Heritage Treasures- The Story of Saltholme

Tuesday 11 January was Heritage Treasures Day; the National Lottery Fund set up this day to celebrate the wide range of amazing heritage projects they have supported over the years. Saltholme is one of these places!

Whilst Saltholme may be a haven for wildlife today, this has not always been the case; the site has a fascinating history, closely tied to the industrial heritage of the area. Read on to find out more!

The Industrial Revolution:

Image Credit: Lydia Cave

It’s thought that, in medieval times, sheep and a few cattle were grazed on the land at Saltholme.

In the medieval era, ‘Saltholme’ was actually ‘Salt Holme Farm’- an area of rough pasture, used for grazing livestock, interspersed with marshland. This began to change in the 1700s…

In 1740, part of the estuary near Saltholme was enclosed by an earth bank. Before this project was undertaken, the Tees estuary was a navigational nightmare for ships due to shifting channels, mud banks and sandbars. The bank allowed more vessels, therefore industry, to use the river Tees and the surrounding landscape.

Fast forward to the 1800s and the advent of railways. Two lines opened in quick succession near Saltholme- the Stockton and Darlington railway, closely followed by the Clarence railway. Coal could now be transported from nearby collieries to waiting ships at ‘Samphire Batts’ (now Port Clarence).

Things changed even more in 1850- ironstone was discovered in the Eston Hills (visible from our visitor centre). Blast furnaces were constructed on both banks of the Tees over the coming decades for the purposes of iron production. Teesside became the largest iron-producing region in the world; in 1875, 32% of the UK’s iron output was made here!

Image Credit: Andy Hay, RSPB Images

Yet industry wasn’t all about coal and iron. In 1863, a bed of salt was accidentally discovered at Saltholme when ironworks companies were trying to find coal seams to fire their blast furnaces. Due to the increasing national demand for salt (for food production and for use in chemical processes), this was a valuable discovery. By 1894, over 300,000 tonnes of salt was produced annually in Teesside.

Coal, iron and salt gave Teesside national- and international- significance as an industrial hub. To gain further access to the valuable natural resources of this area, a land reclamation project began in the late 1800s. Saltholme and Greatham were among the 2523 acres of former marshland and estuary modified for human use.

The turbulent 20th Century:

The ammunition store was built to service the anti-aircraft gun battery built to the east of Saltholme Farm. It became operational in 1940. The regiment operating this battery had been evacuated from France!

The social, political and environmental change associated with the industrial revolution continued into the 20th century, with two world wars profoundly affecting the nation.

During the First World War (1914-1918), the need for explosives led to a chemical works being established in Billingham. Here, nitrogen was made for use in TNT. When the war ended, this nitrogen was instead used in agricultural fertilisers.

These chemical works were eventually taken over by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), who in 1929 began digging clay from the fields at Saltholme for use in their cement works.

Less than 25 years after the First World War ended, the Second World War began (1939-1945). As a low-lying (therefore easily invade-able) estuary in close proximity to critical chemical works, Saltholme was of huge strategic significance. Defences such as pill boxes, gun batteries and bombing decoys were constructed on the land at Saltholme to thwart any invasion attempts and to prevent bomb damage to industries. The remains of an ammunition store can still be seen on the reserve today.

But what about the wildlife?

Image Credit: Ben Andrew, RSPB Images

Saltholme and Greatham Creek had been a haven for wading birds and Common Seals (also known as Harbour Seals) for centuries. The rapid changes of the 19th and 20th Centuries changed this dramatically. Black-tailed godwits (pictured above) were one of the species most adversely affected. 

As you can image, these centuries of rapid change had a huge effect on wildlife. Between 1860 and 1990, 92% of the Tees estuary was lost. Seal and bird populations crashed; it was clear something needed to be done.

What followed was the designation of several Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)- Seal Sands and Seaton Common in 1966, followed by Saltholme Pools in 1997. The SSSI legislation gave these areas special protections from development.

Things really began to turn around in the 1990s, when more stringent controls on industrial waste disposal led to a marked improvement in air and water quality at Saltholme. The wildlife began to return.

Creating space for nature:

Image Credit: Andy Hay, RSPB Images

Springwatch presenter Kate Humble officially opened the Saltholme visitor centre on 6 March 2009.

The Teesside Environmental Trust (TET) was established in 1998, with the aim of protecting the wildlife at Saltholme by creating a nature reserve. To do this, TET formed a partnership with the RSPB in 2000.

Then, in 2007, the RSPB signed a 99-year lease for the site. This allowed further conservation work and, in 2009, the official opening of ‘Saltholme Wildlife Reserve and Discovery Park’.

Saltholme today:

Image Credit: Andy Hay, RSPB Images

Saltholme is now a reserve where nature and industry meet.

Even with such a rich history, Saltholme rarely looks back; our reserve continues to go from strength to strength. It covers around 650 hectares of land and receives over 60,000 visitors each year! Over 200 species have been recorded on the site since we opened in 2009. If you would like a quick round-up of the birds seen recently on the reserve, watch this video, recorded by Ian Robinson.

Every person who visits our site, or who is a member of the RSPB, becomes part of Saltholme’s story. We could not look after this amazing place without your support. So, thank you for adding to the fascinating history of RSPB Saltholme!


Cliff Shepherd (2017). The story of Saltholme. Teesside Environmental Trust.

Available for purchase in Saltholme Visitor Centre Shop.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (2022). Saltholme [webpage]. Accessed through https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/saltholme/ [last accessed 07/01/2022].