A Birds’ Paradise | Living North

A Birds’ Paradise

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Avocet family - Credit Amy Lewis
Stephen Martin’s love of birds (the kind with feathers) began when he was in school. Now he’s created a haven for nature that’s won him the Wildlife Trust’s top prize
‘They wanted to create a mixture of shallow and deep water habitats to attract a wide range of birds and wildlife’
Shoveler © Gary Cox

It all started with a gravel pit – a bleak 38-hectare hole in Brough, East Yorkshire. Quarry firm Humberside Aggregates were denied planning permission to turn it into a landfill, so the firm’s owner called his friend Stephen Martin. ‘He said, “Why don’t you take over my gravel pit and make it into reserve of it?”’ explains Stephen. So that’s what Stephen did. 

He started by speaking to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (of which he had been a member since he was a child) and convinced them to help manage the project. Next Humberside Aggregates agreed to do all the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, Stephen, along with local volunteers and the Trust, figured out a plan. 

They wanted to create a mixture of shallow and deep water habitats to attract a wide range of birds and wildlife, as well as large hides to view them from. So using top soil and rubbish from building sites to infill the pit, they started to create six large lakes which would have gentle slopes, islands and underground connections to keep the water levels under control throughout the seasons.

Three years and 250,000 tonnes of shifted material later and it was finished – all it needed was maintaining. ‘I led the team of locals that managed the reserve,’ Stephen tells us. ‘We did all the routine maintenance work.’ 

Just as Stephen was getting used to the lighter workload, he received a phone call. It was Humberside Aggregates. ‘They said, “Great news, we’ve just bought another 40 hectares,”’ explains Stephen. They told him if he helped them with the planning application for the quarry, they would restore it and give it back to him. Stephen agreed and 13 years after the initial process began they had transformed a total of 80 hectares.

So finally they had reached the end, hadn’t they? No. In 2009 Humberside Aggregates bought another 60 hectares. ‘They are quarrying it now,’ says Stephen. ‘We are yet to restore that land so at this moment we have got 80 hectares restored and working as a bird reserve but we’ve got the rest of the land – another 60 hectares – still to restore. That will take another seven to 10 years, so it’s a long-term project and it just gets bigger and better as each stage is completed.’

Stephen is 75 now, but he hasn’t lost enthusiasm. He gave up his post as manager two years ago but he still visits the site three days a week. ‘We’ve had a professional reserve warden for the past two years. It still needs a lot of care to keep the habitat right for nature – I was there at seven this morning pumping water.’

The biggest job at the moment is stopping the predators. ‘When you create easy targets, sooner or later predators like foxes or stoats find out,’ explains Stephen. He and the volunteers have tried their best to keep them at bay, but it’s easier said than done. ‘We’ve got a mile of electric fences in the reserve but they’ve even learned to jump those so we’ve got a constant battle on our hands.’

It is a fantastic use of the area – which is popular with wildlife enthusiasts and photographers, eager to spot the 160 species of birds which inhabit it. ‘A real speciality is the avocet,’ says Stephen. ‘It was extinct in Britain until the RSPB got them back during the war. We’ve had up to 40 pairs breeding on the reserve and you can still see them today. Then there’s lapwing and oystercatchers. In the hedgerows we’ve got about seven to eight species of warblers. We have 27 species of butterflies recorded and 20 species of dragonflies, big numbers of ducks, and swans too.’

After all the hard work, Stephen has now been rewarded with the Wildlife Trust’s prestigious Cadbury medal as acknowledgement. The national award has previously been won by Hugh Mellor CBE who championed environmental education, and botanist Professor Ian Trueman who inspired his students to pursue nature conservation. But Stephen doesn’t want to take all the credit, ‘It was a recognition of what everybody had achieved,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t have done it on my own, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust couldn’t have done it on their own and Humberside Aggregates couldn’t have done it on their own.’

It seems the project was a team effort, it clearly took a lot of determination, enthusiasm and energy but the results are incredible.

North Cave Wetlands Nature Reserve, Dryham Lane, Brough, East Yorkshire HU15 2LY
For more information head to www.ywt.org.uk

Published in: August 2015

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