Avalon Marshes at sunset
The gentle wind brings a hushed rustling from the brittle reeds. A pair of marsh harriers quarter over the vast wetlands, hunting for unsuspecting quarry in the mosaic of open pools and reedbeds. In the far distance, the outline of Somerset’s most famous landmark, Glastonbury Tor, can just be made out as the morning mist slowly clears in the weak winter sun. Suddenly a deep boom reverberates across the reeds, like someone blowing over the neck of a wine brewers demijohn. Excitement in the waiting watchers… “bittern booming!”
For this is a magical moment. The boom of the male bittern, a large brown member of the heron family, was once heard widely across the country, but by 1997, the year I started working for the RSPB, there were just 11 “boomers” left in the UK. A drastic loss of the wild wetlands they need, and the drying up of those that remained, had reduced its numbers to the point where it was at risk of extinction here. But a quarter of a century later, there are as many as 50 male bitterns booming in Somerset alone, and over 220 in the whole of the UK.
This is the Avalon Marshes, a remarkable 3,500 hectare wetland to the west of Glastonbury. Thirty years ago, this was an industrial area, peat being mechanically extracted for gardeners. But determined organisations working with local communities have turned empty holes in the ground into one of the UK’s great wetlands. Home not only to once threatened bitterns, harriers and grebes, but new colonisers who made their first toeholds here. Some like the mighty great white egret, are now spreading rapidly around the country.
Great White Egret
Sometimes, though, nature needs a helping hand. Common cranes were once a valued commodity here, a source of food and income. Thanks to the Great Crane project, a partnership between the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, the evocative and beautiful bugling of cranes is once again drifting across the Somerset Levels and Moors.
I was lucky enough to be involved with the Project, working with local organisations, and helping bring the final eggs back from the host population north of Berlin in Germany, to be hatched and reared at Slimbridge, before their release in Somerset. This year there have been more than 15 breeding pairs, young cranes are once again fledging after a 400-year absence. I feel so proud of what has been achieved here, a true team effort.
Reedbeds in front of Glastonbury Tor
The Somerset Levels and Moors have always been a contested landscape. Alfred the Great hid here before defeating the Dane Guthrum. The last battle on English soil was fought here. Were those the bones of King Arthur dug up at Glastonbury Abbey? For millennia, its inhabitants have been working with or battling water and flooding in England’s largest wetland. And as our climate warms, it is an increasingly uncertain future for the communities here.
Marsh Harrier in flight
It is all these ingredients and more that our winter tour of the Somerset Levels and Moors will cover. It is (in my view) one of England’s greatest cultural, historic, archaeological and natural landscapes. I do hope you will join me here!
To discover more about Peter's ACE tour to the Somerset Levels in February 2024, click the button below:
Avalon Marshes at sunset © John Crispin via RSPB images
A bittern © RSPB images
Great white egret © Peter Exley
Marsh harrier in flight © RSPB images