Walk on the wild side in Cheshire's Peak District (with audio)

Exploring the Cheshire Peak District from the heart of Macclesfield Forest is the best way to encounter some of the region's most impressive wildlife, as Cheshire Wildlife Trust's Tom Marshall discovers

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With Cheshire’s familiar rolling green hills and picture perfect hedge-lined fields, it can be easy to forget our rugged north east corner, but it’s here where the county gently nudges its way into the Peak District that some of our most spectacular wildlife can be found.

Exploring a variety of habitats is often a sure-fire winner when it comes to seeing some of our smallest, fastest or simply the most iconic of our wildlife neighbours, and a trip through Macclesfield Forest onto the uplands of Shutlingsloe is an ideal place to start.

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve at Trentabank reservoir was originally established to protect a heronry of around 20 breeding pairs of grey herons - which remain to this day, however there is much more than the summer high-rise residences of the herons to be enjoyed here.

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Once confined to the Tower of London and our remotest uplands, the raven - our largest crow, has made something of a comeback and can now be found in almost every county in the UK. Distinctly large, black and with a wedge-shaped tail, its guttural and croaking call is likely to echo above the trees in the forest as it roams between the valleys and onto the moors.

Slightly larger and often gliding with only occasional wing-beats is the buzzard, another resident of the forest that is easily seen as they soar in search of ‘thermals’ to enable ever-higher flight. 

The presence of the ‘‘tourists’ eagle’’ as those north of the border like to call it, is not the only similarity with Scotland once you find yourself deep in the Macclesfield Forest. The patchwork of bilberry and bracken, broken by occasional streams on the forest floor is easily reminiscent of the Highlands, especially on a dour winter’s day when the mist clings stubbornly to the tips of the pines. It’s during this most British of weather however, that you may find yourself being watched, as the forest’s resident red deer venture out from the dense woods to feed along the reservoir shore or among the open rides.

From the largest of our mammals, it may only be a careful scan through the trees above that provides an encounter with our smallest bird - the goldcrest, a diminutive and energetic character that can weigh as little as five grams. As you might expect, goldcrests and another of our smallest birds the coal tit, find safety in numbers over the winter months and these large roaming flocks of tits and finches can make themselves known as they pass along the woodland edge - often close to the main parking areas.

Macclesfield Forest is also home to the curiously named crossbill, a somewhat elusive sparrow-sized bird whose upper and lower bills cross at the tip - providing the perfect tool for grappling with their food of choice - pine seeds, with the beak is ideally suited for prying apart cones to extract the seeds.

Before you leave the forest and venture onto the moors above, take a moment to look out across the water. The delightful goldeneye will often make its way to the Trentabank and Ridgegate reservoirs in winter, after spending the summer in upland streams or Scottish lochs where, quite astonishingly for a duck, they nest in a tree - with the young goldeneye’s first taste of the world being a leap of faith from several feet up.

In early spring, there’s also the chance of catching a glimpse of the male goldeneye’s courtship display, a spine-twisting backwards neck flip. Perhaps the finest rewards though come for those make the 1660ft accent to Shutlingsloe, the ‘Matterhorn of Cheshire’, which affords panoramic views above the forest and across the Cheshire Plains. It’s also here where you may witness Cheshire’s fastest feathered resident - the peregrine falcon, capable of speeds in excess of 200mph in a hunting dive. More likely to fear the hunter’s shotgun, the unmistakeable ‘go-bak, go-bak, go-bak’ call of the red grouse completes the picture of Cheshire’s wild corner of Peak District. 

The walks

From a short stroll through Cheshire Wildlife Trust's Trentabank nature reserve to a 9km circular route onto Shutlingsloe, there is a walk to suit everyone's interest at Macclesfield Forest. There is also easy viewing of the heronry from the car parking area close to the nature reserve. You can find a map to all of these routes at the Peak District National Park ranger station at Trentabank reservoir (weekends only, walking guides are still available when the centre is closed), or on www.peakdistrict.gov.uk/visiting.

Getting there

Trentabank reservoir is around three miles south west of Macclesfield. From Macclesfield follow the A523 (Leek road) south for about half a mile and then turn left (Byrons Lane) towards Sutton and Langley. After a mile turn left to Langley. The reservoir is after about one and a half miles, signposted 'Macclesfield Forest'. There is car-parking and a visitor centre immediately opposite the nature reserve. Trentabank reserve is managed by Cheshire Wildlife Trust in partnership with United Utilities and access to the wider nature reserve is by permit only.

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