Reedbed at Hawes Water, part of Gait Barrows NNR, Silverdale.
Copyright: Jason Smalley
Reedbeds are wetlands dominated by stands of common reed, where, for most of the year, the water table is at, or above, ground level.
Although common reed predominates in a true reedbed, there may also be large stands of other wetland plants such as reed canary grass and yellow iris. Often areas of open water and ditches are present. Small areas of wet grassland and carr woodland may also be associated with reedbeds.
Reedbeds vary in the species they can support, depending on water levels within the wetland system. Those that normally have 20 cm or more of surface water during the summer are referred to as ‘reed swamp’. These often have high invertebrate and bird interest but little botanical interest. Reedbeds with water levels at or below the surface during the summer are often more complex botanically and are known as ‘reed fen’.
The term 'reedbed' has been used to describe areas ranging in size and structure from narrow fringes of reed along river margins to extensive blocks on flood plains. Extent and form influence the species that they support. For example, reedbeds more than 20 ha in area are able to maintain breeding bittern as long as they support a healthy eel population. Wintering sites for bitterns, however, are often much smaller. Both marsh harrier and bearded tit are able to nest in smaller reedbeds, their main requirements are for a secure nesting site and wet ditches to forage along. Bearded tits also require well-established, drier reedbeds where litter has accumulated.
A large number of insect species rely upon reedbeds. Some have larvae that feed in reed stems, others feed on the reed leaves while still others live in the litter. Reedbeds also provide shelter during the winter for many other species that do not feed or breed in them at other times of the year.
In the UK there are 5,000 ha of reedbed habitat, located within approximately 900 sites throughout the country. No more than 5% of these have an area greater than 20 ha. Most reedbeds in England & Wales are less than 2 ha.
Extensive stands of reedbed are rare in north west England but there are important examples associated with the Cheshire meres, a few Cumbrian lakes (e.g. Esthwaite Water), Leighton Moss, north Lancashire and at the Wigan Flashes. The latter complex of sites (which includes Bryn Marsh and Ince Moss SSSI) contains a substantial area of reedbed that is being actively restored. New reedbed is also being created at the Flashes and at Leighton Moss.
The 1993 Phase I Habitat Survey of the county reported c.200 ha of ‘reed swamp’ and ‘reed fen’ habitat within Lancashire9. This figure has more recently been recalculated and is nearer 160 ha (7).
By far the greatest concentration of the habitat and the largest reedbeds are within the Arnside/Silverdale AONB at Leighton Moss and Hawes Water.
Small reedbeds can be found in scattered locations across the coastal plain between Lancaster in the north and Altcar in the south west. A few reed canary grass dominated 'reedbeds' occur within the industrial valleys of the West Pennines where they are located primarily around the edges of reservoirs, old millponds and sewage works.
Important Sites (7)
52 sites throughout the county support reedbeds.
Leighton Moss RSPB Reserve in Silverdale is the largest reedbed (93 ha) within north west England.
Internationally and nationally important populations of bittern, marsh harrier and bearded tit occur at Leighton Moss. There are also regionally important numbers of reed warbler (close to the northern limit of its range on the west coast of Britain), sedge warbler, water rail and reed bunting. Otter bred at Leighton Moss until 1999.
Near Leighton Moss lies Hawes Water Moss, the second largest reedbed in the county (7.6 ha). It is managed together with Hawes Water, which has a fringing reedbed, as part of Gaitbarrows National Nature Reserve.
In order of occurrence from north to south, other significant reedbeds are found at the following sites in the coastal plain: Crag Bank SSSI (1.6 ha); Marton Mere LNR, Blackpool (8 ha); Croston Marsh (1.5 ha) and Martin Mere WWT Refuge. In each case, where known, the areas of reedbed are given in brackets. There is also 1.2 ha of the habitat at Fleetwood Marsh in three separate stands and over 4 ha spread along the length of the Wyre Estuary SSSI in ten small stands of some 0.2-0.5 ha each.
In the West Pennines area, reedbed is found at the Rivington reservoirs (2 ha) and Withnell Fold (1.2 ha).
Reedbed habitat also occurs below Clougha, within the Forest of Bowland AONB, at Quernmore Park in three separate reedbeds of 3.7 ha in total.
Current factors affecting the Habitat
Nutrient enrichment from agricultural fertilisers and run-off can lead to the direct loss of characteristic species associated with this habitat. Another result may be the weakening of reedbed stems because plants grow in spurts rather than in a gradual fashion. This can threaten the long-term viability of reedbeds.
Throughout Lancashire, most reedbeds receive little active management with the exception of the largest and most important sites such as Leighton Moss and Hawes Water. Natural succession to woodland occurs in the medium to long term unless management prevents this from taking place.
Water levels may be reduced quite substantially by surface and ground water abstractions and the lowering of water levels through agricultural operations. The drying out of reedbeds leads to the loss of certain species and encourages the development of alder/willow carr woodland, hastening the overall process of succession towards broadleaved woodland. Losses have occurred in the past due to landfill and waste disposal.
Routine management of ditches and riverbanks is still carried out in some instances in a fashion that causes the complete removal of reeds and other vegetation from whole stretches of watercourses.
