Leighton Moss celebrates milestone anniversary

5 February 2024

RSPB Leighton Moss will mark its diamond anniversary this year and 2024 marks 60 years since the UK’s largest nature conservation charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, began managing what is home to the North West’s largest reedbed, adding a further 200 hectares in recent years.

Bearded Tit.  Image credit: Leslie Cater.

Attracting just 365 permit-holding birdwatchers in its first year, the RSPB acquired Leighton Moss in 1964 with the vision of increasing both its biodiversity and visitor numbers.  Now celebrated nationally by nature enthusiasts, RSPB Leighton Moss welcomed 90,000 nature curious visitors to the reserve in 2023.

Set against the shores of Morecambe Bay, this award-winning Lancashire nature reserve is a wetland paradise for wildlife such as Otters, Bitterns, Bearded Tits, Marsh Harriers, Egrets and Red Deer. From guided wildlife walks to pond dipping for children, it offers a fantastic day out for all the family but crucially also educates future generations about the importance of nature conservation.

Like many wetlands in the UK, the land at Leighton Moss had been drained for agriculture prior to World War 1. The area had been historically known as the golden bowl, due its prolific production of cereal crops. The land eventually stopped being drained in the early 20th century and the site gradually returned to its natural wetland state and soon became a haven for wildlife.

It was the presence of rare and endangered Bitterns, Britain’s loudest bird and part of the heron family, in 1964, which led the RSPB to take on the lease of Leighton Moss, with the aim of enhancing breeding numbers of this species.  At the time, protecting this elusive bird was a top priority to the organisation, which continues today.  60 years ago, these reedbed-reliant birds, known for their distinctive booming sound, were under serious threat as a UK breeding bird.  Bitterns had shown a significant decline due to the intensification of agriculture and other factors.

Leighton Moss’s first warden, a local birder himself, John Wilson, was tasked with auditing the flora and fauna of the land and managing the reedbed to sustain its suitability for Bitterns. Reedbed is a scarce habitat and requires consistent habitat management to prevent its natural regeneration into woodland. During the 1990s, Bittern populations reached an all-time low in the UK, with only eleven individual males recorded, a quarter of these birds were recorded at Leighton Moss. With more wetlands being created throughout the early 2000s, the species made a remarkable recovery but they continued to decline at Leighton Moss, so new conservation techniques were introduced: including dynamic reedbed and water level management and in 2020 the installation of a hydrological cell bed, isolating parts of the reserve, allowing water levels to be independently operated, creating variety, and improving habitats for eels too – an essential food source for the Bittern. After a period of nine years, a pair of Bitterns bred once again at Leighton Moss in 2018.

Spring of 2023 was a bumper year for Bitterns in the area, with nine males booming at Leighton Moss, with four nests confirmed, establishing territories in the reedbed.  As well as benefiting biodiversity, wetland restoration is vital for the fight against climate change.

Jarrod Sneyd, Senior Site Manager, RSPB Leighton Moss, said,

“I’ve been coming to Leighton Moss since I was 8 years old.  I’ve seen the reserve grow and deliver so much more for wildlife and people in the time I’ve been coming here.  We’ve added more biodiversity to the landscape, whether it’s through reedbed creation, taking on and managing areas of limestone woodland and grassland, protecting parts of Morecambe Bay, or working in partnership to purchase a wet grassland site for lapwings. 

“From leasing 120 ha at Leighton Moss in 1964 we now own or have rights on over 2000 ha of land.  When the reserve was first leased there were no bearded tits and marsh harriers here.  They are now a common sight at Leighton. 

“Avocets, the RSPB emblem, only established themselves as a breeding bird here in 2001 while in 2023, the numerous pairs raised over 30 young!  From a Welcome shed in the 1970’s to a large Visitor Centre with cafe and shop now, people can relax and watch wildlife from one of 7 viewing structures.  Going forward, nature is in crisis and as a flagship RSPB site at the heart of the Arnside Silverdale National Landscape, we have a pivotal role in reversing wildlife declines in the area and building support for the changes that need to happen. 

“It’s all about partnership, recognising the value of nature and working with other landowners and farmers; seeing the value that we all bring to the managed landscape and the natural economy, ensuring people can make a living and be part of growing wildlife.  In another 60 years, I dream of more habitat, more people enjoying it and more people contributing to the local economy, managing for food and wildlife to benefit all.  We’ll continue to help create wildlife corridors and connections within a larger landscape.”

Key achievements over the last 60 years include:

  • A nine-metre-high sky tower and viewing platform was installed to give visitors a bird’s eye view of the nature reserve – possibly the best location in the north of England to watch starling murmurations in the winter skies (July 2015)
  • The Eric Morecambe pool and hide were constructed, in memory of Lancashire born comic genius and as a tribute to his love of wildlife. (Originally in 1986 then rebuilt in 2012).
  • The café (opened in 1991) and shop to help to bring in vital funds which are ploughed back into the nature conservation work. Leighton Moss is now the leading binocular and telescope retailer in North Lancashire. The visitor centre opened in 1980 and was revamped in 1991.  In 2000 the visitor centre was refurbished again, adding an events and education space.
  • Bearded Tits and Marsh Harriers have also colonised the site due to effective, ongoing habitat management, Bearded Tits first arrived in 1973 while Marsh Harriers first nested in 1987. The creation of nearby Barrow Scout and Silverdale Moss, providing new reedbeds to accommodate expanding populations of Bitterns, Bearded Tits and Marsh Harriers.
  • Barrow Scout was purchased in 2000 and Silverdale Moss in 2002 and these were transformed from farmland into wetland – pivotal for the Bittern population to recover.
  • From the early 2000’s Reedbeds have been rejuvenated by several techniques to improve its ecology for Bitterns.
  • A programme of curriculum-based nature-themed activities for schools sees around 3,000 school children per year visiting the nature reserve.

The team at RSPB Leighton Moss is delighted to welcome visitors to the reserve for its sixtieth year and will be celebrating the much-loved site’s anniversary and conservation success.  Keep an eye out for details throughout the year at www.rspb.org.uk/leightonmoss.

Jarrod added, “Everything we do in the future needs to involve partnership working.  We see ourselves energising around a bright future for people and wildlife as a collective within the Arnside Silverdale National Landscape partnership and with all the landowners and farmers.”

It is thanks to our members, visitors, and funding partners that we have made it to 60! And only by driving positive change in conservation can we secure a brighter future for both wildlife and local communities for the next 60.”   

For more info on visiting the area/ RSPB Leighton Moss visit


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