The Green Angels project at Hassall Green Nature Reserve
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 February 2020
Writer Linda Sage, from Sandbach, tells Cheshire Life how joining the county's wing of the nature group, Green Angels, has benefitted more than just the local wildlife.
As I followed the grassy path through the wildflower meadow at Hassall Green Nature Reserve, it was hard to imagine that the tranquil space was once a landfill site and dump for demolition waste. With its rich woodland surroundings and wildflower meadows the site is now a safe haven for wildlife.
Under ownership of the Land Trust, since 2014, and managed in partnership with Groundwork West Midlands, this two-hectare reserve is home to the Green Angels.
The Green Angels project runs a variety of short courses on woodland management, horticulture and wildlife conservation. Courses run for a couple of hours a week combining training with practical volunteering on site, affording adults the opportunity to learn new skills in an environment which is beneficial to mental and physical wellbeing.
I came upon this jewel in Cheshire's landscape during participation in Sandbach's Walking Festival in the summer. Alarmed at the speed at which our green spaces are shrinking, it was encouraging to find a place where wildlife is being preserved and nurtured by great community involvement. There has never been a more critical time for communities to come together in this way to fight for nature, before we lose it for ever.
The reserve is only open to the public by appointment and via the Green Angels project. This non-disturbance of the site has allowed wildlife to establish; widening and strengthening the biodiversity of the area.
I attended the Wildlife Identification course, which involved putting names to wild flowers in the meadow and investigating the many species of insects, butterflies and different types of bees feeding at the site. The course also covered badgers, birds and bats that are all in residence.
Joining the Green Angels was a great way of meeting people with a mutual interest and respect for wildlife and the countryside, learning more about the natural world and becoming part of the wider community by sharing the care of this green space.
Mornings began with a friendly cuppa in the shelter of the woodland area as the training officers and trainees got to know one another, followed by a talk on the morning's topic. We were joined by a beady eyed robin hopping around the seating area in search of biscuit crumbs.
We learnt about the different species of birds habiting the site. Josie and Alex, our trainers, passed around a range of intricately woven nests, including a wren's globe-shaped construction of leaves, grass and moss, lined with feathers, and a blackbird's nest made from twigs and stems tightly woven together with a layer of mud cement, lined with fine grass. We closely inspected the pale grey pellets of tawny owls to discover evidence of what this hunter of the night might be feeding on: mainly small rodents and insects.
Alex also spun spiders into a new light for those of us not so keen on these eight-legged hairy creatures (myself included), by retelling Greek mythology's tale of Arachne, a skilled weaver, who challenged Athena the goddess of wisdom and crafts to a weaving contest. When Arachne's weaving far outshone Athena's skill, Athena turned Arachne into a spider. Then it was off to explore the site.
Often reserved in new situations, I soon found myself becoming absorbed in the moment: gathering seeds from the dried husks of yellow rattle flowers and sowing them in the larger wildflower meadow to encourage their spread. With the sun on my back and warm breeze on my face, the world seemed a far better place. I could see the other trainee angels relaxing too, as if nature had cast a spell on all of us.
Each visit to the reserve threw up something new. I rediscovered my childhood love of bugs during a net sweep of the wildflower meadow and on examining logs that a wren had been fussing over earlier in the morning. Shaking a tree with a white sheet held beneath brought down a variety of insects, including spiders, earwigs, aphids and all manner of larvae, and it was only a tiny tree.
Early mornings found a charm of goldfinches working the teasels for seeds, and clusters of cinnabar moth caterpillars feeding voraciously on a patch of ragwort, among marmalade hoverflies and solitary bees.
We all need time to unwind, leaving behind the mobile devices that dominate our lives, and it has long been documented that the great outdoors is beneficial to our mental and physical wellbeing. Interaction with nature can lower our heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve vitality and mood. Who hasn't gone for a walk in the countryside to take in the fresh air and returned home feeling cheerier and more refreshed than when they set off?
Whilst I saw my engagement with the Green Angels as a way of enhancing my knowledge of the natural world and giving conservation a helping hand, nature rewarded me tenfold.
The more I gave, the more I got back in terms of pleasure, relaxation and sense of achievement. And now, as the evenings begin to lighten and 2020 heads in the direction of spring, my thoughts turn to the wildlife at Hassall Green Nature Reserve and wonder how the different species have fared throughout the winter.
I can't wait to find out.