The South West Peak supports a range of habitats in an intimate mosaic composed of moorland, grassland and woodlands. These habitats all interact with one another to create the complex and beautiful landscape we enjoy today.
Moorland edge species like curlew, dependent on both moorland and adjacent farmland, are one of the many charismatic species that call the South West Peak home.
The moorlands are generally lower lying than most of the Dark Peak moors, comprising smaller areas of blanket bog and heathland. Blanket bog and wet heath are characterised by the presence of cranberry, crowberry, cowberry, cross-leaved heath and hare’s-tail cottongrass. Bilberry is abundant on some moors and provides an important nectar source for the bilberry bumblebee which is dependent on a mosaic of moorland and flower-rich grasslands. The moorlands also provide some of the most southerly sites in Britain for Arctic or northern species such as cloudberry and a rare rove beetle.
The enclosed grasslands of the South West Peak tend to be beautifully varied, with a concentration of rush pasture and hay meadows in particular. The rush pastures vary from species-poor soft rush fields of particular importance for breeding wading birds such as snipe, curlew and lapwing, to more diverse examples containing marsh arrowgrass, sneezewort, common spotted-orchid and marsh cinquefoil.
Hay meadows in the South West Peak are among the most diverse that the Peak District has to offer. Classic species rich hay meadows of the area may contain devil’s-bit scabious, common knapweed, oxeye daisy, common bird’s foot trefoil, tormentil, greater burnet and common spotted orchid. More uncommon species include field gentian, greater butterfly orchid, adder’s tongue and moonwort, a nationally declining fern species.
The largest blocks of woodland in the area are the extensive plantations around the Macclesfield Forest and Goyt Valley reservoirs. The former includes fragments of clough woodland with relic populations of bay willow, aspen and bird cherry. Broadleaved ancient woodlands remain in small patches in the area, typically along narrow stream valleys.
These ancient woodlands are characterised by oak, birch, rowan, holly, crab apple, hazel and alder trees with a ground flora including wood anemone, wood sorrel, bluebell, yellow archangel and greater woodrush, which are considered to be indicators of the ancient origin of the woods.
The bird most commonly associated with the South West is the curlew. The evocative, spine-tingling call of the curlew signifies to those who listen that spring is approaching. The curlew is part of an group of wading birds including lapwing and snipe which breed in the South West Peak and take advantage of the combination of moorlands and wet grasslands for foraging and breeding.
These species have experienced both short and long term population declines. Area-wide surveys have not been consistently conducted to give us the full picture of the whole South West Peak, but the evidence from targeted surveys is dramatic.
The 2009 South West Peak Breeding Bird Survey found population declines between 2004 and 2009 of -27% for lapwing, -40% for snipe and -17% for curlew. The long term trends for the three species in the North Staffordshire moorlands from 1985 are even more severe, showing declines of -81% for lapwing, -89% for snipe and -75% for curlew.
From the earlier surveys a series of ‘wader hotspots’ were identified which contained strongholds of the three target species and will enable our conservation efforts to be more closely targeted.
Like much of the Peak District, birds of prey in the South West Peak have experienced mixed fortunes. Much of the focus in recent years has been on the Dark Peak and instances of birds disappearing or being persecuted. In parts of the South West Peak birds of prey are faring reasonably well, with peregrine falcon now breeding annually at the Roaches and Hen Cloud since their return in 2008 after a century long hiatus.
In both the South West Peak and nearby, peregrine, kestrel, buzzard, hobby, merlin and short-eared owl are regularly seen if you keep your eyes peeled.
Lesser known, but still important, species of note include the White-Clawed Crayfish, the UK's largest freshwater invertebrate and a keystone species living in rivers and streams. Once common across the country this native crayfish is now pushed to the brink by competition, predation and disease brought by the introduced North American Signal Crayfish and from changes to its habitat.
Formerly widespread across the rivers and streams of the South West Peak the White-Clawed Crayfish was thought to be locally extinct until the chance discovery of a single native crayfish during a biodiversity day at Under Whittle Farm near Crowdecote in 2014. This rediscovery suggests that there is still potential for this species to persist in suitable conditions in the South West Peak, albeit in low numbers.