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42 years on from Ramsar: what have we achieved?

February 1st, 2013

The success in UK wetland conservation owes much to pioneering environmental charities who have painstakingly restored these unique and beautiful ecosystems.

Wetlands continue to be threatened by drainage, development, and intensive farming

As World Wetlands Day approaches, it is time to celebrate some of the UK’s most dramatic, beautiful, biologically diverse and wildlife-rich marshland ecosystems. Also to look to a future where freshwater wetlands full of wildlife are found across the UK’s urban and rural landscapes where they are highly-prized by society for the services they provide. 

World Wetlands Day marks the date of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Some 43 years before this the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) bought its first reserve, a scenic wetland under threat at Romney Marsh.

Since then, numerous non-governmental environmental organisations and influential statutory bodies have introduced people to the wonders of wetland wildlife and the habitats they live in via reserves, raising the profile of these habitats and special projects. 

Rob Cunningham, Head of Water Policy at the RSPB describes the collective vision of  environmental NGO's involved in wetland conservation;

“Our aim is to have a future where wetlands are a significant feature of the landscape in which wildlife can flourish. Wetlands should be recognised, safeguarded, enjoyed and valued for the roles they play in leisure and recreation and in improving and sustaining our quality of life.”

Migratory birds and wetland wildlife

As an important habitat and landscape for a great number of wildlife species, the media spotlight often prefers to shine on the plight of the world’s most exotic wetland areas. The bogs, marshes and estuaries of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory and Florida’s Everglades command regular column inches in travel magazines across the globe.

Yet, there are numerous dramatic wetland landscapes closer to home that provide natural habitat to an incredible array of wildlife, including damselflies, kingfishers, flocks of wildfowl, insects, water vole, otter, dragonflies, newts and a vast number of species of wading birds – not to mention the millions of migratory birds that visit these vital food-rich staging posts all the way along the Atlantic coast, from the Scandinavian Arctic to the African tropics.

“Wetlands are among the most amazing and valuable ecosystems on earth. They can help to absorb and store rainwater, which in turn can help reduce the impact of flooding downstream on our homes and businesses,” said Rob Shore, WWT Head of Wetland Conservation. “They clean our water by filtering it, and the plants they support absorb carbon which is then locked away in wetland soils.”

Unique spectacles

Wetlands offer some truly amazing wildlife spectacles for visitors to wetland nature reserves. Recently visitors have enjoyed new lagoons and hides at Rutland Water, spotted water birds in Lincolnshire, identified moths in Cumbria, taken wetland bat walks in Cheshire, witnessed wetland restoration work in Radnorshire, gone pond-dipping in Warwickshire or checked out the beavers back in Scotland after 400 years of extinction – a success celebrated as part of The Wildlife Trusts’ Centenary.

“Restoration schemes are helping to reverse the damage done to our wetlands, Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape at The Wildlife Trusts, said. “World Wetlands Day is the ideal time to reflect on their value, and to get out and enjoy them. Wetlands are alive with wildfowl and wading birds at this time of year, and there is arguably no better place to spend a winter’s day than taking in this spectacle.”

Erosion and a changing climate

Devastating losses of wetlands in the UK have placed wildlife that relies on watery habitats under enormous pressure. Fens have been drained and reedbeds polluted with grazing marshes ploughed up, lowland bogs extensively mined, rivers and streams re-routed and flood plains built upon. Birds that were once a common sight in the lowlands, such as snipe and lapwings, no longer breed in many counties and are rare sights outside nature reserves.

Hills, downs and moorlands, where water would once collect and slowly flow into streams and rivers, have been cut by drains and eroded by the hoof and plough. In valley bottoms, rivers have been separated from their floodplain wetlands, which are often drained, filled-in and built over. Rivers and wetlands have become receptacles for pollution, and have been sucked dry to provide for human use. And, with the UK’s climate undergoing change, vulnerable resources and infrastructure are being stretched to cope with more violent storms, heavy downpours and drier summers.

For wetland birds to thrive there needs to be water of the right quality and quantity in the right place at the right time. For example, breeding wading birds depend on the insect-rich shallow pools and damp soils in coastal and valley bottom grasslands to feed their chicks. Meanwhile bitterns need clean, clear water with an abundance of small fish, set within a sheltering fringe of reeds.

According to the Pond Conservation Trust, around half of the UK's ponds were lost in the 20th century and of those that remain 80 per cent are in a poor state - with an obvious detrimental impact to wildlife. Clearly, there still remains much to be done.

“Typically, ponds support around 70 per cent of the freshwater species found in lowland landscapes, including more of the most endangered species than either rivers, lakes or ditches,” explained Kathryn Walker at Pond Conservation. “So, at a time when around 90 per cent of our lowland waterbodies are degraded, and many pollution problems are intractable, pond creation is a simple, cheap and effective way to bring back clean water to the countryside, and help safeguard our endangered freshwater wildlife.”

