Lucy has an update for us from the warden team:

Now that the Bittern have finished nesting and the reeds have gone dormant for the winter, you’ll notice our wardens and volunteers have begun work in the reedbeds, cutting down young trees and clearing areas of reed. This can sometimes look quite dramatic, even destructive, but is an essential part of habitat management for the reedbed specialists we treasure at Old Moor, like the Bittern, Bearded Tit, and Marsh Harrier.

Long ago, when the UK was wild, our waterways were in a constant state of change. Rivers would meander and flood, continually creating new wetlands, bogs, and reedbeds, while old watercourses dried up, turning to grassland, scrubland, and eventually forest (a process known as ecological succession). Although constantly changing, there was always plenty of reedbed habitat available for the species that lived in them to thrive.

As we humans began to manipulate the environment for our own benefit, draining land for our farms, channelling rivers into artificial waterways, creating canals and dams and reservoirs, the constant cycle of habitat creation and destruction has come to a near complete halt. The little reedbed and wetland left naturally dry up as fast growing tree species like willow and birch take root and eventually take over. It was this loss of habitat, along with hunting, that was responsible for the extinction of the Bittern in the UK in the 19th century.

Today, many of the reedbeds you see, including at Old Moor, are somewhat artificial, created and managed specifically for the conservation of these declining reedbed specialists as well as for flood management benefits, and of course, for people like you and me to enjoy. Much of reeds themselves at Old Moor were grown in polytunnels and planted out by hand, and have since established and spread. Thanks to reedbed restoration, the Bittern population is booming (literally!) with nearly 200 breeding males recorded across the UK last year, and Old Moor producing at least two successful nests this year.

Aerial views of Old Moor showing construction of lagoons in 1996 (left) and the site again in 1999 (right) © Eric Bennett Barnsley Council

Aerial view of the reedbeds at Old Moor in 2019, with reedbed trail visible in the upper right © RSPB

However, it takes a lot of work to keep the habitat in this kind of ecological stasis. During the autumn, while the water levels are at their lowest, we don our wellies and armed with loppers and pruning saws, venture out into the reeds, which can tower over our heads at over 3m tall. Willow is the main tree we have problems with at Old Moor, as it grows back quickly and vigorously from any stump left untreated, or even from a cut branch if one is left behind. It’s a constant battle to keep willow from taking over, and the same areas must be revisited every few years to remove new growth, or older trees we may have missed. Some areas of reedbed are only accessible by boat, where any vegetation we remove must be ferried back to shore, which can be exhausting work!

Pile of willow removed from just one area of reedbed © Lucy Kucharik

Ferrying cut willow out of a reedbed © Stephen Vickers

 

Reeds also benefit from periodic cutting, as it encourages new growth in the spring, while also creating new structure such as open pools and reed edges that are essential foraging habitats for reedbed birds. Sometimes reeds also need to be cut to benefit visitors to the reserve, by opening up areas for better views of bearded tits, for example. The reedbed hide certainly wouldn’t be popular if the viewing hatches opened up onto a solid wall of reeds! Clearing can be done either by hand using a brush cutter, or occasionally, more substantial ditches and channels opened up with the help of a small digger.

All of this work certainly pays off, as shown by the success of our breeding Bittern and Marsh Harriers this year, as well at the amazing sightings of bearded tits that Old Moor is known for. In the future we hope to expand our reedbed management to encourage species such as Black-Necked Grebe to make their home here. There’s certainly always more to be done!

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