Summer isn’t really the best time to visit the washes if you’re looking for birds, it’s the time of year when they’re at the driest, the least birds are around and the ones that are there are generally hiding in the tall vegetation. However, it’s a good time of year for insects and the RSPB Ouse Washes reserve is somewhere I’ve been meaning to go for a while, so in July I decided to head off there for a day.
For those that don’t know, here’s a short explanation of what The Washes are.
The Fens were once a large expanse of peat bogs, marshes, wetlands and meres (lakes) which, with the exception of a few hills (or islands), flooded during the winter or at other times of particularly wet weather. When humans decided to reclaim the land for farming a network of drains and new rivers was constructed (which is why a lot of the waterways in The Fens follow straight line) however as the land was drained the peat dried out and shrunk and the land sunk, ultimately ending up lower than the rivers.
So what do you do when a river that’s prone to flooding has no flood catchment area because it’s higher than all the surrounding land? Well, you build one for it.
The washes are essentially large reservoirs contained entirely within constructed banks, water is pumped in prevent it flooding into the surrounding farmland and then allowed to drain out in a controlled manner through sluices and back into the river further down stream.
The Ouse Washes (or Hundred Foot Washes as it’s otherwise known) leaves the River Great Ouse at Earith in Cambridgeshire and rejoins it just shy of Downham Market in Norfolk. In the heart, either side of the county border, there are two nature reserves: on the Norfolk side is WWT Welney, whilst on the Cambridgeshire side is RSPB Ouse Washes.
You can find about more about The Fens and their draining from the Great Fen website – http://www.greatfen.org.uk/heritage
Or for more information about Hundred Foot/Ouse Washes take a look at the Ouse Washes website – http://ousewashes.org.uk
Anyway that’s enough history, back to the trip!
RSPB Ouse Washes is a section of Hundred Foot Washes around Welches Dam, the path runs along below the north west barrier bank with 10 viewing hides spaced out along the top of the bank. This means you can’t see what’s actually on the washes until you’ve walked up to a hide, but it also means people walking past won’t scare off the wildlife.
In the morning I did the short part of the reserve, heading west from Welches Dam there’s a stretch of boardwalk and then a relatively short walk to 3 of the hides. As expected, there wasn’t much to see in the way of bird life, some swans and tufted ducks on the waterways. I did find a magnificent Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn beetle next to the boardwalk on the way back though!
On arriving back at the visitor centre I noticed there were swallows flying around the pumping station at Welches Dam. I tried to get a photo but they were too quick for me, whizzing through the sky catching insects, so I just stood and watched them for a bit until the arrival of a rain shower forced retreat back to the car for some lunch.
Once the rain had subsided I headed out for the long walk to the remaining 7 hides. It’s a long walk to the furthest hide and as you go it’s evident that increasingly fewer people make it out that far. It’s a nice walk though and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
I saw more butterflies and dragonflies in the afternoon, there was a bit more bird life around. Swans and tufted ducks on the rivers with young and quite a few grey herons hunting along the banks. Whilst sitting in one of the hides I suddenly heard a noise from some nearby trees and a marsh harrier appeared right infront of me! The best view so far that I’ve had of one!
All in a great day out despite the time of year, I’ll have to go back during the winter or spring when the bird life is at a peak.