In the last 60 years, 99% of Cheshire’s grasslands have been lost

The Cheshire countryside (c) Tom Marshall

The Cheshire countryside (c) Tom Marshall - Credit: Tom Marshall

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Rachel Giles explores the impact on the environment and its wildlife

Friesians (c) Ben Gregory

Friesians (c) Ben Gregory - Credit: Ben Gregory

Cheshire is famous for salt, silk, footballers and cheese; all of which have shaped either the landscape, the architecture or both. The industrial heritage of salt and textiles is interlinked with our waterways. The rivers Bollin, Dean, and Dane powered the mills, whereas the river Weaver and the canal network transported goods to and from the river Mersey and the docks at Liverpool.

Many of our mills and canal bridges are now legally protected as important heritage assets; but the natural heritage of the countryside is less appreciated. In lowland Cheshire, above all else, it was the dairy industry and the production of world famous Cheshire cheese that shaped this natural heritage.

Cheshire’s warm wet summers are perfect for grass growing and where grass grows fast, plenty of milk is produced. Lowland Cheshire is dairy country and has been for nearly a thousand years. By the 1600s Cheshire cheese was considered the best in the country – its pleasing taste attributed to the quality of the fodder. Meadows and pastures grew fertility-building leguminous herbs such as red clover, meadow vetchling, bird’s-foot trefoil and a host of grasses, with captivating names like velvet bent, quaking grass and aromatic sweet vernal grass. Dairy farming was built on a self-sustaining ecosystem, where cow muck was the ‘black gold’ that helped return nutrients to the soil to support next year’s milk production. The pastoral landscape, from Malpas to Marple was a patchwork quilt of meadows, pastures and scattered corn fields stitched together with hedges of hawthorn and blackthorn.

Wildlife in Cheshire, as elsewhere in the UK, co-evolved with this farmed landscape. Species such as brown hare, barn owl, lapwing and skylark rely on low intensity managed farmland in order to feed and reproduce successfully. Herb rich hay meadows and pastures are also the larders for hundreds of species of moths, hoverflies, bees and butterflies – the species we rely on to pollinate our crops. These invertebrates sit right near the bottom of the food chain, underpinning everything else.

Betony (c) Philip Precey

Betony (c) Philip Precey - Credit: Philip Precey

Just 60 years ago this pastoral landscape began to change, slowly at first as fields were enlarged and wet pastures drained. The industrialisation of farming had begun, with new machinery and technology, pesticides, herbicides, new breeds of cattle and of grass; but above all it was the ability to produce ammonia-based fertiliser from atmospheric nitrogen on an industrial scale that most radically changed farming. This ‘Green Revolution’ is credited as saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation, but the miracle of turning air into bread, milk or meat came with a downside.

The industrialisation of food production in Cheshire and across the UK has meant that many smaller farms have gone out of business, unable to compete in a global market. This increased productivity has also affected the health of the countryside. Emissions of ammonia from livestock manures and fertilisers now exceed critical thresholds locally and pollutants from power stations, industry and transport have compounded the problem. Most wildlife habitats are highly sensitive to reactive nitrogen and this type of pollution not only impacts human health, but is thought to be a more immediate threat to biodiversity than climate change.

In Cheshire, reactive nitrogen pollution has resulted in the unravelling of farmland ecosystems, meaning many of our iconic farmland species and habitats are now teetering on the brink. Heathlands, acid grasslands and the wetlands of lowland Cheshire and North Shropshire are particularly sensitive. Once common flowers, such as harebell and betony which used to grow on Cheshire’s sandy roadside verges, are now confined to the hills, well away from sources of pollution. Birds such as lapwings that like to feed in invertebrate rich pastures are struggling to successfully rear young as their food source is slowly depleting and their breeding habitats are disappearing. Nitrate-laden water is seeping into ponds, wet woodlands and mosslands, changing their chemistry and impacting the species that live there.

The patchwork quilt may be unravelling, but there is still hope for harebells, lapwings, ponds and mosslands. Food production, housing and infrastructure will always be the top priorities, but it is possible to have thriving wildlife alongside efficient food production, and a strong economy. Recent reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxide in the UK are a move in the right direction but the environment is slow to respond, and reactive nitrogen levels remain worryingly high. In the meantime it’s more important than ever to protect and restore our remaining wildlife and start the job of stitching the remnants of our flora and fauna back together again.

Common blue butterfly (c) Philip Precey

Common blue butterfly (c) Philip Precey - Credit: Philip Precey

For over 35 years Cheshire Wildlife Trust has been working with landowners, local authorities, statutory agencies and other partners to secure a future for local wildlife habitats. This year we are assessing over 100 of the most fragile remaining sites to see what has happened to them since they were identified as Sites of Biological Importance by our volunteers back in the 1980s and 90s.

We are working hard to restore rare mossland habitats in Delamere, and we have reconnected wildlife habitat along the rivers Gowy and Mersey. We’ve pledged to create 100 hectares of species rich grassland in a decade (Pollinating Cheshire), and a new Glorious Grasslands project will focus attention on 300 hectares of species-rich grassland in the Peak District, providing advice and practical help to landowners.

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Cheshire Wildlife Trust is also working to restore the natural heritage of the post-industrial heartlands of Cheshire, by bringing back the unusual grasslands with their rare species that developed on salt industry deposits along the river Weaver. Our on-going work influencing planning decisions and policies and designating new Local Wildlife Sites across the county has meant that hundreds of hectares of important wildlife habitat are now unlikely to be built on. Where development does significantly impact on wildlife, we are pressing for new compensatory habitats to be created and looked after in the long-term. Many developers are now keen to incorporate wildlife habitats in their proposals, meaning that on some schemes the overall impact can be beneficial – a net gain for wildlife.

Clover rich meadows and wet grasslands full of dragonflies and kingcups once typified lowland Cheshire. They may be few and far between nowadays, but they deserve a place in our cultural history. These grasslands were the very fabric of Cheshire’s pastoral landscape, created because our traditional dairy industry was so successful. Today the last few remnants have taken on an even greater role as the refuges of Cheshire’s farmland wildlife, the last patches in the quilt.

The rolling Cheshire countryside (c) Rachel Giles

The rolling Cheshire countryside (c) Rachel Giles - Credit: Rachel Giles