The turn of the year is often a time for reflection, and 2021 will certainly live long in the memory whether we like it or not. Due to various impacts of the pandemic, it’s inevitable that some of you visited us less frequently than usual, or perhaps not even at all, meaning there’s a good chance you may have missed some of what was a very busy, and successful year at the Dee Estuary reserve. Despite the obvious challenges and another uncertain year ahead, 2021 will be remembered for so many reasons, including plenty of highs.

With the country in lockdown from early January and Burton Mere Wetlands remaining open only for local people to get daily exercise, few would have seen the site flooded by extreme rainfall in the third week of the month which resulted in the highest water levels we’ve ever endured and stretches of our trails under inches of water!

 Flooded scrape and Reception Pool seen from the visitor centre (RSPB Dee Estuary)

The resulting waterlogged wetlands posed a problem to the contractors installing nearly two miles of predator exclusion fence around the original Inner Marsh Farm part of the reserve, developed 30 years ago. Having already been delayed by deep snow at their North Wales home, it was a race against time to have the work finished before the birds were getting in the mood for breeding season.

Finished they did though, and as the reserve gently awoke from lockdown, avocets piled in from the south and lapwings “peewit-ed” their way into pairs. Burton Mere Wetlands, and the Dee Estuary reserve as a whole, has two over-riding objectives that we manage the habitats for; to maintain the internationally important numbers of over-wintering waterfowl, and to increase the numbers and success of breeding waders.

 Lapwing in display flight (Paul Jubb)

Whilst our management of the vast tidal parts of the reserve is largely left to natural processes – which works perfectly for protecting the winter flocks – Burton Mere Wetlands is where we can intensively manage the reclaimed land to deliver stretching targets to make a positive impact on breeding bird numbers.

All natural habitats undergo a process known as succession, meaning if they are left unmanaged they will change significantly and often quickly. Regular visitors to the reserve will know how much rush, reed and even willow advances on the wetlands each summer! Maintaining the predominant wet grassland habitat of Burton Mere Wetlands takes extensive effort each year, which isn’t as easy as it used to be now we’ve developed as a popular visitor haven.

Speaking of which, there were significant improvements in infrastructure with a remodelled Bridge screen in April better suiting the needs of the broader audience Burton Mere Wetlands now attracts, and with the further easing of lockdown in May, visitors were able to enjoy the highly-anticipated Border hide for the first time.

 Visitors enjoying the new, improved Bridge screen (RSPB Dee Estuary)

Although a cold, wet May threatened to hamper the nesting waders, they bounced back in the second half of the breeding season. Back in early spring, amidst anticipation for the first nests and arrival of summer migrants, nobody predicted the sound of a booming bittern first heard by a couple of our volunteers one Tuesday evening in mid-March. Great excitement inevitably ensued, and bitterns became a new theme for the summer.

     Bittern seen from Reedbed screen (David King)

We go to great lengths protecting wader nests from large mammals with the electric fence, but chicks are still vulnerable to raptors, corvids, gulls and herons – and to our disbelief, one of the pioneering bitterns was seen scoffing avocet chicks on the main scrape on more than one occasion. Nature is amazing, but can’t half be cruel sometimes!

Increased effort was also invested 15 miles away at our Welsh outpost, Point of Ayr, where little terns followed up their staggering 2020 breeding success. Helped by our first volunteer little tern warden who committed countless hours to ensure the condition of protective fences and reduce human disturbance along with a small team of volunteers. This year, 14 pairs fledged 10 chicks and the hope is with our sustained management, the site will continue to flourish as a satellite colony to the large population at nearby Gronant.

 Wardens and volunteers erecting fences to protect the shingle beach (Becky Longden)

Come August and the height of summer for many of us, the reserve quickly entered its programme of autumn management work. Taking advantage of – traditionally at least – drier summer months, sluices are opened wide to draw down the water level, aiding our wardens to drive the tractor through much of the wet grassland with trailed topping equipment. Along with cattle grazing, and the use of a pedestrian mower and brushcutters in wetter, densely vegetated areas, this prevents rushes, reeds and young willows from dominating the grassland which would make it unfavourable for the priority waders.

