Mike Fisher: Championing wildlife at the Gravel Pits and beyond

David Barnes continues his interviews with local wildlife heroes, this time speaking to Mike Fisher of the Darcy Lever Gravel Pits Action Group (GPAG).

Mike is the chair of the Darcy Lever Gravel Pits Action Group (GPAG) and is a very effective advocate for local action, informed by a global perspective. Mike’s first involvement with the Croal-Irwell Valley was in the mid-1970s, when he lived in Little Lever. It is typical of Mike’s great attention to detail that when asked what his first memory of wildlife was, he can relate a moment that pre-dates citizen science:

“Somebody in their infinite wisdom had dumped a rare Scandinavian fish called a bitterling into the canal there”.

Mike goes on to explain that the bitterling has a symbiotic relationship with freshwater swan mussels. The male fish guards the chosen mussel, and female bitterlings lay their eggs in its inlet breathing valve. The baby fish hatch within the mussel and when they exit, they distribute the mussel’s own spawn.

Mike’s involvement with wildlife conservation started in the early 1990s, when he damaged his Achilles tendon playing rugby:

“Whilst walking in Moses Gate Country Park to exercise the ankle, it suddenly struck me, I’ve always been interested in wildlife; why don’t I give something back?”

Mike Fisher of the GPAG leading a guided walk in local woodland

Mike became a volunteer warden at the park and has been an active conservationist ever since.

Mike then joined the Bolton Conservation Volunteers, and the South Lancashire Bat Group, and also formed the Bolton Greenwood Group, which made traditional furniture without modern tools, until sadly the container base at Rock Hall was raided and all the equipment stolen. But, undaunted, in 1997 Mike was featured on a leaflet for the Working Woodlands Fair in Moses Gate, doing woodland crafts and looking, as he says, ”a bit like a moustachioed bandit”.

He continues: “All of a sudden all these leaflets went out with my photograph on it, and I didn’t know anything about it.”

What we know of Mike is that he will have coped with his new fame with ease, as he is also very much a people person and enthuses many others to take an active interest in wildlife and conservation.

“About 20 years ago, the mega rare GCN (great crested newt) was discovered breeding in one of the ponds in the Darcy Lever Gravel Pits, and as such, the site was designated as an SBI (Site of Biological Importance). In 2004 GPAG was launched to manage the site, and since then, we’ve created areas of woodland and open glades, have built footpaths and boardwalks and dug further ponds. Thanks to our work the ‘cresties’ have colonised another nine ponds, so job done!”

On the back of all the work, thriving communities of other species have become established in the Gravel Pits, including over 50 species of bird, most of which breed on the site. 16 breeding species of dragonfly and damselfly have made it one of the best sites for these insects in the north of England.

“We recently found three banded demoiselles which is an absolutely stunning damselfly. To prove that it is a breeding species we have to find the exuviae - the skin left behind when they come out of the water, before they transform into adults. We’ve not found any yet, but to find three adults on the same site means the chances are good that they are breeding within the site”.

Since 2004, Mike has been a qualified bat consultant surveyor. “I’m lucky,” he says, “I’ve turned a hobby into a full-time job and I love every minute of it. It has been a natural progression for me. The benefit of dealing with bats and other protected species is that the majority are all active at night, and people are out during the day, so my work dovetails quite nicely with volunteering with GPAG”.

A large wooden dragonfly statue standing amongst wildflowers at Darcy Lever Gravel Pits

It is not surprising to learn that Mike’s passion has opened up the Gravel Pits to many more people. Regular work parties now involve groups including pupils from Bolton School, and other specialist schools. The GPAG also works with The Princes Trust, Bolton Lads & Girls Club, and corporate organisations such as banks. But it is still a challenge.

“Getting volunteers is the hardest part of the job. They seem to come once or twice, but most don’t like getting soaked regularly or being up to their necks in mud, so I think you have to be a certain type of person to do it.”

GPAG has always been keen to increase the number of people who can enjoy the site and its wildlife. An initial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, funded a lot of footpath work and wooden carved sculptures, including a spectacular dragonfly statue with a two-foot wingspan which sadly disappeared and hasn’t been seen since.

But Mike is undaunted, and under his leadership, GPAG puts on around a dozen events a year.

“The biggest event we do is the May Day Parade where we have a guided walk from Darcy Lever into the Gravel Pits along the canal towpath (part of the Kingfisher Trail). Amongst other attractions we have a gazebo containing a microscope that feeds into the back of a television, so that anything the kid’s catch whilst pond dipping can be seen up close and personal”.

Encouraging children and young people has also been fostered through regular Forest Schools, to bring groups of children with special needs to the Gravel Pits.

Mike explains “We’ve already worked with several school groups, and in fact some students from the program now come regularly down to the Pits as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and to gain valuable work experience as well. Each young person comes with carers, so that is a lot of people to come and do some work. It is successful, as the kids get something out of it, and we get work done. It’s a win-win scenario.”

Mike is very pragmatic and, like the wildlife, he adapts to the situation.

“We’d erected some trail cameras recently to observe wildlife, and the footage we got out of them was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately we’ve had three cameras stolen so we’ve taken them down now, but to watch a family of fox cubs being raised from being very young was something really special.”

Mike Fisher of the GPAG looking over documents with a colleague

Mike is obviously an inspirational champion for wildlife, but is quick to acknowledge the many people who have inspired and informed his work. Amongst those is Rick Parker of the Bolton Conservation Volunteers (BCV): “The great silverback, as we called him. He was the guy that got me interested in cresties and conservation in general.”

Mike now works alongside the BCV and other groups within the Bolton Forum for Greenspace, to promote wildlife for people in Bolton.

“I’ve always been interested in wildlife, and I was about eight years old when my interest in animals became known to my neighbours, and I got asked to go into one of their gardens because they had a blackbird which had got tied up in the strawberry netting. They came to me to get the blackbird out, which I did.”

So, although Mike is an engineer by trade, it is clear that his enthusiasm for wildlife was always going to lead him to where he is now, leading an amazingly successful project and making a very honest living out of it.