The Dearne Valley Green Heart Partnership comprising of The RSPB, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Garganey Trust and Environment Agency along with Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster Borough Councils, have been working with Natural England (the governments advisors on the natural environment) towards the accreditation of SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status that officially protects vital habitats along the Dearne Valley.

After several years of hard work, we are today celebrating the news that Natural England has officially designated the Dearne Valley Wetlands as a SSSI for its habitats and bird species.

Paul Duncan, the Natural England Area Manager, said; “The designation as a SSSI ensures the national importance of this place for nature and people can be fully taken into account in future decisions regarding its use and management.”

The SSSI status for the area including the Dearne Valley Reserves managed by the RSPB* now have extra protection in place to ensure that the area is managed specifically for nature. The status gives legal protection encompassing habitats and features within the designated sites.

Being SSSI underpins our commitment to fight for a nature rich environment for future generations. As the global nature and climate emergency unfolds, we are losing many of our bird species at an alarming rate.

The Willow Tit, whose numbers are down by the tune of 94% since the 1970’s is one of those species. To make matters worse for the willow tit, their population was badly affected by the floods of 2007 in our region, an extreme weather event attributed to climate change. The SSSI status recognises that the clusters of willow tits that remain in the Dearne Valley require extra protection.

The flip side of climate change is that, as the planet warms, we are seeing behaviour changes in migrations and breeding patterns where protected areas like the Dearne Valley Reserves will play a vital role in the future by sustaining displaced populations. There is clear evidence that this is happening right now as birds like the Cetti’s Warbler who used to be summer visitors are now over wintering in the Dearne Valley, making it their northern territory.

Having SSSI status recognises some of the success stories over the past 20 years such as reed bed habitat creation work. Testament to the success of this work is the breeding of Bittern in recent years. Bittern were considered extinct in the 1870’s due to persecution and habitat loss due to land draining for agriculture.

By 1997, there were 11 recorded booming males throughout the UK, mainly in Norfolk. Certainly none in the ‘biologically dead’ portion of the Dearne Valley that we are celebrating today.

Bittern – Julian Mayston

Bittern’s are however back in Yorkshire and bred for the first time in 2003 at RSPB Blacktoft Sands on the bank of the river Ouse. Blacktoft was at the centre of the Bittern Research Team’s work and the ambitious plan to bring back Bittern by opening corridors of reed habitat. When RSPB became custodians of Old Moor in 2003 the reserve played a big part in that game plan. The reed beds we see today were designed for that very purpose, some of which were gathered at Blacktoft and replanted in the Dearne Valley. The plan worked, and this year we have recorded 3 booming males right here at RSPB Old Moor.

This year also marks the second year that Marsh Harrier are calling the Dearne Valley their home - right in the heart of South Yorkshire between Barnsley and Rotherham and where nearly half a million people live and work. A far cry from 1971 when there was just one recorded breeding pair of Marsh Harrier anywhere in Britain! The now protected corridor of nature along parts of the Dearne Valley is vital for the connectivity of Bittern and Marsh Harrier (along with many other species) and their continued success.

Marsh Harrier - Julian Mayston

Being an SSSI paves the way forward for the Dearne Valley to become a ‘Special Protection Area’ by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), following the Successful Nature Improvement Area project in the Dearne Valley. The Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) in the UK are a network of now over 971,000 hectares of bird habitats and are selected to protect the most vulnerable bird species.

As an SSSI there is recognition to the importance that the Dearne Valley Reserves are playing in the lives of the people who live and work in the area; as a place to visit and have a connection with the natural world. The status comes at a time when there has been a renewed appreciation of our countryside during the pandemic as we all understand the benefits of being outdoors for purposes of our wellbeing, mental health and for exercise during these difficult times. Indeed, for the working-class communities in our region the countryside has been of upmost importance for generations and this was certainly the case for the founders of Wath Ings Reserve on the eastern side of what is now RSPB Old Moor.

Ings is an old word, Norse in its origin for water or marsh. Wath Ings was formed as the result of mining subsidence back in the 1930’s. In the background you can see Wath coking plant that is now the hillside overlooking of Bolton Ings to the east of RSPB Old Moor. This area of Old Moor also supported a large railway marshalling yard that transported the coke and coal from Manvers Main Colliery around the country. This area to the locals back in the day was dubbed ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ because of the regular outbreaks of fire, the smoke from industry and pollution. - RSPB Archives


The founders of Wath Ings were working class ‘lads’ all with links to the coal mining industry; either directly, working the mines themselves, or had family that did. They had one passion in common and that was birding – the hobby of identifying and studying birds. Their hobby was a welcomed past time from ‘grafting’ and dare I say it – ‘whittling’ (worrying) about family incomes as the coal mining industry came to a close.


Birders at Wath Ings – RSPB Archives

It could be said that the landscape in the Dearne Valley would be very different today as the former brown field site (a planning department term for indutsrial development land) in the late 1980’s becomes a prime development opportunity with road infrastructure, 1000’s of new houses, indutrial parks and retail outlets being built in the area. Without doubt, the Dearne Valley SSSI status would be a laughable suggestion without the humble beginings of Wath Ings.  

A Nod definatly has to be directed towards these bunch of like minded birders who campaigned to protect Wath Ings as a nature reserve, who worked with Barnsley and Rotherham Council to ensure that amonst the development, space was made for nature to thrive in the Dearne Valley once more. In fact, as we calebrate this fantastic designation, let’s raise a glass to those early pioneers who had the passion and foresight to see the potential in this once industrial land.

  • An amazing story with an amazingly good outcome!  

    And still evolving to draw in more people - the birders of the future.

    So many new people have discovered Old Moor and it’s satellite reserves since the pandemic started and these green spaces became even more important for wellbeing.