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Bringing nature back to the wetlands

Logo: The Wildlife Trusts Lancashire, Manchester & N Merseyside

On a spring day in 2020, the Manchester Argus flew on a Manchester moss for the first time in more than 150 years.

The first Manchester argus butterfly on Manchester's peatlands by Andy Hankinson
The first Manchester argus butterfly on Manchester's peatlands by Andy Hankinson

Not even the Lockdown could prevent this momentous flight of a butterfly that had been driven from many North West wetlands by development and agricultural drainage of peat.

Females butterflies had been transplanted from Winmarleigh Moss in Lancashire to Chester Zoo, where they gave birth. Caterpillars were reared at the zoo and their pupae taken to Astley Moss to be released as butterflies.

In other areas this butterfly is the large heath, but in the days of Queen Victoria, thousands on Manchester’s wettest areas gained the Manchester Argus title.

Tears were shed after years of work by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and, more recently, the Great Manchester Wetlands Partnership, which sees conservation bodies, councils, universities and the zoo, working together to restore and create a Nature Improvement Area covering 48,000 hectares.

Former iron and steel works Kirkless Nature Reserve, wigan by Alan Wright
Former iron and steel works Kirkless Nature Reserve, wigan by Alan Wright

It includes wetlands of Wigan (The Flashes), peatlands of Chat Moss and Risley Moss, and the Mersey wetlands corridor stretching from Rixton to Warrington.

The Great Manchester Wetlands is a unique and diverse landscape of water, fen, wet grassland, wet woodland and lowland raised bog.

Many of the areas are being transformed for nature, after hundreds of years as the Northern Powerhouse in the Industrial Revolution. In many places you can still see the remnants of mills, mines and biggest iron and steelworks in the United Kingdom.

Grasses grow and waters flow where thousands of people once worked to dig coal from the ground and use it to create goods to sell around the world.

Formed in 2011, the Great Manchester Wetlands Partnership brings together experts from over 20 organisations working together for nature by restoring habitats, reintroducing lost species and engaging communities.

It is delivering a landscape-scale community and natural heritage programme, to restore a nature recovery network of wildlife sites and corridors. This will allow wetland species to thrive in the face of increasing environmental pressures, such as climate change.

The area covered by the Great Manchester Wetlands Partnership
The area covered by the Great Manchester Wetlands Partnership

By 2025 the Great Manchester Wetlands will be a resilient and inspirational landscape that delivers real benefits to local communities and the local economy.

The benefits of the partnership are enormous for wildlife. Wildlife corridors are vital to all kinds of plants and creatures. Nature reserves should never stand alone, they should be linked so that wildlife can move around and seek mates.

One of the stars of the Great Manchester Wetlands is the willow tit, Britain’s most endangered small bird. The black-capped, brown-backed tit can be seen in scrub in fewer and fewer parts of the UK.

Its problem is that it chooses to live in scrub, which some naturalists over the years have tidied up to make woodland accessible. A willow tit’s territory is also a couple of hundred yards along a woodland, so any break, for housing or a road, cuts off that essential link to other birds during the mating season.

The Wetlands Partnership is at the forefront of ensuring this tiny bird has more places to roam and it is now increasing in numbers.

Huge landscapes of moss, lakes and woodland characterise the wetlands, and it is home to birds like the bittern, the lapwing and snipe. In fact, Salford birding legend Dave Steel regularly records between 70 and 80 different species of bird on his patch of Chat Moss.

Bittern have recently bred in Wigan for the first time in more than half a century – the nearest breeding site has always been 50 miles away.

Another UK rarity the water vole flourishes in the channels that carry water between the wetter areas. There are plans to reintroduce beaver into the local countryside.

Obviously, many of the wetland areas are wildernesses where few people from the cities of Manchester, Salford and Liverpool have ever visited. Agriculture and the peat industry made it a no-go area for most of us.

Now the Great Manchester Wetlands Partnership is actively encouraging people to visit the mosses and lakes. They are great places to see nature in the wild and to walk or cycle, escaping the confines of your home.

Cottongrass on Astley Moss by Alan Wright
Cottongrass on Astley Moss by Alan Wright

Paths are being built and, through the Carbon Landscape Project, families are being drawn back with exciting activities. The Carbon Landscape recently held an outdoor play to tell the story of the wetlands, at the Lancashire Mining Museum. The conservation story celebrated under an old pit wheel, created a poignant moment for everyone in attendance.

The MyPlace project encourages people of all ages to work outdoors for their physical and mental health, so expect to see youngsters working in the countryside with an eye on a career in conservation.

There are now paths around the nature reserves, stiles over fences and cows and sheep “cutting” grass side-by-side with human volunteers.

On a recent visit by a TV news crew, the reporter walked from an agricultural field, pushing bushes aside and was suddenly in a totally different landscape, Astley Moss. In front of him was a field of white cottongrass, swaying in the wind. “It’s like Narnia!” he exclaimed, “What a wonderful place to work.”

If you are interested in a job in conservation or engaging people in nature you can find out more about the work of the Great Manchester Wetlands Partnership, the Carbon Landscape and MyPlace at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust website www.lancswt.org.uk.

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