The sharp eyed amongst our visitors may have spotted a mysterious path that has appeared in the grass around Wombwell Ings, one of the satellite sites managed by the team here in the Dearne Valley. This isn’t a mysterious crop circle, but it is marking out the path of an essential piece of habitat improvement work on the reserve.

Giving Nature a Home at Wombwell Ings, an NLHF funded project.

As part of the Giving Nature a Home in the Dearne Valley project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage FundNational Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), we  identified a need to make improvements at Wombwell Ings. Sadly, due to a combination of human disturbance and predation from mammals, we have seen a dramatic decline in the productivity of Wombwell Ings (the number of chicks that fledge) over the last 5 years. We should be attracting lapwing, redshank and avocet to nest at Wombwell Ings but the wet grassland habitat is not currently functioning well enough to attract them.

Creating a safe haven for ground nesting birds.

We have needed to create some ditch and fence protection for the site for a number of years, we know that this system of predator proofing a site works really well, we have done it at Adwick and we have seen it at other sites such as RSPB St Aidan’s and Frampton Marsh. This NLHF project has finally provided the financial resources for us to be able to carry out the work. Over the next few months we, with the support of the Environment Agency, will be digging a ditch around the perimeter of the site and erecting a fence in the ditch. When filled with water, this will create a physical barrier to protect nesting birds from predators and disturbance. The work will also involve the installation of a sluice, this will mean that we will have much greater control of the water levels, allowing us to tweak them for breeding season and migration time.

Why is this taking place during the breeding season?

As a conservation organisation, the welfare of wildlife is a top priority, and it is exceptionally rare that we would undertake any work during the breeding season. In fact, our advice is to avoid it wherever possible. However, while we had initially planned for the works to take place in January, due to weather conditions, it was not safe to for contractors to undertake work then and this means it is very unlikely to be safe for them to do so in future years too. There are also safety and flood risk issues to consider around installing a sluice while winter water levels are high. This means there is no safe window of opportunity to do these works outside of the breeding season.

As there have been no successful ground-nesting birds breeding on Wombwell in 2019 and 2020, we made the difficult decision that these works have to go ahead now, to ensure that the habitat is suitable for breeding birds in future. We have been and will continue to monitor the site closely this spring to ensure there are no signs of nesting birds that could be affected by the works.

We are working in accordance with the Wildlife and Countryside Act and we will only progress these works while we are confident that no harm will come to ground nesting birds and no disturbance will be caused to Schedule 1 breeding birds. We are carrying out twice weekly monitoring of the site for nesting birds. This is carried out by our warden team and has been approved by our conservation team.

If there are any active nests found that could be affected by the project, all works will stop immediately. If work can happen in a different area whilst the nest is active, and will not cause disturbance, the nest will be marked and work will move elsewhere.

Did the earth move for you?

With the creation of these ditches we will of course be producing a lot of spoil, we will of course not have this going to waste! The plan is to move the spoil to Old Moor where we will use it to re-profile the reservoir, once the bird nesting season is over. By making the water shallower the reeds will be able to spread, improving the habitat in that area and providing more space for some of our reedbed specialists such as bittern and marsh harrier.  In the meantime spoil will be held on Dearne Ings.

A dynamic ecosystem

The future management plan for Wombwell is dynamic wetland management. We will start this year by taking the opportunity to seed the site whilst it is dryer with a sacrificial crop. This is good for perching and seed eating birds such as finches and buntings. We will then re-flood the site without cutting the crop. The re-flooded site will provide an abundance of seed for wildfowl, and provide habitat and food for aquatic invertebrates, which in turn will provide food for waders and their chicks the following year. Over time the levels of invertebrates would drop, and so we will drain off the land and plant another crop. This kind of dynamic management will be done sympathetically with other sites within the Dearne Valley, including Great Houghton, Field pools on Old Moor and Adwick Washlands. This will prevent the habitat from maturing and stagnating, meaning that the wildlife spectacle will peak at different points in the valley at different times.