Neston Reedbed fire: the view from the ground

Heartbroken. Angry. Rueful. Just three of the many emotions coursing through my body and brain since Saturday evening.

Heartbroken for the marsh harrier pair that had started nest building just days before the fire, now flying around aimlessly and confused by the dramatic change in appearance of their home.

Angry that for the third time in my eleven years working here, I’ve witnessed this precious wild habitat going up in flames in suspicious circumstances.

Rueful because after growing pressures on the tidal reserve during the pandemic lockdowns and despite the best efforts of RSPB staff, volunteers and supporters, we had yet to achieve any real progress in preventing damage and disturbance occurring.

Developments since the weekend suggest that initial suspicions of the fire being started deliberately are being investigated by the Police. Why, we repeatedly hear being asked, would anybody do such a thing?

Well, whilst it’s unlikely that anyone would intend to raze 100,000 square metres of internationally important nature reserve to the ground, it highlights the lack of understanding and respect for how valuable to wildlife the estuary is.

What hurts so much more than the last severe fire in 2013 is that since the reedbed recovered that time, it first became an important winter roost for marsh harriers and bitterns in 2015, before a pair of marsh harriers nested there since 2017.

Burning is one of several conservation management techniques for reedbeds, so  some might argue that the 2013 blaze was beneficial to these subsequent arrivals,. Yet this scientific practise must be done carefully, in a controlled manner, not eliminating an entire habitat in one fell swoop, including an untold loss of invertebrate life that serves as the vital food source for the wildlife we see and hear there.

From assessing the damage on Monday, some comfort can be taken from the fact the roots and rhizomes of the reeds appear to be largely intact, having been protected by the waterlogged ground they grow from.

What burned so fast and fiercely, aided by the stiff south-easterly breeze, was the dry six-foot reed stems and crucially, the papery layer of dead leaf litter that falls to the base of the reedbed in winter, building up to create the habitat for many of the inhabitants to make their home.

Whilst the reeds will grow significantly this spring and summer, realistically it will be at least a couple of years before the reedbed starts to resemble its former glory, but it will take even longer for the important leaf litter to build up again.

To our surprise, a relatively small area of saltmarsh on the outer edge of the reedbed also burned, demonstrating the intensity of the fire that was able to scorch such wet vegetation. This will take significantly longer than the reeds to recover its complex assemblage of plants, but at least it is a tiny fraction of the extensive saltmarsh managed on the reserve.

As well as no marsh harrier nest this year, dozens of reed warblers will be returning in the coming weeks to find their usual nesting site gone, along with resident Cetti’s warblers and water rails that should have escaped the fire but are now forced to seek alternative homes.

Thankfully, the reedbed we planted at Burton Mere Wetlands 15 years ago has matured to support one of three further pairs of marsh harriers that now nest across our reserve, the two others being in small pockets of naturally emerging reeds on the tidal estuary. But that doesn’t mean that a quarter of the Dee Estuary’s breeding marsh harriers probably not nesting this year is any less of a tragedy.

It also leads me onto another major current concern for the reserve team; the increase in people inadvertently causing disturbance to the rich and varied wildlife that we work so hard to protect while they access the marsh.

Having put my heart and soul into the Dee Estuary reserve for nearly a third of my life, I’m blessed to have witnessed incredible birds like avocets, egrets and bearded tits (to name just three) establish themselves at the local treasure that is Burton Mere Wetlands, now ranked as one of the most productive wetland nature reserves in the UK.

Just as rewarding are the millions of conversations I’ve had with people in that time, many of whom were only introduced to the Dee Estuary’s special wildlife since we opened Burton Mere Wetlands ten years ago. And for much of the past decade, the wider reserve on the estuary, other than Parkgate and its famed high tides, was a little-known wilderness.

The opening of the Burton Marsh Greenway in 2013, fully supported by us and using a permissive route across RSPB land at Burton Marsh Farm and past Burton Point, gradually introduced more people to this quiet corner of the peninsula, but generally in a very positive way.

Whilst it is gratifying that new visitors share our love of the estuary’s beauty and tranquillity, what is often lacking is a greater understanding and respect for the fragility of this landscape and its wildlife.

Sadly, the past two years of lockdowns and travel restrictions has resulted in an exponential rise of human traffic in this sensitive area as people understandably sought out local greenspaces to exercise and visit, coupled with the unprecedented growth of dog ownership during the pandemic. Our wildlife is being put under increasing pressure.

For two long years now, I’ve witnessed people walking far out on the saltmarsh, blissfully unaware of how easily they may tread on a redshank nest and ruin their breeding effort in a second. Even on cold, dank winter days, dogs are let off leads, following their instinct to race into pools and chase flocks of wigeon and snipe, forcing them to waste precious energy flying to safety, which could reduce their chance of surviving the winter.

Bafflingly, wildlife-lovers can also be culpable, evidenced by the much-publicised disturbance of short-eared owls this winter. It may only be the vast minority, but that is all it takes.

With our small team of staff focussed predominantly at Burton Mere Wetlands, it is a huge challenge for us to be visible around the wider reserve to begin addressing these pressures on the birds we give so much time and energy to protect.

