Dream is located on the prominent summit of the former Sutton Manor Colliery in St.Helens, Merseyside. Midway between Liverpool and Manchester, Dream is close to Junction 7 of the M62 motorway.
The site offers good views across the Cheshire and Lancashire plains, out to the mountains of Snowdonia, the Pennines, the Peak District, and some of Manchester's landmarks.
For satellite navigation please use postcode WA9 4BB; following signs for car parking in King George V car park.
Sutton Manor Woodland is open to the public throughout the year, please be aware that the paths leading to Dream have reasonably steep gradients and may not be suitable for all visitors.
Nature Notes By Sally Edmondson and Tom Ferguson (November 5 2021)
A Changing landscape
The three former colliery tips at Sutton Manor, Clockface and Bold (now Colliers Moss) are central to the wildlife diversity of Bold Forest Park. Each has something different to offer but all have one thing in common,
These are young woodlands in a changing landscape. In the last 20 to 30 years bare colliery spoil has been transformed as young saplings have grown and established themselves. But these woodlands will continue to grow and mature and as they do so the mix of species and character will change. Quick growing but relatively short lived species like birch and willow will become less dominant to be superseded by oak and ash. Unless managed, open areas of grassland and heath with their associated wildflowers and insects will be replaced by trees. Birds of scrub like Willow Warbler and Whitethroat will be superseded by birds of woodland such as Nuthatch and Woodpecker
Colliers Moss before the coal mines
Before the first shafts at Bold Colliery were sunk in 1875, this part of St Helens was on the western edge of the South Lancashire mosslands that stretched eastwards towards Manchester. These were the same mosslands that Stephenson had to negotiate in constructing the first passenger railway line which runs past Colliers Moss. He did this by floating the line on the top of a thick bed of heather and branches.
It was a flat waterlogged landscape of moss, sedge and rush. Over the years the vegetation had accumulated to form thick beds of peat which was still being extracted into the sixties. In places where it was drier heather, moor grass and birch woodland became established
The earliest tipping of colliery spoil took place south of the Liverpool to Manchester railway line. Then in 1955 tipping commenced on the former mossland north of the railway line. It is here that small fragments of the original mossland vegetation can still be found around the edges of the spoil tip.
Memories of the Mossland
About a year ago I met someone on Colliers Moss who could remember the moss before the tip .He told me about the birds like Skylark and Curlew he saw. I am sure there must be colleagues of yours with similar tales to tell. A section recounting their memories of the moss would be brilliant.
Little fragments of the original mossland can be found around the southern and western edges of the former tip which is now wooded. The most important plant of the mossland was Sphagnum.
Sphagnummosses are amazing plants that grow in very wet conditions where they commonly form almost all of the plant material in the habitat. Looking a little like miniature trees, the moss plants grow continually upwards as the dead parts accumulate, as no decay occurs in oxygen depleted, waterlogged conditions. Thousands of years of accumulation of Sphagnum and other wetland plants in these flat waterlogged plains between Liverpool and Manchester lead to formation of thick layers of peat. Sphagnum has the amazing ability to absorb up to 20 times its own weight of water, meaning that these extensive areas of mossland were like an enormous sponge, retaining huge amounts of water.
From the later seventeenth century onwards the Lancashire mosslands were drained to form high quality farming land. Peat was also extracted in places to use in horticulture. The mosslands were also fragmented by other land uses such as the dumping of coal waste that occurred later in St Helens. This habitat, that requires an extensive waterlogged landscape, was therefore diminished and degraded. Ninety eight percent of this habitat has been lost in the region. Small patches of Sphagnum still survive in the remnant fragments of mossland around Colliers Moss, but actively growing peat is no longer possible.
Coal waste and how it influences habitat
Coal waste consists of the sandstone and shale rock within which the layers of mined coal were found. This rock waste is rich in iron sulphide, which makes the substrate extremely acid and thus very inhospitable for plant colonisation. In addition there are no plant nutrients such as nitrate or phosphate.
