It's only a couple of years since our last major milestone, as we celebrated 40 years since the foundation of the RSPB Dee Estuary reserve with the acquisition of precious tidal habitats at Parkgate in 1979. It's hard to believe that Burton Mere Wetlands, the much-loved heart of the vast reserve, clocks up its first decade this week.
Burton Mere Wetlands' visitor centre in 2011 (RSPB Dee Estuary)
Whilst for many, the creation of Burton Mere Wetlands marked the beginning of their appreciation and enjoyment of the estuary's internationally-important birds, the site's origins date back another 25 years to the purchase of the abandoned, waterlogged crop fields of Inner Marsh Farm. Developed as a freshwater sanctuary area to complement the tidal reserve at Parkgate four miles downstream, Bridge Pool, Centenary Pool and Border Pool were excavated in that order through the late 1980s and early 90s, with a single hide installed.
In June 1992, Inner Marsh Farm reserve was opened, initially to RSPB members only and without any active promotion due to limitations on the access. Instantly popular with local birdwatchers but very much a hidden gem, the hide provided good viewing of large flocks of some of the birds the estuary is a vital home for, like black-tailed godwit and pintail. From 1996, a relaxation of the access permissions meant non-members could also visit, and the reserve's audience slowly grew and visitors came from gradually further afield as word of mouth spread.
Inner Marsh Farm hide overlooking Centenary Pool (Ron Thomas)
Inner Marsh Farm remained like this for another decade, attracting various rarities and becoming a stronghold for little egrets as they established themselves on the estuary, before the growth and development of the Dee Estuary reserve really began to gather pace from the mid-2000s. In 2006, we achieved another major land acquisition in purchasing Burton Marsh Farm, which gave us management and protection of the vast saltmarsh stretching from Burton Point to Neston Reedbed at the south end of Parkgate.
The following year, a smaller but significant step towards Burton Mere Wetlands as we know it came with the addition of the remainder of Inner Marsh Farm's waterlogged crop fields which had previously been earmarked for expanding Deeside Industrial Park by the Welsh Development Agency. This was soon followed by the purchase of Burton Mere Fishery, on the market as a going concern, but for us proved the final piece of the jigsaw in improving visitor access to the Burton site that we'd sought for years.
Burton Mere Fishery buildings and ponds, now the reserve office, volunteer accommodation and garden (RSPB Dee Estuary)
Various funders - WREN, Biffa and SITA Trust - helped drive the development of the wetlands, whilst a major contribution from the National Lottery Heritage Fund was essential in the development of the visitor centre, accessible trails and Marsh Covert hide. A priority for the reserve was to create habitat for declining wading birds lapwing and redshank, with 4km of shallow footdrains carved, which was coupled with sluices in drainage ditches installed to help regulate water levels throughout the year plus extensive electric predator exclusion fencing to give the birds a greater chance of nesting success.
Wet grassland with footdrain and lapwing on nest (RSPB Dee Estuary)
On 24 September 2011, Burton Mere Wetlands' doors opened for the first time; to encourage local people to visit and see the wonderful wildlife on their doorstep, we offered free entry for the first week. It was always planned to connect the new facilities to the original Inner Marsh Farm reserve, however various complications meant it took two and a half years to finish the lengthy boardwalk beyond Marsh Covert hide to the existing path alongside the railway embankment. In doing so, we were able to open a trail across Burton Point to the site of an Iron Age hillfort, with unrivalled views across the entire Dee Estuary.
View from Burton Point across Burton Marsh (Paul Jubb)
In the subsequent 10 years, the reserve has gone from strength to strength, continually improving both for wildlife and our visitors. In a peak year, the wet grassland supports over 200 pairs of breeding waders, including more than 100 pairs of red-listed lapwings and over 60 pairs of the iconic avocet which have rapidly colonised since the completion of Burton Mere Wetlands. The reedbed has matured since its planting between 2007 and 2008 and has become home to marsh harriers, bearded tits and this year, a pair of bitterns.
The reedbed with the distinctive shape of Shotton Paper Mill behind (Paul Jubb)
Little egret numbers have risen steadily since the turn of the century, with around 80 pairs now nesting in Marsh Covert, and in the past five years were joined by their rarer cousins great white egret and cattle egret, whilst spoonbills have become a regular summer visitor. Other notable new breeders are marsh harrier, bearded tit and for the first time this year, bittern, along with Mediterranean gulls, Cetti's warblers and pintail, and thriving populations of a range of wildfowl, warblers, farmland and woodland birds - not to mention a host of other wildlife.
Since opening in 2011, the reserve's audience has grown significantly, and broadened to include more families and nature enthusiasts alongside the RSPB's traditional birdwatchers. In turn, we have continually improved our facilities, events and activities to suit this changing audience. Our ever-popular food and drink range has led to us being earmarked to have a cafe built next year, whilst since 2019 we have pioneered the RSPB's first mail-order store for visitors to buy any of the RSPB Shop products for home delivery. Finally, but significantly, over the past year we added a new boardwalk and replaced the Inner Marsh Farm hide with a larger, fully accessible one, further improving the reserve's standards and suitability for visitors of all ages and abilities.
RSPB Shop products on display in the visitor centre (RSPB Dee Estuary)
We say it a lot, but we can never say it enough; the RSPB is indebted to its supporters, for providing huge sums of money enabling us to secure land to develop as nature reserves and their ongoing management for the UK's most threatened wildlife, along with giving their moral support to our wider work. We're proud to have inspired lots of new support for the RSPB through people visiting Burton Mere Wetlands, and we know there are plenty more local people who have yet to start their RSPB journey.
As a muted celebration of the 10th anniversary, given the delicate stage of the pandemic we're still at, we're offering free entry for the weekend of 25-26 September in hope of encouraging curious locals who may have never visited, or visited many years ago, to see how much the reserve has developed. For full details, see our events page here and we look forward to welcoming you soon!
Burton Mere Wetlands in winter (Paul Jubb)
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654
Accepting all non-essential cookies helps us to personalise your experience
These cookies are required for basic web functions
Allow us to collect anonymised performance data
Allow us to personalise your experience