Author: Annabel Rushton

Blog Post: Ribble Estuary reserves – part re-opening

As we are now beginning to see the easing of some of the restrictions on travel and spending time in green space, the staff here on the Ribble Estuary have been exploring ways in which we can re-open our sites. Crucially we need to make sure that it is safe for our staff, volunteers and visitors, and the wildlife that calls them home. Firstly, we are asking people to please stick to visiting reserves within your local area. We know the temptation may be to travel out to your favourite reserve, but please try to keep local, it hopefully won’t be long before we will be out enjoying more of our amazing countryside. The situation at each of our Ribble reserves is different, depending on the circumstances: T he Ribble Discovery Centre remains closed for now. We will only be able to open it when visitor centres and non-essential shops are allowed to be re-opened, but also when we can be confident that we can do so safely for our visitors, staff and volunteers. In the meantime, check out the RSPB online shop for all your bird food needs. At Marshside , we have re-opened the trails and car park. Please be mindful that it has limited capacity and can quickly become full in fine weather. Please do not park on the road. We have taken the decision to keep the hides and toilet closed here for now. We will only re-open these facilities when we can be confident it is safe for our staff, volunteers and visitors. We have re-opened the car park at Hesketh Out Marsh . As with Marshside, p lease be mindful that it has limited capacity and can quickly become full in fine weather. Please do not park along Dib Road, as it causes an obstruction. When visiting the reserves, p lease be respectful of other people’s personal space and follow the government advice around social distancing and hygiene. We want our reserves to continue to be a place where people feel safe and welcome to enjoy the special wildlife of the Ribble Estuary. It is a crucial time of year for our wildlife. Marshside and Hesketh Out Marsh are incredibly important sites for a huge variety of species to raise their young. Many birds nest on the ground – they might not be obvious and the parents can easily become disturbed, causing their eggs or chicks in the nest to go cold. If you choose to visit our sites, you can really help them by following these important five points: Keep a look out – with fewer visitors during lockdown, wildlife may be closer than usual. Tread cautiously on verges and paths. Stick to the designated paths – you can easily disturb wildlife by veering off-route. Download a trail map for Marshside here and Hesketh Out Marsh here to see where the designated trails are. Keep dogs on leads – loose dogs can easily disturb ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. Back away – sharp alarm calls, birds with full beaks or coming unusually near to you could mean you’re too close to chicks. Back up the way you came, being careful where you step. Report anti-social behaviour – if you see anything suspicious, such as evidence of wildlife crime, fly-tipping or uncontrolled fires, report this to the relevant emergency service. Thank you for your continued support and patience. It really means a great deal to us. In the meantime, stay safe, keep following all government guidelines wherever you live, and we look forward to welcoming you back.  Marshside by David Morris

Blog Post: Reserve closures

Despite some very slight changes in lockdown restrictions in England, our Ribble Estuary sites, including Marshside , Hesketh Out Marsh and Ribble Discovery Centre remain closed to the public for now . Our priority is to ensure that we only re-open when we have everything in place to keep our members, visitors, volunteers and employees safe. We must also make sure that the wildlife that calls our sites home is ready to receive attention after a couple of months completely on its own. You’ll have seen reports from round the UK of birds nesting on and near normally busy paths (as well as some weird and wonderful places), so it’s going to take us some time to check and make sure they are safe too. We ask that you bear with us in these difficult times and check our Ribble reserves websites, Facebook and Twitter regularly for the latest information, as well as the RSPB Covid-19 updates here . If you are exercising on public paths around the Ribble Estuary sites, as well as abiding by social distancing measures, we urge you to be alert for nature and please be extra careful around it – especially on beaches (where birds such as plovers nest), paths (where plants have emerged, and birds may have nested) and open landscapes such as saltmarsh (ground nesting birds and other wildlife can easily be disturbed by people and dogs off leads). Thank you. We look forward to being able to welcome you back when it can be done safely and responsibly for all people and wildlife concerned. Marshside by Dave Morris

Update to reserve closure

Despite some very slight changes in lockdown restrictions in England, Leighton Moss remains closed to the public for now. Our priority is to ensure that we only re-open when we have everything in place to keep our members, visitors, volunteers and employees safe.

