Nature Studies: High tide on the Dee’s salt marshes is one of Britain’s greatest spectacles

How often do you get to see a water shrew, never mind one up close?

Share

A week ago last Sunday, I watched a fox swim half a mile for its life. Foxes can swim, but with the freezing waves smacking its face, this was a desperate struggle between the urge to survive and rapidly depleting energy resources. Had it been a person, you’d have been counting the minutes until the lifeboat arrived. As it was, all we could do – me and the hundred or so people watching, wide-eyed – was mutter encouragement: come on, fox!

This was the High Tide Birdwatch. It is one of Britain’s great wildlife spectacles and it takes place on the Dee estuary, between North Wales on its western side and the Wirral peninsula on the east. The estuary is vast, more than 30,000 acres in extent and while the top, seaward half of it is inter-tidal mud flats, shimmered over by enormous flocks of wading birds, the bottom half is saltmarsh.

This saltmarsh is only rarely covered by the tide, so it is home not only to nesting birds, but also to small mammals, from moles to voles; there are several species each of voles, mice and shrews, as well as hares and, as I realised 10 days ago, foxes.

But occasionally, when a very high tide coincides with low atmospheric pressure and the wind in the right direction, the sea can come over the saltmarsh; the tide builds up slowly and then, at the end, covers everything in a rush, and that is when the small mammals dash for their lives to the shore. Not only that. All the birds of prey for miles around realise this is happening, and raptors such as hen harriers, merlins, peregrines and short-eared owls fly down from the Welsh hills to try to take advantage of a potential feast.

It can be a spectacle, right enough, of unparalleled vividness, the main viewing point being the shoreline at the Wirral village of Parkgate. I’ve seen it three times now; the first two times I took my daughter, and we were rewarded with remarkable sights, including a water shrew swimming around a few feet from us – how often do you get to see a water shrew, never mind one close up? – and a field mouse even closer, clinging for dear life to a grass stem. Most remarkable of all, we saw a water rail, another species you’re lucky even to glimpse, tear out of the marsh to the shore and fly up into a hawthorn tree; we joined a group of bemused birders looking at it from below, a view that you could birdwatch for a century and never see.

This time, I was privileged to observe it in the company of Colin Wells, the Dee estuary warden for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (in RSPBspeak, his actual title is Site Manager). Colin has watched over the estuary for 30 years now and he not only knows its stunning wildlife better than anyone, he is very conscious both of its value to people and of the potential threats it faces.

When the RSPB bought its first chunk of the estuary in 1979, there were major schemes afoot to put a barrage across the Dee and “reclaim” it – in other words, destroy it as a natural habitat for its hundreds of thousands of waders and wildfowl. The society now owns or has under management agreements more than half of the estuary’s area and, together with the strong protection afforded by EU wildlife laws, this means it is safe for the moment.

“But you just don’t know what’ll happen in the future,” says Colin, and schemes to “reclaim” the Dee are indeed periodically trotted out.

He is only too aware of its worth, on the edge of the Merseyside conurbation – Liverpool is just a few miles away. “It’s surrounded by thousands and thousands of people, yet it’s a surviving piece of wilderness right on their doorsteps,” he said. “And its wildlife is amazing.”

I couldn’t but agree with him as I watched so many birds fly up the estuary as the tide covered their mudflats, great flocks of curlews and redshanks and bar-tailed godwits, of mallard and teal and shelduck, and then of pink-footed geese, and then the raptors – hen harriers and short-eared owls hunting in close proximity.

Finally the sea burst over the marsh, and its denizens scarpered shorewards, to cries from the assembled watchers. A water rail! Another one! A mole! A vole! Look, a hare!

I couldn’t take my eyes off the fox, stranded half a mile out and swimming for its life. I doubted whether it would make it, but it did, finally arriving on a dry bit of marsh near the shore, soaked, shivering and exhausted, in fact, in a condition which could only be described, with initial capitals, as Completely Knackered.

But at least it was alive, as this wonderful estuary is thrillingly and incandescently alive.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Year 4 Teacher required for 2 terms

£21500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Accounts Assistant - Sales Ledger, Sage Line 50 - St Albans

£20000 - £22000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and w...

Day In a Page

Read Next
These young British men featured in an Isis video urging Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria. About 30 British jihadists are believed to have died fighting alongside IS  

Isis in the UK: How the 'War on Terror' radicalised a generation

Alyas Karmani
Dance yourself happy: strutting their stuff is, apparently, better for people than visiting the gym  

How should we measure the 'worth' of our nation?

Dan Holden
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?