Musselburgh Lagoons: a post-industrial wildlife wonderland

The last year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has underlined the health benefits of having access to local green space and opportunities to connect with nature. Getting outdoors and visiting parks and nature reserves to see wildlife has been a lifeline for many people.

Musselburgh Lagoons

The beautiful East Lothian coastline has long been a top destination for locals, day-trippers from Edinburgh and wildlife spotters from further afield. In the last year it has become particularly important to local people.

Musselburgh Lagoons between Musselburgh and Prestonpans are rightly regarded as one of the finest locations for bird watching on mainland Scotland. The lagoon’s proximity to food-rich mudflats, estuary and the open sea makes it a hot spot for wintering waders such as curlews, redshanks and bar-tailed godwits, sea ducks, grebes and many other birds.

Redshank on the mudflat

Redshank on the mudflat 

The impressive list of species recorded here reflects its attraction to both birds and birdwatchers. Some of the rarer species include king eider, surf scoter, Brunnich's guillemot, Wilson's phalarope, laughing gull, pectoral sandpiper, royal tern, little plover, red-throated pipit, bluethroat and golden oriole…and the list goes on.  The lagoons are equally popular for other types of recreation from rowers to runners and particularly walkers.

The site was originally created to store ash waste from the former Cockenzie Power Station. Built on reclaimed mudflats and surrounded by a sea wall to protect the ash storage lagoons. Over time each of the ash lagoons have been capped and landscaped by the site’s owner Scottish Power. With support from RSPB Scotland the last two lagoons (lagoon 6 and lagoon 8) have been transformed into wetland wonderlands. The channels, pools and islands within lagoon 8 support an internationally important wader roosting site which led to the area being designated as part of the Firth of Forth Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Area (SPA). The restoration of lagoon 6 has been designed to provide habitat for ground nesting birds and wetland invertebrates including dragonflies and damselflies.

With roost sites for waders, gulls and terns, a sand martin nesting bank, viewing hides and a path network this wonderful place draws thousands of wildlife watchers to the area each year in addition to the many local people who rely on it. The area is also one of the highlights for those walking the John Muir Way, which passes around and through it.

Little tern in flight

Little tern in flight

Over the years several development ideas have been put forward for this internationally important area. The most recent of these in January 2020 is a suggestion to covert the site into a formula one racetrack as a way to generate income from the area. However, a wildlife tourism report by Visit Scotland in 2016 showed that bird/wildlife watching visits generated £34 million for the local economy on the East Coast of Scotland (not including Edinburgh) the previous year. Visiting nature lovers are important for supporting local B&Bs, hotels, cafés and restaurants.  Wonderful green spaces such as Musselburgh Lagoons have enormous health and wellbeing value for local communities too – and in these current times that is priceless.

While no official proposal for the formula one track have been submitted as of yet, RSPB Scotland believes that this wonderful place should be protected so it remains an internationally important sanctuary for wildlife and one of Scotland’s top bird-watching locations, as well as a place for neighbouring communities to use and to enjoy.

Once Covid travel restrictions are lifted, if you’re visiting the Edinburgh area and fancy a wonderful day out at a gorgeous coastal site, with a high chance of ticking-off a page or two of rarities on your birding checklist (for more avid birdwatchers), then the lagoons are the place for you. The Musselburgh lagoons are easily accessible from Musselburgh which is served by numerous buses from Princes Street in Edinburgh. Winter is a one of the best times to visit as sea ducks and grebes are present.

Female goosander swimming

Female goosander swimming

Scott Shanks (Conservation Officer – Central Scotland)

  • I wanted to find out when this area will fully reopen ,I was here last week and work looks completed , but the fences were still up preventing public access to the two end areas. The Eastern end has been landscaped in to a huge new lagoon/wetland area for birds with an enclosing fence and path around the edges. The western area has been turned into a gentle slope and a cycle/walkway through it, that's all I could see. Hundreds of trees have been planted and topsoil spread, it all looks fantastic.

  • Check up on this area now! What a mess. I walked there yesterday (22 October 2022) and much of the area between Prestonpans and Musselburgh was fenced off. The John Muir Way was impossible to follow and the area looks more like a building site. Please tell me that I'm wrong.

  • What is happening right now? I walked from Prestonpans to Musselburgh yesterday (22nd October 2022).  Much of the area was fenced off with no right of way through and no signs to indicate the John Muir Way. What a mess. Shame on the owners and the East Lothian Council for allowing this to happen.

  • Wow! It's nice to see that they can fly, swim, and walk with freedom. Hopefully, they will no be affected by continuous climate change. Enjoyed watching this while doing solar roof installation.

    1. I have recently done a lot of paintings based on birdlife at the lagoons. I live in Edinburgh and can no longer visit as it's outside my council area which is very sad - I really miss going there!