 The wardens' new favourite "toy" with topper on the rear (Liz Holmes)

This year, further improvements were made to drier, less productive parts of the wet grassland using a specialist spoil spreader to create new, shallow ditches where the kind of aquatic invertebrates that wader chicks eat, will thrive. Simultaneously, a neglected area of rank weeds were removed from near Border Pool to reinstate long-lost open water. Even with this heavy work done in a matter of days, it will take months for these areas to settle, mature and be refined to become truly fruitful, something to look forward to watching through 2022.

September marked the 10th anniversary of Burton Mere Wetlands opening, and almost as if in celebration the reserve was graced by its most significant rarity in years, a Wilson’s phalarope. And, as brilliant as that was, attracting over 1000 birders over its three day visit, we don’t do all this land management for the sake of attracting rare birds; they’re just a bonus.

 Wilson's phalarope at Burton Mere Wetlands, September 2021 (Paul Coombes)

Breeding season is met with intensive surveying of the wet grassland, to monitor and record how the waders are faring; number of pairs, nests, chicks hatched and crucially, how many chicks manage to reach fledging age. This data is submitted to the RSPB Reserves Ecology team in autumn for them to collate and compare, and an annual report is written for each reserve.

The first breeding bitterns was an obvious triumph – the reedbed planned and hand-planted in 2007 with them as the primary target – as was a successful pair of pintails on the Welsh side of the wet grassland, a first record anywhere in Wales for over two decades. However, the focus is on the waders, so imagine how the team felt when we learnt Burton Mere Wetlands had the highest density of breeding waders of any wet grassland on RSPB reserves last year!

A record high 54 pairs of redshanks nested, 63 pairs of avocets – both with exceptionally good fledging success – and although lapwing numbers were down on their best years, they recovered well with second broods after most of the first succumbing to May’s unseasonal weather. That’s nearly 200 pairs of waders supported at Burton Mere Wetlands, which is exactly what threatened species need to sustain their numbers until longer-term land use and policy changes in the wider countryside allow more of them to nest in their natural habitats away from nature reserves.

 Recent drone image showing Burton Mere Wetlands' mosaic of wetland habitats (RSPB Dee Estuary)

The recently-published Birds of Conservation Concern 5 reports that an alarming 70 out of 245 UK bird species are classified on the red list, reflecting their rapid declines and shrinking or fragmented distribution in this country. This includes lapwings, demonstrating the clear need for us to work so hard to help them sustain their local population in the hope that in years to come they can recolonise traditional breeding sites in the surrounding countryside.

Erratic weather may be out of our hands, but at least here we have the benefit of a series of sluices to help regulate water levels on the wet grassland to avoid flooding or drying out at critical times of the breeding season. The intensive management of the wetlands each autumn may inhibit visitors' birdwatching on occasions, but is essential to maintain the conditions for the reserve's priority species - which as the numbers above tell us, is clearly working wonders!

And it wasn't just the warden team who had reasons to be cheerful; Burton Mere Wetlands' annual appraisal by Visit England's Quality Assessment Scheme measures the quality of all things associated with the reserve's visitor facilities, and as well as achieving our highest ever overall score of 86%, we received a 100% score for the "Staff" section of the report - for the second time in three years - reflecting the friendly yet professional atmosphere we have a high reputation for. This resulted in us being awarded Visit England's prestigious Welcome Accolade, one of just eight visitor attractions in North West England to receive any of their five accolades in 2021.

The pandemic may have halted our steady growth in visitor numbers, but we're still eager to improve and expand the reserve for people as well as wildlife. We continue to pursue plans for a café at Burton Mere Wetlands to build on the popular light refreshments we already offer, as well as help generate more income to invest in doing more to protect nature across the vast and unique Dee Estuary.

2021 was one of our best years yet, but the team are determined to build on that success, and we hope that you'll share the journey with us