The Dearne Valley Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)


Earlier this year the news broke that the Dearne Valley had been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and we thought we might cover this in this edition of the blog, and speculate as to what it means for the area.

Richard Barnard is the RSPB’s person in charge of the reserves in this area, and at the time the designation was announced, he said “The restoration and improvement of the Dearne Valley into the nationally important home for wildlife that it is today is one of the great success stories in UK nature conservation investment in sites like RSPB Old Moor has led to wetlands that help protect homes and businesses from flooding, provide jobs for local people, and offer amazing, nature-rich recreation opportunities, as well as homes for wildlife.

However, it isn't just activities within the boundary that are affected, Local Authorities must include this designation in their development plans, and any planning applications which may interact with the SSSI (not just within it, but close to it) need to include consultation with the relevant body.

Why is the Dearne Valley a SSSI?

To give it its full name, the Dearne Valley Green Heart Nature Improvement Area (NIA) covers 652 hectares, contains 5 RSPB reserves, and the wonderful visitor facilities at Old Moor. But it also goes beyond RSPB areas and includes land managed by other organisations too. Several of the habitats and the species they contain are now of national importance. For example, gadwall, shoveler, black-headed gull, and bittern. And the area also supports a nationally important stronghold of breeding willow tit.  Willow tits are “red-listed”, and the Dearne Valley supports one of the five largest populations in the UK.

The area of the SSSI covers from near Royston in the north, through to Worsborough in the west and Adwick to the east.  And the conservation, management and development of the land involves a number of organisations. As well as the RSPB, there is the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Garganey Trust, Environment Agency, and Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster councils.

The Visitor “Welcome hut” at Old Moor, with map of the Dearne Valley RSPB sites       J Wilkinson

Shaun Finnie is one of RSPB Old Moor's welcome volunteers, check out his blog that gives account to the bird sightings and wildlife observations:

View from the Shed

As mentioned in the last blog, the history of much of this area involved industrialisation. From as far back as the 1800s, mining, paper making, and textile industries pumped chemicals straight into the river, without any treatment, causing the Dearne to become very polluted, and most fish died, apart from in a few isolated pockets.

Slowly fish, such as trout, minnows, and stickleback, have re-appeared along the Dearne and the Dove; and in June 2015 it was reported that salmon were spotted for the first time in 150 years!  

Alongside the river, several areas of mining subsidence caused flashes or ‘Ings’ to form, and once these filled with water they started to attract wildlife. Today most of these are managed as flood washlands and include Denaby Ings, Harlington, North Ings, Adwick, Bolton, Wombwell, Edderthorpe and Old Moor.

creating ditches and pools,  Matthew Capper

And now this transformed landscape presents valuable areas of “special interest for its nationally important numbers and assemblages of breeding and non-breeding birds” (Natural England).


What an achievement!

The process of the Dearne Valley becoming a SSSI has taken years, but was given a boost a few years ago with the quest to achieve Nature Improvement Area (NIA) status.  NIAs were part of a UK government scheme to create landscape-sized ecological networks. Over 200 different areas in the UK were considered for this status, but only 12 were designated NIA (including the Dearne Valley).  

For the Dearne Valley to be a SSSI is an exceptional achievement.  Most SSSIs cover a site within a single boundary and don’t involve an “archipelago” of scattered sites as is found in the Dearne.   This shows what an amazing achievement the NIA status, and later SSSI designation is.

The Dearne Valley NIA Ecological Network, Map, M Capper

The habitats of the Dearne Valley are so varied, but add up to the SSSI designation’s requirement for special interest: with a corridor of wetlands; scrapes which are carefully managed for waders; scrub; woodland; and reedbeds.

Urban SSSIs are also relatively uncommon, and one that includes the often-under-rated habitat of scrub, even less so. Yet these areas of scrub, in places like the old pit tops; corridors such as the Trans-Pennine Trail; and disused railways, are vital in order for birds like the willow tit to thrive.

Bittern sculpture in the reeds at OM            J Wilkinson

What does being a SSSI mean for the RSPB sites in the Dearne Valley?

This is important because the Dearne SSSI is a connected network of sites and now has something of a “ready brek glow” of protection around it.

It also means that the sites will receive periodic assessments of their condition, and being a SSSI can help unlock funding to help if the assessments show the condition to be poor or to fund further improvements.

The management of the sites in the area will need to ensure the habitats are maintained and continue to support the key species.  The area must provide the variety of habitats needed by the range of birds present: from shallow muddy areas for ducks and waders like the avocet and the beautiful lapwing; to deeper water and reedbeds for other species like bittern and bearded tits.  Vegetation will also have to be appropriate for the growth and lifecycles of fish, and invertebrates like dragonflies (food for the bird species of importance!). And the grazing of cattle, and other agricultural practices, will have to be carefully managed to avoid ground-nesters and breeding birds.

