Nature reserves helping to control flood waters

Flooding at Lunt Meadows by Adam Graham

North West nature reserves have played their part in preventing catastrophic flooding of homes as well as providing habitats for wildlife.

Lunt Meadows, Bickershaw, Lightshaw Meadows, Wigan Flashes and Brockholes have been managed to create areas where floodwater can run, before reaching residential areas.

And while this may cause some disruption to wildlife, things get back to normal fairly quickly according to the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside.

In past week, serious breaches of the banks of the River Alt, saw thousands of gallons of water flooding into the Lunt Meadows Nature Reserve in Merseyside. The water levels rose so high that parts of the car park were flooded, but it stood firm and prevented major problems in nearby Sefton and Maghull.

Lunt Meadows has been designed to act as both a flood reservoir and a nature reserve, providing wetland habitats for species, such as water vole, marsh harrier and kingfisher, while also holding excess rain and river water. The water is then either absorbed by plants and soils, returns to the atmosphere or is slowly released back into the River Alt, taking the pressure off drains and reducing the likelihood of flooding in more built-up, urban areas. Recent work at Bickershaw in Wigan has created a water storage pool on the site, reducing local flood risks, similarly to Lunt Meadows.

Lunt Meadows Flooding Jan 2021

The damage to the River Alt embankment with Lunt Meadows under water. The top of the reserve's bird hide can be seen in the water just below the treeline. By Graham Roberts.

During this storm, the embankment separating Lunt Meadows from the River Alt was badly damaged by the pressure of the water as it poured over into the reserve. Paths are submerged, and the water remains very deep on site, with only the tops of some bird screens visible. Nevertheless, the wildlife is still at home on site, with barn owls spotted hunting of an evening, hundreds of lapwing displaying and greylag geese swimming across the fields in which they normally graze in the day.

The Wildlife Trust’s Lunt Meadow’s Project Manager Cheryl Ashton said: “We are working closely with the Environment Agency to get the site open but while the reserve remains flooded and inaccessible, we don’t yet know the extent of any damage, and therefore the best approach to fix any issues. The water is slowly retreating and the wildlife is still present, but we have got to be patient and only open up again when it is safe.

“This event shows the importance of Lunt Meadows in the local area. Not only is it a brilliant site for wildlife – it is proving vital in protecting local communities from severe weather events. Every town needs a Lunt Meadows.”

Close to Leigh in Greater Manchester, the Bickershaw Nature Reserve along with the Lightshaw Meadows filled up with water in its floodwater storage area, preventing major damage to more than 100 properties on the Common Lane Brook area of Westleigh.

The Wildlife Trust’s Wigan Projects Manager Mark Champion said: “Overall there was around 50 hectares of wetland which is able to store hundreds of thousands of cubed metres of water. It is fabulous to see Bickershaw doing its job of slowing the flow and water storage.

“It will be interesting to follow the story on, to look at how the site and surrounding areas cope with these deluges, like Storm Christophe, in the future.”

Bickershaw flood storage management

Flood storage management at Bickershaw Country Park by Mark Champion.

Bickershaw’s flood management was designed and implemented by Wigan Council, the Environment Agency and the Wildlife Trust, which manages the site.

Other Wildlife Trust reserves have been designed to act as flood plains, keeping damaging amounts of water away from towns and villages.

The iconic floating Brockholes Visitor Village rises with the water from the River Ribble  when it is flood. The reserve closes on a few occasions when water levels get too high, but it is just doing its job.

Areas of peat around Manchester and North Lancashire and on the moors, soak up rain water, slowing the flow of any floodwater.

Wildlife Trust Campaigns Manager Alan Wright said: “This is why these areas are so carefully managed to hold vast amounts of water and prevent problems spreading to homes. If you need evidence of how things can go wrong you only need to look at the moors where there are areas that are deliberately kept too dry. When it rains heavily the water runs off the moors into rivers and floods towns and villages.

“We are really proud of the work that has been done at Lunt, Bickershaw and Brockholes because it has prevented many thousands of people having to deal with the misery of their homes being flooded.

“While rising water levels are not always ideal for wildlife, once the waters slip back nature just gets on with life. We have designed these habitats to allow that to happen.”

Alan stressed that nature reserves would re-open when they are safe. He said: “We would ask people to be patient and not travel to these reserves until we have the all clear. Just remember they are protecting people’s homes and the wildlife will be there when you return.”

Anyone keen to visit their local nature reserve during lockdown should consult the reserve pages, or check local media to see if they are open.