LIFE thrives in wetlands and creating and managing them on a grander scale can have multiple benefits for the area as a whole.

WWT Steart Marshes, created in 2014, is a project that successfully demonstrates this.

The hundreds of acres of salt marshes and freshwater wetlands protect people from flooding, they store tonnes of climate-causing carbon, and the rich mosaic of different habitats provides the perfect ingredients for a vast assortment of birds, plants and mammals to flourish across three main areas; the intertidal areas of Steart Marsh and Otterhampton Marsh and Stockland Marsh, a freshwater wetland habitat.

All are connected via a network of ditches and water control structures and grazed by local farmers

The Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world, at around 15m, and the vast expanses of mud exposed at low tide are rich in invertebrate life, in turn supporting large numbers of waders and wildfowl.

During 2015 nearly 19,000 wintering birds of 49 species were recorded at Steart Marshes, with avocet, dunlin, little egret, shelduck and shoveler recorded in numbers of national importance.

The reserve’s assortment of hedges, reed beds and arable fields also provide important refuge areas for species such as whinchat, linnet and goldfinch; while breeding birds include skylark, Cetti’s and sedge warblers, and waders such as little ringed plover.

In addition the site supports a number of mammal species including the otter, water vole, badger and roe deer, as well as a total of nine bat species.

The reserve wardens at Steart are the reserve’s librarians, monitoring and documenting different species to track their needs.

They’re also responsible for helping to shape and manage the reserve so that it suits the needs of the myriad wildlife that depends on it.

We spoke to three reserve wardens at Steart to share their experience of managing the marshes and what they’ve learned about the key wildlife they work with.

Reserve warden Sam Wall, 27, knows the Steart landscape like the back of his hand.

Birdwatching in the area with his dad since he could ‘barely walk’, he’s watched the reserve transform over the years from rolling farmland into the salt marshes. He’s worked for WWT since 2014.

Sam said: “From a very young age my dad used to take me out bird watching. I had a really cheap pair of binoculars and we used to go out on the point here.

“Before Steart was created, the site was just farmland. It’s incredible to see it go from that to this. I’ve known this area my entire life. My dad helps organise local Wetland Bird Surveys.

The dunlin murmurations in the river are also popular. They’re are as impressive as starlings, they just don’t have the numbers. They come in off the bay right over your head. It’s quite a sight. They glint as they turn in the sun which reflects off the tide.

There has always been a good population of 10,000 – 15,000 dunlin out in Bridgwater Bay. However as this site has changed, there are now places for them to come feed and roost on the high tides. They’ll now come into the wetlands such as the Otterhampton Marshes, not necessarily in the same numbers, but at least 3,000 or 4,000 will come in on the bigger tides and roost on the mud flats.

Meanwhile Ronan Conn, 29 began working as a reserve warden at Steart in 2018. He is a lover of plants and uses his knowledge to help with projects aimed at increasing the variety of plant life at the reserve.

“Wherever I go there are people interested in birds and small mammals so although I’m an all-rounder, if you know a little bit about plants you’re the ‘plant guy’,” Ronan explained.

“Every day I focus on land management which in itself is very variable. It can involve anything from strimming, driving a tractor, chainsaw work or putting on a talk.

“I love the variability of the role, I have no idea what I’m going to be doing when I come in, working with volunteers, cutting back trees, whatever the site needs. I like the outdoors. I don’t do very well in an office environment.”

And finally there is Alice Beaney, aged 21, who has been involved with Steart since 2017 and is an assistant warden.

As well as getting stuck into all the practical duties across the marshes, she runs surveys on small mammals at Steart.

Alice said: “One of the biggest surveys I’m involved with is for water voles and we look for signs in the ditches around the reserve.

“Although I’ve only been doing the survey for a couple of years, I’ve had to back enter a lot of the previous data onto maps and onto the data base so I can see that the population has spread out to the majority of ditches around the site as well as using the few remaining ditches that are in the salt marsh.

“That’s interesting for me as it means that they are using the whole reserve.”

People tend to be surprised that there are people out here doing things, like cutting the grass, and maintaining the paths and hides. I think a lot of people don’t realise that there is a small team here working on the land.”