Fancy a day trip to the Solway Firth to see some birds? Why not go to the RSPB’s Mersehead reserve… but not at the end of August. I went today and didn’t see much, save for, what could have been, a female wheatear, being battered by the wind. I was well and truly battered by the wind as I wandered along the beach and on my cycle to the reserve. So spotting birds and cycling were both hard work. There were lovely views though, across the sand flats and the grassland and saltmarsh. Views were great along the ride too, especially across the Solway on the way back and a following wind.
The best times to visit are either in the spring when there are loads of bums on nests, especially waders or in winter. Both Mersehead and Kirkconnell Merse RSPB reserve on the River Nith, are important sites for barnacle geese from Svalbard which spend the winter there as well as good numbers of other swans, geese and ducks.
I got there by train from Glasgow to Dumfries and then it’s a gently undulating ride along the A710 Solway coast road. The ride is about 17 miles each way to Mersehead but you could make a shorter ride to Kirkconnell Flow National Nature Reserve and Kirkconnell Merse, or just stop off there on route to Mersehead. Definitely a good day out no matter how far down the road you get.
At last, I’m on the bike. OK I only missed one day yesterday without the bike but I was keen to get cycling today. Off on the train to Larbert and then a flat run of 6 miles to the Firth of Forth at Skinflats. RSPB Skinflats reserve isn’t advertised to visitors or signposted – the part I visited is used as a demonstration site.
Skinflats reserve is mainly mud. The mudflats between Grangemouth and the Kincardine bridge are designated for nature and now protected. Good job too as when you visit you notice the amount of development along the Forth. Grangemouth oil refinery, Longannet powerstation, both Forth bridges and both bridges at Kincardine are visible from the reserve. It is an island of nature along the Forth. And that is partly the problem.
Two hundred years ago, or more, the banks of the Forth would have looked a lot different. Saltmarsh and intertidal habitats would have dominated. Since then land has been drained and reclaimed for agriculture and built on, including all the industy and communities along the Forth, and have used sea defences for protection from the tide and storms.
Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and is squeezing and eroding the remaining saltmarsh habitat between the tidal river and the sea walls. The earth bank sea defenses are doing their job but actually benefit from the protection of saltmarsh which dissipates the power of the waves. Without the habitat, sea defences need more regular costly maintenance or could be breached more easily leading to a potentially disasterous flooding. The risks only get more extreme as we continue to produce greenhouse gases and worsen climate change. You can’t keep building ever higher sea defences in the same place.
In 2002 the RSPB bought a field to extend the reserve and to revert it back to saltmarsh habitat. The sea defences were ‘retreated’ inland around the field and work is ongoing to allow the tide to flood the land in a controlled way. Within one year of allowing the saltwater to deluge the land, saltmarsh plants were colonising and birds such as lapwing and redshank were nesting. It is an example of using nature to help us to adapt to the impacts of climate change – to build our resilience in the face of greater flood risk. We will need much more of this type of coastal realignment in the future if we are to protect communities and industry along the Forth from the impacts of sea level rise and storm events. Till then RSPB Skinflats reserve is a much needed island of nature amongst the development along the Forth.
Bird of the day was a short-eared owl that I flushed out of long grass – It flew a short distance and hid itself again in the saltmarsh.