Through the winter, we have a monthly evening meal and talk here at Leighton Moss, with fabulous guest speakers talking about a range of subjects. This week as part of our golden anniversary celebrations, we had a particularly special speaker - John Wilson, and his talk on the bearded tits of Leighton Moss. Given that John is as big a part of Leighton Moss as the wildlife itself, I thought he would be the perfect focus for this week's 50th anniversary blog

If you don't know John Wilson, you will no doubt have seen him at Leighton Moss at some point, as there are unlikely to have been many days over the last 50 years that he hasn't been at the reserve. Leighton Moss became an RSPB nature reserve on 1 February 1964 and a warden was needed to manage it. After offering the job to two people who turned it down, the RSPB looked for someone local. John Wilson (who grew up in nearby Warton) started as the Warden on 15 May 1964, having always wanted a job with wildlife. 

John's first year was spent surveying the wildlife to see what was here, working out how he was going to manage the habitat and installing visitor infrastructure. The first hides on what are now the sites of Public, Lilian's and Lower hides were built in that first year, as were the paths out to them.

  John Wilson creating the paths to the first hides. 75 railway sleepers were carried and laid down across the Moss! (RSPB)

There are no 'typical' days when you work in a place like this, but broadly speaking, John spent the spring and early summer studying the wildlife including counting and censusing the breeding bird populations. Counting of birds and other wildlife continued throughout the year, all of which was recorded meticulously in log books. Outside the breeding season, along with help from volunteers, John managed and improved the habitat by clearing willows, creating more areas of open water and reed cutting. 

  John Wilson removing willow from the reedbed (RSPB) 

There are many changes that John has seen over the years. Mammals have increased - to see a red deer or otter in the early days was exceptional, but now 10-15 red deer can be seen most evenings in summer and a family of otters are regularly seen early in the morning. Over the 50 years, collared dove, nuthatch, bearded tit, marsh harrier and avocet have all colonised as breeding birds. We have sadly lost yellowhammer, tree pipit and yellow wagtail, which are all struggling nationally, and tragically are now all on the red list of conservation concern. Another big change over the past five decades is that visitor numbers have gone up from just 365 in 1965 to around 110,000 today. John says it’s great to see people enjoying the wildlife that he has worked to protect and increase over the years.

When asked to describe his proudest achievement, John talks about changing the saltmarsh - "The area was over-grazed and shot over 50 years ago, with little or no wildlife. We bought the area in 1981 and bulldozed two new shallow brackish pools. It now teems with birds throughout the year with breeding avocets in spring and large numbers of wildfowl and wading birds in winter. I get a great thrill from seeing people enjoying the wildlife that I helped to attract."

John is affectionately known as 'Mr Bearded Tit' in and around Leighton Moss. Perhaps not the most flattering sounding of nicknames, but a testament to the phenomenal study he has been carrying out on these fascinating little birds for over 40 years, making him one of the world's leading authorities on them. When John started birdwatching in the 1940s, there were only 10 pairs of bearded tits in Britain, all of which were in the reedbeds of East Anglia. The thought that one day they would breed at Leighton Moss was unthinkable. You can imagine John's delight when he discovered the first ever breeding of just one pair at Leighton Moss in 1973, rearing three broods. By 2000 they had increased to 65 pairs!

  John Wilson in his natural habitat today by Kevin Kelly

Under his expert eye and skill, Leighton Moss grew and grew as a haven for wildlife and a place loved by those who visit. Many additions were also made including a section of Warton Crag, and an enormous area of Morecambe Bay, both stunning places, home to unique wildlife.

John Wilson retired as Senior Warden of RSPB Leighton Moss and Morecambe Bay nature reserve in 2000, 35 years after he first took up the post. Over the years he had been offered three other positions, each that would have been a promotion, but as they took him away into an office, he turned them down, preferring to stay at his beloved Leighton Moss. Since his retirement John has continued as a key volunteer at the reserve, monitoring wildlife and in particular carrying on his important study into bearded tit behaviour, requirements and breeding success. 

It is not only those that have worked alongside John that recognise his incredible achievements. In 1979 he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study bitterns in Hungary and Poland. Ten years later, in 1989 he was given an Honorary Masters Degree by Lancaster University for services to conservation, and that same year he was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for Services to Nature Conservation.

  "I planted these trees" - John Wilson and I at the 50th anniversary Golden Ticket event in June by Steve Ormerod

Leighton Moss, the wildlife, the staff, volunteers and people who visit owe a lot to this man and it is fantastic to be able to celebrate this milestone year for the reserve, with John Wilson firmly still involved and an important part of what can be achieved in the coming years.