Bitterns breed in Sefton for the first time in centuries

Bitterns breed in Sefton for the first time in centuries

A bittern flies over the reedbed at Lunt Meadows by Phil Boardman

A pair of one of the UK’s rarest birds, the Eurasian bittern, has successfully bred at Lunt Meadows nature reserve for the first time in the reserve’s short 10-year history.

This is the first time that bitterns have bred at our Lunt Meadows Flood Storage Reservoir and Nature Reserve in Lunt village in Sefton, and the first time in the local area in approximately 200 years.

Bitterns are a type of heron, with golden brown feathers that are striped with darker browns. Once common in wetlands, bittern numbers plummeted over the centuries, mostly due to the huge loss of the reedbed habitat which they depend on for survival. In 1997, there were only 11 breeding males recorded in the UK, confined to the reedbeds of north Lancashire and Norfolk.

Since then, thanks to targeted conservation efforts to create extensive areas of wetland such as Lunt Meadows, there are an estimated 200 breeding bittern pairs in the UK today.

A bittern in-flight, passing in front of grassy background

A bittern flies over the reedbed at Lunt Meadows by Phil Boardman

That these endangered birds have bred at Lunt Meadows is great news for the reserve, which was previously arable farmland. Now, owned by the Environment Agency and managed by Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Lunt Meadows has been transformed into a mosaic of reedbed; wet, marshy and dry grasslands; pools, ponds, hedgerows and scrub. It is renowned locally as a haven for wetland species, especially birds, and is designed to hold excess water from the River Alt during periods of heavy flow or excess rain.

Cheryl Ashton, our Project Manager at Lunt Meadows, says:

“We are absolutely thrilled that bitterns have bred at Lunt Meadows. This is a great success for all involved in transforming the site from farmer’s fields into the amazing nature reserve it is today, be it our partners at EA, our staff or volunteers. While this is a first for our reserve, it's likely that bitterns would have commonly bred in the region centuries ago, when much of the area was covered in reedbeds and other wetland features, especially as Sefton means ‘land where the rushes grow’ in Old Norse.

"Reedbeds are one of the most important habitats for birds and are a priority habitat for conservation in the UK. It was always our goal to provide suitable breeding conditions for reedbed species, like bitterns, at Lunt, and we were hoping for chicks this year when a male bittern starting booming from amongst the reeds in April.”

A bittern standing on frosty grass amongst reeds

Bitterns were nearly driven to extinction through loss of their reedbed habitat but numbers are on the rise again by Bob Hurrell

During their breeding season, male bitterns attract females by making an unusual booming noise that sounds similar to blowing across the top of a bottle. However, staff and volunteers didn't realise that the bittern at Lunt had found a mate until July, when birdwatchers spotted the juvenile chicks practising flying.

Cheryl adds: “These birds are so elusive, not only do they blend in amongst the reeds but the female never flies down directly to the nest. Instead, she lands in a different patch of the reedbed and walks the rest of the way, so any watching predators can’t follow her. The young fledge after around 55 days and are independent soon after, so will leave Lunt to look for another wetland to spend the winter fishing in. We hope that this is the first of many successful breeding attempts for these shy birds here.”

Our Lunt Meadows team have plans to continue to improve the site for wildlife and people. In 2020 they acquired funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund to enrich the visitor experience at the reserve, including upgrading paths for those with mobility issues, improving viewing screens and developing a program of events and guided walks for people to learn more about the site’s heritage and wild inhabitants. Last year we also received funding from Biffa Award, as part of the Landfill Communities Fund, to further expand the habitats at Lunt, increasing the reedbed from six hectares to 24 hectares and landscaping parts of the existing reedbed that are too dry. Once completed, this will be the largest reedbed in Merseyside.

Rachel Maidment, Biffa Award Grants Manager, says:

“It is fantastic to hear that the habitat improvement work funded at Lunt Meadows in 2020 by Biffa Award is already benefitting wildlife, including the site’s first pair of breeding bitterns. It is extremely important that we continue to support projects such as this one, which promote nature’s recovery and provide a place for wildlife to survive and thrive.”

A bittern in reeds and grasses at the side of a pool

Bittern by Jamie Hall

Help us bring wildlife back

With your help we can expand even more reedbeds, nurture even more wetlands and encourage more rare birds to breed in our region.

Become a member today