When you think of the Flashes of Wigan and Leigh these days, your thoughts inevitably turn to nature, a stunning 738 acres of shallow open water bodies, wetland habitats, rough grassland, fen, reedbed and scrub that are home to an incredible array of different plants and animals. It’s a nature lover’s paradise!
But this hasn’t always been the case and if you cast your mind back to the turn of the century, it would be nigh-on impossible to imagine that the beautiful environs we now have on our doorstep was once a neglected industrial wasteland.
Interestingly enough, however, the flashes themselves are only in existence because of mining subsidence – so we actually have industry to thank for the very fact that this nature reserve even exists!
The site was originally filled with colliery waste and ash from the nearby Westwood Power Station but over the years, its industrial scars have been healed through natural recolonisation and extensive reclamation works.
And now this mosaic of natural habitats joins other important reserves like Hope Carr Nature Reserve and Abram Flash SSSI to complete a stretch of beautiful wetland that covers an impressive 9km along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.
Spring and summer are wonderful times to visit, of course – particularly if you’re a birdwatcher, as you’ll spot the likes of willow tits, reed buntings, common terns, sedge warblers and lots more.
And in winter, you’ll find tufted ducks, bitterns, overwintering herons, pochard and great-crested grebes, so it’s no wonder that the wetlands are such a valued prize in the north.
What’s more, this network of habitats supports ten per cent of all willow tits in the UK – important since this is the most endangered small bird in the country. And it’s proven to be an incredible place for plant growth, as well, with evening primroses, orchids, pale toadflax, lilacs and rare species like marsh helleborine.
As such, protecting this site is of paramount importance if these species are to be safeguarded for future generations… which is why it’s such good news that Natural England has just declared that it will join England’s network of National Nature Reserves, a move that will protect the likes of bitterns, water voles and rare willow tits.
This designation is the first in the Greater Manchester area and recognises how the Flashes have been transformed over the last 100 years or so.
But it’s not just how vital it is for protecting wildlife and the natural environment… the Flashes also serve to provide excellent recreational value to local communities and the hope now is that the site will provide further opportunities for sustainable tourism, encouraging visits from residents and those from further afield.
Marian Spain, Natural England chief executive, commented on the news of the declaration, saying: “A healthy natural environment and economic growth go hand in hand. By working together to build strong partnerships such as those we see here in the Flashes of Wigan and Leigh, we can provide space for rare species and provide vital greenspace.
“That will make Wigan and Leigh great places to live and great places to do business in, so helping to attract inward investment. The unique wetlands in Wigan and Leigh were forged by nature reclaiming former industrial land. Today’s designation demonstrates how it is possible to reverse the decline in nature.”
There are now 220 National Nature Reserve sites to be found around England, covering more than 103,000 hectares in total, a network of nature hotspots that are essential for restoring the country’s natural environment and helping to halt the decline in wildlife populations by 2030.
Wetlands and water security
While you might find wetlands a little underwhelming when you first see them, representing a large garden pond or a marshy bog, they’re actually incredibly important, with both humans and wildlife relying on such habitats for thousands of years. Furthermore, they could have a hugely important role to play in tackling climate change and global warming now and well into the future.
Wetlands come in all sorts of different forms, everything from rivers and streams to ponds, lakes, wet grasslands, peat bogs, fens, marshes, deltas, mangroves and lots more, forming an essential natural habitat for a vast array of different endangered species, while supporting freshwater aquatic life.
These natural habitats are also vital for water security and they do a really important job in improving water quality by filtering out lots of nasty pollutants for our freshwater drinking supplies.
As water stress and scarcity become more pressing issues, in line with climate change and rising global temperatures, wetlands will only become more and more important… and here are just a few reasons why!
Peatland and bogs can serve as excellent carbon sinks, absorbing and storing huge amounts of CO2, which is just what we need for tackling climate change. It’s believed that 60 per cent of global environmental impact has to do with carbon, so keeping these wetlands intact could make a significant difference.
With more extreme weather events predicted over the next few decades, wetlands can help mitigate the flood risks by soaking up heavy rainfall, storing it and then releasing it slowly during drier periods, thus affording us drought protection at the same time.
Wetlands are also able to trap the likes of heavy metals and phosphorus in the soil, changing nitrogen so it’s easier for plants to absorb and breaking down bacteria to improve water quality.
Interestingly, you can even create miniature wetlands at home or at your place of business, even if you don’t have much space to play around with. Every little helps, after all, so why not see what you could achieve where sustainability is concerned over the next few weeks and months?