Wildlife in South Yorkshire's Dearne Valley is given special protection

This is a story of hope and optimism and a tale of how, with determination, cooperation and the will to win, one of the most degraded landscapes in Europe has been transformed into a wildlife haven.

Today is the day I have dreamt about for 20 years!

At times I wondered if it would ever happen, and yet here we are. The Dearne Valley Wetlands have been notified as a SSSI (Site of special scientific Interest) by Natural England. An incredible “rubber stamp” from Government and recognition of the nationally important wildlife spaces our local community has created and restored over the past few years.

Within a few miles of my house, in an area once dominated by the coal and glass industries, I can watch flocks of thousands of wading birds wheeling in the sky before dropping to feed on shallow food-rich waters. I can watch Bitterns, a bird that - like the Dearne - has made a come-back from the edge of oblivion, to raise chicks and then watch them fly out over vast reedbeds, where once there were coal shunting yards. Oystercatchers probe the mud while Avocets gracefully sift water in their slender bills in wetlands that just six or seven years ago were fields struggling to grow crops of cattle feed.

“The Lapwing’s call and display to attract partners over waterworks. Geese honk over-head on their migrations. Buzzards soar and display in the sky.”

We are not just talking about a few isolated, protected “nature reserves” here - this is a landscape transformed. We have the vital core areas of reserves where the wetland birds, ducks and waders can feed and breed but between these sites there is a network of connected landscape, small ponds, wildlife friendly farms, parks, waterworks, reservoirs and the sprawling river corridor with a variety of wet woodlands and river banks that provide more homes for wildlife.

The core areas of this network are now ‘notified’ as a SSSI, they enrich the rest of their nature network of wildlife spaces but also rely on the rest of the network too.

Willow Tit Success

The Willow Tit is a nationally important bird, our most threatened resident bird species and yet has a stronghold in the Dearne Valley. The population of Willow Tits in the UK has declined by 94% since the 1970s but Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s work on a Back from the Brink project here has provided a lot of data on these birds and increased our understanding of how to manage habitats and increase their population.

In the Dearne, we have been working on the data for the SSSI designation for at least 10 years. The recognition of the decline of the willow tit had gone under the radar except for a few experts and was not originally a focus of the Dearne SSSI campaign.

The Back from the Brink Willow Tit project focused in the Dearne Valley enabled us to compile a raft of new data on the Willow Tits population, radio tracked maps on their breeding territories and regular intensive population surveys. We were then able to present this to the Natural England team and request them to included critical areas of previously undervalued scrub and wet-woodland that would otherwise have been overlooked. We lobbied hard! The Dearne Valley Green Heart Partnership promotion of the Dearne Wetlands has been a long-haul team effort. The Back from the Brink Willow Tit project, led locally by Sophie Pinder exemplified this by pulling all the organisations like RSPB, various Wildlife Trusts, Barnsley and Sheffield birders and expertise, (not to mention the artists and poets!) together to pool resources.

The Back from the Brink Willow Tit work has also been supported by work with Yorkshire Water Services on their landholding in the Valley. We have also been able to deliver Willow Tit specific habitat works done through Barnsley Rights of way team, Northern Powergrid, the Environment Agency Ops team and others. It’s great to see these large organisations all doing their bit for the unassuming Willow Tits!

An Historic Connection to Nature

The Dearne Valley Wetlands are also about a sense of identity for the area and communities, a sense of “place” and localness and pride. There were always “little gems” of wetlands that people and birdwatchers knew about or visited, sought solace away from work, but nothing on the current scale for decades.

Many of Barnsley’s towns and communities were created, grew and flourished because of the coal industry. The villages are spread like satellites around Barnsley town centre. This means that there is valuable nature space between the towns and villages.

You don’t visit the nature, it wraps around you, a short walk for most people can take them out into a calming greenspace. How we have needed that over the last year or so!

Today the area is a wonderful resource for birdwatchers, walkers and local residents. The improved environment attracts businesses and helps address the need for economic regeneration for local communities and their councils. People can enjoy the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Barnsley council reserve at Carlton Marsh, the RSPB reserve at Old Moor and the Garganey Trusts reserve at Broomhill, and these give opportunities for local people and visitors to experience and connect with the rich wildlife of the valley.

Rachael Bice, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's CEO said of the new protection 

“A truly inspiring transformation has occurred over a few decades to make this place, so culturally important to the residents of Barnsley, into an abundant living tapestry where both wildlife and people can thrive. The Dearne Valley was stripped bare and polluted during the Industrial Revolution as​ coal mines reshaped the landscape and waterways in the area. Yet nature has recovered here with help from a committed partnership stewarding the changes, and this landscape is now a national exemplar for what is possible, when we support nature to flourish again. It is wonderful that Natural England have designated this landscape recognising the impact of the work done with the community."

A Collective Achievement

The transformation of the Dearne Valley to a wildlife haven has involved a lot of people! The Dearne Valley Green Heart Partnership was set up in 2006 to coordinate efforts that were already underway. The Partnership includes,

  • Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster Councils,
  • Natural England and the Environment Agency,
  • RSPB, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the Garganey Trust
  • Barnsley Biodiversity Trust,
  • Community groups including Friends of the Dearne and local farmers.

We also work in partnership with Yorkshire Water.

We work with dedicated local volunteer groups without whom the dream would still be just a dream. Many people have worked towards this end, some now gone from the Valley but their contributions were vital.

The Partnership creating the wetlands is vital. By working together, all the organisations can achieve their goals here. For example - the Garganey Trust’s new Broomhill Fleet or the RSPBs Adwick Washlands create space for water, flood storage to prevent flooding in heavy rainfall, which the support’s the Environment Agency’s work.

Everyone benefits - from Lapwing chicks, to local people - and a multifaceted project is obviously good value for money for everyone involved. Local residents benefit by having these facilities on their doorstep - and the improvement they bring for physical and mental health.

A Turning Point

Our vison received a huge boost when the Dearne Valley Green Heart Partnership was selected as one of England’s first 12 Nature Improvement Areas by DEFRA in 2012 for investment to trial the restoration of habitats at a landscape scale. This was followed by a successful National Lottery Heritage Fund Landscape Partnership project that continued to change perceptions and celebrate the heritage of the area.

What Next?

This is a day of celebration - it marks the end of one era but this work is never done. After a brief “catching of breath” and socially distant celebrations, work begins on new wildlife habitats and connections on the borough-wide nature recovery network.

I am fortunate to have been involved with the acquisition, planning, creation and care of around 200 hectares of wetland for lapwings, redshank and snipe - and all their friends - in the Dearne and I am keen to do more!

The Dearne Valley Wetlands SSSI, demonstrates what can be done - to tackle climate change, create new habitats, protect threatened species, transform brownfield sites, road verges and redundant land into great homes for wildlife. Even on areas that have seen the heaviest industrial impact, we are watching the wildlife come back and secure long term protection.


Pete Wall

Project Manager

Back from the Brink - Willow Tit


 Would you like to help these incredible species? There are numerous ways in which you can:

  • Why not volunteer for Back from the Brink? Check out our events page for opportunities near you.
  • Help us to spread the word of this species, and the others we will be helping over the next 3 years, by sharing our message across our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages. Follow us: @naturebftb.
  • Finally - help support the work we do across England by donating. Our impact will be greater with your help.