As many of you may know recently we took out a 50 year lease from Associated British Ports for the Tenancy of Whitton Island out in the middle of the Humber near to Blacktoft Sands.
The island which is about 120ha is part of the Humber Wildfowl Refuge which was created way back in the 1950's to help protect the roosting pink-footed geese, it has its own independent Wardens who do a great job at preventing disturbance of the wintering wetland birds within the refuge but notably it does not own any of the land within it meaning that it cannot always directly create habitat or influence land management.
This is where the RSPB Humber team saw an opportunity to deliver some great gains for the Upper Humbers wetland birds by helping to create some new quality habitat on the Island.
Curlew, just one of the species that will benefit
Now although the island can at times be good for birds the one thing it lacked was any standing water, subsequent research and monitoring of the birds, vegetation and supporting bio-diversity indicated that additional wetland habitat could be created without affecting the existing wildlife assemblage and this could add that magic ingredient standing water which could make a good habitat a really excellent one.
Whitton currently supports up to 6 breeding Marsh harrier pairs (you can just see RSPB Blacktoft Sands in the top left)
So I'll just roll back six and a half years ago when I was approached by my then RSPB Land Agent Mike Fishpool who asked me if I had any projects that could be funded, err well yes I said but its complicated! And with that rather uncertain reply was where the Whitton Island lagoon project started, but before we could do anything we had to secure the tenancy, apply for planning and get the money for such an ambitious project. This turned out to be no mean feat and a tad complicated, hence the six year gap between now and what I endearingly call my little moment of madness!
By this year everything was set to roll for the end of July and into August, in fact the job had to be finished by the end of August as the bylaws for the refuge do not allow disturbance after the 31st August until the End of February and can in fact lead to a court appearance! So no pressure there then.
All we had to do was somehow get a 24 tonne excavator up the river by crane barge, put it onto the island and dig a 2ha lagoon and up to 8 small ponds - all within a month, oh and then remove the excavator before the 1st September. On dry land this would have been quite easy but in the middle of the Humber its all a different kettle of fish with plenty of logistical problems related to tides, weather and of course possible excavator break downs.
As you can see putting the excavator on the Island was quite a feat with Humber Work boats Mortlift barge crane, it can lift 47 tonnes making it look easy!
Access to the island was via our work boat which had to be up to tidal estuarine standards with all the safety gear and an experienced and qualified captain, although our commute to work was about the best way you could ever start a day when there was a SW blow on you had to hang on to your hat as the journeys could be quite rough.
The tide could go quite a way out, so once you were on the island you were at times marooned! Below my boatman Dave taking it easy at low tide.
Despite all the challenges of getting to the island we eventually got to work with the machine driver showing just what a long reach excavator could really do, and despite having to work to tide we cracked on with creating the lagoon which was just about finished in the first week! The design is meant to give waders and wildfowl a safe place to feed, nest and roost, with the levels excavated to provide varying water levels at different times of the year and safe roosting areas that are above all but the highest tides. Part of the aims of the project was to provide safe nesting areas for avocet, but also good feeding and roosting areas for pink footed geese, teal, wigeon, dunlin, curlew, and hopefully much more as you will see later in the blog.
Making a start
And the lagoon near to completion
And holding the first water after heavy rain, According to the Times newspaper weather summary August 2017 was the coolest August since 1987 and the wettest places included the Humber! Working on the Humber can be tough, but enjoyable. The lagoon and ponds are designed to flood up on the higher tides as well as top up with rainfall.
I've always wondered what lurked in the hidden depth of the Humber, I know a little like there are eels and sometimes cod near to Reads Island alongside lots of sticklebacks, dab, dace and chub, but I never knew anything about Smelt (picture below), my boatman Dave Mouncey said his dad used to call them the cucumber fish, and yes they did smell exactly like cucumber! Apparently they are an indicator of good quality water and in some places like the Thames up until the 1830's were fished for the markets in large numbers with during the open season up to 50,000 per day being landed!
