One of the most precious books in my collection is a battered, brown hardback edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, published in 1966 and bought by my father not long afterward. A checklist at the front tells a hidden story, bringing back memories of childhood holidays and shared moments, as well as being Dad’s lifelong bird list.
Brandon Marsh starts to appear alongside the ticked list in the 90’s and was a favourite haunt of Dad’s, who moved to Coventry at that time. He always planned to take me there, but somehow we never got round to it. Whilst I was rummaging through a box of his books recently, a leaflet for Brandon Marsh dropped out from between the pages of a book on wetland birds. So it seems fitting that my first stop on a tour of Wildlife Trust reserves should be the favourite site of a person who nurtured my own passion for nature.
Karl Curtis, the Reserves and Community Engagement Manager at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, showed me round the reserve in a timely break between downpours on Wednesday afternoon. As we made our way around the lakes and pools which make up a large part of the reserve, Karl explained how the site had originally been farmland, but subsidence due to coal mining locally had created a large lake, known as Brandon floods, linked to the River Avon which flows to the south of the reserve. Sand and gravel extraction created more lakes and pools and the resulting wetland habitats attracted a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. A group of local enthusiasts came together to look after those parts of the site, and the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Group was formed. Warwickshire Wildlife Trust took on the site in 1989 and works with the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Team to look after the site.
There is something about an expanse of shining water that instills a great feeling of calmness. As we sat in one of the many bird hides looking across a lake, the stresses of work, packing and travelling melted away.
From one of the reserve’s eight hides, we watched lapwings strutting, smart in their metallic green-sheened plumage and single, show-off curl of a crest. Oyster catchers, black and white with striking orange beaks, peep-peeped as they swept round before landing. Elegant common terns flew gracefully down, one of the many species nesting or feeding on the shores of the islands in the East Marsh Pool.
An exiting ongoing project at Brandon Marsh is the creation of the Newlands Reedbed. This summer, 20,000 plugs of reed will be planted to extend the habitat. It is hoped that providing this huge area of reedbed, open water and marshy grassland will encourage bitterns and marsh harriers, which visit the reserve from time to time, to stay and breed here, as well as attracting other rare wetland species. The work has taken place over many years, and funding has now been secured to complete the final phase, fulfilling the long-held ambition of Alban Wincott, one of the volunteers instrumental in setting up the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Team and leading the work of the team. Sadly, Alban is no longer here to see the work completed, but Karl told me of plans to name this area of reedbed in his memory.
As we looked across the developing seedbed, a hobby swooped back and forth before settling on a branch. I was thrilled, as this was my first really good look at this beautiful bird.
Like many of my colleagues working in the Wildlife Trusts, Karl grew up somewhere where he could always be out exploring – up a tree, down a hole, and these experiences started his love of nature. He seems to be passing this enthusiasm on to the next generation; after being promised a snake hunt, his children were excited to find three grass snakes under corrugated iron refugia and a sloughed snake skin to take into school. I bet not many children get to report a snake hunt at show-and-tell on Monday morning!
Never one to turn down a snake hunt, I also got a peek at the grass snakes – a perfect end to my tour of the site. Thank you Karl for taking the time to show me round and explain how Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and the team of volunteers are looking after this fabulous reserve.