Thurstaston Common Nature Reserve

Royden Park and Thurstaston Common comprise almost 250 acres of both semi-natural and planted woodland, heathland and open parkland.

The ownership of the area is divided between the National Trust and the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, with Wardens from the National Trust working alongside Rangers from the Local Authority.

The main entrance to the area is at Royden Park, Frankby, although it can be approached from Thurstaston Hill near Irby. The Rangers Office is situated near the car park in Royden Park.

History

Until the mid-nineteenth century the site of Royden Park was still largely farmland. However, by 1844 there were in existence areas of 'plantation' which were to form the basis of a parkland landscape which still exists today.

The land was purchased in 1865 by Septimus Ledward Esq. J.P. who built a sandstone house called 'Hillbark' on the site of an ancient tithebarn. The house was erected between 1868 and 1870 and the surrounding grounds were laid out with gardens and glasshouses, a dovecote and a bowling green.

The present house of Hillbark was erected in 1931 by Sir Ernest B. Royden after whom the park is named. This mock-Tudor building, originally known as Bidston Court, was built near Bidston Hill in 1891 for the soap manufacturer R. W. Hudson, and then moved brick by brick to its present commanding position.

Following the death of Sir E. B, Royden the park was acquired in 1961 by Hoylake Urban District Council for use as 'public open space'. Hillbark is now an hotel and conference centre and is not open to the public. The clearance of Wirral's woodland during the Middle Ages provided the conditions for heathland to develop on areas such as Thurstaston Common.

Grazing and heathland management on the common land helped maintain the heath and prevent the re-invasion of woodland until the middle of the nineteenth century.

In 1879 Birkenhead Glegg of Thurstaston Manor together with the other two major land owners of the parish T. H. Ismay of Dawpool Hall and the Rev. Thurland, petitioned for an order to enclose the common. On 29th December that year Birkenhead Council objected to the proposal and requested that "the highest and most attractive part of the common should remain unenclosed as a place of recreation".

The situation was finally resolved in 1883 when 45 acres known as Thurstaston Common Recreation Ground and including Thurstaston Hill, were granted to Birkenhead Council. The remainder of the Common was divided between the three original petitioners in compensation for the loss of all rights of common.

This land changed hands a number of times until in 1916 27.5 acres were presented to the National Trust by its owner Sir Alfred Paton. Further large donations were made to the Trust between 1916 and 1925. Since then the Common has been used for informal recreation.

Parkland and Woodland

The parkland around Hillbark offers a range of wildlife habitats with its deciduous and coniferous woodland, grass meadow and fresh water. The two rhododendron-lined meres are particularly beautiful in spring and offer nesting sites for Moorhen, Little Grebe, and occasionally for Mallard. Roodee Mere holds water all year, but Frankby Mere dries out during the summer months, offering a suitable habitat for colonising plants such as Goat Willow, Reedmace and Yellow Flag.

The uncontrolled spread of invasive species such as willow and birch would lead eventually to the loss of the open water area. Some regular vegetation management is therefore necessary in order to maintain the existing habitat which is important for dragonflies, newts and bank voles. In front of Hillbark the meadow areas abound in early summer with flowers such as Heath Bedstraw, Bird's-foot Trefoil and the Common Spotted Orchid.

These are rewarding areas for those interested in butterflies, with species such as Common Blue, Large Skipper and Small Heath. Birds which regularly occur around the Mere and meadow areas include Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Green Woodpecker. Around the meres and meadows are woodland plantations of Scots and Corsican Pine, Turkey Oak, Birch and rhododendron.

A large area of Scots Pine wood has also developed in the north-east corner of Thurstaston Common. Although the wildlife value of these pine areas is relatively limited they do support numbers of Grey Squirrels, Goldcrests and occasionally Crossbills. The deciduous woodland areas are dominated by Silver and Downy Birch, Sessile and Turkey Oaks, Sycamore and Rowan.

