It’s hard to believe it’s now eleven weeks since we tentatively re-opened Burton Mere Wetlands following the Covid-19 lockdown. As we slip from summer into autumn, here’s a thorough overview of what to expect when you visit.

 

After a relatively quiet start, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of visitors each week, reaching full capacity of the car park’s limited spaces on a couple of sunny days in July. This limited parking was a requirement to manage the number of people on the reserve initially, to allow us and visitors to safely follow social distancing guidance and enjoy the reserve comfortably. However, we have gradually relaxed the parking restrictions as we have gained confidence in managing people on arrival and been satisfied with visitors’ ability to follow social distancing guidance throughout the reserve.

Much of the time, a volunteer is on duty at the car park entrance to help manage vehicle flow and direct you to available spaces when busy, and we’re delivering our usual warm visitor welcome from 9am to 5pm on the decking outside the visitor centre, which itself remains closed to visitors. Here, light refreshments are also available to buy between 10am and 4pm, with contactless card facilities available and preferred for all transactions including entry fees and even buying RSPB pin badges. We’re supporting the Government test and trace scheme, so you will be asked to securely provide your contact details for us to submit to the NHS if requested, but this is voluntary.

For the time being the three toilet cubicles at the visitor centre remain closed but the two in the brick building a short distance along the Burton Mere trail are open; this is to reduce the amount of time the team spend cleaning – we’re still far from being at full volunteer capacity – as well as avoid extra dwelling or footfall on the visitor centre decking which is always a natural pinch-point of the reserve.

 Image: Paul Jubb

When we opened in mid-June, the majority of the reserve’s trails were back in use; Gorse Covert Woodland trail, often overlooked except in bluebell season, provides a pleasant pedestrian route onto the reserve from Burton village. However, it does have its merits for sheltering from the showers as well as the best place to spot a jay and perhaps a treecreeper, plus is home to our Wild Play area for families which remains closed, but we hope to open soon.

From the visitor centre decking, the Burton Mere trail takes you in either direction to explore the reserve. Turn left from the visitor centre for a short route to Bunker hide which is now open and offers wide views across the main scrape and wet grassland. Strict guidance is in place to ensure social distancing through managing the maximum capacity of the hide, and face coverings must be worn with it being an indoor space. We’re also encouraging visitors to be mindful of not dwelling in the hide – or at screens or viewpoints across the reserve – for long periods to ensure everyone gets a turn, something we may actively manage at busy times.

Beyond Bunker hide is the imaginatively named East Bank viewpoint, a temporary feature installed to compensate for the lack of view of the main scrape before Bunker hide re-opened. We’ve received lots of positive feedback on the panoramic views offered of not only the wetlands but adjacent farmland too, and we will keep this open as long as we’re able into autumn, but it cannot become a permanent feature due to the risk of disturbance to protected winter flocks of teal and black-tailed godwit and our breeding waders like avocet and lapwing.

We have actively lowered the water level on the near side of the reserve, as is a usual part of our summer management, to attract the best bird spectacle, especially passage wading birds, giving visitors the best chance of seeing them. As well as impressive numbers of ruff and green sandpipers, this has also led to the recent appearance of a family of spotted crakes on the back edge of the scrape – a strong suggestion that these scarce UK breeders have successfully nested here this year.

Inevitably, we are regularly asked when the other two hides, and even the visitor centre, will be opened, so it’s worth explaining where we’re at with those. There is currently no timeframe for re-opening the visitor centre, although with some larger RSPB reserves trialling their shops and cafes already, it is likely there will be some further guidance for us as we move through the autumn. For now, it’s a case of expecting to be outdoors for the vast majority of your visit, so dress accordingly for the weather on the day, but remember you can buy a take-away hot drink to warm you up.

As for the hides, there are good reasons for us having not re-opened the other two yet; Marsh Covert hide has a limited spectacle at this time of year and the extent of habitat work such as reed-cutting required to get it ready for visitors was unable to be prioritised over other time-sensitive work this month. This is a routine part of the wardens’ autumn work, so we expect to have the hide ready for opening within the next month or so, with necessary alterations inside to comply with Covid safety measures.

Inner Marsh Farm hide, being almost thirty years old, is of a size and layout that would make it impossible to socially distance. However, more significantly, work is about to commence on the remainder of the project to replace this hide, install a new boardwalk and make the entire route fully accessible which would require the existing hide and trail to be closed again. Although there will be some disruption from having contractors on site, starting as soon as next week, we’re hugely excited to be able to see the finish line of this project that has been years in the making and a result of extensive and varied teamwork and fundraising efforts.

We know many of you are missing the hides, especially as the weather becomes more autumnal, but we have made adaptations to compensate for their current closure and rest assured, no good birds have been missed this summer by the lack of visitor access to them.

Back to the present, and the main route of the reserve is largely unchanged, save for one-way systems around the garden, which we’ll keep open for as long as the ground conditions allow, and the narrow causeway of the Burton Mere loop. Several picnic tables and benches are available in this area to enjoy the views, peaceful surroundings or a bite to eat.

The Reedbed trail has several passing points to allow safe and easy exploration, colourfully lined with common vetch and willowherbs. Reedbed screen is a prime spot to look for our resident bearded tits and a recently arrived bittern, whilst common lizards are found basking on wooden fence rails on sunny days, and migrating warblers and tits work their way along the woodland fringe.

 Image: Paul Jubb

The Farm and Fen trail is almost entirely boardwalk, so we have installed a number of temporary wooden passing places to allow visitors to step aside to give each other space as you pass. Half way along, Bridge screen gives a close view of Bridge Pool whilst towards the end of this trail, at the lower edge of the birdcrop field, the fenced viewpoint is the best place to watch Centenary Pool in front of Inner Marsh Farm hide – a scope is definitely an advantage here.

Finally, the unsurfaced trails of the outer part of the reserve are open to reach the “top bench” at the upper part of the Inner Marsh Farm trail, a tranquil spot with the chance of egrets, ravens and raptors moving overhead between the estuary and freshwater, and growing finch flocks in the hedgerows and crop field. Across the railway bridge, the Hillfort trail offers the usual route to the Iron Age hillfort for the unrivalled view across the saltmarsh and the rest of our Dee Estuary reserve – the marsh lovely and wet again following big tides and Storms Ella and Francis in the past week, so popular with the growing flocks of wildfowl now arriving.

 Image: Paul Jubb

In mid-August we were able to resume our usual evening opening hours thanks to a team of volunteers who keep an eye on the reserve and lock the gate allowing access until 8pm in August, changing to 7pm on Tuesday 1 September and 6pm in October. Although we’re still a long way from being back to normal, we want to thank you for your patience, understanding and support over the past couple of months as we’ve got our heads around the safety measures and new ways of working to gradually re-open our facilities whilst keeping everyone safe. We’re keen to continue improving your visit, and will react to further guidance from RSPB HQ as it comes and when we have the capacity to implement it.

For more regular updates, follow us on Facebook or Twitter – search “RSPB Burton Mere” on both -and we hope to welcome you for a visit soon!

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