Bickerton Hill was gifted to the National Trust in two parts: the first in 1982 and the remainder in 1991. It was given in the knowledge that the site is significant as a good example of rare and threatened lowland heath, and with the expectation that we would manage this rare heathland habitat and restore it to a viable and thriving ecosystem.
Lowland heath is now extremely rare in the UK and worldwide, and Bickerton Hill is considered to be one of the best examples of this type of landscape in the north of the country. It comprises well in excess of half the remaining threatened habitat of lowland heath in Cheshire. Some 40% of Britain’s lowland heath has been lost since 1949 and 84% since 1800.
The restoration of lowland heath is an international, national and also one of Cheshire’s Biodiversity Action Plan targets, designed to align with the Biodiversity 2020: A national strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystems UK, a response originally generated by Britain’s commitment to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.
Until the 1940s, the landscape of Bickerton Hill was almost entirely one of lowland heath, the only trees being present in boundary hedgerows. The heath, much like once vast areas of Britain, had developed over possibly thousands of years and had been maintained by the cutting of any trees for timber, the perpetual grazing of livestock such as sheep and cattle and cutting of bracken for livestock bedding.
The impact of changes
During the period after the Second World War, due to a combination of agricultural economics and the need for the site as a military training area, grazing on the hill more or less ceased and the landscape began to be taken over by self-seeding birch. The seeds of a birch tree can be carried on the wind over long distances. Any seedlings which had always previously been eaten by grazing animals began to develop and create shade - which prevents the growth of the natural heathland vegetation such as bilberry and heather.
This led to an impact on heathland wildlife species including adders, slow-worms, lizards, the green hairstreak and silver-studded blue butterflies, nightjars, corncrakes and numerous invertebrates. Due to loss of habitat, these and other species are rapidly declining in numbers and many are now on the ‘red data’ list of endangered species.
The hill covers 91 hectares and was first notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1979 both as a representative of Cheshire’s remaining lowland heath and also for its wealth of associated reptiles, butterflies and other heathland flora and fauna. From a nature conservation perspective, the lowland heathland is the most important feature of the hill.