The internationally rare, salt-moulded Cheshire landscape deserves protection, according to Saul Burton, Saltscape Landscape Partnership: ‘Nature’s response to the changing profile of this landscape has not, until now, been fully recognised or valued.’
Saltscape includes the area through central Cheshire’s Weaver Valley from Frodsham to the salt towns of Winsford, Northwich and Middlewich. It is characterised by a unique mix of wildlife habitats, post-industrial landscapes, rivers and canals resulting from Cheshire’s industrial salt heritage. Salt underground in Cheshire has dramatically impacted the landscape, bringing economic and environmental change. The rich and often unique features within the salt landscape developed as a result of the underlying geology, which made the area ripe for commercial exploitation.
Small-scale exploitation of naturally occurring brine springs escalated following the industrial revolution, when an intensive process of extracting salt (via brine pumping and mining) led to the creation and eventual collapse of large underground cavities, forming ‘flashes’ – water-filled craters; and lime beds, the waste products from the production of soda ash. The salt works and associated chemical industries made up a crucial part of the area’s economic infrastructure over the last two centuries.
Factories and infrastructure have now been cleared away, and areas of derelict land regenerated under England’s national programme of Community Forests. Approximately 350 hectares of former industrial land on the northern edge of Northwich was transformed (via The Mersey Forest Partnership) into the nine inter-connected landscapes of the Northwich Woodlands. The Woodlands (encompassing Anderton Nature Park and Marbury Country Park) lies at the heart of the Saltscape. Ashton and Neumann’s Flashes are surrounded by a patchwork of grasslands, marsh, scrub and woodland. Lime beds, containing waste from the production of soda ash, now support flourishing grassland habitats and crucially important plant communities. Lime-loving plants such as creeping willow and the marsh helleborine – more commonly associated with coastal dune systems – like the salty conditions. Birdsfoot trefoil proliferates, attracting the larvae of the rare Dingy Skipper butterfly, a Local Biodiversity Action Plan species.
LANDOWNERS AND BIODIVERSIY
Partnership working between large and smaller organisations has been a key to bring about the improvements. Cheshire Wildlife Trust continues to work closely with landowners, offering advice, funding, and practical work on the conservation of ancient woodland, grassland and waterways to increase the area’s biodiversity. In the absence of active management, Cliff Brook Meadows near Acton Bridge had become overgrown with scrub. In partnership with the landowners, and chemical company Inovyn, Cheshire Wildlife Trust has cleared the scrub and replaced boundary fences. A local farmer’s cattle are now grazing the site.
TRAINING, EDUCATION, AND COMMUNITY
The Saltscape Partnership teamed up with RECORD (the biological records office at Chester Zoo) to offer a series of volunteer training days, focusing on species identification and wildlife recording specific to the Saltscape area. Trained volunteers did wildlife surveys to help build a better picture of biodiversity, and assist groups such as Cheshire Wildlife Trust to identify potential habitats in need of restoration. Saltscape also offers free training to local people.
Saul comments: ‘A key strand to the Saltscape plan is developing the skills and knowledge of local people.’ Events and courses have ranged from hedge laying, charcoal making, coppicing and woodland management to woodcraft, basketry and bushcraft. Saul runs many of the courses, including canoe building.
Education initiatives include guided tours for children from local primary schools – at the Lion Salt Works, to learn about the industry that employed or affected many of their ancestors, and then the woodlands to learn about the salt industry’s impact on the natural environment.
The Saltscape Community Woodland Trail links two Weaver Valley’s heritage features and tourist attractions – the Anderton Boat Lift, and the Lion Salt Works – via an extended and upgraded footpath and footbridge. Maps and leaflets (produced by Friends of Anderton and Marbury and the Mersey Forest), provide an overview of the complex relationship between nature and industry in that area.
As part of Saltscape’s digital media project, Mid Cheshire College students produced (with the support of Mako Education), several short promotional films about Saltscape. The project used social media to engage younger participants; Saltscape Partner Manchester Metropolitan University also co-ordinated ‘Animate!’ a programme of performance events celebrating the salt landscape.
Saltscape partner, Canal and Rivers Trust, delivered major projects (involving substantial investment) including the renovation of significant parts of the local area canal and river network, such as upgrading the towpath at the Blue Bridge near Hartford, creating a continuous 9km route between Northwich and Winsford, following the traditional River Weaver towpath. The Trust’s restoration project of the historic River Control Buildings at Anderton Boat Lift was jointly funded by public donations to the Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Work continues on water quality and habitat improvements as part of the initiative. Many other Saltscape projects preserve important salt heritage sites. For example, along the Trent and Mersey Canal, where volunteers recorded and refurbished the original Grade ll-listed mileposts, and at the Three Locks Wall on the Trent and Mersey Canal at Middlewich, a designated Conservation Area. The wall forms part of the fabric of the three locks system including sluices and weirs alongside the River Croco in Middlewich. Also in Middlewich, a sandstone monument on Salinae Fields celebrates the importance of the town and its waterways as a key salt route that runs through to the Anderton Boat Lift, Lion Salt Works and the ports. People were invited to try stone carving, and see the stone worked on throughout the life of Saltscape. Friends of Weaver Parkway were also assisted to install interpretation boards along the river in Winsford, allowing walkers to visualise the huge impact of the salt industry on that part of the town.
The Saltscape project ends in 2017. Saul comments: ‘I hope the collective impact of so many important causes under the banner of Saltscape will mean the project’s legacy will continue long into the future.’
The National Lottery’s Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has provided money for more than 175 Landscape Partnerships (LP) across the UK. The HLF’s LP programme is a grant scheme available for landscape-scale projects: ‘Alongside essential conservation work to the built heritage and a wide range of training opportunities which enable people to learn new skills, the projects also help protect valuable habitats and enhance local biodiversity.’