The second installment of the Crook of Baldoon story from RSPB Scotland's Jenny Tweedie. RSPB Scotland purchased a piece of land known as Crook of Baldoon six years ago and this is how we've been transforming it into a haven for wildlife ever since. Our work here could not have been achieved without the generous help of HSBC, the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, Dumfries and Galloway Leader, Scottish Natural Heritage, and of course, the support of RSPB members.
Crook of Baldoon: Part II
Can’t see the crook for the trees
Removing the willow from the Crook of Baldoon was always a high priority, but we wanted to harvest it as a crop, and do it in the most cost-effective way possible. And that took time.
Due to various delays with both the contractors and the weather, and having to wait for a time when we’d cause the least disturbance to wildlife, if was autumn 2014 before we could get heavy machinery on site to do the work. Willow isn’t an easy crop to cut, and you need quite specialist kit, which is in limited supply in the UK. But eventually it was all removed, chipped, and the harvest taken to a biomass plant in Cumbria owned by Iggesund, who had organised the harvesting for us.
Even once the main crop was gone, there was still the issue of what to do with the remaining stumps. Willow is notorious for re-sprouting, indeed that’s why it’s grown as a coppicing crop, and has been for hundreds of years. If we’d left it as it was, it would have come back, so the ground had to be mulched, and then sprayed to kill off the remaining growth.
But by July of last year, new contractors were able to get onto the site with massive earth moving kit, and they started work on a large lagoon and other wetland features, following a bespoke design that was put together by our colleagues in Scotland and at our UK headquarters.
The idea was to create tailor-made areas for birds that were breeding on the site, particularly farmland waders such as lapwings; birds that were passing through on epic migrations; and wintering birds, that choose to spend the colder months in Wigtown Bay, like dunlins, curlews, pink-footed and barnacle geese. The wetland areas were also designed to allow human visitors views of the birds without disturbing them, hopefully encouraging more people to visit the area, and find out just how special this sort of habitat is.
Now, as the winter rains fall, the lagoons and pools have begun to fill up with water. Whooper swans have arrived from Iceland, golden plovers are filling the skies with their displays, and hen harriers can be seen hunting over the wetland. We’ve had hundreds of redwings passing through feeding on hawthorn berries and crab apples, barn owls and short eared owls have both been seen, otters are sometimes spotted and are likely to become more regular visitors, and even little egrets have been recorded using the pools.
At the Crook of Baldoon, in only five short years, the site has been utterly transformed into a home for nature. Wildflowers are blooming once more on the saltmarsh in the spring, frogs are already moving into the new pools, lapwings are still nesting in the summer fields, and thousands upon thousands of migrating birds have been dropping in to spend the winter. We can only wait and see what else is going to pay us a visit as time moves on.
None of this could have been achieved without the support of RSPB members, or our funders, and we’re incredibly grateful for all the support we’ve had through the years. Both Dumfries and Galloway Leader and the National Lottery, through the Heritage Lottery Fund, contributed to our habitat work over our first three years at the Crook, and also part-funded our warden, Paul, along with Scottish Natural Heritage. The final elements of the work at the reserve were funded by HSBC, who kindly donated around £200k over two years.
But the work isn’t over. Next on the list are more facilities for visitors. At the moment, we just have a car park and signage, and Paul runs regular guided walks and other events, including a volunteer work party. This isn’t a reserve where we’re going to build a huge visitor centre, but we do hope to put in some more modest facilities, including viewing areas, hides and toilets.
At the moment, there’s still plenty to see and enjoy, and it’s actually a great time to come and visit. It’s pretty rare to get the opportunity to see a site like this that’s at the beginning of its, hopefully, long life as a nature reserve, and you’re very welcome to come along and experience it as it happens.
For us, it’s incredibly exciting to be at this point, seeing the birds arrive to take advantage of all the hard work, and wondering just what the future is going to bring.
The first installment of the Crook of Baldoon story from RSPB Scotland's Jenny Tweedie.
Have you ever wondered how nature reserves come to be? RSPB Scotland purchased a piece of land known as Crook of Baldoon six years ago and this is the story of how we've been transforming it into a haven for wildlife ever since. If you enjoy part I, look out for part II
Crook of Baldoon: Part I
In 2010, RSPB Scotland launched an appeal to buy a piece of land on the west coast of Wigtown Bay.
