Farmland surrounding the Ribble Estuary

Farmland surrounding the Ribble Estuary
Farmland surrounding the Ribble Estuary

The majority of the hinterland surrounding the Ribble Estuary, away from the coastal resorts of Southport and Lytham St Annes, is highly valued and very intensely farmed agricultural land.

To the north, former areas of grazing marsh (with the exception of Newton Marsh) were drained during the late 17 th century. Today land adjacent to the estuary consists primarily of improved grassland for the intensive rearing of beef cattle and sheep as well as dairy herds.

To the south, vast areas of mossland, raised bogs with deep peat, and freshwater marsh, were likewise drained during the same period. The resultant peaty soils are ideal for intensive horticulture and crops such as potatoes, carrots, brassicas and cereals, whilst there are also small amounts of sheep and cattle rearing within the area.

As recently as the 1980’s a further 350 hectares were claimed from the Ribble Estuary at Hesketh Outmarsh. However as part of the Ribble Coast and Wetlands initiative, and spear headed by a partnership led by the RSPB and the Environment Agency just under half of this area is to be restored and former habitats recreated through a process of managed re-alignment.

Whilst past drainage and intensive farming methods during more recent times have led to the decline of former wetland habitats and their associated species around the estuary, the arable farmland within the area provides a stronghold for a number of declining species of farmland birds such as skylark, grey partridge, corn bunting, tree sparrow and reed bunting which have declined dramatically elsewhere in the UK.

Similarly, brown hares and water voles whose populations have declined elsewhere in the country are still present in good numbers on the Fylde and in West Lancashire, where one might also find the nationally scarce arable plant, Purple Ramping-fumitory, as well as regionally scarce plants such as Large Hemp-nettle and Corn Marigold.

During the winter months many species of wildfowl and wading birds find their food on the salt marshes of the Ribble Estuary, and to a lesser extent on the adjacent areas of farmland, including both improved pastures and arable fields. In particular, the surrounding farmland supports significant populations of pink-footed geese and wild whooper and Bewick’s swans. These feed on the lush grassy swards of such pastures or the on the stubbles of arable feeds including the potatoes and carrots left over after harvesting. Large flocks of wading birds also feed and roost on the wet flooded pastures and recently cultivated fields during the winter months. A few traditional, summer-grazed wet grasslands survive where flocks of golden plover, lapwing, black-tailed godwit, ruff and curlew may be seen.

This habitat is preserved at the Nature Reserves of Marshside and Martin Mere, which attract huge numbers of birds and on private land at Newton Marsh, which may be viewed from the main A584 Preston to Lytham St Annes Road near Freckleton.

It is anticipated that farmland will continue to be enhanced as a habitat for wildlife over the coming years. Farmers are now being encouraged to enter Environmental Stewardship Schemes in order to create ‘wild’ cereal field margins and grassy strips for wild flowers, invertebrates and birds, as well as to plant new hedgerows and create or restore ponds. In addition, some winter stubbles are being retained to provide wintering feeding grounds for birds, whilst wetland habitats and other features of wildlife importance are more likely to be retained. Declining habitats are therefore slowly being recreated or restored, whilst existing semi-natural habitats are being enhanced to encourage certain species of plants, insects, amphibians, birds and small mammals to flourish once again. For example, there are currently plans to re-introduce Purple Ramping-fumitory across many areas of farmland on the Fylde and in West Lancashire.

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