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Rewilded former golf course in Cheshire to be transformed into public woodland

Carden Park

It was once an immaculate golf course where footballers such as Michael Owen and Dietmar Hamann teed off.

These days, the only holes are those made by badgers and woodpeckers. Instead of golfers, self-sown silver birch saplings march over the greens.

In the two years since its closure, Frodsham golf course in Cheshire has rewilded itself. Now it is being transformed into a public woodland after being acquired by the Woodland Trust.

The 18-hole course is one of a growing number of once-exclusive swathes of land devoted to golf that are being put to new, more community friendly use as campaigners draw attention to the value of green space close to urban areas.

“We’re really excited about this place,” said Simon Mangeean of the Woodland Trust, giving the Guardian an exclusive tour of the fairways now enjoyed by local joggers and dog-walkers. “Over lockdown, people came out and pretty much commandeered the space. Once the opportunity is there, it almost becomes like common land.”

Frodsham golf course closed during the pandemic. When it was put up for sale, local residents feared that the scenic, 94-acre (38-hectare) site would become a housing estate. Instead, it has been bought by a charitable trust and leased to the Woodland Trust, which is to allow natural regeneration alongside tree-planting and the creation of wildflower-rich glades.

In Brighton, Waterhall golf course, owned by the council, is being rewilded, while the former 18-hole Beckenham Place Park has been transformed into south-east London’s biggest park. Other council-owned courses in Exeter and Sunderland are also being turned into wild green spaces for people and nature.

On the northern end of a sandstone ridge that runs through Cheshire, the former course at Frodsham provides spectacular views over Frodsham Marsh, an internationally protected wetland, and across the Mersey to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on the far horizon.

The site becomes the latest addition to the Northern Forest, an effort to add 50m trees to 10,000 square miles of mostly treeless northern England from Liverpool to Hull.

Transforming the course into woodland will reconnect the ancient woods of Frodsham Hill Woods, Snidley Moor and Woodhouse Hill. “This was a highly strategic opportunity because it was up against ancient woodland,” said Mangeean. “With this land, we can buffer our ancient woodland particularly from pesticide and herbicide spray drift from farmland and make this habitat bigger, better and more joined up.”

Older trees including some venerable ashes and other native species planted by the golf course will be retained, with jays and squirrels helping plant acorns from the ancient oaks bordering the site. Volunteers from the local community will also plant trees from locally sourced seed.

One-third of the course will remain open space such as glades sown with wildflowers, so retaining the spectacular views over the Mersey as well as biodiverse meadow species. “It’s not going to be wall-to-wall trees at all,” said Mangeean. Meanwhile the clubhouse has been turned into Ashton House children’s nursery and the Woodland Trust hopes the new woodland will provide forest opportunities for preschool children as well as the local primary and secondary schools.

The plan was welcomed by local walkers. “I’m glad,” said Cliff Seeger. “I’ve heard they are going to plant thousands more trees on it. There is space for a lot more trees and the environment needs more green areas.”

“It’s just like a country park has opened up,” said Sophie Gibson. “I think there are some golfers who aren’t quite so happy but it’s a lovely spot with great views.”

But in the nearby market town of Frodsham it is difficult to find any dissenters – even among golfers. One local golfer said: “It’s good news – it’s much better than having housing built on it.”

“We’re all ecstatic,” said Jayne Davies, proprietor of Tail Mates pet shop and dog-friendly cafe. “It was a very nice golf course but it’s nice to have something there for everyone. Not everyone plays golf – a woodland is more universal.”

“It’s a great thing to see people using this place, coming out for exercise, or spiritual nourishment,” said Mageean. The Woodland Trust is not against golf courses, but would welcome more wildlife-friendly links. “The biodiversity value of golf courses could be massively increased if they changed their conventional management practices. If I was a golfer, I’d love to see more wildflowers in the rough for instance.”

The campaigner and writer Guy Shrubsole, who launched a petition to open urban golf courses to the public for exercise during the pandemic, said the conversion of Frodsham into woodland was a good sign. “Golf courses take up a disproportionate area of our green belt and green spaces in cities. In urban areas, far more of them need to be repurposed as public parks filled with wildlife rather than manicured greens.”

The sandstone ridge at Frodsham is rich in archeology from iron age hill-forts to middens from the stone age. Mangeean added: “I wonder what the archeologists of the future will make of the sandy bunkers in the midst of a woodland?”

Source : The Guardian