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?


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

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot