Sid Renauf’s emotive interview in the first episode of this season’s Autumnwatch touched hearts and minds, so we thought you might enjoy reading a little more of the backstory to the miners who first realised the wildlife potential of Wath Ings.

Sid’s a familiar face at RSPB Old Moor; a much-loved volunteer and avid birder, his connection to this special place goes back far beyond any RSPB involvement with the site.

Sid is one of the original birders here, when the Dearne Valley was a totally different landscape, filled with active coal mines and loud, churning industry. Yet amongst that, calm pockets of wildlife formed, gathering in the ings as disused mine shafts subsided and filled with water. Plants grew on the edges and the nutrient-rich soil attracted birds migrating down the river course which were looking to refuel.

These feeding birds weren’t just helping themselves though. For the miners working long, hard days underground, birdwatching offered a different kind of sustenance. Stress relief and a connection to nature helped miners like Sid to relax and recharge, long before people really understood the benefits of nature on mental health. 

It became such a positive distraction that this tight-knit community of miners would spend hours at a time in the first hide in Yorkshire; built and designed in 1975 by miner Dave Standring in his local back garden before being move to the Wath Ings site to provide shelter for the watchers. Dave built all of the early hides in Yorkshire – one at Spurn, one at Fairburn Ings, and the one featured on Autumnwatch at Wath Ings. Camping stove dinners of beans and coarse banter were often on the menu.

The boards above the shutters feature a variety of handwriting, listing only the most notable of birds to pass in view of the hide by names and dates, from Temmincks Stints to Marsh Harrier. Marsh Harrier now breed on the reserve thanks to the specially created reedbed but in 1982 this species was considered almost extinct in England.

The hide still stands in a conservation-only area of the RSPB Old Moor reserve; closed off to the public. This evocative location is where Gillian Burke interviewed Sid about his experiences of working in the mines and the birdwatching that came after a shift end. 

Life in the mines was far from easy and despite the hard graft, many miners led hard home lives too; money never stretching far beyond putting food on the table. Birdwatching was a free and easy pastime to enjoy and the sense of camaraderie meant that older generations helped the new young birders to learn the ropes. Many of the ‘Wath lads’ went on to watch both Wath and Spurn and are well known and respected in the UK birding scene.

Since the RSPB took on management of the reserve from Barnsley Council in 2003, working with partners in the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, we have undertaken habitat works to improve the site for reedbed, wetland and lowland wet grassland and the species that thrive in these specialist habitats. We’ve also worked hard to preserve the heritage and history of the site for the benefit of the local community too. Our recent Giving Nature a Home in the Dearne Valley project, funded by the National Lotter Heritage Fund, will help us to continue to inspire younger generations to love and cherish this landscape in the same way the mining communities who first watched the wildlife here did.

David Renwick, Director, England, North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “We’re incredibly proud to support the RSPB’s Giving Nature a Home in the Dearne Valley project.

To see the reinvigoration, rejuvenation and revitalisation of natural heritage within the Dearne Valley being broadcast into homes across the UK is fantastic, and it’s great to see the BBC and AutumnWatch giving it such a wonderful platform. The work at Old Moor wouldn’t have been possible without the support of National Lottery players, and while they may not have won the jackpot, they’ve certainly made the wildlife of the Dearne Valley a winner through the money they’ve raised.”

It was so heart-warming to watch Sid’s piece on Autumnwatch and we are delighted that he feels we’ve made such significant improvements to the reserve that has been a second home to him for most of his life. 

If BBC Autumnwatch has encouraged you to think about visiting RSPB Old Moor, please do visit our website for the latest visitor information and Covid-19 updates before travelling.  

The RSPB couldn't manage places like Old Moor and the other reserves in the Dearne Valley without the support of our members. The regular donations that they give fund vital conservation work here and across the country. If you want to know more, have a chat with the team on your next visit.
  • The interview with Sid was one of the highlights of Autumnwatch. It would have been nice to see more of this and the reserve generally, (though there is a limit to what can be done with the present restrictions ).
    It’s good though that there does seem to be quite a number of new visitors who have been inspired to come along as a result of the coverage.