For anyone who doesn’t know the area, it’s a beautiful part of Dumfries and Galloway: a huge crinkled inlet off the Solway Firth, with pretty little coves and vast expanses of mudflat and saltmarsh stretching away under an endless sky. It’s long been a place of significance for people, with evidence of ancient religious activities at sites like Whithorn, and a long history of trade from the once busy ports at Wigtown and Garlieston. But it’s the wildlife that really makes Wigtown Bay stand out.
The bay is the largest Local Nature Reserve in the UK, and plays host to a spectacular range of species, particularly birds. Ospreys fish on the open waters in the summer, and thousands of geese, ducks, swans and waders arrive every autumn, attracted by the promise of food.
These sorts of areas are incredibly important for wildlife, as where rivers flow out to the sea, they deposit rich nutrients and create a unique range of habitats. Birds, particularly the winter visitors, come here to feed on the millions of tiny creatures that hide away in the mud, fuelling up for long journeys ahead, or staying on to enjoy the bounty.
But saltmarsh and mudflats are an increasingly rare habitat around Scotland, as sites are developed, or altered by sea walls, and with climate change, they’re likely to become even more scarce in the future. So when the opportunity came up for us to buy such an area in Wigtown Bay, we were very eager to take it on.
The Crook of Baldoon actually came on the market unexpectedly. It had previously been managed as a farm, and was nestled right on the coast of the bay just to the south of Wigtown. It was already a fantastic place for wildlife, particularly for birds like golden plovers, but with a bit of work, we hoped it could be transformed into a natural haven for wildlife and people alike.
The RSPB doesn’t buy new reserves very often, so an appeal to our members is always a serious undertaking. But fortunately, after massive support came flooding in, the appeal was successful, and by September2010, the Crook of Baldoon was officially named as the RSPB’s 209th nature reserve.
Where do we go next?
Unfortunately, creating a nature reserve isn’t as simple as buying a bit of land and sticking a welcome sign at the gate. Areas do not become wildlife havens by simply being left to go ‘wild’. In fact, the whole process can be incredibly complicated, starting off with surveys, looking at the current land use, monitoring water levels, salinity testing, considering the impacts of future climate change, and so on. And that’s before you’ve even considered access and facilities for the public.
At the Crook of Baldoon, we started slowly, putting in a few signs, taking out a few fences, changing the management of certain areas, and talking to visitors, many of whom had been coming to the site for years. We also employed a full-time warden, Paul Tarling, who’s still working at the reserve today.
One of the first things we started to change was the livestock grazing. Many of our reserves right across Scotland use livestock to keep on top of vegetation, mirroring a process that’s happened in the countryside for hundreds of years, and continuing an environment that our farmland wildlife is now adapted to. Cattle and sheep had been present at the Crook before we arrived, so all we did was bring down their numbers to reduce the pressure on the salt marsh, which had been suffering from over-grazing. It responded quickly, and the following spring, thrift, or sea pink, put on an amazing show, creating a dusky haze that could be seen right around the bay.
Saltmarsh plants, like thrift, sea aster and lax-flowered sea lavender form some of the building blocks of the food chain at the Crook of Baldoon, encouraging insects, which in turn feed many of the breeding birds on the site. Skylarks in particular were seen in increased numbers on the reserve in 2011, and their numbers have continued to increase ever since, along with other birds like lapwings.
But our biggest challenge at the Crook wasn’t on the saltmarsh, or on the mudflats, but on the fields behind where a thick crop of 27 hectares of willow was resolutely growing bigger every year. The technical name for the crop was short-rotation coppice, and the willow had been intended for biomass fuel. In some cases, bioenergy can be beneficial for wildlife, creating useful habitats whilst growing, and playing an important role in reducing fossil fuel emissions.
But in this case, the willow was simply not in the right place, and its presence over such a large area, was actually bad for the wildlife that should have been using the site. Getting rid of it, however, wasn’t going to be as easy as we first thought.
Look out for part II of our Crook of Baldoon blog
Since February weather allowing we have been bringing into fruition the planned wetland in compartment 5 immediately south of the car park we are now landscaping the spoil from our diggings and hope to have everything ready to start retaining rain water by July we still have some major work with water controls to be done and the installation of a control weir and the development of the three islands one of which will be topped with stone to allow breeding opportunities but things are moving towards a finish ready for our passage waders this autumn.