Martin Mere's vital role in conservation and wildlife

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 February 2019

Dusk over Martin Mere with whooper swans settling in for the night

Dusk over Martin Mere with whooper swans settling in for the night

Irene Amiet

Just what attracts millions of spectacular birds and almost as many people to this wetland? Writer and photographer Irene Amiet aims to find out.

Jack Grimsditch at the observation blind's telescopeJack Grimsditch at the observation blind's telescope

The sound of what sounds like hundreds of squeaking doors accompanied by dozens of traffic horns pierces the air before the skies fill with tiny peppercorns. As they come nearer, they can be identified as birds. On a busy winter’s day, hundreds of whooper swans and thousands of pink-footed geese fill the skies above Martin Mere Wildfowl Trust near Burscough in West Lancashire. For generations, the migratory birds have come to the mere to escape the darkness of their summer grounds in Iceland.

Martin Mere provides a constant in a forever changing landscape. For the last 400 years, wildfowl habitat has been on the decline as many of England’s ponds have been drained for agriculture or building developments.

Wetland restoration projects started under the initiative of passionate conservationists in the middle of the last century, notably by Sir Peter Scott, the artist, ornithologist and nature lover who was the founding chair of the World Wide Fund for Nature. His iconic Panda still graces the WWF letterhead. Scott set up the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in 1946, with a conservancy scheme at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. Today, the trust runs ten locations, including Martin Mere.

Scott’s love for the outdoors stemmed from his father, the famous arctic explorer Captain Robert Scott who died in Antarctica when his son was only two. The explorer’s lasting message to his wife was to let their son grow up ‘loving natural science, it’s so much better than games’.

A swan displaying its wingsA swan displaying its wings

This credo is reflected in Jack Grimsditch, Martin Mere’s game warden whose grandmother instilled in him a love for the outdoors. Their outings introduced Jack to nature reserves including Martin Mere when he was a small boy.

Jack went on to study science at Salford University and his work experience placement was at Martin Mere. He worked through the ranks and has been at the reserve for ten years. ‘I can’t see a future away from the Mere,’ he says.

On a regular morning, he starts his day checking on cattle, English Longhorns, which are kept at the trust to keep the grass down. Birds find their ration of insects more easily in short, stubbly vegetation, and the cows reduce hay-making hours for reserve staff drastically. Jack’s favourite time is early morning.

At sunrise, hundreds of whooper swans, pink-footed geese and native ducks rise in a flurry of wings as flocks take to the air. After days spent feeding in the fields, the mere welcomes the avian ballet back for night-time roosting, but feathered visitors can be spotted on the ponds at any given time of day.

A study in elegance - a whooper swan up closeA study in elegance - a whooper swan up close

The key to conservation is research. Migratory patterns are vital to understanding their needs and helps reveal the dangers they face from windfarms or power lines. The aim is to ensure their flight-paths are kept safe for the future. Whooper swans are at the top end of the mere’s pecking order and their noisy communication and wing-flapping is an integral part of Britain’s freshwater habitats in the winter. They hatch their eggs in Iceland, where the sun barely sets in the summer and the birds can feed around the clock. Once autumn arrives, the swans head south.

The common way to research birds is ring-tagging, a task Jack is involved in. Baiting swans or geese with food, reserve staff net the birds and drive them into different pens where the rings can be applied. This helps update databases about their journeys and ages.

Birds fly by night and the jury is out on how navigation truly happens. It may well be a combination of electro-magnetic impulses and visual guiding. ‘Blackpool Tower would serve as a marking point for birds,’ says Jack. ‘Once the signets have flown with their parents they will remember the route and return every year.’

A computer lets guests look up any leg-ring numbers identified on birds, to learn of the animal’s story, age, mileage flown and last place spotted. Many of the whooper swans, for example, are in their 20s and have clocked up almost 90,000 air-miles.

The birds are fed at Martin Mere, less to ensure survival, but to bring them closer to the hides which makes it easier to read their tags.

The challenges don’t end with ever-decreasing wintering grounds, pollution and obstructions, but their feeding on fields can put them in conflict with farmers. Problems arise when birds feed on crops, but this habit can also clean fields of potentially harmful pests like potato mites. ‘In general, the neighbouring farmers’ attitude is welcoming,’ says Jack. In a world where even disposing of harvest and crop fall-out costs money, the farmers appreciate the Wildfowl Trust taking their waste for free to feed the birds.

Do swans mate for life? ‘The divorce rate among whooper swans is 5.8 per cent.’ says Jack, a fact revealed by ring-tagging. It only happens if a mate dies through age, injury or illness. Otherwise, they remain faithful.

‘The swans are lovely, but my favourites are the pink-footed geese,’ says Jack. ‘Their arrival in the thousands is absolutely spectacular.’

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