At this time of year the booming call of the bitterns resonates across the Avalon Marshes in Somerset while hawks skim over the reed beds and great white egrets nest in the shallows. The pools and ditches are alive with rare reptiles, mammals, insects and spiders.
Plans to improve the habitat for flora and fauna that live in one of the UK’s most extraordinary landscapes by creating a “super nature reserve” stretching from these marshes around Glastonbury to the edge of Bridgwater Bay were announced on Thursday.
The idea of the 15,000-acre Somerset Wetlands National Nature Reserve (NNR) is to knit together six protected sites and myriad other spots managed by a string of organisations and individuals to create a bigger and better protected area for some of the UK’s rarest wildlife.
Tony Juniper, the chair of Natural England and the former executive director of Friends of the Earth, hailed it as an important moment. “It presents a practical demonstration of what can be done by working in partnership across the landscape at scale to reverse nature’s decline,” he said.
“Natural England intends to encourage other projects with similar ambition. These wonderful places are needed now more than ever, as we face into the challenges of global warming, wildlife decline and reconnecting people with the natural world.”
England’s first “super reserve” was launched in 2020 – shortly before the first lockdown – in Purbeck, Dorset, a mosaic of heaths, woods, mires, reed beds, salt marsh and dune. The idea is that by combining disparate chunks of land, a more dynamic landscape that is easier to manage in a more natural way – and much simpler for wildlife to navigate through – is created.
In Somerset, this means linking the Ham Wall reserve, home to otters and water voles with lovely views of Glastonbury tor, in the east to Steart Marshes, one of the most important spots in the UK for waterfowl, in the west. In between is the Parrett valley, where farmers and graziers will be encouraged to work in ways that are better for nature and the environment.
Julie Merrett, senior reserves manager in Somerset for Natural England, who enjoys listening to the boom of the bittern, a type of heron once extinct as breeding birds in the UK, from her desk at Avalon Marshes HQ, reeled off a list of birds and animals that the project is intended to benefit.
Birds include the avocet, marsh harrier and skylark. The project should also be a boost for the hairy dragonfly, raft spider, silver diving beetle, adder and great-crested newt.
One key aspect of the project will be working with the Environment Agency and other partners to improve the way ditches, streams and other waterways link the various areas, making it possible for wildlife to move around the super reserve.
Because the area is the second largest area of lowland peat in the UK, it is also hoped that the project will boost the amount of carbon stored and another ambition is to improve access, getting more people into the landscape.
Rosie Hails, the director of nature and science at the National Trust, one of the project partners, said: “The huge challenge posed by the twin climate and nature crises is such that ambitious solutions are urgently needed at scale.”
The announcement of the super reserve comes on the 70th anniversary of the creation of England’s first six national nature reserves, which included Kingley Vale in Kent and Holme Fen in Cambridgeshire, on 19 May 1952. There are now 219 and a “festival of nature reserves” is planned this summer.