Industrial partners

In September 2012, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson launched Europe’s most ambitious man-made coastal nature project that will guarantee a place for tens of thousands of migratory birds, and help combat threats from climate change and coastal flooding.

Once levee-protected farmland, Wallasea Island in the Thames Estuary will be transformed into a thriving wetland, twice the size of the City of London. It will teem with bird and marine life in a landmark project never before attempted on this scale in Europe.

Over 4.5 million tonnes of clean earth from the construction of major new rail tunnels under London will help restore a wetland landscape of mudflats, saltmarsh and lagoons last seen 400 years ago. Providing 670 hectares of secure habitat for wildlife, Wallasea Island is predicted to attract a significant number of birds once completed. About eight miles of coastal walks and cycle routes form part of the scheme, which is designed to become a wonderful place for people to visit, explore and enjoy.

The RSPB is hopeful that the restored habitat will also encourage the return of birds such as Kentish plovers that once bred in England more than 50 years ago. Paterson hailed the project “a gold standard against which all future projects are measured” in praise of its generation of economic growth and improvement of local wildlife. 

“Many special wildlife sites have been lost in our crowded islands,” said Dr Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB. “Through intelligent partnerships there’s great potential to put nature back at a landscape-scale as the largest coastal habitat creation of its kind in Europe”

Farming at the fore

In the mid-1980s, the RSPB campaigned to stop government subsidies for land drainage - a period that marked the nadir in relationships between conservationists and the agricultural community. On the Somerset Levels and Moors, effigies of prominent conservationists were set ablaze by irate farmers – thankfully, things have moved a long way since then.

The RSPB now works closely with the UK’s farming community in support of water - and wildlife - friendly agriculture, using fewer pesticides and nitrates and managing uplands and floodplains to retain water on the land.  

With UK flooding on the increase, the WWT and RSPB has published a manual on Sustainable Urban Drainage (SuDS) to promote wetlands as a reduction tool. House-builders are also being urged to favour water-efficient homes that reduce household water-use by up to 50 per cent.

This style of property reduces the need to take water from rivers and underground aquifers that supply wetlands with water and dispenses with the need to develop expensive new sources of supply such as desalination, new boreholes and reservoirs. It can also significantly cut energy bills and domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

“We now understand that water services can be provided in ways that protect and restore wildlife – we just need the will to make it happen,” added Rob Cunningham.

Still a way to go 

Despite these efforts, in the 42nd year since the signing of the Ramsar convention, wetland birds remain in decline. Populations of water voles, bats and other species dependent on clean water habitat, such as freshwater pearl mussels, water beetles, and plants including water crowfoot, are also cause for concern.

We must remain hopeful that continued collaboration between environmental NGO's and other interested parties will reverse these trends. Me must work towards a future where wetlands are truly safeguarded, for both current and future generations of wildlife and people.

Case Study – Pond Conservation 

South Yorkshire Ponds Project

The South Yorkshire Ponds Project was a joint initiative between Pond Conservation, Sheffield Wildlife Trust and the South Yorkshire Biodiversity Forum. The project was carried out by the Trust in partnership with Pond Conservation and the co-operation of various landowners in South Yorkshire. Detailed scientific surveys were undertaken on a selection of ponds across the area, followed by practical works to restore or enhance their value. 

An early phase of the pond project was funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, the SITA Trust through their Enriching Nature Programme and the Environment Agency. Pond Conservation carried out surveys and some pond management works across the area. It also produced a map of the location of ponds across South Yorkshire to identify where there are opportunities for further pond construction, carry out pond restoration projects and identify funding opportunities for pond management. This was achieved by research, field surveys, consultation and by engagement with local wildlife and community groups.

It involved a project at Hexthorpe Ings beside the River Don near Doncaster - an important wetland site. In 2009 the project created a trio of shallow pools, which are already important for water beetles and amphibians.

The Sheffield Wildlife Trust is the largest environmental charity in Sheffield and Rotherham, working to promote the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment of the local area. The South Yorkshire Biodiversity Forum has representatives from the local authorities in South Yorkshire, Natural England, the Environment Agency and interest groups including the Wildlife Trusts, Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group.

For more information visit:

The Wetlands Vision was initiated in February 2005 by the RSPB and is now a collaboration between English Heritage, Environment Agency, Natural England, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and The Wildlife Trusts. 

The RSPB has 200 reserves of which 50% have wetland features that boast a mix of reed-fringed lakes, slow-moving rivers, streams, meadows, tranquil pools and flower-peppered marshes. 

At present, the 47 Wildlife Trusts in the UK are involved in more than 100 Living Landscape schemes, many of which include wetland restoration, part-funded by The National Wetland Restoration and Flood Alleviation Project. 

In September 2012, Pond Conservation announced, with Natural England and other partners, a second phase in its national Million Ponds Project partnership. This huge new pond creation programme will counter threat to freshwater wildlife from ‘near universal’ pollution and promises the creation of 30,000 clean water ponds over the next seven years, up to 2020.





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