Forestry Commission Ranger, Duncan MacNaughton on the beautiful nature surrounding Anderton Boat Lift
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 May 2013
Few of us get really close to nature, but ranger Duncan MacNaughton says nature in the raw is all around, and easily spotted in the fields of Cheshire. Words by martin pilkington photography by john cocks
At the Anderton Boat Lift car park our industrial heritage borders the Forestry Commission’s Uplands and Hopyards woods. Site Ranger Duncan MacNaughton soon leads us deep into the natural world – but sharp eyes will spot signs of ancient industry here – sometimes literally beneath the surface.
If ‘Forestry Commission’ suggests geometric rows of characterless pines think again.
‘It’s for the benefit of the public,’ explains Duncan. ‘Mixed planting, mainly broadleaf to fit in with the older stuff round here, oak, ash, plus quicker growing willows and so on.
‘At the turn of the century this along with dozens of other sites was purchased as community woodland with a government grant. It was to help regenerate the areas, to improve them and make extra woodland. Uplands is 29 hectares of which 21 are planted, Hopyards 11, seven planted.’
We enter via the Anderton Nature Park, part of the extensive Northwich Woodlands, some Forestry Commission land, some Cheshire West and Chester. ‘Nature doesn’t respect boundaries so the on-site maps don’t even mark them,’ says Duncan.
Early in our walk we cross meadowland beside newly-planted woods protected by rabbit fences. Nature doesn’t respect them either: ‘The badgers have made big holes, so the rabbits get through!’ Throughout our two-mile walk badgers are a recurring theme, scrapes clearly visible, their homes less so. Duncan indicates a picnic bench that at dusk is a prime badger-watching spot: ‘Their sett is by some brine-pipes feeding a chemical works over the Weaver Navigation, bringing a little warmth – central heating for badgers.’
On frosty mornings that warmth leaves lines of green among the rime. The undulating site has numerous habitats: ‘This was a mixture of woodland, farmland and tips and so on from old chemical works,’ says Duncan. ‘There are all the indicators that this is ancient woodland – like dog’s mercury, wood-havens.’
Magnificent oaks stand as proof on ground high above meandering Marbury Brook, but on low-lying wetland a greater rarity is found – Black Poplars. And near where formerly a 19th century chemical works stood there are Austrian Pines which Duncan believes were planted by the mill owner.
The former mill-lodge, now silted up, feeds a valuable wet-woodland eco-system: ‘We think we have otters, and sadly know there’s mink. But there are chub in there, and we suspect kingfishers are nesting upstream - this is perfect for them.’ Other birds appreciate the place too: ‘We have all three woodpeckers: lesser-spotted which are rare – they have a nesting place in dead wood in a wilderness area; the greater-spotted; and green woodpeckers that like to feed on ants, you’ll see them in what’s called June’s Meadow – it’s not fertilised or treated with herbicide so it’s good for them.’
That careful lack of care applies to some of the trees too: ‘Dead wood and fallen trees are good for some birds. And we leave some that fall in the water – the title of a report I read, “Fish Live in Trees,’”explains why.’ Not just fish either – he stops at a dead trunk where bees nest. A creature not present is the beaver, but a bench carved by sculptor Simon O’Rourke depicts one. ‘The inspiration was when I met some kids out with their Nan, building what they called a Narnia den, like a beaver lodge,’ a reminder this amenity is to be enjoyed – not something that could have been said of the smallpox isolation hospital that in the 1800s stood at its edge. Near one of the beautiful curved bridges built by the Forestry Commission he points out an island in the brook where last year youngsters constructed a play-boat of sticks long washed away.
Other benches dot the scene, including one symbolising salt crystals, another reminder of Northwich’s industrial heritage: “There are bits of mine workings around here, salt flashes, and a lot of hollows where subsidence has been caused by the old mines or just naturally.”
It is a facility the community has contributed to – some of the meadowland was sown with wildflowers by volunteers, trees now maturing planted at public events a decade back.
At the edge of the Hopyards site Duncan indicates the apple trees – old Cheshire varieties – and plums planted as a resource for people and wildlife alike. Disappointingly no residual hops have been found, but Cheshire’s celebrated gooseberries abound.
Duncan points towards the chemical works: ‘You see that inclined elevator? Near the top of its tallest support tower a raven has its nest.’
Nature there too at home with the industrial, though not as beautifully as in the new woodlands.