As we regularly talk about, our Dee Estuary reserve is vast, covering more than 6500 hectares of tidal habitats stretching 14 miles along the Welsh shore from Oakenholt to Talacre, and six miles on the English side from Burton to Gayton. However, apart from the three recognised sites of Burton Mere Wetlands, Parkgate and Point of Ayr, the rest of the reserve is a mystery to many, with little signage or interpretation to help the public understand and enjoy the landscape and wildlife.
Owing to easy access not far from Burton Mere Wetlands, Burton Marsh is an increasingly well known area. Becoming part of the reserve with our purchase of Burton Marsh Farm in 2006, it spans from Burton Point all the way to Neston Old Quay at the south end of Neston Reedbed. Nestled roughly halfway between Burton Mere Wetlands and Parkgate, adjacent to The Harp Inn and with access from the Burton Marsh Greenway sits Denhall Quay, a derelict sandstone jetty with an important place in the Dee's history before the dramatic changes initiated by the canalisation in the 1730s.
It has long been a popular place for local birders, protruding into the marsh so offering unrivalled panoramic views from Burton Point to Neston Reedbed, perfect for scouring the landscape in winter for birds of prey as well as huge flocks of waders and wildfowl to whom the estuary is a priceless winter refuge. Like all wildlife, birds are driven by where they can find food, and this winter the saltmarsh around Denhall Quay has become a prime location for short-eared owls to hunt, simultaneously offering superb views for birdwatchers and wildlife lovers.
Short-eared owl (Paul Jubb)
These enigmatic birds are an annual winter resident on the saltmarsh, but are rarely seen as close and reliably as has been the case for the past few weeks. Often, they are the sought after highlight of a famous spring high tide at Parkgate. As word of mouth spread of their daily displays, the number of people visiting Denhall Quay grew to unprecedented levels particularly during the fair weather around Christmas and New Year, and sadly a minority of these were straying onto the marsh in front of The Harp in an effort to get closer views or photographs of the owls. In doing so, new "paths" were being forged in pristine saltmarsh, an emerging reedbed was being trampled, and the owls were being prevented from hunting this area due to the presence of people in their favoured spot.
Clearly this is not responsible wildlife watching, and as stated in the birdwatchers' code, the birds' interests should always come first. Similarly, the nature photographers' code of practice has one underpinning rule of "the welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph".
As well as forcing the owls to hunt further afield on the estuary - where the small mammal availability may be lower - resulting in disappointment and frustration for those watching respectfully from Denhall Quay or the marsh edge, encroachment on the marsh also causes disturbance to the waders and ducks resting or feeding on the pools of this inner marsh area. These, ultimately, are the primary reason for the RSPB protecting the expanse of saltmarsh and mudflat that we do on the reserve; the Dee Estuary is the third most important estuary in the UK for waterbirds, supporting over 100,000 of them through the winter months.
Drone photo showing the myriad pools on the saltmarsh (Josh Robertson)
In the first week of January, we began to address the issue by installing signs asking people not to enter the sensitive parts of the marsh that had been causing problems. The reserve team have also been monitoring the site as much as capacity allows. Thankfully, the issue seems to already be easing, helped also by the amount of public support on social media calling out the inappropriate behaviour.
Some people may wonder what all the fuss is about, and what harm it causes if the birds fly away to another part of the marsh. As mentioned above, the owls' location indicates a prevalence of food, and being forced to hunt elsewhere means they may struggle to find sufficient food to survive the winter. Similarly, the ducks and waders being scared from this area have settled there due to the right food in the water or mud, or to rest away from the rising tide on the outer part of the saltmarsh.
Some of these birds have migrated thousands of miles and will have lost half of their body weight in doing so. It is essential for them to feed and rest sufficiently over winter to regain this weight and return to prime condition ready to migrate north to their breeding grounds in spring. Disturbing birds does more than simply cause them to fly away; it uses up their energy reserves, decreasing their chance of survival. Once frightened away, birds can take a long time to settle and they remain alert, meaning they cannot rest properly for a while afterwards.
Pink-footed geese migrate from Iceland and Greenland to overwinter on the Dee Estuary in their thousands (Paul Jubb)
In an ideal world, nobody would walk onto the saltmarsh at Denhall Quay, or any part of the estuary, to keep human disturbance to the birds at a minimum. However, a permissive route exists, forming a loop between Denhall Quay and the car parking area at the end of Marshlands Road. This dates back generations, long before the area was purchased by the RSPB in 2006. There is no public right of way onto the marsh, and the historic access was intended for the local residents between Burton and Neston.
Over time, the area has become increasingly used by people from further afield, and due to Covid lockdowns over the past two years, has at times been incredibly busy. We have observed the negative impact on the birds using this part of the reserve, although it is encouraging that the short-eared owls this winter are happily hunting within the loop, when not deterred by people straying from the long-standing route.
This route is regularly referred to as the "dog-walkers' loop" which reflects its most frequent use, and whilst dogs and wildlife - especially wetland birds that feed and roost on the ground - do not mix well, dogs kept on leads or at heel here should cause little disturbance to birds on pools in the proximity. Sadly, it is not uncommon for dogs to chase and flush flocks of waterfowl from the marsh, an obvious disturbance issue that we are keen to address in the near future to give these overwintering flocks the protection they need.
Aside from the RSPB's objective of managing a huge area as a nature reserve, the entire Dee Estuary has extensive legal protections for its wildlife; as a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) - both for the winter bird populations - and the saltmarsh is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) habitat. This demonstrates how important the Dee Estuary is, not only on a national level but on a European scale, and reinforces the need for us all to behave in a way that is sensitive to nature rather than just to suit our own desires.
There really is no need to venture onto the saltmarsh from Denhall Quay, to enjoy the short-eared owls or any of the other brilliant birds that the estuary supports. The slight height of the Quay gives an advantage to see further across the marsh; with patience and effort, you can see flocks of pink-footed geese, wigeon, teal, lapwing, redshank and curlew to name just a few, not to mention the long list of birds of prey, egrets and herons, and characterful songbirds like stonechat and skylark.
Since we do not live in an ideal world, it is worth highlighting that the area of saltmarsh affected by the permissive route is a small fraction of our reserve. Although we would prefer to avoid any disturbance to the pools on the inner marsh around Denhall Quay, there is at least a natural saltmarsh gutter which creates a clear boundary to restrict access to the rest of the marsh. If you happen to see anybody beyond there, it could be RSPB staff or volunteers, our tenant farmer or his shepherds, or a member of the Dee Wildfowlers' Club.
Although it looks as though the new signs are being effective, directing people away from the recently disturbed and trampled areas where we do not want a new path formed to prevent long-term damage to the saltmarsh and birds, we will continue to monitor the area over the coming weeks. All that we ask is if you choose to visit the estuary, please follow the Countryside Code to help us in our efforts to protect some of Europe's most threatened landscapes and wildlife. Wildlife doesn't have a choice of going elsewhere.
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