We must also make sure that the wildlife that calls our site home is ready to receive attention after a couple of months completely on its own. You’ll have seen reports from round the UK of birds nesting on and near normally busy paths (as well as some weird and wonderful places), so it’s going to take us some time to check and make sure they are safe too.

We ask that you bear with us in these difficult times and check our reserve website, Facebook and Twitter regularly for the latest information, as well as the RSPB Covid-19 updates here

If you are exercising on public paths around the wider Morecambe Bay area, as well as abiding by social distancing measures, we urge you to be alert for nature and please be extra careful around it –  especially on beaches (where birds such as plovers nest), paths (where plants have emerged, and birds may have nested) and open landscapes such as saltmarsh (ground nesting birds and other wildlife can easily be disturbed by people and dogs off leads). 

Thank you. We look forward to being able to welcome you back when it can be done safely and responsibly for all people and wildlife concerned. 

Bittern by Mike Malpass 

A booming great start to the breeding season

We’re so excited that for the first time since 1999, we’ve got three booming male bitterns here at Leighton Moss!

Bittern populations are monitored by recording the number of ‘booming’ males, so called for their rather unusual birdsong.

The bittern is Britain’s loudest bird, but the noise it makes is far from a typical bird song. Indeed, for such a shy and elusive bird, their call is not exactly discrete. Their ‘booming’ has been described as a deep sound “like blowing over the top of a glass bottle”, or less poetically, “like a giant gulping”. 

One of the males here in particular has a strong voice. This is the first year for many years, when we’ve had such a good quality boomer. His boom carried over a distance of around 2.5km and was heard by our Site Manager Jarrod in Silverdale! This bodes well for a successful breeding season.

After an absence of breeding here for almost a decade, these elusive birds nested in 2018 as a result of a four-year programme to rejuvenate the wetlands. Since 2018, the birds have continued to thrive, and this year, the three booming males are the highest record in 20 years.

Before 2018, we had one booming male, but he would fail to work up to a full boom or stop early in the season. In 2018 we had our first breeding success, and now, merely two years later, to have three high quality booming males is amazing news. It’s evidence that the hard work and dedication of our staff and volunteers to maintain the reedbed, and create a bittern-friendly habitat, has truly paid off.

Bittern in flight by John Bridges (

As an unusual cousin of the more familiar grey heron, bitterns rely on reedbeds to live in – a now rare habitat in the UK, with Leighton Moss being the largest one in North West England.

Reedbed is very important to conserve as a lot of it has been lost through drainage for agriculture and development. In the late 1990s, bitterns were almost wiped out in this country, due to the loss of the reedbed habitat on which they depend. At that time Leighton Moss was one of only a few sites  in the UK where bitterns were clinging on. Since then, the RSPB and other nature conservation organisations have been working hard to save the species and it has been successful, with 198 booming males recorded in the UK in 2019

As we are still closed, visiting the Leighton Moss bitterns is sadly not possible at this time. However, you can listen to a recent recording here, made by our Site Manager Jarrod, before lockdown. Not only can you hear the brilliant booming bitterns, but a whole host of wonderful wildlife in the reedbed too. Hopefully it will bring you a little piece of Leighton during this strange time.

You might also like to tune into the upcoming BBC Radio 4 Farming Today piece, which will be going out this Friday 8 May. Reporter and presenter Caz Graham came along to Leighton Moss before lockdown, and ventured into the reedbed with Jarrod to record our booming bitterns and chat about the reedbed restoration work for the programme. If you live locally, you may have also seen Caz’s recent article about her adventure here, in Cumbria Life magazine.

Our Site Manager Jarrod Sneyd and Radio Reporter and Presenter Caz Graham, out very early in the morning to record booming bitterns. 

