The Ribble Estuary is vast, stretching from Lytham St Annes on the north side, down to Southport on the south side. Between the two, the great expanse of marvellous mudflats and saltmarsh are a vital home for nature.
Mud might not sound particularly appetising to us, but it's crucial for quarter of a million birds that are drawn in by it every year. Ribble mud is a canteen - it is packed full of cockles and shrimps and lugworms, mussels and more. Tasty morsels to feed a variety of appetites. Curlews, dunlin, black-tailed godwits, redshanks, swirling flocks of knot, and oystercatchers in abundance feed on the estuary. Their differing beak lengths and shapes allow them all to find food within the mud layers.
Redshank by Tim Melling
In winter, the Ribble Estuary is also synonymous with pink-footed geese. Tens of thousands of them come here every year from their breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland, for the comparatively milder weather here on the saltmarsh and fields. You can spot them flying in V-formation overhead and hear their distinctive "wink-wink" sound. They are joined by a variety of ducks that come to spend the colder months here too. At Marshside wigeons, teals, shovelers, tufted ducks and pintails are a colour palette on the pools, brightening up gloomy north west winter days.
Pink-footed geese by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
It's not just the wetter months that bring such treasures. In spring elegant avocets arrive to breed at Marshside. As the emblem of the RSPB they represent a remarkable success story. and are a joy to watch, as they raise their young in front of the hide. You can also experience the incredible sight and sound of lapwings as they tumble and swoop overhead, making a noise like a 90s computer game - "peewit, peeeewit" - displaying to a mate and warding off threats to their nest. And when it comes to sound, there's not much that can beat the glorious, erratic tune of male skylarks as they sing to appeal to the ladies out on the marsh.
Avocet by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
The Ribble Estuary is one of the most important places for birds in Europe and so has been designated as a National Nature Reserve (NNR) and a Special Protection Area (SPA) offering high levels of protection. The Ribble Estuary NNR, which includes our Marshside and Hesketh Out Marsh reserves, is England’s third largest NNR and is one of the Top Ten most important wetlands in the UK for the numbers of water birds that live here, which is why it is so important to protect it. That's not to mention the abundance of brown hares, butterflies, other incredible insects and specialist plants that live here too. We've recently purchased Crossens Inner Marsh to take even more wildlife under our wing.
But it isn't all here by magic.
The saltmarsh and wetlands of Marshside are not only home to a range of incredible creatures, from insects, to plants, mammals and birds that thrive in this harsh environment. They also benefit people, by reducing flood risk to homes and businesses and helping to tackle climate change by storing carbon. Sadly though, much of the saltmarsh and wetlands in this country have been lost to human activity such as development and agriculture, and are further threatened by climate change, making this reserve vitally important for wildlife and people.
That is why it is so crucial to protect the landscape here at Marshside and the wildlife that lives in it all year round.
When visiting the saltmarsh, we ask that visitors stay on the waymarked track (known as ‘Redshank Road’) only, because venturing onto the marsh can cause serious disturbance to both wintering and nesting birds, and can also be hazardous for people and dogs.
Many of the birds here have flown thousands of miles from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to spend the autumn and winter months here. Other birds spend the spring and summer months here and use the saltmarsh to raise their families.
The over-wintering birds come here to feed or to ‘roost’ (rest and conserve energy). Winter is a particularly stressful time for these birds, some of which may have lost half of their body weight during migration. They need to be able to rest and feed on the marshes undisturbed, to regain condition and put on enough weight to survive the winter and make the migration back to their breeding grounds in the spring.
Unfortunately, the birds here are often unintentionally disturbed by human activities such as dog walking, walking, birdwatching, drones, model airplanes and kites. The birds perceive these to be predators and so the effect of this disturbance is great.
Disturbing birds does more than simply causing them to fly away; it uses up their energy reserves, decreasing their chances of survival. Once disturbed, birds take a long time to settle and will remain alert for a long time afterwards. This means they cannot rest properly after a disturbance event.
In the breeding season, disturbance often causes parents to leave their nests or young, exposing their eggs or chicks to the weather and to predators and reducing their chances of survival. The nesting birds here nest on the ground and because their nests and young are very well camouflaged, it is very easy for visitors to unintentionally disturb or damage them without being aware that they have done so.
There isn’t a very long history of the marsh being used by the general public, as up until sand-winning ceased in 2006 , there was big dumper trucks to contend with during the day, putting off all but the keenest of folk. These large vehicles are now gone, but there are still continuing safety implications for people accessing the marsh. Warning signs are up to highlight the hazards of incoming tides, strong winds, soft mud and gullies. However tempting the landscape looks, visitors should stick to the waymarked route and always be mindful of high tide times, to avoid getting stranded or caught out by the sea.
We can’t protect the landscape or wildlife of Marshside without your help. From autumn 2019, we’re making some changes.
Car parking charges will be introduced at Marshside for non-members. These will be as follows:
Up to 2 hours - £1.50
Over 2 hours - £3
As a charity, we must maximise our opportunities to raise income wherever possible. This allows us to financially support our charitable purpose of conserving wildlife and habitats, while maintaining our visitor facilities and providing excellent, inspiring experiences for our visitors.
The income generated through the car parking charges will contribute to the ongoing cost of running the facilities visitors use at Marshside, including reserve entry for all those arriving in that car and use of all visitor facilities (which includes the car park, visitor centre, toilets, trails and hides). It also supports the vital conservation work we carry out here to help wildlife.
RSPB members will of course receive free car parking as a thank you for regularly supporting our nature conservation work – why not join the RSPB today and get free entry to all RSPB nature reserves.
Additionally, from autumn 2019, a gate will be installed at the entrance to the car park at Marshside. It will mean that the car park is locked of an evening, open during the visitor centre opening hours of 8.30am-4pm (1 November-1 March) and 8.30am-5pm (2 March-31 October), 365 days a year.
Unfortunately, we have anti-social behaviour taking place in the car park at night, including a large amount of littering, so we hope that by making the car park inaccessible outside of opening hours, we can discourage this. We appreciate that these hours are not always ideal for those wishing to visit the reserve in the early mornings and evenings. In future, we hope to be able to extend these hours if we can get some additional volunteer help in spring and summer, to support with locking up overnight. We are a very small team here, who already work antisocial hours, so currently staffing this daily is not practical. Unfortunately, with no electricity at the site, an automatic barrier is not currently available, but we are looking into options.
If you would be interested in becoming a car park attendant volunteer, helping on our conservation work parties, or becoming a guide in our hide, then we’d love to hear from you:
Marshside by David Morris
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© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654