In areas that support willow tits, (wooded and damp areas) these will need to be managed to continue to provide young trees, decaying wood, and shrubs; whilst also providing watery land around for food sources. Corridors of scrub (like rivers and old railways) need to be kept, and developed to encourage willow tit population growth where possible.


For some of the nature reserves in the Dearne Valley, all this is nothing new. But for some of the outlying areas, this is a welcome further development to ensure that the sites are managed into the future for their special wildlife. 


                                                                                        reeds in winter at OM, J Wilkinson

Other Species:

Regular visitors to Old Moor will be familiar with some of the other species that also reside in the reeds and benefit from an excellent reedbed habitat; so now is the time to introduce the Starling.

Whaat? I hear you shout!  A reedbed species??!  Nope, obviously we all know that starlings are not a traditional reedbed species… we see them in our gardens, and on roadsides, and city centre parks; but, at Old Moor, the starling is forever linked to the Reedbeds because of something it does in the late afternoons during the colder months!!


Most of us will be familiar with the starling – we may have seen raiding parties visit and ‘quarter’ our gardens, or we may be familiar with the sight of a flock of starlings in a field.

But to see a starling murmuration at RSPB Old Moor is unforgettable.

Murmuration at OM,  Andrew Leggett

Starlings are just a bit smaller than blackbirds, around 21-22cm long, with a wing span of 37-42 cm. They have a speckled, shiny, greeny-purple iridescent coat, which can also look black in various lights. Their average lifespan is around 5 years.

Starlings eat insects, fruit and seeds, and their feeding habit tends to look fast, frenetic and “greedy” – but it’s just because, as they often travel in flocks, they have to make sure they are not last to the table!!

Housebuilding is a joint process. Males will build a nest from grass and other plant material, in holes in trees or buildings, and sometimes in nest boxes. The females then provide feathers, moss and other soft furnishings to create a warm place for the eggs.

They will usually breed between April and June, and their clutches number around 4-7 blue or white eggs. Females will stay to brood the nest for about 12 days; but a male may have a few families on the go at once.  Both parents feed the young until they fledge after about 22 days. Females may have two broods in a year.

It is possible to tell the sexes apart – breeding males will have a bluish shading to the base of their bills, whilst females will have a pinkish colour to the base of theirs.

Starlings generally occupy a wide range of habitats – gardens, forests, marshes, moors, woodlands, scrub, farmland, and urban areas; and at Old Moor – the reedbeds.


In late autumn and winter, just before dusk, lucky visitors may witness the flocking of hundreds, or even thousands, of starlings, hunting for the best spot in the reedbed to spend the night.  To do this they murmurate.

Murmuration at OM, Mathew Capper

They will swarm and dive, and emerge from the reeds numerous times, before going into them to roost for the night.  It sometimes looks a bit haphazard, and certainly is noisy at times – with waves of birds following each other. But communicating, and preparing to get to their position in the roost like this, makes it very hard for a predator to pick out an individual bird. 

Once ready to roost, the birds will almost drop from the sky; they suddenly disappear from view and the show is over. 

And there is a definite ‘pecking order’ to finding the best spots in the reeds at Old Moor – after all, who wants to be at the bottom of a reed when your pals above need the loo during the night?!

Starling roost, Mathew Capper

Starlings are incredibly social birds – living in large flocks and roosting together.  However, despite what the large murmurations might have you think – sadly, starling numbers are in decline in the UK breeding population.  Not completely understood why, but it is suspected to be due to poorer survival rates of the young, rather than any decrease in birds being produced.

From October onwards, keep your eyes and ears peeled for news from the visitor centre staff to indicate that the murmurations have started; and if you are around the reedbeds in late afternoons, you may catch them swooping their way to bed!


We will be showcasing another special species next time.



People Need Natural Restoration,   Jane Wilkinson

There is lots of science around that confirms that nature is good for the body and mind. In Feb 2018, after finding an interesting bit of science in a magazine on why this might be, I took a walk around Old Moor, and spent a mindful couple of hours really taking in my surroundings.  Here is my reflections of the walk.


Sitting in a bird hide calms me. Walking at RSPB Old Moor reserve slackens the umbilical cord linked to stress for a while. As I stroll down Green Lane on the reserve, I note the first indications of Spring in the trees – now quite rapidly changing in appearance each time I visit.