In Royden Park these have developed from plantations which also include Beech, Ash, Sweet Chestnut and Norway Maple. The woodland areas of Thurstaston Common and Irby Hill on the other hand have developed as part of the natural succession from heathland to birch woodland. The mature birch then help to create the conditions for Rowan and Oak to become established, a succession which would eventually lead to mature oak woodland.

Woodland areas abound in wildlife and will reward those with a patient eye. Even dead and decaying wood is extremely important, for as it is broken down by fungi and insects, nutrients are returned to the soil. Insects in their turn become food for Shrews, Badgers and woodland birds such as the Chaffinch which in its turn may fall prey to a Sparrowhawk.

Heathland

Summer views of open rolling heathland with its carpet of dull purples and browns are familiar to many people. However, the beauty of heathland hides a living community of highly specialised plants and animals.

It is this adaptation and specialisation which makes heathland so important. Thurstaston Common has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (S.S.S.I) and Local Nature Reserve because of its regional importance as a heathland and due to the occurrence of locally endangered plants and habitats.

There are three types of heather present; Common Heather or 'Ling', Bell Heather and Cross-leaved Heather. The last is found in areas of 'wet heath' sometimes alongside the locally rare Marsh Gentian, Oblong-leaved Sundew, and Round-leaved Sundew. These areas of wet heath are very sensitive and can be easily destroyed by changes in the amount of water on the common, through the spread of birch scrub, and through public pressure.

They support plants which have adapted themselves to poor damp acid soils. The sundew, for instance, in order to gain extra nutrients, digests insects which it traps on sticky leaf pads. However, these wet heath areas are very small and most of the common is dominated by Common Heather, Gorse and Birch, while Bell Heather is restricted to the drier areas of the heath. Other typical heathland plants include Tormentil, Heath Bedstraw and Bilberry.

The heathland is important for insects such as dragonflies which breed and develop in the wet areas before spending their adult lives hunting across the open heath. Solitary wasps are able to burrow in the dry sandy soils to lay their eggs, while the Purse-web Spider uses a burrow from which to ambush its prey. The rare Sand Lizard used to occur on Thurstaston Common, but now the only lizard known to be on Thurstaston's heathland areas is the Common or 'Viviparous' Lizard.

Birds such as the Yellowhammer and Meadow Pipit feed and nest in the heather and open areas, while other birds such as the Linnet and Long-tailed Tit prefer the protection of denser gorse or birch scrub. Kestrels may often be seen hunting over the heath for insects, birds and small mammals such as the shrew.

However, as seems to have occurred on many of Britain's lowland heaths, the common has been invaded by scrub species such as Downy Birch, Silver Birch and Sessile Oak.

 In order to save the remaining heathland it must be 'managed' once more by clearing birch on sensitive areas, and even by grazing where possible. Apart from birch and bracken invasion, other threats to the heath come from the destruction of vegetation and disturbance of wildlife through recreational pressure and accidental fire. As there is so little heathland on Wirral it is important that we conserve and protect what is left.

How to get there

By Bus: Contact Merseytravel 0151-236 7676

By Car: Take the A5027 (or from Wallasey take the M53 to Upton and then the B5139 via Greasby to Frankby Green. Turn left along Hillbark Road to Royden Park gates. From Chester or West Kirby Take the A540 and then the B5140 (Montgomery Hill) turn right to Royden Park gates.

Further Information:

Walled Nature Garden

Hours of opening: Daily (except Christmas Day and New Years Day)

Coach House & Exhibits

Hours of opening: Occasional weekends throughout the year.

Wirral Countryside Visitor Centres are located at Wirral Country Park and Eastham Country Park.

Other self-guided trials can be followed at Wirral and Eastham Country Parks, Brotherton Park and Dibbinsdale Local Nature Reserve and Bidston Hill.

Ranger Service

Wirral Rangers look after Royden Park and are there to help you. They may be contacted on 0151 677 7594.