Bickerton Hill: National Trust respond

Recently we included a piece about the big changes happening to Bickerton Hill and the concerns of locals about the potential destruction of the landscape.

The National Trust has responded, arguing that the work will benefit future generations.

Here is their reply.

Bickerton is a fine example of lowland heath and its associated heathland ecology, which is one of the rarest, most threatened – and yet most ecologically diverse habitat types. Cheshire is fortunate to retain such a valuable site with such opportunity for enhancement and conservation. Lowland heath is now extremely rare and threatened in the UK and worldwide, and is widely misunderstood – and Bickerton Hill is considered to be one of the best examples of this type of habitat in the country. As such, it is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  It comprises well in excess of half the remaining threatened habitat of dry heathland 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 respond to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which was Britain’s response to the 1991 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. Bickerton Hill was gifted to the National Trust in two parts, the first in 1982, with the expectation of the benefactor’s estate that restoration of the heathland habitat would be implemented. This remains their position.
The natural ecology of Bickerton Hill
For possibly three thousand years, until the 1940s, the landscape of Bickerton Hill was entirely one of lowland heath, the only trees being present in boundary hedgerows. The heath at Bickerton, together with vast areas of Britain, developed over many centuries and was maintained by perpetual grazing of livestock such as sheep and cattle. Following a decline in grazing during the 1940s, due to a combination of agricultural economics and the need for the site as a military training area, grazing ceased and the landscape began to be taken over by self-seeding birch. Any seedlings which had always previously browsed by livestock, began to develop and create shade which prevents the growth of the natural heathland vegetation, such as bilberry and heather, with consequent adverse impact on heathland specific wildlife species including adders, slow-worms, lizards, the green hairstreak and silver-studded blue butterflies, nightjars and numerous other invertebrate species, which need open space in which to thrive. These and numerous other species rapidly declined in numbers and many are now on the ‘red data’ list of endangered species, threatened with extinction. From a nature conservation perspective, the dry, sandy lowland heathland is by far the most important feature of the hill.
Working towards ‘favourable status’
In order to return the SSSI towards ‘favourable’ site status, i.e. that at least 50% of the site is returned to lowland heath, Natural England has directed that this tree removal programme take place. The National Trust has a statutory obligation to ensure condition improves and does not deteriorate, indeed we expect to conserve and restore all our sites wherever possible. I can assure you, that projects such as this are sanctioned, quite appropriately at senior levels through the necessary protocols and statutory permissions.
Recent work is simply a part of a long-term plan, running since 1992,  to restore and improve the condition of the landscape and ecology of this precious place – and includes removal of trees which self-seeded between the end of the Second World War and the present day. If the presence of so many trees is allowed to continue and their numbers increase, this will ultimately destroy this rare example of this habitat.  There are no veteran trees involved, and blocks of woodland will be retained as well as a proportion of trees within other areas, typically, oaks, rowans, holly etc. to provide diversity and interest. Around 50% of the SSSI remains as woodland. Tree removal over the years, has reduced the fragmentation of heathland, thus providing links between areas which will enhance the opportunity for migration and development of species and populations. The greater the physical connections between areas of heath, the greater the opportunity for associated organisms to be successful. All felling work is licensed by the Forestry Commission under its Open Habitats Policy.
The effect of tree removal will be to multiply wildlife opportunity by enhancing the habitat of lowland heathland reliant organisms including the adder, glow worm, common lizard (which are not common any more), green hairstreak butterfly, and other ‘red data’ species. We know that certain invertebrate and bird species at least, present at Bickerton within recent decades, are now extinct in the county. The heathland ‘seed-bank’ still remains beneath the relatively young trees and felling will ensure light reaches the ground which encourages germination of the dormant seeds. So over forthcoming years, heather and bilberry and other heathland species will flourish.

The National Trust cares for sites of all types, all over the country and endeavours to ensure that management is based upon the key conservation features of a particular site. These features will vary tremendously dependent upon a wide range of factors, but for example where we look after ancient woodlands, then all management will be focused on conserving that woodland so that it remains forever. Likewise, where our wetlands, moors, peat bogs, coast, grassland, high fell or any other habitat type is threatened, a corresponding approach is applied and many projects exist throughout the country on Trust property where we are able to both conserve and positively influence change.

The future
Work over recent years has seen remarkable improvements in the quality and extent of heathland on the hill and with it associated wildlife, but heathland restoration is a lengthy process and the wider re-establishment of heather and bilberry etc. will take years, but with a reduced threat from birch seeding, combined with grazing, there is every chance that the already high quality habitat will become greater still.

Any disturbed ground is purely temporary, indeed, we fully expect areas which have seen any disturbance, to be those where heather and bilberry ultimately recover most quickly, as their dormant seeds are invigorated by this. Stumps will decay in a few years, in the process providing valuable dead-wood habitat. I recognise that change is something which people often find hard to accept, it generates an emotive response which can cloud objectivity, but in reality, the trees on the hill are just a recent change from an otherwise constant landscape of heathland, which has remained unchanged for many centuries – and which our forebears must have valued with each generation. Indeed heathland is a fundamental element of our cultural and agricultural heritage which is perhaps in more danger than any other landscape type of being lost altogether. A mature heathland is arguably one of the most magnificent of all our landscape types. And if we value our history and environment, then we cannot shirk our responsibility to undertake this restoration work. The National Trust core objective is the conservation of the great natural assets in our care, for the benefit of wildlife and successive generations of people alike, not just locals who live nearby now. We must not be fearful of managing for the long-term.
For more information about heathland restoration work by the National Trust and its partners at Bickerton Hill, you may like to visit