Your Visit

What are the Heswall Dales?

‘The Dales’, as they are known locally, were originally areas of common heathland used for grazing. The soil is acidic and relatively poor in terms of nutrients hence the vegetation of heather, gorse, mosses  and particular types of grasses which can thrive where other plants cannot. It owes its existence to the underlying Triassic sandstone which was exposed in the last Ice Age twelve thousand years ago. The remnants of the glaciation are evident all over the lower areas of Wirral – for example the cliffs at Thurstaston.  The heathland lying on the sandstone outcrops at Heswall and Thurstaston Common now represent valuable examples of increasingly rare Lowland Heath in the North of England. This is why they are protected by statute as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The Heswall Dales, which occupy 72 acres, have survived encroachment by surrounding residential development and offer the visitor a wonderful experience of solitude, panoramic vistas of the Dee Estuary, fresh air and access to the wild countryside all within a stone’s throw of the town of Heswall.

Where are the Heswall Dales?

A map showing the location of The Dales in Heswall can be found HERE. There are seven official access points but first time visitors will probably find it easiest to use one of the following. There is no parking down within the Reserve so visitors should park in adjacent roads.
  • The main entrance is from Oldfield Road. About 400m north of the Quarry Road junction, there is a sign for the ‘Heswall Dales Local Nature Reserve’ and for ‘Dale Farm’. Both are accessed from a common track down to the left shortly before the Hazelwell care home. This track is for the use of pedestrians and Ranger/Dale Farm vehicles only
  •  The reserve can also be accessed from lower Heswall, via Bushway which is off Piper’s Lane. This access is popular with those wishing to combine a trip up through the Dales with a ramble through Heswall, down to Heswall shore or along the Wirral Way. For example, a very popular walk through the Dales features as 'Walk 3' in South West Wirral in the official guide to walks on Wirral.
PLEASE NOTE: Due to the rugged nature of some paths, they may not be suitable for wheelchairs.

Routes through the Dales
There is a network of footpaths through and across the Dales with the main route being a public right of way footpath which goes between Oldfield Road and Bush Way with special permission for horse use. The Friends are currently helping the Council to improve the signage and, because of the sensitive nature of the heathland and woodland areas and steep drops in places, visitors are asked to keep to the paths and resist the temptation to wander ‘off-piste’.  We say more about this below in our section on safety and the countryside code.

A map of recommended walking routes through the Dales is available HERE. This version of the map is "interactive" and provides information about the Dales which we hope will enhance your visit. Use the map on your phone or tablet during your walk and touch/click the online information points to help locate features of the North Wales coastline, to learn more about the local flora or use the pictures and birdsong to help identify birds that you have spotted on the Dales.

If you prefer to walk with a paper map then a version suitable for printing is available HERE.

Please note that paths which are in need of repair or considered extremely hazardous or which cross private land have been excluded from the map (although very small sections of those paths are occasionally marked as navigation aids).

We have prepared a couple of self-guided loop walks to accompany the map; guidance notes (which include approximate timings) are available HERE.

 Cycling and biking of any kind is prohibited throughout the Dales because of the damage it causes.

What to look out for

No two visits to the Heswall Dales are the same. The infinite variety results from the seasons, the weather and the route taken. The seasons make a huge difference to the vegetation and the wildlife.

In Spring the European Gorse looks particularly attractive in yellow, the trees in the woodland valleys are starting to sport a fresh green foliage, the common Heather is starting to bloom in white. The paths are starting to be challenged by sprouting bracken and brambles requiring the intervention of the Ranger and his volunteers. The migrant birds are returning, so you will hear and see Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Blackcaps, Whitethroats and so on.

The warblers on the top row shown here look quite similar but sound completely different. The one on the left which comes from North Africa to breed on the Dales sounds like its name - 'chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff,..'. The one on the right winters south of the Sahara, has longer wings, arrives slightly later and has a wistful little song with  a falling cascade of notes. The Blackcap's song has a light tinkling bell-like quality while the Whitethroat is more 'throaty' and sounds very energetic. Watch out for the Annual Dawn Chorus event which is held in the Dales and the nearby Cleaver Heath Nature Reserve on the first Sunday of May each year. You might hear up to 20 different bird songs as they seek to establish territories and attract a mate.

As summer unfolds the Heather starts to turn purple, the birds are still singing and the air hums with insects. Everyone enjoys the sight of butterflies. The early ones such as Orange Tip are usually plentiful and are later replaced by Meadow Browns , Gatekeepers and many more.

