Two years ago, the RSPB were chosen to help deliver a programme of habitat restoration and management at Woolston Eyes Nature Reserve. Read on to find out what Assistant Warden, Ash has been getting up to and about the wildlife that the site is so special for:
Woolston Eyes Nature Reserve is located to the east of Warrington between the river Mersey and the Manchester ship canal. The reserve consists of four large lagoons which have been used for depositing natural material dredged from the Manchester Ship Canal, extending from Latchford locks eastwards underneath the M6 Thelwall Viaduct. The four dredging 'beds' cover over 260 hectares of land and now boast a mixture of habitats including shallow pools, reedbed, mature woodland, willow scrub and wildflower meadow.
(RSPB: David Morris)
These habitats have been managed in agreement with the Manchester Ship Canal Company and now the Peel Group, by the Woolston Eyes Conservation Group since 1979, when a small group of dedicated individuals, led by Brian Ankers the group’s Chairman, identified the importance of the site for wildlife. The RSPB became involved in the management of Woolston Eyes in 2011 by providing advice for how key wetland areas found on Beds 3 and 4 should be managed, and as of 2015 has employed an Assistant Warden to support habitat management work.
These dredging areas have become famous for their numbers of black-necked grebe which have bred across them. Black-necked grebes arrived on the reserve in the mid 1980s with breeding first proven in 1987. Unusual for the species, black-necked grebes remained faithful to the breeding site at Woolston with numbers building up eventually peaking at 32 birds in 2008. Since then, numbers have steadily fallen with breeding numbers now averaging around 8-10 pairs. These numbers are still significant, with UK breeding numbers averaging around 50-60 pairs, meaning Woolston Eyes has been home to up to 40% of the entire UK population at times in the reserve's history.
In 2017, the reserve celebrated 30 years of breeding black-necked grebes. With the assistance of the RSPB, the declines are hoped to be addressed through habitat restoration works securing the site as a stronghold for the species for many years to come.
Black-necked grebe (David Bowman)
Bed 3 is where the black-necked grebes currently make their home, arriving in mid-March and leaving towards the end of August. Management for black-necked grebe is all about keeping the reedbed young, preventing succession of the habitat which would naturally develop into willow scrub. Winter reed cuts allow us to maintain a varied age structure beneficial to invertebrates and birds alike. Through reed cutting we also aim to increase fragmented isolated areas of reed which form ideal nesting areas for the black-necked grebe. Other important breeding wildfowl species on the reserve includes gadwall, pochard. In winter, the reserve hosts nationally important numbers of ducks including gadwall, teal, shoveler and pochard. Our management of the reedbed and pools are also for the benefit of these birds.
Male pochard (David Bowman)
Another species we manage for which is found in nationally important numbers are willow tits. In 2016, surveys estimated around 30 pairs across all four beds of the reserve. Willow tits are one of our fastest declining birds, having lost around 88% of the UK population since 1970. Woolston’s population contributes to the stronghold for the species in the North West of England with sites around Wigan, St Helens, Warrington and Chorley supporting more than 10% of the UK willow tit population.
Other wildlife spectacles to be seen on the reserve include impressive groups of butterfly, damselfly and dragonfly species across the reserve. With such species to discover including purple hairstreak butterflies flying around oak tree crowns, whilst red-eyed damselflies can be seen on the slow moving water of the River Mersey perching on floating vegetation. Black-tailed skimmer dragonflies skim low over the pool surfaces, and four-spotted chasers can be found around pool margins.
Four-spotted chaser (David Bowman)
Please note that Woolston Eyes Nature Reserve is not an RSPB reserve, so does not qualify for free access to RSPB members. If you wish to visit the reserve, a permit and key is required from the Woolston Eyes Conservation Group; further information, sightings and permit requests can be found at www.woolstoneyes.com.
Management work on the reserve is extensive and we rely heavily on the help of volunteers on the site. If you might be interested in getting involved, contact our assistant warden Ash Radford via email at email@example.com