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Our work to regenerate Bickerton Hill

Highland cow at Bickerton Hill, Cheshire
Highland cow at Bickerton Hill, Cheshire | © National Trust Images/Phil Neagle

Bickerton Hill is a significant example of rare and threatened lowland heath. Discover how we've been working to restore this rare habitat to a viable and thriving ecosystem since it came into our care.

Bickerton Hill’s international importance

The restoration of lowland heath is one of Cheshire’s Biodiversity Action Plan targets, designed to align with Biodiversity 2020: the national strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystems. The strategy isn’t just key for the wildlife in the UK, it’s of international significance and was originally generated by Britain’s commitment to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.

The lowland heathland is the most important feature of Bickerton Hill, which covers 91 hectares. It was first notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1979. It received this status because it is representative of Cheshire’s remaining lowland heath and because it has a wealth of associated reptiles, butterflies and other heathland flora and fauna.

Impact of environmental changes on Bickerton Hill

Up until the 1940s, Bickerton Hill was entirely an area of lowland heath with very few trees. Aerial photos from the period show more 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.

Why the landscape changed

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 all but ceased and the landscape became overrun by self-seeding birch which can be carried on the wind over long distances.

Seedlings which had always previously been eaten by grazing animals began to grow and create shade, which prevented the growth of the natural heathland vegetation such as bilberry and heather.

Moss growing on Bickerton Hill
Moss growing on Bickerton Hill | © National Trust Images

How is Bickerton Hill being restored?

With the guidance of Natural England, the government’s advisory agency, we're restoring Bickerton Hill to a ‘favourable condition’ in terms of its SSSI status. This will ensure a mature, sustainable and magnificent lowland heath landscape for years to come.

Since the site was donated to the Trust, we've been removing trees in various phases, while many have been left in situ. If birch trees remain, they will continue to set seed and will threaten the areas of restored heathland. Of the total SSSI site of 90 hectares, around half is expected to remain as woodland.

How removing birch trees helps other species

This restoration process allows light to reach the dormant seeds of heather and bilberry and other heathland vegetation species and promote their germination. It also helps to ensure the right conditions for threatened heathland wildlife species to return. At the same time, seeding birch trees need to be controlled by grazing.

The remaining trees on Bickerton Hill

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. There are no veteran trees involved. We retain trees of landscape value, such as specimen trees, copses, fringes and those which provide sheltered areas. Where we remove trees, we work to control bracken in order to give the dormant heather seed bank the best possible chance to regerminate.

Common lizard at Bickerton Hill, Cheshire
Common lizard at Bickerton Hill, Cheshire | © National Trust Images/Phil Neagle

What wildlife will return to Bickerton Hill?

The historical shift in Bickerton Hill’s environment impacted heathland wildlife species including adders, slow-worms, lizards and the green hairstreak, as well as silver-studded blue butterflies, nightjars, corncrakes and many 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.

Restoring habitats for species to thrive

Removing trees allows heathland vegetation to recolonise. It also means that 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, which improves the opportunity for reptiles, invertebrates and bird populations to increase.

Many species on the ‘red data’ list will also benefit. We hope that certain species now extinct in the county might return.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

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