Brough Park planted woodlandTwo MCA members met in a park; their task – to investigate a piece of land on the edge of Leek, and learn a bit about mapping and tree conservation while they were at it. One member, Mark Johnson, had spent his life buried in maps but when it came to trees, struggled to tell his Ash from his Willow. The other, Mark Cunningham, had over a decade of conservation work as a countryside ranger for the National Trust behind him.

Picture yourself in Brough Park, standing near the skateboard park on the main tarmac road. In the distance are some large trees, long grass and, if you have reasonable eyesight, some newly planted trees in tree tubes are just visible. Mark J explained that this was where one of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council’s ‘community orchards’ had been planted. ‘Strange’, said Mark C, ‘some appear to have been planted in the shade of the mature trees, they won’t grow very well there’. On closer inspection, the shaded trees in question turned out to be ‘understory’ shrubs, smaller trees like hazel and hawthorn, which naturally grow in woodlands beneath taller trees. They should be fine.

Mark J explained that an earlier attempt at new planting on that site had proved ill-fated. Without any community involvement or care, the trees had fallen victim to vandalism. But so far, only one of this generation of saplings had been destroyed by human action. The fruit trees all seemed to be doing OK, and will eventually make an attractive addition to the park. They looked to be a selection of fruit trees – pity there are no labels – but maybe they will be added later for the benefit of the inquisitive.

Beyond the orchard, a gloomy woodland beckoned. This is where the border lies between Brough Park Fields – a local nature reserve that has been scheduled for transfer to the management of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust for some years now – and land whose status we were both unsure of. In the shadows is a deep crevice with a small stream flowing. Intrigued, we look to see if we can work out why it is here. As the area was once part of a formal garden – that of the old Ball Haye mansion – we wondered if it could have been a deliberate feature, or perhaps have had more of a practical purpose and so was hidden away under trees. Parts of the cutting showed signs of having once been edged in cut stone, adding to the intrigue.

Later, looking at old Ordnance Survey maps, it appears that the stream may not have been present in 1888, but was possibly shown in 1925. The stream looks to originate in the vicinity of a pond that was originally at a farm or house named Fowlchurch (now the site of the recycling site and depot). Beyond the stream over a small bridge, we definitively find the local nature reserve and a sad old sign (below left), heavily defaced, once explaining more about the area for visitors. It looks a bit LNR sign at brough parkunloved and unmanaged; perhaps when Staffordshire Wildlife finally take over the management of the site things will improve. There is a good selection of trees: lots of English oak, limes, ash, beech, scots pine, guelder rose and hawthorn, probably planted. An aerial photo from 2006 (below right) shows the likely extent of the newly planted area. 

Image 2Mark C points out all the species we can see; Mark J, while fascinated, struggles to contain all the information! The woodland seems gloomy and Mark C indicates it probably needs some trees removing (often called thinning) so that the remaining trees have room to grow outwards as well as upwards (top image). Emerging from the gloom into a more open area, Mark J says this is the site of the old tip. Mark C is amazed and is surprised that such a hidden gem of an area exists. We see lots of trees, and it is particularly strange to see so many trees associated with water like alder and willow in what appears to be a dry area. This was a summer visit, and the area will be a lot wetter in the winter. Alder may also have been planted for its ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and improve soil fertility. Indeed, Mark C’s subsequent research on its history has shown the presence of a large, non-permeable cap over the old tip site. It seems an unmanaged wild place with signs of species like silver birch and rosebay willowherb which often colonise newly disturbed earth. A later computer search shows that back in 2006 this area was completely barren, and that by 2013 areas had been planted and some early colonisation by wild species was taking place (Paired images below left).

Images 3 and 4Pushing into the areas of more mature trees shows that some have been planted in regimented rows; some still have tree guards, well past the time they should have been removed, almost strangling the trees. We spot a lovely large purple loosestrife in full bloom, a plant which is not too common. This, too, grows well in wet spaces, and although not strictly a UK native plant, it still provides lots of nectar to long tongued insects such as the Brimstone butterfly. Encouraging signs are that we see lots of (unplanted) tree saplings, from tiny one-year olds (below left), to more mature specimens towering over us. This indicates no grazing from either farmed or wild animals such as rabbits or deer. This turned out to be another good area to point out tree species, like field maple, which can be differentiated from the other trees of the maple (Acer) genus by the angle of its seeds (diagram below right).1Acers

brough park oakletNice wildflower species spotted included birds foot trefoil, meadow buttercup, red clover, knapweed, and common spotted orchid. Towards the end of this wild piece of land, as we are nearing the new development of Nightingale Gardens, the flowers suddenly change, along with the bedrock. We are now on the boulder clay which underlies Haregate. Ladies bedstraw was the most prolific plant. In this area we find interesting oak saplings in this area with huge leaves probably caused by a phenomenon called ‘phenotypic plasticity’ which can cause leaves to grow larger than normal, in areas of low light (below left). Reading this later, Mark J is impressed with the phrase but a little disappointed with the scientific explanation, having pointed out that, with its oak-fringed glades, this area would be an obvious meeting place for those of a more Wicca bent!  Also in this area we find a planted stand of trees being strangled by their tree guards (below right). Perhaps a future MCA activity could be to remove them?

Oak with huge leavesPart of the reason for the walk in the first place was to investigate the areas on the ‘Habitat Opportunities’ map produced by Staffordshire Wildlife for SMDC as part of its Green Infrastructure Strategy. Subsequent research by Mark C unearthed the tangled history of the old Fowlchurch tip site – the replanting was conducted on behalf of Staffordshire County Council. Planning permission had been granted back in the late 1990s for a golf driving range. When the ultimate owner sought to renew this permission in 2004 it was refused on the grounds that it would interfere with the post-tip remedial work. Landfill gas was being channelled and monitored and public access was not to be encouraged. (Intriguingly, scrawled notes on the planning documents indicated that the land was also being considered as part of ‘the emerging Leek Cycling Strategy’. That was back in 2004!) 

Ibrough Park woodland with tree guard croppedt is not immediately clear what the future holds for the site – whether the County now considers its remedial work completed and it will be allowed to regenerate without any further management? At the moment it forms part of the wider landscape along the North-eastern fringe of Leek. That area has great views to the North – Gun Hill and the Roaches and is clearly used by residents tracking to and from the Churnet Valley, as well as dog walkers. Mark C suggests the planted area could benefit from some light-touch management like occasional grazing to keep the whole area from reverting to woodland.

With the adjacent Brough Park Fields Nature Reserve set to come under the eye of Staffordshire Wildlife, and with the renewed focus on biodiversity, not least from the Green Infrastructure Strategy, this might be the time to consider the future of this intriguing swathe of landscape so close to the centre of Leek?

1. Editor's note.  A handy key for remembering the different maples is: Field maple - Handlebar; Norway maple - Zapata and Sycamore - Walrus.