Martin Mere Wetland Centre celebrates 40 year anniversary

The visitor centre - The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Martin Mere

The visitor centre - The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Martin Mere - Credit: Archant

There’ll be more than seven swans a-swimming this Christmas at Martin Mere which is celebrating its 40th anniversary

Farmland was flooded to create the reserve

Farmland was flooded to create the reserve - Credit: not Archant

Almost six million people have visited Martin Mere since it opened its doors to the public nearly 40 years ago, but that’s just a tiny percentage of the total number of visitors. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre near Burscough regularly welcomes tens of thousands of feathered guests at a time and while the majority of the human visitors have travelled up to 45 minutes, many of the birds at the site have flown thousands of miles.

The centre opened, initially to WWT members, in late 1974 and then to the general public in March 1975 and was the brainchild of local haulage contractor Ronnie Barker. He was a friend of WWT founder Sir Peter Scott who at that time had opened just a couple of reserves. Ronnie knew that pink footed geese and Bewick swans roosted at the site and introduced the landowner to Sir Peter who bought 363 acres from him for £52,000.

‘It was agricultural land with barely any trees and parts of it had been used as a dumping ground,’ said Martin Mere team member Victoria Fellowes. ‘Over the next three years the centre was mapped out and gradually took shape. The log cabin which houses the visitor centre was built in just three weeks and doesn’t contain a single nail – the weight of the turf roof keeps all the interlocking logs in place.’

In the 40 years since the reserve was created it has expanded – it now covers more than 600 acres – and numbers of pink-footed geese, whooper swans, avocets and many other species have increased dramatically.

A spectacular display of geese

A spectacular display of geese - Credit: Archant

The centre has always had a collection of captive birds and an education centre was a key part of Sir Peter’s original plan – they have hosted more than 300,000 school visits. In 2007 Martin Mere introduced a family of beavers and in 2009 a family of otters.

Other new developments have included an adventure play area, a new café, a feature on weird and wonderful waterfowl, a Wild Walk and boat rides which bring visitors even closer to the wildlife. ‘People are no longer just looking over a fence at a bird,’ Victoria said. ‘They can mix with the wildlife and get much more involved with nature.’

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Tom Clare has been the reserve manager at Martin Mere for a little over a year. Originally from Mawdesley, Tom now lives at Eccleston and at 28 he is one of the youngest WWT reserve managers in the country. He said: ‘I used to come to Martin Mere as a child and do a bit of bird watching but when I went to high school I got involved with other things. It was after my A-levels that I decided I wanted to get back to working with nature.’

He started as a volunteer at the reserve after completing an ecology and conservation degree at UCLan, then spent four years as assistant manager. ‘People tend to stay in jobs like this for life but I had always wanted to work at Martin Mere and my goal was to be a reserve manager somewhere. To get the job here was just brilliant.’

David Attenborough at the reserve shortly after it opened

David Attenborough at the reserve shortly after it opened - Credit: not Archant

Tom credits his father with sparking his interest in nature and he has been able to repay him with a voluntary role at the reserve. ‘He retired recently,’ Tom said. ‘And now he helps out here with the dragonfly surveys. My mum comes too, she brings my young nephew Stanley and he loves looking at the ducks, so there’s another generation who enjoys Martin Mere.’

At this time of year Stanley will also enjoy seeing upwards of two thousand whooper swans on the mere. But those flocks are nothing compared to the record numbers of pink-footed geese who gathered at the reserve in the early autumn. ‘We had almost 46,000 here – I know because I counted them,’ Tom said.

‘I look forward to the geese coming each year and it looks like the breeding season in Iceland has been very good this year because there were a lot of juveniles in the flocks. We always have good numbers but we’ve never seen this many before. I suspect the very dry September we had meant there wasn’t much water in other areas so the geese saw Martin Mere as somewhere nice and wet.

‘Seeing tens of thousands of geese take off at once is probably one of the greatest spectacles in UK nature and there’s no better place to see it than here.’

* WWT Martin Mere Wetland Centre is open every day (except Christmas Day) from 9.30am to 4.30pm and parking is free. For more information go to

A mere legend?

Martin Mere was formed at the end of the last Ice Age and was the largest body of fresh water in England until it was drained to create farmland. Much of the site has now been flooded again to create the Martin Mere reserve, although the water levels are now carefully controlled.

An ancient canoe excavated from the lake bed is the oldest item on display at Southport’s Botanical Gardens Museum and that’s not all that has been lost beneath the water. According to the legend Sir Lancelot’s father King Ban of Benwick was captured on the shores of the lake by a nymph and taken into the murky depths. For this reason, it is said, King Arthur knighted him Sir Lancelot of the Lake.

Lancashire Life columnist Charles Nevin is a keen proponent of the view that Sir Lancelot was from Ince, which is derived from the old English word for lake, and some believe that Lancashire is a corruption of Lancelotshire.

Who goes there?

The majority of human visitors to Martin Mere are from Lancashire, although the centre regularly welcomes visitors from across the country. The centre is popular with families as well as serious bird-watchers and plans to revamp a hide there next year will help bring those two groups closer together.

‘We’re hoping that the Swan Link Hide will be redesigned next year to make it more comfortable and family-friendly,’ said reserve manager Tom Clare. ‘We have found at other reserves that some of the birders will talk to the families who visit the hides and share their knowledge. We’d like to break down any barriers that exist between people visiting the site.’

The BBC’s Autumnwatch programme was filmed at Martin Mere in 2006 and visitor numbers soared. In the last couple of years the show has been filmed up the coast at Leighton Moss and Martin Mere has felt the benefit. ‘Wildlife programmes that engage the general public with conservation and wildlife encourage them to visit centres like ours,’ Tom added. ‘Hopefully they will enjoy the experience and will become regulars.’

Visitors to Martin Mere in December are guaranteed to see hundreds of migratory whooper swans while those who were there a little earlier in the year will have seen vast flocks of pink-footed geese. But what makes this site so popular with these birds? ‘These birds are migrating hundreds or thousands of miles and by the time they reach Lancashire, they need food,’ Tom said.

‘Migration takes its toll – about 25 per cent of the birds that set off don’t make it. The ones who do look out for landmarks on their journey – they learn to recognise Morecambe Bay and the Ribble Estuary, places that can provide a lot of food.

‘The Lancashire farmland, particularly around Martin Mere, is rich in garden crops and we have created an ideal environment for them to recover from their long flight.’