Ribble Estuary and Martin Mere
The estuary and its saltmarsh, mudflats and sandflats is one of the most important sites for wintering waterbirds in Britain. Thousands of widgeon arrive here from Siberia joining large numbers of pink-footed geese from Iceland.
Nearby, the kid-friendly WWT reserve at Martin Mere hosts huge numbers of pink-footed geese every winter (45,800 in 2014), which fly in from Iceland maintaining a V-formation across the 500-mile stretch of the Atlantic. They are then guided here, following the Ribble Estuary and Morecambe Bay, and with the aid of the M6 motorway. A couple of thousand Whooper Swans also arrive from Iceland in good years. In 2009 two swans fitted fitted with GPS satellite transmitters completed the trip in just 8 hours.
The wetland is a fragment of what was once, according to the book Lancashire’s Lost Lake, was the largest body of freshwater in England, formed at the end of the Ice Age by water filling up a glacial depression. From 1700 onwards the surrounding area was gradually drained and is now, for the large part, flat farmland.
As for the kids, the canoe safaris and the “wild walk” are recommended.
The RSPB reserve of Leighton Moss is one of the most interesting sites in northern England described by BBC presenter Chris Packham as having an “ancient aura of wilderness” during Autumnwatch, set here in 2013 and 2014 (Episdoes on YouTube). The reedbeds are the largest in north-west England with a few breeding bitterns and a healthy population of bearded tits or bearded reedlings, as they are also known. Seen all year round, these lovely little birds form flocks in autumn when they can be watched picking up grit from special trays which they use to grind seeds, offering a great opportunity to see this usually elusive reed bird up close. Another top tip is the reserve’s café which as well as great homemade cakes has a window onto a very popular birdfeeder. In addition to the usual suspects, bullfinches, and marsh and willow tits are regular visitors. A small stretch of Morecambe Bay is also protected by the reserve.
Up to 100,000 starlings also roost on the reserve in autumn, making it one of the best places in the country to see their murmurations, as the spectacular mass flocking of these birds are known, the word itself coming from the murmuring sounds of thousands of wingbeats.
Morecambe Bay is the largest area of intertidal mudflats and sand in Britain, covering 120 square miles which are uncovered as the tide recedes as much as 35 feet, and forming a key feeding ground for a quarter of a million wading birds, ducks and geese, the second most important estuary for birds in the UK. During the hour or so before high tide, huge flocks of waders gather to roost at the RSPB reserve at Hest Bank.
People have been walking across these sands for centuries. The numerous deaths from drowning led to the appointment of the first official bay guides in the 1500s, a practice which the Official Queen’s Guide to the Sands continues to this day for an annual Crown salary of 15 pounds and the use of a cottage, organising occasional walks across the bay at low tide with stunning views across the hills of the Lake District. Unguided, these are dangerous sands: 23 Chinese cockle pickers were caught on the night of 5 February 2004 by the incoming tide and drowned.
There are also seven islands in the bay: Barrow, Sheep, Piel, Chapel, Foulney, Roa and the largest Walney, which has a bird observatory.
The Gathering Tide: A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay by local poet Karen Lloyd provides an intimate and informative portrait of the bay and its natural and human history.
“Embarking on a series of walks that take in beguiling landscapes and ever-changing seascapes, Karen Lloyd tells the compelling stories of the places, people, wildlife and history of Morecambe Bay. Along the way we meet the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, discover forgotten caves and islands that don’t exist, recall lives lost to the fast-swirling waters, and delight in the simple beauty of an oystercatcher winging its way across the ebbing tide.” Read