The secret life of our bird reserves

Stephen PullingerThink again if you believe RSPB reserves are just about birdwatching. EDP reporter Stephen Pullinger looks at the rich variety of wildlife to be found highlighted in a new report.Stephen Pullinger

A survey has shown that binoculars draped round your neck and a book on rare birds are not essential to make the most of RSPB reserves.

The annual RSPB report on its 200 reserves, including such key ones in our region as Titchwell, on the north Norfolk coast, Minsmere, near Southwold, and Strumpshaw Fen, on the doorstep of Norwich, has surprisingly found that less than 3pc of species recorded on them are birds.

Of the 13,400 species collated, more than half are insects, almost a quarter are fungi and 12pc are plants.

RSPB reserves cover 140,000 hectares across the UK - just 0.6pc of the area of Britain - yet this land features 68pc of Britain's native plant species, 78pc of its spiders, and all of its resident reptiles and dragonflies.

Gwyn Williams, head of reserves at the RSPB, said: "This fascinating survey shows the wide variety of wildlife that we have on our reserves. We choose the land we buy very carefully, and once we have created a reserve, a lot of hard work from staff and volunteers goes into creating habitats for everything from fungi and mosses to water voles and sand lizards.

"Many people still think our reserves are just there for birdwatchers but the reality is very different. With such a large area of diverse habitats, from reedbeds and heathland to woodland and coastal sites, we have an obligation to look after all kinds of wildlife, not just birds.

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"And as any conservationist will tell you, no living thing exists in isolation. Maintaining a healthy ecosystem brings benefits for all the species in it."

Regional RSPB spokesman Erica Howe said the local reserves were all family-friendly places with lots of organised activities, from pond-dipping and owl-pellet dissecting - "a winner with children" - to moth and bat nights.

She admitted: "I am not a birder, but Strumpshaw Fen is one of my favourite places to go. At dusk, it is just teeming with things to see and there is that wonderful experience of being outdoors in the countryside. If you are there at the right time and you are very lucky, you might even see an otter."

Ms Howe highlighted Strumpshaw Fen, part of the mid Yare reserves, as home of the iconic swallowtail butterfly.

She said: "It is a hub for the region's butterflies and moths and the majority of the UK population of swallowtail butterflies is to be found at Strumpshaw. That is because the reserve supports one of the biggest populations of milk parsley, a plant the butterflies feed on."

Strumpshaw was also renowned for its marsh helleborine orchids, "a striking plant incredibly demanding on its habitat, needing it not to be too flooded or too dry".

Ms Howe said that, untypical of many reserves, Strumpshaw had large areas of wild meadows supporting Norfolk hawker and other types of dragonflies.

Minsmere, on the Suffolk coast, as well as being a Mecca for birdwatchers, has more than 5,300 types of wildlife - the most of any RSPB reserve.

Ms Howe said: "One of the reasons it has such a big list is because it is such a large site with a wide variety of habitats, from woodland and reedbed to coastal. Wherever you are, you can always expect to see something of interest."

A well-managed RSPB reserve for more than 10 years, it was the perfect place to spot species ranging from red deer to rabbits and hares.

"There are 1,200 species of moth at Minsmere, a number many people would find staggering," she said.

Ms Howe said Titchwell reserve, on the north Norfolk coast between Wells and Snettisham, was home to 1,500 species, including moths, dragonflies and the dune tiger beetle.

Lots of work has taken place looking at fungi on RSPB reserves. Although the latest report shows fungi make up a quarter of species recorded on the reserves, many areas have yet to be intensively surveyed, so the true figure may well be even higher, says RSPB ecologist Mark Gurney.

"The RSPB's woodland reserves are great places to go to discover fascinating fungi, and now is the perfect time of year to do it," he said.

"At Minsmere, mycologists have found more than 1,500 species of fungi there, including the endanger-ed bearded tooth fungus. We are grateful to all the dedicated enthus-iasts, like these, who have helped us record wildlife on our reserves."

For full details on the reserves, visit www.rspb.org.uk/reserves

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