Where to go for World Wetlands Day this Saturday

PUBLISHED: 07:30 02 February 2019

Avocet in flight at Minsmere  Picture: Steve Everett

Avocet in flight at Minsmere Picture: Steve Everett

Copyright © Steve Everett 2015

Diane Church met Ian Barthorpe, from the RSPB's Minsmere reserve, to find out why our wetland habitats are so important.

Great bittern  Picture: Ben AndrewGreat bittern Picture: Ben Andrew

Wetland landscapes have always been synonymous with East Anglia and the Fens. Images of reedbeds under expansive skies abound and every year, tens of thousands of holidaymakers visit the region to enjoy the Broads National Park - Britain’s largest protected wetland - and our wildlife-rich wetland nature reserves.

World Wetlands Day this Saturday celebrates the vital importance of wetlands globally: their unique and rich biodiversity; their role in flood management; and their mitigating impact on climate change.

Ian Barthorpe, who has been visitor experience officer at the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve for the last 16 years, is keenly aware of their value. “I have always felt a special connection to wetlands,” he said. “I began my career in conservation as a volunteer at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire and am very proud of the projects we have developed at Minsmere to protect wetland species.”

Four of Minsmere’s five ‘star species’ rely upon wetlands for their survival, including avocets, bearded tits and the marsh harrier. This large bird of prey was down to its last single breeding pair in the UK at Minsmere in 1971. Since then, work to restore lost wetland habitats have helped marsh harriers make a comeback, and there are now around 400 pairs.

The management of reedbeds at Minsmere and other reserves has also benefited another rare wetland specialist: the loud, but extremely shy, bittern – a brown heron whose males have a booming voice that can be heard up to 2km away.

“By radio tracking bitterns in the 1980s, we were able to identify where these elusive birds fed and the habitat features they required for successful breeding,” explained Ian. “We realised they needed deeper water with shallower edges to fish successfully, so we created a suitable home for them. In the late 1990s a quarter of the UK’s bitterns nested here at Minsmere. Our population has since trebled, while improved reedbed management has boosted the UK population to 188 booming males.”

To the uninitiated, wetlands may just seem to be boggy land that doesn’t drain well and gets waterlogged after heavy rainfall. Yet wetland habitats are so much more. They are complex ecosystems which provide an invaluable habitat to hundreds of species of plants and animals, not only in the wetlands themselves, but in their surrounding landscapes as well.

At Minsmere, the wetlands are teeming with life like water voles and otters, as well as numerous species of aquatic beetles, damselflies, dragonflies, moths and spiders.

Wetland habitats require careful management to promote their biodiversity and in the 1960s, a man-made lagoon with shingle islands was created at Minsmere to provide a new home to thousands of nesting gulls, waders, ducks, terns and other migrant species. Known as ‘the Scrape’, water levels and saline levels in this lagoon are managed using a system of sluices.

“If the land is allowed to get too wet and water levels rise, it can be catastrophic for ground-nesting species – especially during the breeding season,” said Ian.

Vegetation is also removed from the lagoons annually, and sections of the Scrape are dried out and reflooded on a five-year rotation to maximise the wetland’s biodiversity. Polish Konik ponies and Highland cattle graze on the reed beds to help maintain the boundary between reed beds and open water areas.

The Scrape concept has been so successful, that it has been copied around the world with similar habitats being created as far afield as Australia, Spain and Hong Kong.

Wetland conservation projects such as these are invaluable in trying to help counter the loss of wetlands globally which, in recent times, have been catastrophic. Today, wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests.

World Wetlands Day is held every year on February 2 to mark the adoption of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in 1971. This international agreement, named after the city in Iran where it was signed, aims to raise awareness of the vital importance of wetlands to biodiversity, communities and flood management. This year there is a particular focus upon wetlands’ ability to mitigate the impact of global warming by carbon absorption.

As well as Minsmere, the RSPB today has wetland reserves at Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk and Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk, and with the help of some pioneering partnerships more new wetland is being created. At Ouse Fen in Cambridgeshire, the RSPB is working with the mineral extraction company Hanson to restore gravel pits in the heart of the Fens to form what will become the largest area of reedbed in the UK.

“A generation ago, extraction sites became gravel pits once they were finished with, which was of limited benefit to wildlife. Now they’re being transformed into wetland refuges by shallowing the lakes, planting new reed beds and graduating shorelines,” said Ian. “Minsmere used to be the third largest freshwater reed bed in the region, but there are larger ones now as a result of these landscape-scale initiatives. This is good news for conservation. Wetlands are the landscape of East Anglia and we must do all we can to protect them in the future.”

Find out more & start exploring East Anglia’s wetlands

Plan a visit to Minsmere and discover the RSPB’s other wetland nature reserves in the region here.

Learn more about wetlands around the world.

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