Here is a post that has sat in my drafts folder for several years. I am not quite sure why it has sat there, maybe I couldn’t decide on the photos, maybe it felt too personal, I really can’t remember. At a time when the Levels are experiencing their worst floods in years I thought it might be a good moment to share one part of them that I know and love as they have been and hopefully will be again one day. All these photos date from May 2011.
Before I baked there were birds to take me out of myself and make my heart leap with joy and long after my last loaf has crumbled to dust there will be birds. And before I baked and before I had dogs, we used to go out all the time to see them. Now our visits are rarer but we still go down to the Levels when we can.
The bittern is a variety of heron. They are most easily seen in winter when they are less secretive in their behaviour, or in breeding season when they fly around above the reeds. You are more likely to hear one than see one. When I finally heard the boom of the bittern, my heart nearly stopped as I held my breath and thought, “Oh that is it! It really does sound exactly like someone blowing over the top of a bottle!”. And then when they flew overhead, I promptly threw my arms in the air and my new camera went sailing and landed in the hedge. I don’t have a good photo of a bittern to show you. I filmed them flapping over the reeds on a tiny camera that blurred as I tried to track them. It was not David Attenborough! But I have had a little look on the internet and found this fabulous film showing a bittern booming!
Bitterns need reed beds, it really is as simple and as complicated as that. No reed beds, no bitterns. Reed beds are found in flat coastal areas in the UK. Historically people have drained to turn them into farmland and in the case of the Levels to excavate for peat for fuel and for improving soil in gardens. Peat is viewed as a non renewable resource and though some peat excavation still goes on and peat is still sold in garden centres, many gardeners look for other materials to nourish their gardens and work on recycling their own waste in a more sustainable way or adopt permaculture principles into their lives.
The bittern with its distinctive booming call is so rare now in England that the RSPB have spent years transforming the old peatworked land at Ham Wall into the most astonishing reserve in order to create a habitat that will attract and encourage breeding of the bittern and other birds that need this sort of environment.
Brian took me down to the Levels when we first met. I was suffering for lack of green space and open skies, cooped up in the centre of hilly Bristol with its narrow streets and small windows of sky. We had talked about birds and where to see them one lunchtime as we wandered round St Nicholas’s Market in the heart of Bristol and I had confessed to a fondness for ducks and particularly Great Crested Grebes. He tentatively offered to show me baby grebes, how could a person refuse an offer like that?
Where we went that first time was allowed to flood as part of the redevelopment of the area, the old bird hides long gone, but in its place half a mile away is this reserve.
It’s been built to be accessible and to allow this rarest of birds to breed in peace and quiet and yet be seen by those who have the desire to go there. A miracle really; create the habitat and the birds will come. An act of faith – one which shows the dedication of the bird loving community.
Ham Wall is thirty miles south-west of Bristol in the heart of Somerset. The ruined church tower on Glastonbury Tor is one local landmark. There used to be some houses painted pink and violet but I think they’ve been painted some more subdued colours now. There are houses slowly sinking into the soft marshy ground by the elevated narrow causeways that undulate above the marshy pastures and fields, ditches to either side, stocked with cattle, and crisscrossed with drains where swans feast on underwater weeds and coots tenderly raise their babies. It is a manmade landscape, with canals and fields. Sometimes there are hundreds of swans sitting in the fields, the starling roosts are famous and much admired, you might see an otter, or a kingfisher shimmering over the top of the water. In winter you might see a night heron, wigeon, little and cattle egrets and many many more wild birds, it is a wonderful habitat.
The heartland of Somerset is a world away from the city of Bristol. On that visit there were wild flowers in profusion, cow parsley, dead nettles, archangels, big orange dragonflies, delicate irridescent blue damselflies, elderflower in bloom, roses and lilacs hanging over fences. Past the Railway Inn on the main road, we met a small family of grey partridges, who turned sharp right and disappeared on a mission up to the heath.
From the rebuilt carpark you have a choice, either cross the road and walk down the track to Ham Wall, easily accessible for wheelchair users and beautifully landscaped with sheltered bird hides and walkways, or walk up in the opposite direction to Shapwick Heath.
I am not naive, I know the costs of maintaining fragile habitats for both human and wild life use are huge. I know that the weather makes us all helpless and can wipe away the marks of the human species’ efforts to control its world in the blink of an eye, but I can still hope, selfishly, that a way is found to help the Somerset Levels with all their complex needs and their spectacular bird and wild life habitat to survive and prosper.
To see and read about the goings on at Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall you can visit the RSPB site blog where there are many more photos, up to date sightings and lots and lots of information!
PS For a well reasoned article of the situation re dredging I just read this piece by Tobias Jones, the warden of a woodland sanctuary in Somerset in the morning papers. It gives a slightly less misty eyed perspective than mine and is definitely worth reading and thinking about. The bird reserve referred to in the article, is at Steart, is not the one above, but a new one being created nearby where they are planning to build a new nuclear power reactor at Hinkley Point. Bird reserves have been created near most of our power stations as you can’t build homes there and they are all sited on coasts. The needs of wildlife, the needs of farmers, the budgets of governments, the future of our energy supplies, and what sort of energy supplies and what we do with our waste, whether mud in rivers or toxic radioactive material with the potential to harm not only us now but future generations if not safely disposed of. I get all Malthusian at this point so will stop now.