Have you ever wondered how nature reserves come to be? RSPB Scotland purchased a piece of land known as Crook of Baldoon six years ago and this is the story of how we've been transforming it into a haven for wildlife ever since. If you enjoy part I, look out for part II - we'll be posting it in the next couple of weeks.

Crook of Baldoon: Part I 

In 2010, RSPB Scotland launched an appeal to buy a piece of land on the west coast of Wigtown Bay.

For anyone who doesn’t know the area, it’s a beautiful part of Dumfries and Galloway: a huge crinkled inlet off the Solway Firth, with pretty little coves and vast expanses of mudflat and saltmarsh stretching away under an endless sky. It’s long been a place of significance for people, with evidence of ancient religious activities at sites like Whithorn, and a long history of trade from the once busy ports at Wigtown and Garlieston.  But it’s the wildlife that really makes Wigtown Bay stand out.

The bay is the largest Local Nature Reserve in the UK, and plays host to a spectacular range of species, particularly birds. Ospreys fish on the open waters in the summer, and thousands of geese, ducks, swans and waders arrive every autumn, attracted by the promise of food.

These sorts of areas are incredibly important for wildlife, as where rivers flow out to the sea, they deposit rich nutrients and create a unique range of habitats. Birds, particularly the winter visitors, come here to feed on the millions of tiny creatures that hide away in the mud, fuelling up for long journeys ahead, or staying on to enjoy the bounty.

But saltmarsh and mudflats are an increasingly rare habitat around Scotland, as sites are developed, or altered by sea walls, and with climate change, they’re likely to become even more scarce in the future. So when the opportunity came up for us to buy such an area in Wigtown Bay, we were very eager to take it on.  

The Crook of Baldoon actually came on the market unexpectedly. It had previously been managed as a farm, and was nestled right on the coast of the bay just to the south of Wigtown. It was already a fantastic place for wildlife, particularly for birds like golden plovers, but with a bit of work, we hoped it could be transformed into a natural haven for wildlife and people alike.

The RSPB doesn’t buy new reserves very often, so an appeal to our members is always a serious undertaking. But fortunately, after massive support came flooding in, the appeal was successful, and by September2010, the Crook of Baldoon was officially named as the RSPB’s 209th nature reserve.

Where do we go next?

Unfortunately, creating a nature reserve isn’t as simple as buying a bit of land and sticking a welcome sign at the gate. Areas do not become wildlife havens by simply being left to go ‘wild’.  In fact, the whole process can be incredibly complicated, starting off with surveys, looking at the current land use, monitoring water levels, salinity testing, considering the impacts of future climate change, and so on. And that’s before you’ve even considered access and facilities for the public.

At the Crook of Baldoon, we started slowly, putting in a few signs, taking out a few fences, changing the management of certain areas, and talking to visitors, many of whom had been coming to the site for years. We also employed a full-time warden, Paul Tarling, who’s still working at the reserve today.   

One of the first things we started to change was the livestock grazing. Many of our reserves right across Scotland use livestock to keep on top of vegetation, mirroring a process that’s happened in the countryside for hundreds of years, and continuing an environment that our farmland wildlife is now adapted to. Cattle and sheep had been present at the Crook before we arrived, so all we did was bring down their numbers to reduce the pressure on the salt marsh, which had been suffering from over-grazing. It responded quickly, and the following spring, thrift, or sea pink, put on an amazing show, creating a dusky haze that could be seen right around the bay.

Saltmarsh plants, like thrift, sea aster and lax-flowered sea lavender form some of the building blocks of the food chain at the Crook of Baldoon, encouraging insects, which in turn feed many of the breeding birds on the site. Skylarks in particular were seen in increased numbers on the reserve in 2011, and their numbers have continued to increase ever since, along with other birds like lapwings.

But our biggest challenge at the Crook wasn’t on the saltmarsh, or on the mudflats, but on the fields behind where a thick crop of 27 hectares of willow was resolutely growing bigger every year. The technical name for the crop was short-rotation coppice, and the willow had been intended for biomass fuel. In some cases, bioenergy can be beneficial for wildlife, creating useful habitats whilst growing, and playing an important role in reducing fossil fuel emissions.

But in this case, the willow was simply not in the right place, and its presence over such a large area, was actually bad for the wildlife that should have been using the site. Getting rid of it, however, wasn’t going to be as easy as we first thought. 

Look out for part II of our Crook of Baldoon blog - we'll post it on Scottish Nature Notes in the next couple of weeks.