forestry Commission.

With a foundation of careful habitat management led by the Forestry Commission, the white-faced darter is now getting a second chance with young dragonfly larvae being reintroduced from Natural England-managed National Nature Reserves in Shropshire and Staffordshire with the help of volunteers. The Heritage Lottery-funded project is only the second of its kind ever undertaken for this rare UK species, and only the third time dragonflies or damselflies have been the focus of a reintroduction scheme anywhere in Britain.

Although heavy machinery has played a role in reducing the level of tree cover around the pools favoured by the white-faced darter and other dragonflies, hands-on conservation remains at the forefront of the latest phase to restore Delamere’s meres and mosses.

Led by project officer Katie Piercy, Cheshire Wildlife Trust has now been directing efforts at the mosses themselves, removing small trees like birch and non-native invasive species that have been the historical culprits when it comes to the loss of mosses through drying out. In all, more than 100 hectares of habitat is hoped to be restored, around the same area as 90 football pitches.

This approach has seen a band of regular volunteers heading out on to the mosses in all weathers, and has also allowed local community organisations like the Petty Pool Trust to get involved, with more than 80 students from the college already helping out with the scheme.

As well as opening up the mosses for dragonflies and ensuring that sphagnum can thrive and work its magic storing millions of litres of water, this work also benefits tiny plants like the round-leaved sundew, capable of capturing and devouring small insects with its sticky leaves.

Little more than a couple of centimetre across, their deceptively delicate and dewy-looking leaves harbour a dark secret that will find insects irresistibly drawn into a death that finds them being enveloped and slowly digested. This curious menu has come about as the sundews look to supplement their diet in this highly acidic and nutrient poor environment.

If carnivorous plants were not enough to fire the imagination, the project could also help Sitticus floricola, known locally as the Delamere jumping spider, a species found in just one other Cheshire mossland and a similar location in southern Scotland. Back in the air, the diminutive green hairstreak butterfly rounds off the list of wildlife that could soon be getting a foothold once again.

So with a helping hand from the community, this miniature world from the Ice Age in the heart of Delamere could be making a comeback, a microscopic menagerie that could make a big difference to saving the planet.

Find out more about the Delamere’s Lost Mosses project at cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/lostmosses where you can also read a regular blog about the wildlife in the forest and how the project is helping creatures like the white-faced darter.