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Saltholme and Teesmouth: nature thrives in industrial England

We brought our coffees to a table next to the window that looked across the lake. Terns skimmed over the surface and black-headed gulls nested on the artificial island. We settled down to watch the sand martins flying into and out of the holes in the sand bank, also artificial, that rose above the small pond. A fox trotted out of the tall grass, mooched around the edge of the pond, almost studiously ignoring the martins, which it could not reach anyhow, and headed off toward the lake shore, probably searching for easier prey.

Saltholme Pool, Great Britain


We had arrived at the Saltholme wildlife reserve, just to the north of Middlesbrough. Indeed, the outskirts of the town were clearly visible, including a number of industrial plants, and most prominently, the transporter bridge, that carried vehicles back and forth over the River Tees. Yet despite the ambience of heavy industry, this is one of the most important bird sanctuaries in North-east England.

Opened in 2009 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, this area of wetland, reedbed, pasture and wildflower meadow covers 380 hectares of former farm and industrial land, and has one of the largest visitor facilities of any RSPB reserve. An extensive car park stands next to a children’s adventure playground. In the damp fields beyond gather flocks of greylag and Canada geese.

Saltholme Visitor CentreThe two-storey visitor centre is an impressive building. On the ground floor are a classroom, a shop that sells just about anything a birdwatcher may need, and a viewing area that looks out onto a feeding station populated by varieties of finches and tits, with stock doves gathering the nuts and seeds the small birds drop from the suspended feeders. The first floor is occupied by a restaurant, where we paused for our coffees before setting out to explore the reserve.

From the visitor centre, we made our way along the north shore of the lake to the first of the hides that stood at the edge of a smaller pool surrounded by dense reedbeds. Coots, moorhens, mallards and a pair of mute swans paddled contentedly across the water. On a previous visit, I saw a shy water rail stalking through the nearby reeds. Though we did not see one this time, we were compensated by a heron and a little egret tip-toeing through the water in search of small fish. As recently as 2009, when the reserve opened, an egret would have been a rare sighting in the region, but in the last few years, they have become relatively commonplace, both here and even farther north, near the Northumbrian coast.

The shortest of several way-marked routes around the reserve is the 0.7-mile Lake Walk, which can be extended by linking it to the Kestrel Trail, Wilderness Trail, Wildflower Walk or Dragonfly Path. We made our way around the lake, on which paddled a female smew and a pair of great-crested grebes, past carved, wooden animals, to Paddy’s Pool hide. This comfortable building gave us a clear view over its eponymous pond which, like the main lake, was occupied by terns and gulls, with a small flock of Canada geese on the far shore. In winter, these would be augmented by barnacle geese flying in from the Arctic.

Farther along the walk, we detoured onto the Dragonfly Path, which led us past tiny pools fringed by reeds, above which, as the name implied, flew darters, hawkers, chasers and vivid blue and brown damselflies. This brought us to Saltholme Pools hide, which looked onto shallow ponds surrounded by extensive mud flats populated by lapwings, redshanks, dunlins, teal and widgeon. Also present was a pair of avocets which, like the egret on the north pool, would not have been seen here a few years ago.

The heavy industry of Seal Sands and the mouth of the Tees, steel works, chemical factories, oil refineries and container depots were even more in evidence from this viewpoint, though they had little effect, if any, on the numbers of birds that found sanctuary here. And beyond stood the tranquil backdrop of the Cleveland Hills.

We strolled back to the visitor centre, but before returning to the car, we again ascended to the restaurant to enjoy a lunch consisting of thick slices of quiche and a bowl of the best chips you are likely to eat anywhere.


Saltholme however, is not the only refuge for wildlife in the area. A mile farther north, on the A178 road, is the car park at Cowpen Marsh. During our visit, in the summer of 2017, excavation work, using heavy earth-moving equipment was being carried out. This meant that the footpaths from there were to be blocked for the next few months. Completion of the work would see the re-opening of these, enabling visitors to walk the short distance to the bank of Greatham Creek, where a wooden screen allows uninterrupted views of grey and common seals basking on the mud at low tide. This is the only regular breeding ground of common seals between Lincolnshire and Lindisfarne.

Greatham Creek flows beneath the A178 toward the Teesmouth National Nature Reserve, which is one of the most important of Natural England’s wildlife sanctuaries. A footpath across the road from Cowpen Marsh joins another, also temporarily closed, that leads along the river bank to a huge area of mud flats and saline lagoons, bounded by the Seal Sands industrial complex to the east and a ship dismantling yard and nuclear power station to the north.

More than 20 000 water birds visit the Tees estuary each year. Security fencing around the industries limits disturbance, while lighting enables waders to feed during the night. A bird-watching hide to the south-west corner of Seal Sands gives a panoramic view across the mud flats, where large numbers of birds can be seen at any time of the year. In winter come knot from the Arctic, teal and shelduck. Spring brings ringed plovers, lapwings, oystercatchers, redshanks and cormorants. Throughout the summer, Sandwich terns come to feed, while raptors, such as merlin and peregrine can often be spotted searching for prey.

The kinds of places birds choose to congregate, and even breed always seems to me to be something of a mystery. I know of quiet country lakes that are almost devoid of avian life, and ponds where the noise of passing traffic is incessant, yet birds gather there by the hundred. Teesmouth and Saltholme are among the most heavily industrialised regions of England, yet the numbers and variety of birds that can be seen here is amazing. It seems that as long as there is plenty of food, few predators and minimal human interference, then the birds will come, and stay.


More by this author on his very own website.

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