by ANTONY CLAY
SOME nature reserves act like green oases amongst the ever-increasing industrialisation and home-building that runs roughshod across our countryside.
One good example is the RSPB’s Old Moor site just off Manvers Way in Wath near Rotherham.
Old Moor is one part of a series of sites around the Dearne Valley run by the RSPB which get 100,000 visitors annually.
The reserve welcomes people with a visitor centre, complete with well-stocked shop, cafe and facilities.
There is a children’s play area and other features to appeal to youngsters.
The reserve is at the forefront of the RSPB’s move to open up nature to young and older alike and Old Moor has become a success story in nature conservation circles.
The popular reserve – in the top ten of most visited RSPB reserves in the UK – has created attractions such as a Family Hide, a wildlife garden, playground, pond dipping platforms, a cafe, games areas offering leapfrog and hopscotch, and even a human sun clock.
Different zones allow visitors to venture out into the great outdoors at their own pace.
Other initiatives to get kids looking at nature include activity backpacks containing stethoscopes and magnifying glasses so they can see small bugs and hear the tree sap rising.
But what about the birdlife?
Even in the car park you can see a fair amount. I’ve seen bullfinches near the bird feeder, along with greenfinches and chaffinches, and at this time of year there can be the odd redwing and fieldfare feasting on juicy berries. You might even see a peregrine zoom into sight and cause the songbirds to go into a mass meltdown.
From the car park you can either go onto the reserve proper or be diverted to satellite sites at Gypsy Marsh, Adwick Washlands, Wombwell Ings or Bolton Ings via footpaths.
There are various hides looking out over the Mere, Wader Scrape and Wath Ings where wildfowl and waders are just waiting to be seen, along with plenty of noisy gulls and the occasional cormorant. Little egrets have been spotted so it is well worth looking for something heron-like and white.
If you are bitten by the bittern bug and want to try and see one of these reclusive wonders, or indeed hear one, try the Reedbed Hide and screen or the Bittern Hide on the Reedbed Trail.
Even if you don’t see a bittern, there is plenty of other reedbed action in the form of reed buntings, waders, a water rail maybe (even harder to find than a bittern!) and waterfowl. The Bittern Bus Stop might offer a close-up view of the blue and orange wonder that is a kingfisher.
There are pond dipping points where the kids can discover what’s in the water. Rest assured, there are no sharks – though some of the insects and larvae have an even more ferocious reputation.
There is something to see throughout the year at Old Moor. In the Spring when birds’ minds turn to love and nest-building, there are the returning migrants to enjoy such as the warblers or the martins and throughout the summer you can test your skills at identifying juvenile birds as the babies go public.!q Also look for dragonflies – always stunning.
As Autumn arrives the Summer migrants are off and the first of the Winter ones start to flock in. Golden plover are a treat at this time of year. Then it’s Winter again and Old Moor is a seasonal getaway for hundreds of ducks and geese, as well as passerines like fieldfares, redwings and maybe even a waxwing or two.
Throughout the year there are special events like Binocular Days when you can test out the latest bins and telescopes, astronomy nights with the local Mexborough and Swinton Astronomical Society, and even more theatrical offerings such as the fire and dance extravaganza courtesy of Mr Fox and his masked entourage.
Visitor experience manager Danielle Meyer said that the reserve is always keen to open up the countryside to the public.
She said: “We have got such amazing visitor facilities here. We are like a gateway reserve – we have got such a variety of species but we are also very accessible.”
She said that the reserve is welcoming to non-birders as well as the more dedicated ornithologists and added that while other RSPB reserves like Bempton Cliffs near Bridlington may be better known, the vast majority of their visitors are in the summer whereas Old Moor has attractions throughout the year.
Danielle added: “We have got such a strong local volunteer population, numbering about 80.”
There are always big plans to boost the reserve. “We have got loads of things we want to do but it’s getting the funding to achieve that,” said Danielle.
She said that more play equipment for younger visitors and new events are on the wish list. “I would like to bring some of the bird species closer to people and make the habitat more dynamic,” she added.
It is the booming bitterns which have put Old Moor on the map for the public and birdwatchers alike. The reserve’s reedbeds have proved to be a prime location for the brown heron-like birds.
Danielle said: “2018 was quite a big year because they had a record-breaking year again. They had at least 12 young. We hope this year will replicate that.
“We take really good care of the reedbeds to benefit them. They like their water levels to be a certain height and plenty of fish around which we are not short of here.”
But the reedbeds have to be managed for other species too which require slightly different conditions, such as black-necked grebes and bearded tits.
Danielle said: “What we do across the Dearne Valley is that we have lots of satellite sites so we can manage it as a dynamic landscape. We manage it for bitterns here but can manage other places for other species.
“It needs to be a network of corridors along the whole Dearne Valley. with lots of different habitats.”
The RSPB in the Dearne Valley is working with other organisations to help the endangered willow tit which nationally has seen its numbers plummet by 97 per cent since the 1970s. The Dearne Valley, however, is a place where it is doing relatively well.
Danielle said: “It’s a really interesting project funded by the National Lottery. It’s a partnership project with lots of organisations, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust being one of them.”
Willow tits seem to thrive in post-industrial areas and the Dearne Valley is certainly that.
“If we manage the environment for willow tits, other species benefit,” said Danielle.
“The Dearne Valley is one of the willow tit’s strongholds and there were 11 breeding pairs last year, although there were 40 the year before. The reduced numbers were caused by last year’s cold weather.”
Part of the work has involved radio-tagging willow tits — but Danielle said that the cheeky chirrupers have learned to take them off!
Old Moor is a reserve where a lot is happening. It’s a great day out, and children in particular will love getting back to nature.
RSPB Dearne Valley – Old Moor, Old Moor Lane, Wombwell, Bolton upon Dearne
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Telephone – 01226 751593
Twitter – @RSPB_OldMoor
Facebook – RSPB Old Moor Dearne Valley
Opening times – visitor centre and cafe open daily 9.30am-5pm (except Christmas Day and Boxing Day); the reserve is open until 8pm April-October.