You can of course also keep up with the latest reserve news by following us on Twitter and Facebook. And finally, for the possibility of hearing a live bittern, have a listen to the live mic in the reedbed at our pal’s RSPB Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk. 

Sneaking out to the edge. Bittern at Leighton Moss by Mike Malpass.

Forum Post: RE: My local RSPB Group will be visiting Marshside in May 2020.

Hi Ian, Thanks for getting in touch. You can find the downloadable map of the site on the website here, which will give you an idea of your bearings.…/marshside_trail_guide.pdf In terms of sightings, in spring the site is known for i…

Funding boosts woodland restoration project for rare butterflies at our Challan Hall Allotment

We’re really pleased to announce an exciting woodland restoration project at our Challan Hall Allotment nature reserve in Silverdale, a satellite site of Leighton Moss. Thanks to generous funding, work can begin later this year to restore the reserve for rare butterflies.

Historically the site had a wonderful mixture of open limestone pavement and grassland, as well as woodland, all of which is required by these butterflies. However, since the 1940s the area has become increasingly overgrown and the open areas that used to benefit a whole host of wildlife have mostly been lost to predominantly woodland.

Since 2001, we have owned the site and our small team of wardens and fantastic volunteers have been maintaining it. Now this larger scale restoration has been able to take place thanks to the generous support of the Lancashire Environmental Fund, Arnside & Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Grants Fund (operated by Arnside & Silverdale AONB and the Arnside/Silverdale Landscape Trust working together), and with assistance from wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation.

The surrounding landscape is home to a number of nationally rare and threatened butterflies. Initial restoration work over two years has been planned in collaboration with Natural England, who manage nearby Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve. The hope is for the work to provide more wildlife corridors between these existing nature reserves to link populations together, as well as creating new areas to try and help boost the numbers of these rare butterflies.

The AONB is a key location for many of our rarest butterflies such as high brown fritillaries and Duke of Burgundy, which are not found in many places in this country. However, like a lot of the UK’s butterflies, their numbers are worryingly in decline. This means it’s critical to think about corridors and connections for wildlife movement. It’s all about working in partnership, making sure nature reserves aren’t isolated and sit within a bigger, better, more connected landscape.

  High brown fritillary by David Mower

Traditional practices using local workers are being restarted in the woodland including coppicing, where trees are cut down in patches over a number of years and then allowed to re-grow. Initially this creates a flush of wild flowers, especially violets for the rare fritillaries to lay their eggs on. A whole range of other wildlife also benefits from having trees at a range of ages, including bats and birds.

Some overgrown areas of limestone pavement and grassland will also be opened up, bringing more sunlight into the reserve. These habitats provide a home not only to specialised plants but also to other rare species like the distinctive white spotted-sable moth.

We are very excited to be working closely with local coppice workers to deliver this project and we look forward to seeing how wildlife responds in the coming years.

Much of Challan Hall Allotment isn’t publicly accessible, but there is a bridleway running through the middle that also gives you great views over Silverdale Moss, one of Leighton Moss’ sister reedbeds. Check out the map of the ANOB here (the Challan Hall Allotment bridleway is the one that runs right through the middle of the Silverdale Moss label).

Blog Post: Upcoming changes at Marshside

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 l ugworms , 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 ( 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 ( 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. Saving Saltmarsh 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 the end of July 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 summer 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-5pm, 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 small team here, so currently staffing this later is not practical. 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

Blog Post: An exciting addition to Marshside!