Even some of the most local residents may not appreciate what is on their doorstep, and how it has changed over the forty-odd years since the RSPB established the first part of our reserve in 1979. The Dee Estuary is rather unique, in that unlike most intertidal land in the UK, it is not owned by The Crown Estate. Owing to its fascinating industrial heritage, which also influenced the change in natural habitats resulting in today's priceless marshland, ownership was relinquished into private hands almost 300 years ago.

Buying 2000 hectares of marsh around Parkgate from British Steel created a sanctuary for ducks like pintail and wigeon whose numbers were declining dramatically on the Dee in the preceding years, and quashed any proposals of damaging development on the marsh.

In 2006, our purchase of Burton Marsh Farm gave us the grazing management of the marsh from Burton Point to Neston Reedbed, and has since become one of the best locations in the country for threatened redshanks to nest, as well as seeing a twenty-fold increase in the number of wintering pink-footed geese.

Whilst some locals may have grown up roaming freely on the marshland, it’s no longer a mere sheep farm or earmarked for industrial development, where walking would have had little impact. In addition to the RSPB influence, the estuary is legally protected for its wildlife, particularly birds, and its habitats; it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Area (SPA), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Ramsar site.

It is one of the most important estuaries in all of Europe for supporting wintering birds, and the vast, expanding saltmarsh not only represents an excellent mix of specialist plants, but it’s also a rare site where saltmarsh is not being lost to erosion and the threat of rising sea levels.

What much of nature needs more than anything else is space to thrive without contact with humans and everything we bring with us, somewhere that the estuary has the potential to be.

It’s difficult to know where to start with spreading this message far and wide. These birds choose the Dee Estuary due to the suitability of its natural habitats; they have little other choice of equivalent space in the local area.

We, on the other hand, can choose to give them the space they need, keeping to established paths, parks or anywhere else that our recreational activities have no negative impact on nature. It seems assumed by many, but there is no public right of access to the Dee’s marshes, nor even permissive access since Burton Marsh Farm changed hands in 2006.

Of course, admire the views along the three miles of Greenway from The Harp to Burton Point. Perch on Denhall Quay to look for hunting owls, and egrets streaming past at sunset. If you still choose to walk dogs around the well-trodden loop, please at least keep them on short leads or at heel if well trained.

Long before the recent fire, the reserve team were planning to start tackling the issue this year. It fits neatly with the RSPB’s #WatchYourStep campaign which launched a year ago in response to the 2020 bird breeding season being severely impacted in places by the rise in people accessing the countryside during lockdown, and is now live for another season.

As the pandemic restrictions hopefully ease for good, we want to build on supportive discussions with councillors about having these conversations in front of a sizeable public audience. You too can help by sharing this blog and encouraging these conversations amongst friends and family.

The amount of public support we’ve received since Saturday’s fire has been truly touching. We know we have thousands of like-minded people in our midst, who share our frustrations of the disregard for wildlife on the estuary, and in general.

Many have offered to donate; others to volunteer to help. In truth, following a devastating fire like this, there is little immediate need for either. No amount of donations would help the reedbed grow back any quicker. There is no clear-up required as everything has been burned to cinders. Even the established team of volunteer wardens who were due to start their daily patrols this week have nothing left to protect this year.

Saying that, there are a variety of volunteer roles you can get involved with around the Dee Estuary reserve, which may include community engagement to help us tackle the aforementioned issues, once we have had time to make plans and plot our way forward.

Similarly, whilst there is no immediate appeal for donations in response to the fire, if you wish to contribute financially to the RSPB’s work, there is no better way than by becoming a member. It’s probably not as expensive as you think (in fact, you get to choose how much you donate), and this steady source of income is what drives the vital conservation work of the entire organisation including our reserves – not to mention adding another public voice to our efforts to do more to protect nature in the wider countryside, and urban areas.

For more information on volunteering or becoming a member, why not come and see us at Burton Mere Wetlands for a friendly chat, and especially if you’ve never been before, an inspiring introduction to this breath-taking reserve.

Photo credits: D. Mort, T. Capper, B. Longden, A. Mason, P. Jubb

  • Hi Dan, thanks for the update on the aftermath of this unbelievable act of arson and destruction of the wildlife habit,  it is totally heartbreaking to see what damage this huge fire caused and the massive effect it will have on the numerous wildlife that uses the salt marsh area including the raptors and other birds that we so enjoy seeing.   Hopefully returning migrants will find other suitable nesting and feeding locations until the salt marsh recovers to its former glory.     I hope most wildlife managed to escape although much of their food source will have perished.    

      Another sad sight is seeing photographers venturing far out into the reed beds to get photographs;   as an amateur photographer myself I feel very sad to see how some will throw the rule book out of the window to try get that close up of a Marsh or Hen Harrier or Short eared owl;    and because they break the "code" it reflects badly on all of us who carry cameras although I think to be honest most photographers do behave in a very responsible way.      

    I think a lot of people, not only wildlife enthusiasts echo your deep feelings and sentiments when looking at the destruction the fire has caused by those who that don't have a clue about the consequences of their reckless actions,       Hopefully in time we will see the recovery of this essential area of important habitat.  



    Regards, Hazel 

  • Thank you Hugh, that means a lot to hear. Definitely aiming to look forwards now and take some positives from this.

  • The raw hurt that you are feeling is palpable from this powerful account. Know that there is a huge groundswell of support behind you and all the RSPB Dee Estuary staff and volunteers from the Members and the general public. Stay strong, the phoenix will rise again - along with with the rest of our wonderful wildlife.