When the BBC came over to film for the local news there were three porpoise feeding right next to the island shore, I suspect they were after the tasty smelt?
As soon as we had finished the lagoon we set about creating the ponds, the aim here was to provide a varied range of habitat with deeper ponds for biiterns, egrets and spoonbills and then shallow ponds for feeding and roosting wildfowl and nesting waders like redshank, they would also provide some good feeding habitat for smaller breeding birds like bearded tit. Creation of the ponds was a little more complicated due to the fact that there were many more creeks than anticipated across the grass and thistle dominated areas, and also by a short break down when one of the hydraulic pipes sprung a pin hole leak.
The ponds were about 0.14ha
You have to have novel ways of getting to parts of the digger so that you can take them off for repair!
To help us keep on schedule and get the job done we camped out overnight, what a bit of wild camping that was! Lying in your small tent in the middle of the night with ringed plover and turnstone calling as large boats with their diesel engines chugged past was quite an experience. As was the sight of 170 yellow wagtails roosting in the reedbeds near to the camp.
Base camp Whitton - Note the digger driver parked the machine right next to his tent! I preferred my cuddly toy. The local cafe did a great bacon and egg sarnie.
In the morning the sunrise over the Humber was just spectacular!
With projects like this you never quite know what the results are going to be, creating habitat along the Humber is never an exact science, sometimes it surprises you with just what it delivers for. Some people have asked why we have created habitat on an island that appears to be a natural habitat and wouldn't we have been better off allowing nature to get on with it. Well yes we did consider this aspect, however one thing for sure the Humber is at times very far from being a natural habitat, sandwiched between two large flood banks the estuary is totally disconnected from most of its floodplain. At one time the meeting place of brackish and fresh water habitats would have been rich areas for wildlife, now most of those areas are lost and the canalization of the river means that nothing is quite as natural as you would think.
Ideally I'd love to see areas of the estuary go back to having bigger floodplains but this will be a slow process over the next century as sea level rise forces us to create more natural sea defenses, in the meantime positive and active management of the estuary at least gives the wetland species a bit of decent habitat by taking back vegetative succession.
But the proof really is in the pudding with the new wetland already starting to deliver some fantastic results, as soon as the lagoon was finished dunlin and curlew were already using the lagoon on high tide, in fact although not all of the waders directly used the lagoon I did record 17 species just showing the potential of what may be to come!
There were two big surprises though, firstly a flock of 19 turnstone that came in to roost one day, now on the coast some people would'nt have batted an eyelid at them, but up here in the Upper Humber this number of birds is almost unheard of in recent times.
These turnstone really were a big surprise
Equally as pleasing were the 60 ringed plover on the lagoon, a very respectable number for the autumn for Whitton, with the lagoon close to potential feeding areas it seems that the wetland is already starting to tempt waders to use this part of the estuary a little more in recent times.
Roosting ringed plover - you have to look hard to spot them against the soil
And finally the other weekend I arrived home to find a text on my work phone from the North Bank refuge Warden Dave Upton - it read: 8 spoonbills just dropped into lagoon!
Spoonbills from Blacktoft earlier in the year - we're hoping the lagoons and ponds on Whitton will help them find enough food to breed again in 2018.
Lets hope that this early success continues and helps the Upper Humber deliver, with Blacktoft, Alkborough, Hook island and Reads Island this little oasis out in the Humber should hopefully add to the continuing protection of over 70,000 wetland birds.
And was the job worth while? You bet, Anything that makes a positive contribution to wetland bird conservation has to be a good thing, particularly when in so many places around the world wetlands are being destroyed and degraded. If you want waders and wildfowl you really have to provide decent habitat.
My only regret? That we couldn't have created three times the wetland features - but then maybe that's for another time.................
A special thank you to everyone who helped on the project, especially my friend Dave Mouncey and his son Darren and excavator driver Paul Bichan, ABP and Crown Estates.
Sunrise over the lagoons
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