The sanctuary of the saltmarsh

Words by:
Ed Hutchings
Featured in:
February 2013

“Migrating birds, such as geese, ducks and other waders, come to the Wash in huge numbers to spend the winter, with an average total of around 400,000 birds present at any one time.”
Boston’s famous Stump, the parish church of St Botolph, is not only Lincolnshire’s most celebrated landmark and lighthouse to the Fens. It is also a wonder of medieval engineering.

At 272 feet it is the highest church tower, not counting spires, in England. When the tower was planned in the 1300s, the town was the premier wool port in England after London. Status required a church and a beacon to match. Though massive in its foundations, the tower remained vulnerable to Fenland clay and was not felt to be strong enough to support a spire: hence the octagon and the nickname.

It is ironic that in England’s flattest landscape we find its tallest towers. The Stump can be seen for miles around and in this flat, damp, low-lying agricultural region it has a constant presence. The characteristic topography of the Fens is of benefit to the naturalist, as the views are uninterrupted and therefore the birds are much easier to see. There are few places for them to hide on the Wash.

RSPB Frampton Marsh is a nature reserve which lies four miles south-east of Boston and comprises saltmarsh and mudflats on the shores of the Wash between the River Witham (The Haven) and the River Welland. It is a Ramsar site and the whole of the Wash area is a designated Special Protection Area under European Union legislation. It is made up of very extensive saltmarshes, major intertidal banks of sand and mud, shallow waters and deep channels.

The partially confined nature of the Wash habitats, combined with the ample tidal flows, allows shellfish to breed – especially cockles, mussels and shrimps. Shellfish is particularly popular with Oystercatchers (the clue is in the name) and one of the defining sounds of Frampton Marsh is the piping call of this distinctive wader. Migrating birds, such as geese, ducks and other waders, come to the Wash in huge numbers to spend the winter, with an average total of around 400,000 birds present at any one time. It has been estimated that a staggering 2 million birds will use the Wash for feeding and roosting during their annual migrations. Its importance cannot be underestimated.

The mudflats from autumn through to spring attract all the typical waders of the Wash. It is recognised as being internationally important for seventeen species of bird, including the Pink-footed Goose, Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Shelduck, Pintail, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank and Turnstone. A visit at this time of year, arriving two hours before high tide, will provide a memorable experience. The Haven Bank and seabanks give timeless views across the marshes and the long skeins of Brent Geese are a quintessentially autumnal sight.

Saltmarshes are one of the most important natural habitats in England, with around a tenth of the country’s saltmarsh found in the Wash. Frampton Marsh itself has one of the largest areas of saltmarsh in the world. It’s a vital habitat for migrating birds, with plants such as Saltmarsh-grass offering grazing for wintering birds like Brent Geese and Wigeons, while the seeds of Sea Purslane, Sea Blight and Samphire, provide food for flocks of Teal, Twite and Linnet.

In spring, much of the marsh is covered with the white flowers of Scurvy-grass, while in summer other salt-tolerant plants such as Sea Aster and Sea Lavender attract hoverflies and butterflies. Birds such as Redshank, Skylark and Reed Bunting also feed and nest here. When the tide covers feeding grounds further out in the estuary, the saltmarsh provides valuable high-tide roosts for birds like Curlew, Oystercatcher, Knot and Dunlin. Eventually, the rising tide covers the saltmarsh completely, forcing birds over the sea wall and onto the surrounding fields.

Of course, wherever you find large flocks of birds, you also find aerial hunters. Peregrines, Merlins and Harriers are all frequent visitors to Frampton Marsh, while Short-eared Owls and Barn Owls use the sea wall and saltmarsh as hunting and roosting areas. For centuries the saltmarshes of the Wash were traditionally grazed by cattle, sheep and horses. Today this is limited to around half of the marsh as part of a management plan that produces areas of short grass, that attract ducks and geese during the winter, and also areas of tussocky vegetation, which are preferred by breeding birds like Redshank.

The reserve’s intertidal mudflats teem with life and the Wash is famous for the vast numbers of worms, shellfish, shrimps and other small crustaceans that live here. This protein-rich gloop attracts
enormous numbers of migrant wading birds which arrive in the autumn to take advantage of this rich feeding ground. Large numbers of Brent Geese also arrive from Siberia in early winter and many roost on the offshore banks of the reserve.

A major new extension to this coastal wetland reserve includes a reedbed, large freshwater scrapes and wet grassland. These habitats have all been created to bring the wildlife of the Wash closer to visitors. The reserve also has three hides – two with 360-degree views – and over three kilometres of new footpaths to explore. The simple joy of visiting Frampton Marsh is having the chance to wander at will. The Fens are arguably the most difficult landscape in Britain to immediately warm to, but it doesn’t take long for their bleak beauty to permeate the soul. Naturally, like anywhere in these isles, the weather here is a decisive factor.

The east wind on the Wash is renowned for its venom as it whips inland. Thankfully, the RSPB has a small visitor centre at the site, where one can find lavatories and refreshments, as well as friendly, approachable staff and volunteers. Recent sightings are chalked up on a board and telescopes are on hand for the use of visitors who wish to look out over the panoramic views. A feeding station viewable from the centre provides close-up sightings of Tree Sparrows. This delightful chestnut-coloured farmland bird is declining at an alarming rate nationwide, so it’s cheering to see them flourishing here.

Laura Harpham, visitor and publicity officer, is in no doubt about what she loves best about the reserve: “Frampton is a special place for me because of the perspective; I’ve never been anywhere with bigger skies. It’s also full of surprises. You can walk down a trail and think there’s nothing around, but then a flock of Lapwing or Dunlin will catch you off guard, as they fly overhead from the reedbed to the muddy scrapes.” Herein lies one of the chief delights of Fenland birding.

In these uncertain times for conservation there are few good news stories. A relatively young reserve like Frampton Marsh (the new development opened in 2009) is a prime example of why there is hope for the future. Laura shares this optimism: “The most exciting thing about Frampton Marsh is how it’s developing. Each year, each season, we see something new, whether it’s the first visit from Bearded Tits or our first nesting Terns. I can’t wait to see what the next few years bring.” Places like these exist because there are those of us who seek solace from the modern world. Long may they continue to offer a peaceful retreat.

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