Little Chef for birds: Flock of Stories visit to RSPB Old Moor Reserve

A reflection of our visit to RSPB Old Moor Reserve by our Flock of Stories Volunteer, Ruth.

The Flock of Stories project aims to interview people in Dearne Valley about their experiences of mining. The oral history interviews will be donated to National Coalmining Museum, and a performance will be created based on local stories. The performance will be held in September 2021, at RSPB Old Moor Reserve. We will also collect a memory box full of objects, photographs and books, for use in nursing homes and memory cafes.

Me, Jayne and Ginnie, Flock of Stories volunteers, and Mandy and Lauren from Chol, are on a guided tour around the RSPB Old Moor Reserve. Based near the former mining communities of Dearne Valley, this is now an 89 hectare nature reserve. We are guided by Liz, RSPB Community and Volunteer Engagement Officer, and Gerald, long term volunteer. Gerald explains that the reserve is a vital breeding area for reedbed birds and acts as a Little Chef for migrating birds. Birds use our roads and rivers to navigate on migration, they come up the Don, then branch off along the Dearne. 

There are many highlights to our visit.  

Nature and Nurture

We see our first bittern, standing regal in the long reeds. Gerald swings out his huge camera and holds it as if it weighed a feather. The reeds are metres deep, you could get lost in there. “You can go out there with a curtain pole held up above your head, but you’d still not be seen”, says Gerald. 

We see a damselfly, in bright turquoise. “Like an arrow”, says Mandy.  A damselfly is smaller than a dragonfly.  “Like dragonflies, they have two pairs of wings, but a damselflies fold them upwards when they land, whilst a dragonfly leaves their wings out”, explains Liz. 

Someone steps on a wild orchid, but it springs back. There are diving ducks. Liz explains they dive instead of staying on the surface, like mallards, a dabbling duck, and feed on pondweed as well as fish and invertebrates. 

Post industrial period, there used to be 10,000 golden plover in winter, until more recent development built a golf course, residential and retail buildings. Now there are just 500 . “So we lost 9000 birds that used to come here in Winter, but now there are bearded tits bittern and marsh harrier breeding here.” says Gerald. “It’s an example of how humans can affect an ecosystem, damaging one species but opening the door to others.  A fantastic achievement of good habitat management”. 

History of the Site

There were 5 pit heads within 2 miles of the reserve including the former Manvers Pit and Coking Plants. The shale on the slag heap is now covered with vegetation. You wouldn’t know there had been mines. There were two railways, one on each side. The Eastern side of the River Dearne, and one that ran to Manchester on an electrified line, used for transporting coal.  

We learn about the birdwatchers who used to come down on their bikes. “They realised they were onto something special”, says Gerald. “Birds they’d only ever seen at the seaside were here.” They campaigned for a nature reserve.

We come away with a whole bag of new words: greylag geese, bittern, cardinal beetle, blackcap, damselfly, rudd and roach, Wath Ings. “The more you learn”, says Gerald, “the more you realise you don’t know”.

Now we can’t wait to hear the stories from people who used to belong to the mining community, and those who successfully battled for the Dearne Valley to become a conservation area. Thank you to our wonderful guides.  

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