Given enough time, plants such as birch, heather and grasses will colonise the coal waste, but when faced with large, unsightly areas of bare coal waste, land managers in some places took steps to encourage more rapid development of plant cover. On Colliers Moss large amounts of limestone were used to help neutralise the acidity. In a few places, for example some patches on Sutton Manor, topsoil was used. On Colliers Moss, large amounts of pulverized fuel ash (PFA), a waste material from coal-fired power generation, was also dumped. In contrast to the coal waste, PFA is highly alkaline in nature, resulting in a huge contrast in conditions that is rarely found naturally. Thus today there are plants typical of acid places such as heather and moor grass growing in close proximity to species such as yellowwort and centaury?? normally found in limestone or coastal sandy areas
In some places, especially where lagoons received particle-rich water pumped out of the mines, the substrate is like clay which stops the free drainage of water. Areas of open water therefore developed, which in some places have been invaded with the tall Common Reed. This is most extensive in the two former settling lagoons on the top of Colliers Moss.
Colliers Moss-a new landscape
In 1990 the Groundwork Trust acquired the spoil tip on Bold Moss from British Coal and started a programme of restoration. One of their key objectives was to try to recreate some of the features of the former mosslands by importing heather brash which was left to seed.Today we can judge the success of that. Unlike any of the other restored derelict land in St Helens, Colliers Moss has extensive areas of heather. It is accompanied by tufts of Purple Moor Grass,Gorse and Silver Birch,all heathland species giving this site a very distinctive character
Redressing the balance
Over the years exploitation in various ways has resulted in loss and degradation of habitat and biodiversity. The farming landscape, essential for producing food, has extensively replaced unique and species-rich environments. Urban spread and industry has obliterated the previous rural landscape. In addition, the mining and burning of coal, and the draining and extraction of peat on the mosslands has sadly resulted in the release of huge amounts of carbon that were previously locked away underground, thus significantly contributing to climate change.
The large areas of coal waste that form Bold Forest Park have provided a wonderful opportunity to provide extensive areas of new and varied habitat for species lost from elsewhere, areas of greenspace for people to enjoy, and increasing amounts of biomass, especially the trees, that lock away carbon from the atmosphere.
Silver Birch dominates Colliers Moss but most of it has not been planted. The birch is a "pioneer " species able to colonise bare and disturbed land. It was one of the first trees to invade the bleak tundra landscape after the last ice age and is well known for colonizing industrial and derelict land It is perfectly adapted to spread quickly. Male and female flowers are on the same tree and are wind pollinated in case insects are in short supply. Each tree can produce around a million seeds which are small and winged so they can travel long distances. On germination they have another trick involving their relationship with fungi . That is a fascinating story the subject of another section
The Silver Birch is an attractive tree with its white bark and yellow leaves in the autumn. It grows quickly,invades aggressively and dies relatively young (usually after about 60-70 years). It is a valuable tree for other wildlife supporting around 300 different insect species.Many fungi are associated with birch including the white spotted red fly agaric
Common Heather or Ling is a plant characteristic of dry acid places and extensively grows over our mountains and moorlands. The coal waste provided an ideal habitat for this plant, which had persisted in small remnant patches of the former landscape. In summer and early Autumn it is now possible to see beautiful patches of pink flowering heather on Colliers Moss. The persistence of these heathland areas will depend upon management to restrict the invasion by trees which would naturally replace them.
Fungi and Trees
We can't see this, but there is a very close relationship going on between trees and fungi in amongst the roots which not only underpins how the trees are growing but goes to the heart of our very existence on the planet.
Fungi are not plants but are in a kingdom of their own. A fundamental characteristic is that unlike green plants they do not possess chlorophyll so cannot produce their own food. Like us they have to go looking for it and do so in a variety of ways. One of these ways is to tap into the roots of green plants including trees and basically "steal" the sugars the plants have produced. However, in return, the fungi improve the ability of the tree to take up water and make available other essential minerals and trace elements like phosphorus. It is a mutually beneficial relationship known as a mycorrhiza meaning "fungus root".
Some trees such as Oak must be assisted by a fungus before the first seed leaves break the surface otherwise they will die. Others like Birch can survive without a fungus partner in their early years hence the advantage they possess to colonise barren soils.
The mycorrhizal relationship is so important that without it most green plants would not survive. And if they don't survive then neither do we.
Some of the fungi are specific to certain trees. Look out for the following in late summer and Autumn:
Common under birch in particular but also pine. Very distinctive with its red cap and white spots. It is poisonous and before the days of insecticides would be placed in a plate of milk to attract flies which were stupefied and more easily swatted.
More frequently found on Colliers Moss under birch. It has a pink woolly cap and if broken exudes white milk. But don't try tasting it-it is very acrid and poisonous
Orange Birch Bolete
A large and striking orange capped toadstool found under birch with black speckled stem.The underside of the cap has pores rather than gills and looks like a sponge
A grey toadstool which grows under pine. It can be very abundant
Another toadstool with a spongy underside to the cap but this one only grows with larch and is bright yellow
Horsetails-a link to the past
If you have Horsetails in your garden you have a problem. They are really persistent plants spreading through the soil by thin black rhizomes which may be up to two metres deep in the soil. If broken, and they break easily, new plants will form from each fragment. The trouble is horsetails have had plenty of time to enhance their survival skills. The horsetails we see today are the descendents of a large and important group of plants with tree sized species which grew in vast tropical swamp forests hundreds of millions of years ago.
It is from these forests, growing around 300 million years ago that coal formed. The dead plant matter on these deoxygenated, waterlogged forest floors could not decay and gradually accumulated to huge depths. Over millions of years of pressure underground, these layers turned into coal, with layers of sands and silts deposited in between them forming sandstone and shale.
In spring, yellowy brown spears looking like asparagus emerge bearing spores. These are followed by the sterile green fronds looking more like mini pine trees. The stems can be dismantled in sections and then put together again
If you see a large bird with outstretched rounded wings circling above the trees and making a loud cat like "mewing " sound, it will be a Buzzard. Thirty years ago that would have been a rare sight, but during the 1990's the Buzzard extended its range and is now the commonest bird of prey in the country.
Why the change in the Buzzard's fortune? In the 1800's Buzzards were common in Britain but widespread killing brought about a dramatic population decline. Like other birds of prey they were considered by landowners with shooting interests to be a threat to game bird numbers.
Reduced killing during the two World Wars allowed numbers to recover and the population increased till 1955. However when myxamatosis decimated rabbit populations the Buzzard lost an important food source. At the same time, as with many other birds of prey, they were affected by the use of organochlorine pesticides which reduced their ability to reproduce.
Populations and range remained restricted until these pesticides were withdrawn in the late 1960s. There was also a reduction in illegal killing as gamekeepers in many lowland areas came to appreciate that Buzzards posed a very limited threat to game shooting interests. During the 1990s the rate of spread accelerated and since 2000 they have nested in every UK County.
Their spread has probably been assisted by their wide ranging choice of food-small rodents, other birds, rabbits, amphibians, larger insects, earthworms and carrion.
Nesting is in trees, rocky crags or cliffs. We may be a bit short of the latter in St Helens but there is no shortage of trees and as they mature on these former coal tips then the buzzards will take advantage of them to build their nests.
The chances of you having seen a Reed warbler are pretty slim and the chances of you having had a good view of one even slimmer. On the other hand in summer you will have heard their prolonged raucous chattering song coming from deep within the reedbeds on Colliers Moss and in the north-east corner of Sutton Manor.
If you are patient and wait you might catch a glimpse of one flitting around among the reed stems. You might decide it was hardly worth the effort because the Reed warbler is a very plain little brown bird with no obvious markings at all. But if you knew this little bird had travelled all the way from tropical Africa, and in September would be heading back, and it had probably been doing this for about 10 years then you might be pleased to have made its acquaintance here in St Helens.
The Speckled Wood is a brown butterfly with extensive cream spots and markings on its wings. It is most at home in the dappled shade of the woodland edge where it meets the footpaths and tracks making this one of the more frequent butterflies to be seen on the former coal tips. It can be seen sunning itself with wings outstretched often on bramble leaves. It can be seen throughout the summer from the end of February to November because it has the unique ability to overwinter either as a chrysalis or as a caterpillar. This means the butterflies emerge over an extended period and go on to produce a second and sometimes a third brood throughout the summer.
It has become a very common butterfly. However its numbers declined mysteriously from the mid 19th century and by the 1920's was restricted to parts of the extreme south. Since then it has recovered and continues to extend its range as a result of climate warming.