On any one hour spent in the Reserve it would be surprising if you didn’t see at least half a dozen different species. From the top-left clockwise, the above selection shows: a Peacock, Meadow Brown, Comma, Common Blue, Red Admiral and Gatekeeper.

You might also be lucky enough to spot a Common Lizard sunning itself on a nearby rock or edge of the path, or even a Fox. The fox cub shown here was photographed in nearby Cleaver Heath.
Raptors such as Buzzards, Kestrels and Sparrowhawks are present all the year round.
So keep looking up - as well as watching where you are going. The presence of these birds is a reminder that the heathland is healthy and providing suitable habitat for small mammals such as mice and voles.

The swallows, swifts and house martins which rely on nearby buildings for nesting are usually to be seen feeding on insects over the reserve. Swallows have quite long streamer-like tails, House Martins have shorter tails and very distinct white rumps. Swifts are dark brown all over and  have elegantly curved wings. They tend to stay aloft while feeding on insects whereas the swallows can often be observed hoovering up insects at head or tree height along with the martins. Listen for the 'scream' of the swifts which is much higher pitched that the chattering of swallows and martins.

When autumn arrives, the heather colour starts to fade and the woodland takes over with its array of foliage colour. 

The summer migrant birds have mostly returned south but there are lots of resident woodland and garden birds still around to be seen. The males (even the Song Thrush) have stopped singing but bird calls may still be heard  as they make contact or set off an alarm. The Great Spotted Woodpeck has a 'keek' call while the Wren has a loud 'teck-teck-teck' alarm. The Nuthatch provides a very attractive sighting for any visitor.

Left to nature, ungrazed heathland is quickly invaded by surrounding birch and other scrub. Over time, the heathland plants (Heather, Mosses, Western Gorse and Grasses) get shaded out by scrub and this in turn evolves into woodland. There is nothing wrong with allowing woodland to develop over the entire unbuilt countryside but this example of heathland habitat encouraged by man and his animals in the past would be lost for ever. Hence, places such as Heswall Dales are given protected status.If you are interested in how you can help with maintaining this status, please check the information under the 'Volunteering' heading on this site.

A winter visit to Heswall Dales can be a quite different experience.  It may be wet and windy, in which case there is the opportunity to seek shelter in the woodland valleys. Views across to North Wales can be quite inspiring particularly if there is snow on the Clwyd Mountains. On a clear winter day the snow-capped mountains of Snowdonia can be a wonderful sight. As the tide comes up the Dee Estuary, flocks of waders can be seen (and heard) retreating up the marsh as their feeding sites on the mud and sand get covered. Many of these avian visitors are coming from the the Arctic including Norway, Greenland, Canada and Siberia.

 Overhead, you may see and hear very large flocks (skeins) of Pink Foot Geese. Regular visitors from Nortern and Eastern Europe include Fieldfare and Redwing. They take advantage of our berries when food stocks back home are depleted. Residents such as the UK's smalleset bird, the Goldcrest, become more visible. A good test of your hearing is if you can detect their very faint and very high-pitched calls.

Snow has been known to fall, and lie, on the Dales giving the reserve a completely different atmosphere.

Caring for yourself and the environment

Please follow the Countryside Code: respect for other users, leaving no trace of your visit or litter, keeping dogs under close control, following local signs and instructions with respect to paths. Because of the additional SSSI considerations, these requirements are particularly important. It is anti-social and a legal offence to allow dog-fouling so please bag and dispose (there is a litter bin near the Rangers cottage). Dog dirt creates health hazards for other visitors and for the volunteers and Council staff that maintain the Dales. It also adds nutrients to the soil preventing heathland plants from developing, so dog owners are strongly requested NOT to allow dogs to roam freely off lead in the Dales.
Take reasonable care when visiting the Dales: the topography consists principally of three woodland valleys with steep sides, the heathland plateaux and a disused quarry. The paths are steep and narrow in places and are often slippery after wet weather. There are also tree roots, sandstone outcrops and muddy pools to look out for, so stout footwear is highly recommended. The Dales is a nature reserve rather than a park so don’t expect to be always walking along dry, smooth pathways. This wild aspect is of course a key part of the Dales’ appeal.

We hope visitors enjoy their time on Heswall Dales and encourage others to take advantage of this remarkable part of Wirral.