Thanks to funding from Biffa Award , we are taking even more birds under our wing on the Ribble Estuary after recently purchasing Crossens Inner Marsh, a wet grassland area adjacent to Marshside. The marsh, which is already home to over-wintering birds such as wigeons , pink-footed geese , black-tailed godwits and golden plovers , covers an area about the size of 38 football pitches. Over £464,000 funding from Biffa Award enabled us to purchase the land recently and will also fund major improvements to the marsh, which will benefit rare and unusual wildlife including nesting lapwings , redshanks , and avocets – which are the emblem of the RSPB, along with brown hares . The habitat works, which will take place after the breeding season this summer, will also improve the control of water levels on the reserve helping to prevent prolonged flooding of the rare coastal grassland. Avocet by Ben Andrew ( Purchasing Crossens Inner Marsh is the final piece of the jigsaw for us, not only as an extension to our well known Marshside reserve, but also in the completion of the Ribble Estuary National Nature Reserve (NNR) . We’re working in partnership here with Natural England who oversee England’s NNRs, which enables us to do more for nature by creating opportunities for bigger, better and more joined-up management of these vital wild spaces. Much of the wider Ribble Estuary is managed as England’s third largest NNR and is one of the Top 10 most important wetlands in the UK for the numbers of water birds that live here. Some have travelled thousands of miles from the north to spend the winter months, others choose the area in spring and summer to raise their families, whilst some live here all year round. Our new site at Crossens Inner Marsh, and indeed the whole of the Ribble Estuary NNR, is home to a range of incredible creatures that thrive in this harsh environment. In addition to sheltering birds and mammals from human disturbance, the site is stuffed with mini-beasts, which provide a feast for wetland birds. The marsh also benefits people, by reducing the flood risk from the sea to homes and businesses. Sadly, much of the coastal grassland in this country has been lost to human developments and it is further threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change, making this place crucial to protect. We’re so thankful to Biffa Award for the funding that has allowed us to purchase and improve Crossens Inner Marsh for nature and for people. Gillian French, Biffa Award Head of Grants, said: “It is really important that we continue to support projects like this which provide and enhance habitats for a wide range of species. We can’t wait to see even more birds using the site following the improvements.” We’re excited to see how this site blossoms for nature over the coming years. Map of Marshside showing the addition of Crossen Inner Marsh highlighted in yellow

Spectacular signs of spring

The sun is shining and spring is well and truly here. Our marsh harriers (two males and four females) have been performing their sky dancing routines to impress each other for the breeding season. Keep your eyes peeled for them all around the reedbed.

The great crested grebes at Causeway Pool can be spotted weed dancing like they’re in the Strictly Come Dancing final. They’re so lovely to watch as they pass weeds and nesting material to one another. 

Most exciting of all is the boom of the bittern which can be heard in the mornings and evenings (and sometimes bits in the day too). If you stand on the Causeway by the ‘Boom goes the bittern’ interpretation panel (very handy), you can hear him in the reeds across the other side of the Causeway Pool at Island Mere. He is distant but his voice is loud and carries well. He often takes three breaths before a sequence of eight-nine booms. It is the strangest, most spectacular sound of spring at Leighton Moss. 

  Bittern by Ben Andrew (

The migrants are also rolling in. A huge flock of 200+ sand martins can be seen feeding on insects over the reedbed. You have to be quick to catch a photo as they zoom past but they are a joy to watch. Of an evening they are almost like a starling murmuration as they fly round en mass together, quite high above the reeds, catching insects. A sure sign of spring, we’re hoping they will take an interest in the sand martin bank at Tim Jackson hide that we installed last year.

Our Visitor Operations Manager Kevin was lucky to have the mother otter and her cubs running towards him on the Causeway this week! Always a delight to see, keep an eye out for them on the Causeway and Lower Pools. 

Avocet numbers are now topping 50 so head to the Allen and Eric Morecambe hides to watch these elegant birds that are the emblem of the RSPB. You will likely discover a huge flock of black-tailed godwits there too – looking fabulous in their rusty-red summer outfits. 

With all of this and more to discover, new migrants like ospreys due in any day (and not forgetting it’s Mother’s Day, the perfect opportunity to treat your mum to a day wildlife watching and some cake in the cafe), we hope to see you soon!

To intervene or not to intervene – that is the question?

