Whatever happened to our reedbeds?

Christian Dymond takes a look at projects that aim to restore one of Britain's most valued wildlife habitats
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The Independent Online
By the time the reed-cutting season ended in spring, Eric Edwards had harvested more than 4,000 bundles of golden Norfolk reed. In his marshman's way of measuring, the thickness of a bundle equates to "three hands and a bit" or enough to tuck comfortably under one arm.

Although these days he uses a powered cutter more than a scythe, his method of operating has scarcely changed in 29 years. He cuts the reed as low as possible, cleans the grass out of it with a short rake, taps the bottom of the bundle on a wooden board to get the reed level, then ties it up and stacks it.

Mr Edwards is employed by the Broads Authority and his harvested reed goes entirely for thatching. In the summer he cuts sedge, which is used for laying along the ridges of thatched roofs.

"One of the things I love about this job are the birds I've come across like water rails, bearded tits and marsh harriers," he says.

"In my early days I used to hear the booming of the bittern a lot, the sound the male makes in spring when it's breeding, but now I hear it much less frequently."

And there lies a sad story. From 80 booming males recorded throughout the country in 1954, the figure dropped to 20 last year, says Dr Paul Jose, the wetlands adviser at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

What is to blame is the neglect and loss (estimated at about 40 per cent since the war) of reedbed and the consequent effect on plants, birds and other animals that depend so much on this wildlife habitat for their survival.

At present there are about 6,500 hectares of reedbed in the UK, spread over some 900 sites but generally found in river floodplains and low-lying coastal plains. The biggest area, at 2,500 hectares, is in the East Anglian Broadland.

Rob Andrews, conservation officer with the Broads Authority, says some reedbeds are certainly managed properly. But when reed is not cut regularly - once a year or once every two years - a "litter" of dead stems, leaves and other grasses forms on the bottom of the bed. The ground starts to dry out, new growth of reed is discouraged and very quickly the area turns to scrub.

This means that bitterns, for instance, which can no longer feed off eels, rudd, roach and bream they catch in the shallow water of the reedbed.

The RSPB, the Broads Authority, English Nature and the British Seed Growers Association have already launched an initiative to revitalise Britain's reedbeds, urging better management of existing beds and the creation of new reedbed areas.

Currently the Broads Authority is looking into other commercial possibilities for reed, apart from thatching, in the hope of encouraging greater management of reedbeds. One idea is to burn poor-quality reed in power stations, another is to use the them as ingredients in animal feed.

Two years ago English Nature launched its Bittern Recovery Project with the aim of providing suitable habitats for 100 booming males in Britain by the year 2020. To meet that target it is reckoned that a total of 1,600 more hectares of reedbed will be needed. One-third will come from restoration. The rest will come from newly formed reedbed.

At a 176-hectare site at Ham Wall on the Somerset Levels, the RSPB along with English Nature and Somerset County Council is involved in just that. The intention is to create one of the largest areas of new reedbed in the country, eventually attracting the range of birds normally associated with this habitat. The European Union has given pounds 500,000 towards the project.

Shallow water and reed on the gently sloping edges of open-water areas will provide a suitable feeding area for birds, while an extensive ditch network will allow water to move freely through the site, its levels controlled by sluice gates.

The site manager, Sally Mills explains: "To establish the reedbed we're using a mix of seeds, seedlings and rhizomes. A fairly large area can be covered quickly with the seeds but they do tend to dry out easily and are not very good at competing with other vegetation. The success rate of rhizomes is a great deal higher because, after all, they're already an established part of the plant."

Phase One of Ham Wall is 16.5 hectares. It was completed in November 1994. Reed there is now about eight feet high. Reed in the 25 hectares of phase two, planted this year with the help of 120 local school children, is already several inches high.

Sally Miller is full of hope for the future. "Wouldn't it be excellent to see the return of reedbed birds to the South-west - and to hear bitterns booming again in Somerset, as they did in the 1970s?" she says.