As part of RSPB England's #WinterWetlands series, communications officer Richard Morris looks back over a decade of Burton Mere Wetlands in this guest blog.

Last September we were thrilled to mark 10 years since RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands officially opened its doors, evolving from the site formerly known as Inner Marsh Farm to serve as the heart of the sprawling RSPB Dee Estuary reserve. Over the past decade the site staff and our wonderful volunteers have transformed from what was essentially a waterlogged crop field into a haven for wildlife. 

We’ve had some tremendous conservation successes over the years, particularly attracting new breeding birds like avocets, marsh harriers, bearded tits and bitterns. The site is home to a mosaic of freshwater wetland habitats, mixed farmland and woodland, plus three hides, two viewing screens and a visitor centre offering panoramic views across the landscape.

 The fresh, new visitor centre in summer 2012 (Mike Maxwell)

Today we’re looking back at some of the species highlights we’ve enjoyed on the journey so far, with a thank you to the locals and visitors from afar who’ve supported us every step of the way.

 

Highlights of the decade:

  • 2011 – TV wildlife presenter Iolo Williams cuts the ribbon at our brand-new visitor centre and declares RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands officially open.
  • 2012 – Avocets successfully nest on the Dee Estuary reserve for the very first time.
  • 2013 – Kingfishers begin using perches outside the visitor centre.
  • 2014 – Our new fen boardwalk opens, connecting Burton Mere Wetlands’ new facilities with the old Inner Marsh Farm hide and trail.
  • 2015 – Nesting pairs of lapwing reach a new high, with 65 on the wet grassland.
  • 2016 – A single white-winged tern pays a summer visit to Burton Mere Wetlands, along with a record 12 exotic spoonbills, followed in October by a dozen great egrets photographed on Burton Marsh.
  • 2017 – A pair of cattle egrets nest on site for the first time.
  • 2018 – Bearded tits arrive out of the blue in autumn.
  • 2019 – New record set as more than 100 lapwing pairs nest on the reserve. Marsh harriers and bearded tits also nest on site for the very first time.
  • 2020 – Work is completed on the long-awaited new Border hide.
  • 2021 – A record year for redshank, with more than 50 pairs nesting. A pair of breeding bitterns nest for the first time and Burton Mere Wetlands celebrates its 10th anniversary.

 Iolo Williams pond dipping with local school children at the official opening (Ron Thomas)

 

Delivering for breeding waders

Expanding and transforming the former Inner Marsh Farm reserve to create Burton Mere Wetlands took three years of hard work, and the generous support of funders including the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Rural Development Programme for England, Biffa Award, WREN, SITA Trust, Natural England and English Heritage, and other trusts, legacies and corporate support.

Our focus from the start was to deliver for breeding waders by creating a wet grassland habitat capable of supporting three key species – lapwing, redshank and avocet.

The arrival of avocets

In 2012, during Burton Mere Wetlands’ first breeding season following the official opening and completion of habitat work, avocets successfully nested on the Dee Estuary for the first time. The creation of suitable habitat, combined with the impact of fencing designed to keep out predators, resulted in around 20 nesting pairs.

  Avocets on the scrape (Paul Jubb)

By mid-May, our first-ever avocet chicks hatched. Grey, fluffy and long-legged, they instantly stole the show. The breeding population has continued to grow over the past 10 years, and today more than 60 pairs nest each season. The fact these birds are keen to return year-on-year is a fantastic sign, testament to the conditions being favourable and that our predator exclusion methods are working.

 

Lapwing and redshank numbers on the rise

Lapwing numbers have declined significantly across the UK in recent years. They are Red Listed and our highest priority species. The good news is that we’ve seen a steady increase over the past 10 years, with 2019 being our best year to date with more than 100 nesting pairs.

Redshank numbers have also grown over the past decade and a new record was set last year. A total of 54 nesting pairs were recorded at Burton Mere Wetlands, followed up by exceptionally good fledging success.

We’re typically now supporting around 200 breeding pairs of these three key wading species (avocet, lapwing and redshank) each year. In terms of productivity – the number of nests per hectare of wetland – it’s the reason we ranked as the RSPB’s top wet grassland site in the UK in 2021.