With the incredibly exciting news that we have bitterns breeding again for the first time in a decade, our Site Manager Jarrod Sneyd recalls his lifelong passion for this iconic species here at Leighton Moss, and how we’ve made the recovery happen

I did not think much about intervening in anything when I was a boy of 8 yrs old. I was just a bit obsessed by all things birds.

My parents ‘landed’ with their little caravan at Fell End Caravan Park, near Beetham, just a handful of minutes as the crow flies to Leighton Moss. My grandparents stayed in a posh hotel at Cartmel and we would come together as a family. As my gran was a life-fellow of the RSPB, and I had become a Young Ornithologist (now Wildlife Explorers), Leighton Moss would be an essential part of the holiday’s itinerary. My grandad and parents would just have to tag along (or sleep in the car as my granddad would often do!)

I remember the little reception hut (like a garden shed) that was located near the start of the path that now runs to our new boardwalk. There was a charismatic chap there with a flash of blonde hair and an energetic personality (which I realised later was John Wilson, the Senior Warden). He handed us our permits and we wandered along the narrow path, completely enclosed by reeds, to the Y.O.C hide (now Lilian’s hide). This was not simply a journey through reeds to a hide overlooking water and hopefully lots of birds though, it was full of anticipation, full of mystery..the obsession…the bird of the bog…the elusive, the secretive, the mythical…THE BITTERN!

I spent two hours in that hide with my gran, watching every reed to see if it would move. Despite seeing bitterns in bird books I couldn’t imagine how one would look for real. Then someone pointed one out…oh my goodness – where is it? I still couldn’t see it. I kept looking and looking but only had binoculars, and then a sympathetic ‘expert’ let me peer through his telescope. I couldn’t believe it – it was ‘star-pointing’ – stood with its bill straight up in the air, perfectly camouflaged, just in the reeds not far from the edge of the water – and it didn’t move an inch as I watched. I was so excited and have never forgotten this experience.

Ever since then, I have had a connection with Leighton Moss and bitterns – and the place and bird have had a well-known association for many years. It was the place to see bitterns in northern England and for a period, one of the best places in the country to spot them.

And so it was, with the loss of the reedbeds on which they depend, bitterns sadly declined nationally (at their lowest ebb in the 1990s when the population dropped to 11 males), Leighton remained a stronghold.

It continued to be a stronghold through all the years that I made return visits to Leighton Moss after my first bittern initiation. Then in 1990 I came to live on site for 12 months as a residential volunteer. It was still the place to be for bitterns and I remember doing a bittern boom count in the early hours of the day. My shift was one of many, meaning that as a team we counted the ‘boom sequences’ over a full 24 hour period (when a bittern booms, it does several in one go and that set up of booms is called a ‘boom sequence’). Below is an example of a bittern boom count.

The peak booming is just before it comes light and when I did the count it was similar to this one. Imagine that at 4.30am on a May morning – the place was alive with the sound of bitterns booming, so much so that it would be almost impossible to have time to write down the boom sequences. In this case there were 27 booms in a 15 minute period – that’s a bird booming every 30 seconds!

It was in 1990 that we also caught ‘Phil the bittern’. Glen Tyler, researcher extraordinare (in the image below), banged on the door of the volunteers accommodation one day. He had spent many months figuring out how to catch a bittern and finally, there he was, with a bittern! He needed help to weigh, ring and radio-tag the bird, so in a panic I rushed out to help. The radio-tag meant we could follow it around (we did for many months), working out its favourite places. My relationship with bitterns became even more intimate!

   Glen Tyler, bittern researcher, with ‘Phil’the bittern’

After that year, as I headed off on my career in conservation (Symonds Yat, Highnam Woods, the Farne Islands…) I didn’t imagine that I too would become a bittern researcher. Then in 1997 I came back to Leighton Moss to do just that.I located bittern territories and found a nest.

Below is one of the less than technical maps I produced, showing that even then there were three booming bitterns at Leighton Moss and it remained a stronghold, with only 11 left in the country. I became so obsessed that I stayed put for another seven years. I transitioned into the role of Assistant Warden and my personal journey with Leighton and bitterns was almost complete.


