Who owns Bickerton Hill?
Bickerton Hill is cared for by the National Trust. As a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its heathland flora and fauna, the Trust is obliged to manage Bickerton Hill under the direction of English Nature – the Government’s advisory agency. Bickerton Hill was given to the National Trust in two separate tranches: in 1982 and 1991.
Why is the hill seen as being so special?
Bickerton Hill is a place of wild and rugged tranquillity – and a wonderful habitat for a wide range of wildlife. Its landscape goes back thousands of years – and includes an ancient hillfort, built around 3000 years ago. Maiden Castle is one of six such forts on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Bickerton is also one of the few remaining areas of lowland heath in Cheshire. This type of landscape is extremely rare. Some 40% of Britain's lowland heath has been lost since 1949 and 84% since 1800 – and we have 20% of the world’s total here in the UK, which is why Bickerton is so important.
Who looks after the hill on a day to day basis?
We have a National Trust Ranger on site at our Bickerton office. She manages a team of volunteers who work on a variety of tasks across the hill, including working closely with a grazier and his hardy, traditional breed, Galloway cattle which graze the site to maintain the precious, natural heathland vegetation and prevent birch seedlings from becoming established. As well as managing the heathland and woodland, the ranger is also responsible for paths, signs, the car park etc.
Does Bickerton Hill get many visitors?
Yes – Bickerton is a very popular place for a variety of visitors including walkers (with or without dogs!), horse riders, wildlife and bird watchers and people who are walking the Sandstone Trail. Yet it is a peaceful place – and stunning views from the summit across the Cheshire Plain will have changed little for many hundreds of years. On a clear day you can see nine counties.
Are any other organisations involved with the Trust at Bickerton Hill?
Yes – we work closely with Natural England in the management of the hill. Other partners include English Heritage, the Forestry Commission, Cheshire West and Chester Council, the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and the Sandstone Ridge Trust. Alongside these bodies, we provide information for the local community as well as the many other people who visit.
What’s the background to the heathland restoration project?
Up until the 1940s, Bickerton Hill was entirely an area of lowland heath with very few trees. Aerial photos from the period show much greater open areas than today, with hardly any trees present. The lack of trees was due to farmers and local people cutting trees for timber and grazing their sheep and cattle which prevented trees from seeding. They will have also cut bracken for livestock bedding. These activities were carried out for thousands of years and ensured the heathland landscape remained.
However, in the 1940s, grazing reduced and seed from birch trees, blown in by the wind, began to set seed. Birch seeds can be carried for long distances. Until then any seedlings would have been eaten by grazing animals before they had time to grow.
Between the 1940s and the time the Trust acquired the site, with no livestock present, the trees developed to cover large areas of the hill and consequently their shading prevented the hill’s heather and bilberry dominated heathland vegetation from growing.
The effect on the hill’s native wildlife was dramatic with species such as the adder and glow worm almost disappearing alongside a decline in the Green hairstreak and extinction of Silver studded blue butterflies, the Corncrake and Nightjar and possibly many other species.
Lowland heath is now one of the world’s rarest landscape types. Since 1992 the Trust, together with its partners has been working to restore this threatened landscape and to ensure lowland heath returns to Bickerton Hill and to provide an opportunity for many endangered species.
How is heathland restoration being achieved?
The heathland restoration process requires careful removal of many of the birch trees which have continued to spread since the 1940s. This allows light to reach the dormant seeds of heather and bilberry and other heathland vegetation species and promote their consequent re-germination. It helps to ensure the right conditions for increases in the threatened heathland wildlife. At the same time, seeding birch trees need to be controlled by grazing.
Meanwhile, specimens of other tree species such as oak and rowan are left in situ, together with some birch trees which provide shelter for wildlife, or as focal points in the landscape.
With the guidance of Natural England, the government’s advisory agency, all this work will help in restoring the hill to a ‘favourable condition’ in terms of its SSSI status - and ultimately, in years to come, ensure a mature, sustainable and magnificent lowland heath landscape.
What is the scale of this work and how will it impact on the hill?
Since the site was donated to the Trust, trees have been removed in various phases, whilst many were left in situ. Remaining birch trees will continue to set seed and threaten the areas of restored heathland. Of the total SSSI site of 90 hectares, around half is expected to remain as woodland.
All the trees were self-seeded at some point between the end of the Second World War and the present and are of no more than 70 years old. There are no veteran trees involved. Trees of landscape value – such as specimen trees, copses, fringes and those which provide sheltered areas will be retained.
Where trees are removed, bracken control takes place in order to give the dormant heather seed bank, the best possible chance of re-germinating.
What wildlife will return to the hill as a result of restoring lowland heath?
Removing trees allows heathland vegetation to re-colonise and ensures areas of heath can be linked together, reducing the fragmentation of the habitat. This gives wildlife a much better chance of moving across the site to feed and breed. It improves the opportunity for reptiles, invertebrates and bird populations to increase.
Species such as the adder, glow worm, common lizard (which are not common any more), green hairstreak butterfly, and many other ‘red data’ species will also benefit. We hope that certain species now extinct in the county might return.
What does work on the hill mean for – horse riders, dog walkers or ramblers for example?
Wherever any work is underway, the rangers or contractors are tasked with responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of visitors. Various measures are put in place which may include signs, barriers etc.
Occasionally, we may have to close areas for limited periods. Horse riders should be aware that sometimes, work is noisy, and should remain cautious when approaching the vicinity of any work.
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