Rewilding a Manchester council estate

'The pandemic changed everything for the estate as people had more time to litter pick, listen to the birds, watch spring flowers grow and plant their own food'

Dear members — we hope you had a great Bank Holiday weekend.

This is the first newsletter sent from our new office. We are surrounded by boxes and random bits of furniture acquired on Facebook Marketplace, but once things are set up we will invite you in for a coffee.

Today’s story is a lovely piece about rewilding a council estate in South Manchester, and how the pandemic has galvanised an unlikely environmental movement by the Mersey.


Mini-briefing

  • Covid-19 update: Case rates are falling faster and faster by the day. The Greater Manchester rate is now 66.2, down 28.4% on last week. That’s the lowest level we’ve seen since last September. The rate across England is 37.9, down 31.5%. The latest hospital and vaccine numbers were in yesterday’s briefing.

  • Rochdale scandal: The MEN reports that a Rochdale grooming gang member was seen in the town, six years after he was meant to be deported. Maggie Oliver, a former detective who was involved in the original police operation, said that “the failures just go on and on.”

  • We enjoyed The Mighty Waltzer by Howard Jacobson over the Bank Holiday Weekend. It’s a very funny novel with all the good stuff: love, sex — and ping-pong, set in 1950s Manchester.

  • Indoor gardening: The BBC has done a feature about two Manchester women who have discovered the joys of having plants inside their home. Watch it here.


By Jennifer Sizeland

Around 2,000 people call the Merseybank estate home: entrepreneurs and young families; dealers and Del Boys; those with chronic illnesses, from paralysis to addiction; people who are new to the UK and those with roots firmly embedded in the DNA of the estate going back decades.

I moved into a dilapidated Merseybank semi seven years ago. The windows were chipped from kids throwing rocks at them and it had a serious mould problem. At midnight, the estate — which is either in Chorlton or near Chorlton, depending who you ask — used to come to life with booze-fuelled arguments in the streets, stray cats yowling for a mate and mice scurrying under the floorboards. Years ago there used to be gang-based turf wars but those have died out in recent years.

These were my first impressions of the estate and they stayed for a while, since I barely interacted with the place that I lived. Working long hours made it all a blur for me. There was one thing that I did have that many Manchester residents outside the estate did not, and that was a decent-sized garden.

Next to the condemned asbestos-ridden garage was a perfect untouched lawn. This became my reason for being here. Gardening costs nothing, and so I started to dig. But I didn’t want a pretty garden. I wanted a messy patch of wilderness.

When I set about ‘destroying’ my backyard, I didn’t expect that any of the neat lawns around me would change. That was seven years ago, and I don’t need to tell you that a lot has changed since then, most notably the pandemic that forced us to confront the reality of the areas we live in. With more time to observe the nature around us, many Brits have asked the question — where did our wildlife go?

I moved to Manchester as a teenager after growing up in a small town in Derbyshire. It was green and close to nature but impossible to find work. I spent a few years in Salford before moving to Whalley Range where I was working multiple jobs for seven days a week, mostly in the media industry.

Eventually, I landed a role in children’s television — not an easy task if you aren’t from a privileged background and don’t have family connections. Sick of the drug dealers who lived in the flat underneath mine, but not having enough money to live near friends in the fancy end of Chorlton, we decided on a cheap house near the River Mersey to be near nature again.

The Merseybank estate doesn’t have a good reputation among the middle classes of South Manchester. "I've read some things about the Merseybank estate being really rough,” one person posted on Reddit, asking fellow Mancunians for advice. What people don’t realise is that it has access to some of the best urban green space in South Manchester. Space that has become an unlikely location for a spurt of urban “rewilding”.

Rewilding has been talked about among conservation biologists since the 1990s as a method to reverse the loss of biodiversity. It’s become an in-vogue topic in the past decade, particularly after the Guardian columnist George Monbiot released his 2013 book Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life. To some people, the concept can seem faddish and unbearably middle class — but really it is just about restoring nature to what it was before. It’s something anyone can do, regardless of social status.

At its core, rewilding is not only very simple, but it’s also fundamentally rebellious, making Merseybank the perfect candidate for it. A forgotten corner of Chorlton, the estate is in a prime location for wildlife, situated as it is on the edge of the Mersey Valley. Built on the banks of the River Mersey, it is opposite Kenworthy Woods, a community orchard, Chorlton Water Park and across the road from the Southern Cemetery. To the north are the Hough End playing fields and Alexandra Park with Fletcher Moss Park to the east and Sale Water Park to the west. Wildlife needs to be able to travel between habitats in order to feed, which is why providing wild gardens is a lifeline.

Once I decided to start rewilding my garden, endless possibilities presented themselves. I erected bird feeders, planted trees, bushes and flowers, created log piles and a compost heap as well as building a pond. It started with blue tits and robins then graduated to frogs, toads, woodpeckers and foxes. Even though I grew up in the countryside, I’ve seen more wildlife in my seven years here than the 15 I spent in Derbyshire.

The great thing about urban wildlife is that it’s more accessible than intensely secretive rural creatures that rarely need to venture into our spaces. I was overjoyed when my security light kept going off and instead of seeing someone trying to break into my shed, it was two hedgehogs mating in the grass.

It wasn’t just a joy for me. I started chatting with my neighbours who built ponds and put up bird feeders too, especially in lockdown when we needed things to do. The pandemic changed everything for the estate as people had more time to litter pick, listen to the birds, watch spring flowers grow and plant their own food.

Last year the Merseybank Green Group was set up by residents to coordinate our efforts and set down some clear aims. Both nearby Barlow Moor and the Southern Cemetery have Green Flag status, and we want to get the same for Merseybank.

The group aims to promote the physical and natural environment while developing the skills of disadvantaged members of the community. These missions fall into five categories: the streets, wildlife, the playing fields, gardening and events to encourage collaboration.

What we are doing shows that rewilding is about much more than idealistic people reintroducing wolves to the countryside. It can be about community and building somewhere free from environmental threats like pollution — making it a safer and healthier place to live. Plants absorb harmful carbon emissions and nature has been shown in many studies to lower stress and improve happiness levels, so every little act makes a big difference.

I made a lot of small changes since 2014 and this year has been a record-breaker. My pond has 50 clumps of frogspawn that have hatched into thousands of tadpoles and I've recorded 28 bird species in my garden in total. Over a third of those are now classified as endangered species so we cannot underestimate the significance of garden spaces as a wild lifeline. While rewilding and environmentalism can be seen as elitist, it’s deprived communities that need nature the most.

But, just as importantly, nature needs us. The pandemic made my neighbours and I hyper-local and we realised how lucky we were to be next to a prime green space in South Manchester. I saw kestrels, stonechats, goldeneyes, treecreepers and weasels in the water parks for the first time when they must have been here unnoticed all along. Photographing them in lockdown made my days worthwhile and helped quell my anxiety.

While lockdown has been long, difficult and confusing for everyone, it’s enhanced our ability to look at our surroundings and the people we share them with. To truly make a community unbreakable, you need to include everyone, including the wildlife we share it with. Rewilding the Merseybank estate has made it a better and greener place to live in tough times.


If you know of great rewilding projects in Greater Manchester, please get in touch by hitting reply to this email. We have been thinking about how The Mill’s journalism can spread good ideas and inspiration from one neighbourhood to another, and reporting on these kinds of projects seems like a good example of that.