CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Derbyshire Life today CLICK HERE

Wildlife - South Derbyshire’s reed bed specialists

PUBLISHED: 14:35 03 March 2015 | UPDATED: 14:35 03 March 2015



paul hobson

Paul Hobson finds South Derbyshire’s reed beds a subtly addictive habitat

Bearded reedlingBearded reedling

here are few habitats where the majority of its specialist bird population blends in as well as in the case of reed beds. At first glance the waterlogged stands of plants can often seem a little too uniform to be called beautiful, and you would be hard-pressed to rate them higher than the sight of a delightful upland oak woodland in spring or the stunning purples of heather moorland in August. However, it is perhaps unwise to make comparisons as each has its own magical charm, and it is the wonderful variety of habitats that Derbyshire has to offer that keeps us both excited and entertained.

Reed beds are one of the UK’s rarest habitats. Years of land drainage to create our much needed farmland has seen them decrease hugely in the last 300 years. Lowland areas like the Erewash, Trent, Rother and Doe Lea valleys where rivers would regularly spill their winter waters would have had extensive areas of reeds and canary grass. Unfortunately our desire to build on flood plains and to reap the reward of these fertile soils meant that we drained wetlands and canalised rivers to such an extent that reed beds quickly disappeared.

Reed warblerReed warbler

Oddly our desire for road and house building has been a bit of a silver lining for these lovely plant communities. Our demand for sand and gravel is huge and the majority of it is mined in the same river valleys where rivers and glaciers dropped these valuable commodities. Mining in river valleys means that the water table is very near the ground’s surface and these new excavations quickly flood. Once the sand or gravel has been mined the area is often left as a series of pools where reeds quickly arrive and take up home in the shallow margins. Many of these new and potentially rich wildlife sites are often managed and designed by wildlife groups like Derbyshire Wildlife Trust as part of the deal to extract the sand or gravel. The upshot is that we have gained a good number of superb nature reserves where the reed bed specialists can once again gain a foothold in our county.

Reed beds are not the easiest habitat to work as a naturalist. The reeds usually grow in standing or slowly flowing water and often their roots are anchored in a good depth of semi-liquid mud. They are definitely not a place to wade around in, certainly dirty and very wet but also potentially a killer. It is, though, much to the naturalist’s advantage that a number of birds like reed warblers and bearded reedlings prefer the margins where we can get a view of them, if often only briefly.

Water railWater rail

There are two small birds that advertise their presence by their easily learnt calls. Bearded reedlings are still rare in Derbyshire but increasing numbers visit places like Willington, Williamthorpe and Drakelow during the winter. These are lovely birds and the male with his Mexican moustache is absolutely stunning. They can be most easily spotted by recognising their pinging call note.

The other small reed bed specialist is the reed warbler. Derbyshire has an increasing breeding population of these summer visitors and it is thought that up to 200 plus pairs now breed in the county. If you glance through the reeds it becomes quite clear that it is hard to see more than a few metres and I guess that this is also true for many of the birds so they compensate by calling or singing a lot, often quite loudly. Reed warblers are one of the great bird architects and their compact nest is slung from three or four reeds. Its deep cup-shape is another feature that allows the reeds and nest to blow over at quite a jaunty angle yet still retain its precious eggs.

Two other reed bed birds always raise the pulse of the bird watcher. The bittern is a large heron-like bird whose plumage of beautiful browns and creams allows it to blend in well with the reed stalks. The other is the not as rare but hard to see water rail.

Bitterns became extinct as breeding birds in the UK due to land drainage yet every winter a number would pop over from the continent to delight bird watchers. Willington, Williamthorpe, Carr Vale, Ogston and Renishaw Park have all had birds in the last few years, with Willington now having them on almost an annual basis. None has bred yet in Derbyshire, possibly we don’t have the large acreage of reeds that they need, but with a little patience it’s not too hard to get good views in the winter.

Water rails are far more common and regularly breed in a number of Derbyshire’s wetlands, including Wyver Lane and Poolsbrook. Unfortunately (for wildlife photographers!), they are incredibly shy birds, although they do advertise their presence by their loud calls, which sometimes sound like a pig squealing. I have watched them on a number of occasions and in hard winters have traded maggot casters for photographs.

Whispering and sighing, the wind is the key element that brings reed beds to life. Perhaps at first glance many people might not consider them beautiful but having spent some time near them I have come to love this unique and delightful habitat.

I often think of times I’ve spent watching a small group of bearded reedlings feeding on fluffy seed heads or listening to the scratchy song of the reed warbler, then I am immediately transported back to the tranquil and golden reeds beds of Southern Derbyshire.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Derbyshire Life and Countryside visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Derbyshire Life and Countryside staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Derbyshire Life and Countryside account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Andrew Griffiths meets Jim Dixon, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Peak District National Park.

Read more

This walk offers a dance with the Dove and a meander by the Manifold, whilst along the way passing a church, castle remains, country houses and a hollow way

Read more

With winter on the horizon, trees glow with colour, migratory birds arrive and house spiders set off in search of a mate

Read more

Ann Hodgkin investigates a case of the sincerest form of flattery… or industrial espionage!

Read more

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s vision is of landscapes rich in wildlife, valued by everyone. They will achieve this 
by pursuing their mission of creating Living Landscapes. Here Julia Gow, the White Peak Reserve Officer at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust tells us about the reserve above the River Wye

Read more

Nigel Powlson visits Sudbury where a shopping courtyard is attracting even more visitors to this quintessential English village

Read more

If you’re walking in the Peak District, the chances are that you could encounter a reservoir at some point during your ramble. There are dozens of resevoirs dotted around all corners of the national park, we pick some of our favourite walks from our archive.

Read more
Peak District

A five-year Heritage Lottery-funded scheme, launched in 2010, was designed to encourage the restoration and conservation of the distinctive landscape character of a large area of north-east Derbyshire.

Read more

Enjoy the wonder of woodland in our glorious Derwent Valley on this park and ride special.

Read more

Paul Hobson reveals some of the fascinating wildlife there is to be found in this month of transition

Read more

From far away constellations to gas clouds, our night skies are bursting with natural wonders – if you know where to look... Viv Micklefield goes stargazing in Derbyshire

Read more

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust works across six Living Landscapes with 46 nature reserves to ensure there is wildlife and wild places for everyone. Reserve officer Sam Willis tells us about one of his favourite places – Ladybower Wood Nature Reserve

Read more

A multi-million pound makeover attracts more leading brands to one of the UK’s biggest shopping destinations

Read more

The first ever National GetOutside Day takes place on Sunday 30 September with the aim of getting 1 million people active outdoors across the UK.

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Subscribe or buy a mag today

Topics of Interest

Local Business Directory

Property Search