 

Cattle egrets make a surprise appearance

While little egrets have become an increasingly common sight across many parts of the country, it was a pair of much rarer cattle egrets that nested at Burton Mere Wetlands in 2017 for the first time. At that point they were the most northerly breeding pair in the world, and so quite a triumph for the site. The species has now nested twice in the last five years – in 2017 and again in 2019. As their name suggests, the birds generally feed around livestock. We graze the wetlands with cattle during the late summer and into autumn, and this approach to land management has had a knock-on effect in attracting the species.

 Cattle egrets hitching a ride on the living lawnmowers (John Hewitt)

2019 also saw great egrets nest for first time. These iconic birds are big and eye catching – always a delight to see. They’ve become more established over time, with numbers gradually growing, from one pair initially to three pairs in 2021.

While the egrets don’t technically nest on the reserve but rather in an adjacent woodland, their treetop nests tower above the wetlands on which they rely for food.  Although little egrets' arrival pre-dates the development of Burton Mere Wetlands as we know it, their continued success, building to one of the largest colonies in the country, is another positive result of all the hard work that has been achieved over the last 10 years to protect suitable habitat and the right food source for them on the reserve.

 

New reedbed delivers for marsh harriers, bearded tits and breeding bitterns

RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands’ reedbed habitat was created from scratch around 15 years ago, before the reserve in its current form came into being. Volunteers hand-planted over 10,000 tiny reed seedlings 2007/08, primarily in the hope of one day attracting bitterns to the site. However, it was the marsh harrier that was the first reedbed specialist to nest in the area - first in the naturally formed, tidal Neston Reedbed in 2017, and then in 2019 within the boundaries of the reserve itself.

 Marsh harrier (Paul Jubb)

Bearded tits don’t typically migrate, tending to stay in one place. Occasionally though, they do have what are known as eruptive movements, and some will leave a colony for pastures new. Quite out of the blue in autumn 2018, six birds arrived at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, breeding for the very first time on the reserve the following year.

Excitement really began to build around the reserve’s reedbed last spring, following the arrival of a booming male bittern. Confirmation followed that a breeding pair had nested for the very first time, and visitors were soon treated to plenty of feeding flights. Due to the concerted effort to create that new reedbed 15 years ago, these are the results that can be achieved over what is really a relatively short space of time.

 Bittern (Andrew Wallbank)

An increasingly important habitat for wintering species

As well as RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands recording the highest density of breeding waders of any wet grassland on RSPB reserves in 2021, the wider Dee Estuary was also the third-most important estuary for wintering species.

If there’s one star species that deserves to be mentioned, it’s the pink-footed goose. They’re big, they’re noisy and they’re easily seen. Back in 2006 we’d be fortunate to get a few hundred pink-footed geese overwintering on the reserve. Thanks to habitat management, a reduction in sheep grazing and various external factors that have supported wider population growth, 15 years later there are now more than 20,000 at peak times.

March is often when we see the best spectacles of pink-footed geese, as the 10-15,000 that now spend the winter here are joined by an influx from the south as they begin to migrate north. They use the Dee Estuary as a staging post on their journey, with their number peaking close to 25,000 in recent years.

 Thousands of pink-footed geese on and over the saltmarsh (Paul Jubb)

They’re often best viewed at dawn and dusk, flying off in the morning to feed on farmland and returning in the evening to the safety of the reserve. If you’re outdoors, you’ll tend to hear them first. The noise is quite distinctive – high-pitched, almost musical. It’s a jaw-dropping sight and visitors will often just stand and stare as the birds fill the sky.

Dan Trotman has worked on the Dee Estuary since September 2010, becoming RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands’ visitor experience manager in 2013.

He said: “It makes me proud to have been part of this exciting journey and to work for the UK’s leading conservation charity. What we’ve tried to achieve here, as a site team and the RSPB collectively, hasn’t been easy. But seeing these success stories play out over the years is very special and makes it all worthwhile.

“I can remember the first time I saw marsh harriers on the reserve in 2012. We could tell from their wing tags that those birds had fledged in Norfolk that spring, and that they’d come as a foursome to the Dee. I remember how excited the local birdwatchers were to see them on their patch. It was something that really struck me at the time and has stayed with me, as I’ve watched them establish an important winter roost and several nest sites on the reserve.

“Despite the immense challenges and threats faced by our wildlife and the natural environment, the successes we’ve experienced here over the years gives me hope for the future, and I hope they inspire others too.”

  

What are your best memories of RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands from the last decade? Share your stories and pictures on social media using the hashtag #WinterWetlands and remember to tag @RSPB_BurtonMere and @RSPBEngland

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