It is not a record to be proud of but Cheshire is one of the least wooded counties in one of the least wooded countries in Europe (Cheshire 4%; UK 12%; Europe 40%). This wasn’t always the case. In Medieval times, the forests of Mara and Mondrem covered 60 square miles of our part of Cheshire. This was slowly cleared over the centuries and now only tiny relics of this ancient woodland remain. Hob Hey Wood is one of those relics.
We’re all aware that trees can play and important part in the fight against climate change, but ancient woodlands are more important than just being carbon sinks. Ancient woodland is actually the most biodiverse habitat in Britain! Many of our rarest species are found nowhere else and the range of species that live here is unmatched by any other habitat. Ancient woodland is, therefore, an irreplaceable treasure of our landscape and once it is gone, it’s gone for good.
Hob Hey is our very own ancient woodland and has quite rightly been called Frodsham’s ‘jewel in the crown’. It’s nestled in a small valley between Townfield and Bradley Lanes and can be reached from both by the bridle path that connects the two.
A walk through the wood is a delight in any season, but the best time to visit is in spring. In April and May, the wood is carpeted by masses of wildflowers; the vivid sapphire of the bluebell, the dazzling white of the wild garlic, and the sunny yellow lesser celandine provide a feast for the eyes (and the nose, the wild garlic has a strong smell!)
At this time the birds will be getting down to breeding and the trees will be full of male birds proclaiming their territory with songs varying from the gorgeous cascade of the willow warbler, the magnificent melody of the blackcap, to the monotony of the chiffchaff singing its own name ‘chiff chaff, chiff chaff’ all day long.
One of the best ways of enjoying the birdsong is to get up early and listen to the dawn chorus. At the end of the night, the air is silent. Then as a glow appears in the sky, the first tentative songs are heard. Gradually, as it gets brighter, more and more species start to sing. Within minutes, an avian cacophony fills the air, for a while at least. As it gets fully light, the noise settles down as the birds go about their business for the day but leaving the human listener with a memory to treasure.
As well as providing the sounds of spring, birds feeding their chicks is one of the sights to look out for. Great spotted woodpeckers are just one of the species that can be found making use of the nooks in trees to raise their families.
Summer brings a different range of flowers such as the climbing honeysuckle. Scrambling to reach the sun, it can climb 30 feet up a tree, producing a mass of exotic looking flowers in the summer sunshine. Mats of yellow pimpernel pop up across the wood, contrasting with the delicate white spikes of enchanter’s nightshade.
Summer is the best time to see Hob Hey’s butterflies. Rare in Cheshire, both white-letter hairstreaks and purple hairstreaks live here as does the more common speckled wood. The best place to see butterflies, however, is the orchard. On a sunny day there can be around 12 species fluttering about as well as bees, hoverflies, damselflies, dragonflies, and day-flying moths. The air seems to actually buzz on days like this. Watch out for the cleg flies, though. These small horse flies can bite!
At the end of summer, Hob Hey has a ‘fruitful’ bounty to offer. The trees in the orchard will be laden with fruit, for visitors to pick and enjoy. Apples, pears, damsons, plums, all for the taking; eat them on the spot or take them home to make jam or cakes, they are delicious!
Early autumn is often the best time to see the wood’s bats. At least seven species live in the wood including the rare Nathusius’ pipistrelle. A bat detector can open up the secret world of the bats, translating their ultrasonic calls into high pitched clicks and squeaks we can hear. Standing in the middle of the wood at night, surrounded by the bent gnarled branches of ancient trees, can be an eerie experience, with the calls of tawny owls around you and the occasional crash in the undergrowth. Best to not go out alone if you’re easily spooked!
The wood can give a spectacular display of fungi in autumn, some are very colourful (yellow stagshorn fungus), some have weird shapes (trumpet fungus), and some have very strange names (king Alfred’s cakes, chicken of the woods)! A ‘fungal foray’ can be a very interesting way to spend a couple of hours in Hob Hey at this time.
Autumn is also the best time to enjoy Hob Hey’s trees. There are 26 different species in the wood (a few, unfortunately, non-native like the sycamore) and some of them have spectacular autumn colours. Visit in November to see the bright yellow of the birch, the shimmering bronze of the beech and the vivid gold of the field maple. The woodland floor gets covered in fallen leaves, stirred into piles by the wind lending a temporary swathe of colour to the brown earth. Some of the trees are ancient, like the ‘fairy tree’ in the northern part of the wood; an ash tree that started life as a sapling two centuries ago.
Hob Hey in winter may look bleak and uninviting, but if you look closer, it’s bursting with life. The lack of leaves makes the birds much easier to spot and winter visitors such as the redwing will be munching on berries all day long. The woodland specialists, great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch and treecreeper will be dashing about looking for food, calling as they do. You’ll almost certainly spot Europe’s smallest bird, the goldcrest, low down among the branches. An evening visit could spot the wood’s resident badgers and foxes hunting for prey, looked down upon by tawny owls doing the same. There have also been signs of muntjac deer and even a sighting of a polecat!
As we get into late winter, green shoots start to appear. Amazingly, these will be of bluebells and wild garlic that, in a few months, will carpet the woodland floor once again.