A woodland walk in Cheshire can be the perfect pick-me-up
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 December 2017 | UPDATED: 09:47 06 December 2017
Katie Piercy from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust on how getting out and about can help you avoid the winter blues
It’s the end of a long day as I park on the edge of a country lane and head down the farm track to begin my walk. Hedgerows with their red hawthorn berries and orange rose hips line my route.
I’m heading to Warburton’s and Hunter’s Woods, near Frodsham. They sit side-by-side and tell two very different stories. Warburton’s is an ancient woodland filled with species which were once common throughout Britain but have become frighteningly rare. Hunter’s on the other hand is a woodland still in its youth, planted only in 1999.
To reach the woods, I walk along the winding farm track, with fields of docile cattle grazing beside me. This takes me to the edge of the River Weaver and to the Weaver Way which offers walkers a 40 mile path taking in almost the whole of its course. With time and a bit of good luck otters, kingfishers and herons can all be spotted along the river’s banks.
On entering the edge of the woodland I can already see why it’s such a special place. Small-leaved limes jostle for space on the steep slopes, their smooth grey bark and pale heart-shaped leaves making them easy to spot. Often taken as an indicator of ancient woodland, these wonderful trees have been lost in much of our countryside through land clearance. Today, many planted woodlands are non-native species, meaning there are fewer places for the small-leaved lime to thrive.
It’s wonderfully peaceful as I enter the trees and set foot in the nature reserve. As I climb up the steep slope the canopy clears, and I find myself in a small meadow – here dead flower heads and long grasses stand proud. I can spot scabious, betony, curly-seeded meadowsweet, and the black seed pods of vetches. Though all past their best, these flowers are not lifeless. The hollow stems and bulbous heads will provide plenty of nooks and crannies for insects to hide this winter, and their seeds will be a tasty treat for scavenging mammals and passing birds. Of course some will survive the winter and next year will open to the sun once again – providing nectar for butterflies and bees. As I move, the light catches tiny drops of water balanced here and there on stems and hidden spider webs.
I head first to Hunter’s Wood, the younger of the two woods. When purchased by Cheshire Wildlife Trust it was an area of rough grazing surrounded by small patches of ancient woodland. In order to reconnect these woodland sites, thousands of tree saplings were planted including hazel, hawthorn, oak, ash, cherry and apple trees. Small glades were left between areas of planting to encourage wildflowers and allow for sunny patches, so loved by butterflies and day-flying moths.
A pond was also established and last year new benches were put in place. On a summer’s day dozens of dragonflies can be spotted by the water, such as beautiful green southern hawkers and small red common darters. It has now had almost two decades to stretch and grow into its new skin, a short period of time for a woodland but still enough for our trees to begin bearing fruits and becoming home to many resident bird species such as willow tits and bullfinch.
Passing by the young trees, I spot the shiny red berries of the guelder rose, the hanging black clusters on the elder trees and the fallen crop of apples, their sweet smell fills the air. Hundreds of thrushes will soon gather to feast on this bounty, with fieldfare, red wing and mistle thrush all expected. Though it will be many more years before people will be able to walk beneath the branches of these trees, and weave their way through thick trunks, nature is already moving in and making use of what we have created.
I then make my way to the entrance of Warburton’s Wood. The difference is immediately obvious, with magnificent old trees towering above me, large bracket fungus lining available crevices and ivy and honeysuckle feeling its way across the bark. Warburton’s is a wonderful patch of ancient woodland, saved from conversion to agriculture because of to the steep-sided gully on which it grows.
In spring the woodland floor will be brightly carpeted with violet bluebells, pale white wood anemones and yellow lesser celandine. Ancient woodland plants are slow to colonise and need continuous woodland cover for survival. Many of the flowers which grow here tell us this woodland has been untouched for many centuries, such as the yellow archangel. But for now, the flowers are all tucked beneath the ground and it’s fungi acting as the star of the leaf litter.
In the last two years, volunteers alongside Wildlife Trust staff have installed new steps and bridges, moving several tonnes of gravel along the steep slopes to allow better access to this fantastic woodland. As I walk I can hear the brook running steadily below, babbling over fallen branches, rocks and leaves. Around me dead trees lay scattered across the woodland floor, or standing proud among their live friends. These too are important parts of the woodland ecosystem. Hungry grubs and beetles will be living out their lives in the decaying wood and woodpeckers will use their hollows as a nest. And as the trees rot, fungi will emerge and become tasty treats for wood mice and other passing mammals.
Walking through the woodland it’s not hard to see why it’s such a special place for wildlife. Another rare and wonderful tree which can be found here is the wild service tree, historically well known for its small brown fruits. Leaves are strewn across the path, their brilliant colours adding vibrancy to the forest floor. Here and there delicate mushrooms stand in clusters and empty nut cases show the hungry work of the woodland creatures.
Stepping over the stile and back out into the fields it feels as though I’ve stepped back into the real world from one much older and wilder. Making my way through the fields, the sun slowly dropping in the sky I know the woods will soon be alive with chattering birds, hooting owls and scurrying shrews. But for a brief moment on a winter’s day I got to be a part of that world too, listening to the rustle of the leaves in the wind and the trickle of the water below. What more could you ask for?