Regular visitors to RSPB Minsmere will have seen more than just birds, dragonflies and mammals over the last few months as the Scrape has undergone the latest phase of its transformation to ensure that it remains a superb habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.

Over the last three years, you’ve been able to watch diggers in action as part of our LIFE Nature-funded LIFE on the Edge project during which we have been improving the Scrape for breeding birds, such as Little Terns, Common Terns and Avocets, as well as improving the wildlife spectacle for visitors.

Digger working on the Scrape by Louise Chapman

The Scrape is an artificial habitat, first created in the early 1960s by Minsmere’s pioneering warden, Bert Axell, with the intention of providing habitat for breeding and migrant wading birds, including Avocets, and for breeding terns. It was designed to replicate the type of coastal lagoons on which Avocets first nested at Minsmere in 1947, following flooding during the Second World War.

These coastal lagoons are typically shallow, brackish pools with low, vegetated islands and regularly fluctuating water levels. We try to copy these conditions on the Scrape, by using sluices to vary the water levels and salinity and by cutting vegetation on islands every autumn, but being an artificial habitat, we sometimes need to take more drastic action.

Aerial view of the Scrape by Jeff Kew

That’s where the LIFE on the Edge project comes in. Without intervention the bottom of the lagoons will gradually become uniform in depth, the islands will vegetate over (making them less attractive for nesting) and reedbed will encroach on the open water. By using diggers, we can excavate deeper areas, which will remain wetter for longer, and provide a more varied topography to suit a wider mix of birds. We can also reprofile some of the islands, ensuring that they are perfect for when the Avocets, gulls and terns return to nest in the spring. The design of the islands has also maximised viewing opportunities for our visitors, especially from the hides.

In autumn 2022 we successfully carried out this work on East Scrape, with Avocets having a successful breeding season in 2023.

Avocets and Common Terns on the Scrape by Steve Everett

Little Terns are a key target species of this project. Until about 20 years ago they regularly nested on the shingle beach at Minsmere, but after that area became unsuitable due to erosion, Little Terns had failed to nest here until 2019. That year, seven young Little Terns successfully fledged after several pairs nested on the Scrape. Then, nothing.

Until this spring. It was very exciting to see eight pairs of Little Terns nest on the newly revamped islands on East Scrape, with some eggs hatching. Sadly, they did not survive, due to predation, but this attempt shows that Little Terns clearly saw the Scrape to be a suitable nesting site, which is a very encouraging sign for the future of this threatened seabird.

Little Terns on the Scrape by David Borderick

The final phase of this project has been taking place on West Scrape this autumn, with our contractors reprofiling West Scrape, moving some of the islands and changing the layout of the banks.

The diggers and dump trucks have certainly been busy, and the work was progressing well until the recent heavy rain flooded the Scrape and forced us to stop the work early. We will, of course, finish the project as soon as we can, but we’re confident that we progressed far enough that the Avocets, Common Terns, Black-headed Gulls, and hopefully Little Terns, will nest successfully on the Scrape in 2024.