Reporter Nick Lakin speaks to Leighton Moss Visitor Experience Manager Jon Carter about his efforts to encourage more people - in particular children - to put down their tablets and screens and re-engage with nature...
There was a sudden, excited commotion inside RSPB Leighton Moss’ Grisedale Hide one balmy afternoon in August.
A Cattle Egret had been spotted at the Silverdale nature reserve – only the fifth visit from the majestic bird over the last 10 years.
Visitor Experience Manager Jon Carter explained that warmer temperatures had tempted the raptor - a member of the heron family - further north from its traditional home in Asia, Africa and southern Europe to breed in the UK.
Jon, 51, a lifelong lover of wildlife and self confessed twitcher started working at Leighton Moss in April.
His main role is to encourage more people to the reserve to engage with nature, something which he needed little encouragement to do as a youngster.
“I used to cycle up here from Morecambe, after moving there with my family in 1978 from South Yorkshire,” he said, as we meandered around parts of the 134 acre site in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB.
“Birds became a primary focus for me because of the beach and the bay.
“I was around 11 or 12 and on my first visit here I saw the bitterns.
“It just blew me away, and birds became a big focus in my life.
“It sparked that interest in me as a child, and now I’m in the fabulous position of actually working here all these years later.”
Leighton Moss has been under the care of the RSPB since 1964.
Today it welcomes around 100,000 visitors a year, a number which spiked when it featured on the BBC’s Autumn Watch in 2014.
The series went out to to 2.5m viewers.
The reserve has the largest reedbed in the North West of England, providing opportunites to see and photograph bird species not usually seen anywhere else in the area.
“I’m always looking at how we can make the place more attractive to visitors,” Jon said. “I want to keep developing Leighton Moss as a family friendly reserve, and would love to hear ideas from others about how to move this along. I don’t mind a bit of noise in the hides, as long as people stay in that noisy box, the birds don’t tend to mind too much.
“The point for me is to engage with people of all ages.
“Visitor numbers really spiked when Autumn Watch were here.
“People came from all over the country and the challenge has been to maintain that level.
“People locally felt very proud of it, and the value for us has been incredible.”
The reserve, which gives free entry to RSPB members, features a cafe with excellent freshly prepared meals, a shop, and outside there is a sensory garden, a bug house, a moth trap and pond dipping, as well as several hides and a viewing tower.
“It’s a constant battle managing the reed beds,” Jon said as we walked along the specially created wooden walkways and bridges.
“It involves cutting it at different times of the year. We need to take out willows and scrub, and we do cuts in summer and winter. We have to manage the level of the water, so it’s a constant ongoing management of this freshwater habitat.
“Reeds are really important for species like bitterns, marsh harriers, reed warblers and bearded tits, as well as otters, and there’s not many places that give people the opportunity to walk through a reedbed.”
As well as the cattle egret, my visit revealed a snipe, a black tailed godwit, a marsh harrier sailing above the reedbeds, and, from the viewing tower, a roe deer grazing in the distance.
An unusual crawling creature on one of the sun dappled paths turned out to be a dragonfly larvae, which was carefully returned to the edge of one of the ponds.
Jon, who has led birdwatching tours in Canada, and wrote the nature column in the Lancaster Guardian and The Visitor for 16 years, said RSPB Leighton Moss provided “so many connections with nature”, something that is more important now than ever before.
The National Trust recently published a report which said that on average, Britain’s children watch more than 17 hours of TV a week, up by 12 per cent since 2007.
British children are also spending more than 20 hours a week online, mostly on social networking sites.
Shockingly, Britain’s 11–15-year-olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen – 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40 per cent in a decade.
This prompted the coining of the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder, and the move from reality based play to virtual as “the extinction of experience”.
Jon said: “I just want to encourage as many people as possible to come here and have a great time.
“We’ve got den building, a bug house, a moth trap, mini beast safaris, and there are events for pond dipping where you can catch stickelbacks, newts, toads, frogs, pondskaters and waterboatmen.
“We’re so lucky to have this here on our doorstep.”
RSPB Leighton Moss is holding many events, some of them free, throughout Spetember and October, both for families and adults only.
There are photography, binoculars and telescope workshops, and guided walks, family trails, and explorers clubs.
Visit www.rspb.org.uk/leightonmoss for more information.