Gillian Burke shares her experiences of filming Autumnwatch at RSPB Old Moor

Gillian Burke

Gillian Burke - image by Sara Humphrey


Explosions and sirens are going off all around me. It’s not your typical experience at an RSPB reserve but this is not your typical reserve. It is Bonfire Night and I am co-hosting Autumnwatch 2020 from RSPB Old Moor in the heart of South Yorkshire’s Dearne Valley. Luckily the commotion does not last long, as I am midway through my live item about the ducks of Old Moor, but it is a timely reminder of the human world that is all around this gem of a reserve. 

My first visit to Old Moor was for Springwatch in 2018 and I was completely unprepared for how much I would fall in love with the place. Out of the spoil and rubble of the coal industry, the reserve is now a thriving wetland and reed bed habitat and this is the story I had come to cover. As we filmed a licensed survey to monitor the fish and eel stocks at the reserve, I learned how this food source was vital in convincing one of Britain’s rarest breeding birds that Old Moor would be a good place to set up shop and raise a brood. After many years of hard work and dedication, these efforts were finally endorsed when bitterns started nesting on the reserve. Old Moor offered me my first ever and best views of these shy and primeval looking birds. In fact the females treated us to so many feedings flights that I eventually lost count!

The reserve lies directly under one of the east-west migratory paths and this birds-eye view highlights the success of the habitat restoration at Old Moor. From the air, the unlikely juxtaposition of busy trunk roads and heavy industry with peaceful wetland habitats visited by flocks of wading birds is clearly visible. The story is a chance to connect the dots, tracing back to the start of the Industrial Revolution, the height of coal extraction and the brutal shutting down of the coal industry in the eighties and early nineties that left the land with a heavy toxic load and communities struggling to rebuild. With extraordinary efforts that began with a group of miners passionate about birding, land that had once buckled, subsided and been excavated is now a green jewel in one of the most densely populated and heavily industrialised parts of the country. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does!

RSPB Old Moor

RSPB Old Moor - image by Craig Heartly

Visitors to the reserve are treated to views of avocets in the summer while lapwing and golden plover make for stunning winter birds along with the distinctive skeins of greylag geese passing overhead. There is also a colony of tree sparrows that is regularly seen on the feeders while bearded tit and loud Cetti’s warblers are frequently seen and heard respectively.

During our two weeks of filming for Autumnwatch, the country was put into a second national lockdown. Thankfully, it was less restrictive as the spring lockdown and the reserve remained open to visitors, albeit with limited services and facilities to maintain social distancing. It was encouraging to see visitors coming to Old Moor to make the most of nature on their doorstep and for some this was their first ever experience of a nature reserve.

The most remarkable part of the story at RSPB Old Moor is all this has been achieved in a little under 30 years. This is as true of Old Moor as it is of its sister reserves at St Aidans near Leeds, once an open cast coal mine, and Fairburn Ings near Castleford where part of the site is developed from over 20 million cubic metres of colliery spoil. Further afield, the Old Moor story has spurred on the creation of RSPB Saltholme in Teesside and Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve near East London. Old Moor has certainly given me much needed reinforcement in the belief that nature can regenerate and recover if given space and a little time and in so doing is helping to bring people closer to nature by making a home for nature.

RSPB members can read more about Old Moor in the current edition of Nature's Home magazine.

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