This autumn the National Trust will embark on the next phase of a long term programme to regenerate lowland heath on Bickerton Hill putting them on yet another potential collision course with locals because it means chopping down more trees and grazing sheep on the top which could cause conflict with dog walkers.
Chief Reporter David Holmes examines the issues on both sides.
Place names throughout Britain feature the word 'heath' but sadly heathland and the ecosystem it supports is under threat.
That’s why the National Trust is managing a Higher Level Stewardship agreement at beautiful Bickerton Hill, near Malpas, which is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of its heathland.
But it’s a difficult balancing act because nature conservation must run alongside the use of this natural amenity by dog walkers, school groups, Scouts and runners - and not everybody agrees with felling trees.
Since the war, birch trees have proliferated on the hill after grazing stopped but the shade they generate means heather and bilberry can’t thrive with implications for species such as adders, common lizards, slow worms, the silver studded blue butterfly, green hairstreak butterfly as well as birds like nightjars and linnets.
So, the National Trust, funded by government agency Natural England, has been thinning out the birch with a view to eventually reaching an overall 50/50 balance between trees and heather. But this has put them at odds with The Friends of Bickerton Hill group who organised a demonstration when the chainsaws roared into action back in 2008.
Explaining the vision, Christopher Widger, the National Trust’s countryside manager for Cheshire and Wirral, said: “The whole situation harks back a long way. But the current situation is we have a triple SSSI here. It’s designated through Natural England and central government for its heathland interest. The heathland interest is related to the flora and fauna that constitute an ecosystem. That ecosystem has been present on this hill for possibly thousands of years and in the last 50 years trees have got to the point where they have threatened it.
“All our managed landscape, which is pretty much most of Britain, has some control element over it. Here in this case we are trying to retain heath land. Trees are good, in the right environment. We probably do need more trees but we will conserve trees and encourage trees to proliferate on those valuable sites, so woodland sites which are noted for their woodland.”
Aside from the loss of trees, what upset some locals was when herbicides were used to kill off the birch saplings but appeared to decimate swathes of heather at the same time with unknown effects on wildlife. This seemed to undermine the stated of aim of regenerating the heathland.
Christopher, who disputed the amount of damage, responded: “Our big issue here is regenerating birch, birch trees are things that threaten, they proliferate more readily than any other species and we have to control them. If we can control them, heathland vegetation has an opportunity to flourish. If in the process of eliminating birch trees there is a minor element of collateral, that’s unfortunate, but fine in that once the threat from the birch has gone, it will recover.”
He also addressed the issue of using grazing animals on the hill to eat the saplings which has had mixed success with first cattle, now ponies and in future sheep being used.
“Ideally a combination of all three would be best of all but we haven’t got to that stage yet,” said Christopher, who explained that land management was a ‘complex’ issue which took time to get right.
In about a year’s time fencing will be installed around the site perimeter allowing sheep to graze on the hill for part of the year but this has sparked fears dog walkers won’t be welcome.
Putting the record straight, Christopher said people were already requested to keep dogs on leads during the bird nesting and breeding season, from March until July, which was when the sheep would be present so the same advice would apply.
“This place is for people to enjoy. That’s part of what we’re here for but we have to be able to manage the site in a way that I hope is reasonable and takes account of its significance and if that means putting sheep on then we would hope that people would help us and support us in the aim to conserve the site.”
Speaking with passion, Chris concluded: “There is good scientific, cultural and environmental significance behind it. This is a piece of our heritage and it’s diminishing, we are losing it. It’s important to me. It’s not just about ecosystem. If you look at the number of places in Cheshire that have the word ‘Heath’ in their title and all of this country, you see the word ‘Heath’, it’s gone.”
Campaigners query need to axe the trees
Retired businessman Tony Ord seems an unlikely ‘tree hugger’ but that’s exactly what the founder of the Friends of Bickerton Hill did along with fellow activists when the National Trust turned up with their chainsaws.
On that occasion the Friends felt they mitigated the damage, but Tony is unhappy the trust is coming back for round two because he claims he was previously told the 50/50 balance between heathland and trees had been reached and no more trees would go.
Nature lover Mr Ord, who lives nearby at Duckington, believes the trees have an aesthetic beauty, are good for the ecosystem but also provide shelter for walkers and stop the hill feeling bleak and barren.
“Trees have a beauty. There has been misinformation put around that the birch are ‘weeds',’” he said. “To me they are beautiful trees and if you come here when there’s a hoar frost, it just blows your mind. Since they started pulling the trees down the argument has moved towards trees so trees are now good.”
Tony has been going up the hill since he was a teenager and says you can see Liverpool’s Liver building from the top on a good day, but claims “the history of Bickerton Hill is one of mismanagement”.
“The idea was, get rid of the trees and the heather will start regenerating, which it has done, but the seeds from the birch trees were also in the soil as well . They started sprouting up into little saplings which you could just get hold of and pull them up. But the volunteers didn’t want to do that. So the trees got bigger and bigger. So how do we deal with it? We spray them and underneath the trees there’s the heather that’s been regenerating over the years. We spray the trees but we also kill the heather! What’s the point?
“This is a triple SSSI – people going on SSSIs with gallons of herbicide should be locked up! It’s not only the killing of the heather but all creatures that rely and live under it are also probably having a rough time of it, if not being killed.”
“And what you’ve done, you’ve opened an area up and these guys, the brambles, move in and take over, and they are even worse.”
He said cattle had been grazed on the hill for 10 years in the hope they would eat the saplings, latterly ponies had been tried but had also failed – leading to the use of the herbicides - and he suspected the latest idea of using sheep would not work either.
Tony feels the National Trust’s actions reveal the project is “more to do with the securing of grant money than conservation” although the trust insists its programme is about “doing the work the country needs” and plays down the value of the 10-year grant funding which totals £325,000 between 2013 and 2023.
“The headline should be National Trust kill off heath regeneration,” quipped Tony, who used to engage with the Trust over the management of the hill. “My argument was conserve the heathland, put all your efforts into doing that, but leave the woods so we’ve got woods and heathland. Eventually I was more or less told to go away.”