                                                                                      Michaelmas daisies at OM – Nov 2021, J Wilkinson

Its winter in the UK, and temperatures hover around freezing. It rains, snows, and the wind blows. And yet, wrapped up well, I am transported to a haven of calmness, and serenity.

I am not achieving anything. Time is ticking away… and yet, time stops whilst I am here.

Theorists claim that the way the brain reacts to being in the natural environment, as opposed to the demands of urban everyday life, goes a long way to explain the calming, recharging effect of being in nature; doing things like walking through a woodland, or birdwatching near an old gravel pit.

William James (1892) claimed that the mind focusses its attention in two different ways. Firstly, things that grab our attention – noise; or tasks we are undertaking, like driving, or walking in busy places. We have to make an effort to focus on these, and that effort and focus exhausts our minds.

James theorised that, at other times, we use another way of focussing our attention – on things that may not be essential, but are more interesting to us. James claimed that the object of this type of attention is easier, restful and refuelling, because it doesn’t demand anything of us.

The end of Green lane   - October 2021   J Wilkinson

On my walk, I reach the halfway point along Green Lane. I have moved from the everyday demands of being a human - employee, homeowner, and partner; to being a birdwatcher and stroller-in-the-wilderness – just “being” and responding more passively to stimulus as it flies, floats or walks by.

A theorist called Kaplan developed James’ ideas. He portrayed a picture of competing attractions. Important demands, such as crossing a road safely, are draining; whilst interesting demands, such as strolling along a tree-lined path, are refuelling.

According to Kaplan, interesting demands provide a setting for reflection – one of the essential factors to brains recovering from the fatigue caused by everyday demands. He named them “restorative experiences”. For Kaplan, the natural environment provided all the components of the restorative experience humans need to restore the balance to the fatigued brain.

Canada goose at OM, J Wilkinson

I am now at the furthest reaches of Green Lane. I have got away, both mentally and physically, from demands on my brain. For a few hours, I revel in the remoteness of my surroundings, and the fantastic whistle of a Wigeon reminds me that they deserve my attention. I take a seat in the hide overlooking the Ings. The swans are gathering en masse; preening, and calling to one another. The snipe are hiding in their usual place – among the willow roots – I can see only three of them, but there is probably another twenty-three camouflaged in there!

A cold wind comes through the open windows, and my eyes water. This is the best feeling in the world and is relieving the more routine demands of my other life. I can almost picture the fuel tank in my brain moving back to the “Full” marker.

In some things I have no choice - my attention is grabbed without my control – but sometimes I choose to focus my attention on nature; its soft, quiet, immenseness doesn’t fatigue me. 

I am now recharged enough to start the next week. Time has ticked and moved on in the outside world; time which could have been used to get things done. However, on reflection, I am not sure they all need doing anymore. But my already brain knows it will have to come back next week for its dose of “natural restoration”.

Adapted from a blog written for People need nature.

Other birds, flora and fauna to watch out for now in the Valley:

The months of November and December can bring an influx of Scandinavian migrants, as well as more usual visitors. When you are at Old Moor, Adwick or any of the other satellite sites, watch for new arrivals; including all manner of waders – keep your eyes peeled for greenshank, redshank, green sandpipers, dunlin, jack snipe, snipe, lapwing, black-tailed godwits; and winter thrushes, like redwing, fieldfare, mistle and song thrush, and blackbirds; plus unusual one-off callers

Keep your eyes to the sky for starling murmurations and flocks of geese flying over!

Snipe   Gerald Lax

Greenshank, Gerald Lax

Recent sightings: 

Old Moor:  

Spoonbills, great white egret, bittern, great crested grebe, little grebe, cormorant, water rail, grey heron; pink-footed goose

Meadow pipit, bearded tit, kingfisher, bullfinch, willow warbler; green woodpecker, jay, long tailed tit, chiff chaff,

Wigeon, pochard, teal, pintail, shoveler, gadwall, shelduck, Caspian gull, common gull;

Kestrel, marsh harrier, sparrowhawk, buzzard, peregrine, merlin;

Golden plover, black-tailed godwit, snipe, jack snipe, greenshank, spotted redshank, lapwing, grey plover


Adwick: many of the above plus stonechat, dunlin.

Houghton and Edderthorpe: many of the above.

Wombwell Ings: many of the above, including snipe and golden plover.

Great White Egret  Gerald Lax

Spoonbill,  Gerald Lax

Little Stints, Gerald Lax

Little Stint, Gerald Lax

Wheatear, Gerald Lax

Golden Plover       Gerald Lax

Redshank    Gerald Lax

Grey Plover,    Gerald Lax

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