Before the 17th Century large areas of land surrounding the Ribble Estuary supported extensive wetlands of open water, freshwater marsh, and raised peat bog (mossland). South of the Ribble, the original ‘Martin Mere’, was one of the largest natural lakes in England left behind after the last Ice Age (some say the largest) and formed the centrepiece of a complex of wetland sites that stretched from Southport all the way to Liverpool in the south and to Parbold in the east.

It is a testament to human ingenuity and the technological advances of the time that these lowland areas of Lancashire, the ‘mosses’, have to a large extent been ‘reclaimed’ to be used for agriculture. Local landowners began the process of drainage with the help of Dutch engineers during the late 17th Century and most of the area is now maintained in a dry state with the aid of enormous pumps. However these changes are ultimately unsustainable.

The river Crossens near Southport is a wholly artificial drainage system, lying less than four metres above sea level which drains the basin of the former lake. Parts of the surrounding farmland now lie below sea level, the former areas of wetland being drained by sluices and pumping stations. This method of land drainage contributes to soil erosion, peat oxidation and watercourse pollution, not to mention the loss of wetland habitat for wildlife.

Thanks to the vision and hard work of a small but growing number of conservationists, a number of fragments of wetland surrounding the Ribble Estuary are now protected as nature reserves. These areas of protected land are increasing and have led to the enhancement of many of the semi-natural habitats, which support indigenous forms of wildlife, including rich plant communities and birdlife.

Within the Ribble Coast and Wetlands Regional Park there are two major visitor centres based around these wetland habitats. They are located on the eastern shores of the former lake at Mere Sands Wood and Martin Mere, near Rufford and Burscough respectively. At both you can enjoy the beautiful surroundings as well as the wildlife associated with managed wetlands.

At Martin Mere, wintering birds are of particular interest and include Internationally important flocks of pink-footed geese and whooper swans, together with nationally important numbers of teal, pintail, pochard, gadwall and mallard, and wading birds such as black-tailed godwit, lapwing and snipe. Flora is also well represented at this reserve with noteworthy plants such as water dropwort and whorled caraway, which are found in abundance here but survive at few other sites in Lancashire.

Mere Sands Wood, whilst of national importance for its geological interest, is just as important for its wintering populations of teal and gadwall, as well as pochard, tufted duck, goldeneye and shoveler. Breeding birds also include great crested and little grebes, gadwall and little ringed plover.

The sand and peat deposits here have remained almost undisturbed since the last Ice Age. As a consequence, geologists are able to study various changes that have occurred to the Lancashire coastline since the ice retreated northwards over 20,000 years ago. As a result of land drainage, peat is converted to dust and carbon dioxide and historical information is blown away by the wind. The managed wetland habitats of Mere Sands Wood have preserved the physical evidence of land changes as far back as the last ice age and have warranted its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The ice is still retreating today at an ever - faster rate as a result of global warming and this climate change will result in rising sea levels which may ultimately lead to the re-creation of the lost wetlands of South and West Lancashire.

On the western edge of the old Martin Mere basin lies the town of Southport, built on a complex of sand dunes that once formed a natural obstruction to the drainage of the lake. Here at the mouth of the estuary, Marshside Nature Reserve sits where the dunes of the Sefton coast meet the salt marshes of the Ribble. A freshwater marsh adds to a diversity of habitats that supports enormous numbers of birds. There are Internationally important numbers of pink-footed geese, bar and black-tailed godwits and knot, and nationally important numbers of grey and golden plovers, oystercatcher, dunlin, ruff, wigeon, teal, shoveler and shelduck. In spring and early summer the area supports important populations of nesting skylarks, shovelers, gadwalls, redshanks and lapwings as well as the largest colony of avocets on the west coast of Britain.

The RSPB provides birdwatching hides at Marshside, whilst across the estuary at Lytham St. Annes, the Ribble Discovery Centre sits alongside Fairhaven Lake and Granny’s Bay and provides an introduction to the estuary’s thousands of bird visitors for thousands of human visitors every year.

Copyright © 2019 Lancashire County Council.

Website by Countryscape