And so, back to the question, to intervene or not intervene? Well, after being a stronghold for so long, bitterns sadly declined at Leighton Moss, to the point that from 2003 onwards, there was just a single bird booming and even then, for many years, it just did a half-hearted boom at the beginning of the season and then just gave up. But thanks to conservation efforts, bitterns were actually starting to do well nationally (166 boomers last year), so what was the problem at Leighton? The reedbed was getting old and drier with the year on year build-up of reed litter. The water bodies were becoming shallower with a build-up of silt and there were issues around water quality.

So, why decide to make some big interventions? Why for just one booming bird? That one bird is the reason that Leighton Moss is a European Designated Special Protection Area ,so we have an obligation to make sure it is in good condition for bitterns and to hopefully keep them breeding. Reedbed is also an extremely scarce habitat in north west England (and indeed throughout the UK). Having bitterns is a great indication that you’ve got a good, healthy reedbed, that’s also home to many other reedbed specialists and a variety of more generalist wildlife too. Some might have argued to just let Leighton do its own thing, let nature take its course. It would have become drier and scrubbed over, becoming wet woodland. In a natural landscape without sea walls, embanked rivers and lots of artificial drainage, reedbeds would come and go – aging here, appearing there. But we live in man-made landscapes, reedbeds can’t come and go, so we need to cherish the jewels that remain!  

Maintaining Leighton Moss as a high quality reedbed for bitterns called for radical action! We decided to go on a journey of removing silt from the pools and ditches to take the reedbed back in time. It was getting old and as bitterns like young reedbed, in the earlier stages of development, we needed to dig it out in places. This technique had worked well at Minsmere in Suffolk and had transformed an ailing bittern population (down to just one booming male) to around 10 males there.

  The Kori excavator used to clear the silt from the pools and ditches and dig ‘holes’ in the reedbed

Unfortunately, Leighton was an altogether different ball game! Different ground conditions, different reed condition. Though the silt removal from the pools worked well to improve the water quality and restore fish populations, the areas we excavated to revitalise the reedbed just ended up as gloopy mud. Also, though there were some small signs of reedbed spread, it was also clear that a growing red deer population was impacting on any potential recovery as they were also causing considerable damage elsewhere in the reedbed.

And so, we put in an additional water control structure at Leighton Moss so that we could drain down half the reedbed, the idea being that the muddy, gloopy areas would dry out, the surface of the reedbed would be aerated and stabilise, and suitable conditions for plant colonisation would be created in the excavated areas. We also started to manage deer. Leighton Moss being the only place in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB where there was no form of deer management meant it had become a focal point for the red deer of the area, disproportionately increasing the impact of their damage to the reedbed.

   The new water control system that was installed

It has been a long-winded story – a blog with many branches! But look below and see the recovery of the excavated areas. All the vegetation starting to take hold in the bottom images. Then imagine what it’s like, after all those years of trying new things, trying controversial things (but knowing that if you don’t do anything, bittern demise is near certain), when a bittern starts to boom properly again and for the first time in a decade we have a female bittern nesting (and near the excavated areas and in part of the reedbed we dried out for several years!!!!!) 

As a little boy of 8, marveling at this mythical bird, I was able to see one on my first visit. That’s not been the case as I hit my 40s – whilst we have alwas had regu;ar bitterns through the winter, sightings in recent summer months have been few and far between. This summer, there have been many sightings from the Causeway hide as the female flies backwards and forwards on feeding flights – taking food to her chicks. It has been a long road to recovery, but we are making the first steps. We need to keep intervening, we need to keep Leighton Moss dynamic. It wouldn’t be the special place it is without doing it, for bitterns and for all wildlife here. For me the answer to the original question, is without doubt, ‘To intervene’.  

– Jarrod   

   Two ‘excavated areas before (top) and after (bottom) all this new reedbed management