Increasing recreational use of waterbodies and waterways (notably canals) can result in erosion of reedbeds.
The small size of most reedbeds and their isolation increase the potential for habitat loss or degradation.
Current Action / Mechanisms
The reedbeds at Leighton Moss, Hawes Water, Martin Mere and those along the Wyre estuary all occur within sites that have been designated as important at an international level for nature conservation.
Leighton Moss is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EC Birds Directive and as a ‘Wetland of International Importance’ under the Ramsar Convention. The reedbeds at Hawes Water Moss and fringing Hawes Water are included within a candidate Special Area of Conservation (cSAC) notified under the EU Habitats Directive. Martin Mere is both SPA and Ramsar site. The reedbeds within the Wyre estuary are an integral part of the Morecambe Bay SPA/cSAC.
Marton Mere and Crag Bank are also notified under the Wildlife and Countryside Act as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
These statutory designations are recognised in government planning guidance and in relevant planning authority documents such as the County Structure Plan and district Local Plans. In addition, eight non-statutory Biological Heritage Sites (BHSs) contain reedbed. These have been ‘notified’ to land owners/occupiers and to relevant local authorities.
MAFF’s Countryside Stewardship scheme provides potential funding for land management for key UK BAP Priority habitats within each Natural Area. For the Lancashire Plain and Valleys Natural Area reedbeds are prioritised, especially those located within SSSIs or Biological Heritage Sites (BHSs). Countryside Stewardship has payments for reedbed and water level management.
The Environment Agency encourages the protection and appropriate management of reedbeds in its Local Environment Agency Plans. The Agency has also produced Water Level Management Plans for Leighton Moss SPA and Martin Mere SPA sites and draft one for Mere Sands Wood SSSI.
Regular reed cutting and/or burning prevents the accumulation of litter which helps rejuvenate reeds and also allows the colonisation of reedbeds by other plants which would otherwise become suppressed. This type of management also slows willow scrub invasion and helps maintain open water areas for feeding bitterns and other reedbed birds.
At Leighton Moss the RSPB carry out reed cutting and burning annually every autumn. A percentage of the reedbed is left uncut for at least five years, since a certain amount of litter in the reedbed is important for a variety of insects and birds.
At Hawes Water Moss, reedbed habitat has recently been restored by English Nature through scrub removal, the raising of water levels, and the dredging of new ditches and dykes to provide areas of open water.
30 ha of new reedbed is being created by the RSPB at Scout Barrow close to its Leighton Moss reserve. The project is taking place on land previously drained for agricultural purposes. It is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and by English Nature under its "Action for Bitterns" scheme. A further 2 ha of reedbed is being created by the Wildlife Trust at its Mere Sands Wood nature reserve near Rufford. A small area of reedbed has been established at a Lancashire County Council site near Scorton.
Though applying planning conditions the County Council has required the creation of reedbeds at a number of waste disposal and mineral extraction sites. For example, reedbed has been created around a newly-formed waterbody at Ulnes Walton. It is intended that reedbed creation should be part of the final restoration at Simonswood Moss and Brockholes.
Existing reedbed at Mere Sands Wood is part of the Constant Effort Site for bird ringing.
English Nature published a Natural Area profile for the Lancashire Plain and Valleys in 1999. It is has produced a leaflet to accompany this. Both highlight the importance and scarcity of wetland habitats such as reedbed and swamps.
Indicators of habitat quality:
Reedbeds are heading towards favourable condition when:
Table 1: NVC Communities associated with reedbeds in Lancashire (1)
Table 2: Species associated with reedbeds in Lancashire
Table 2: Species associated with reedbeds in Lancashire (continued)
Objectives, targets and proposed actions for reedbeds in Lancashire
References & additional reading:
1. Rodwell, J. S. (ed.) (1995) British Plant Communities, Volume 4, Aquatic communities, swamps and tall - herb fens. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
2. ? (1985) Chironomidae (Diptera) from Leighton Moss, North Lancashire, including two species new to Britain. Entomologists Gazette 27: 245-254.
3. ? (1987) Invertebrate Site Register: Review of Invertebrate sites in England-Lancashire Report No 98 Nature Conservancy Council.
4. Morries, G., Jepson, P. & Bruce, N. (1998) Lancashire County Heritage Sites Scheme, Guidelines for Site Selection pp 21-23; Lancashire County Council, Preston.
5. Morries, G., Jepson, P. & Bruce, N. (1998) Lancashire County Heritage Sites Scheme, District Summary Listings Lancashire County Council, Preston.
6. English Nature (1999) Lancashire Plain and Valleys Natural Area Profile. English Nature, Peterborough.
7. Hickling, J W. (2000) Lancashire Reedbed Database. English Nature, Wigan.
8. Jepson, P. (1999) Provisional Lancashire Red Data Book of Vascular Plants. Lancashire County Council.
9. Kelly, P.J. & Harwood, T.R. (1993) Wildlife Habitats in Lancashire. Report of the Phase 1 Habitat Survey of Lancashire 1988-1992. Lancashire County Council, Preston.
10. English Nature (2000) Lancashire Plains & Valleys Natural Area leaflet. English Nature, Wigan.
Date: April 2001.