Wildlife at Carsington Water, Derbyshire

Nearly thirty years on from its official opening, photographer Paul Hobson looks at the landscape and wildlife around the county's most recent reservoir

Lying in the Henmore Valley between Ashbourne and Wirksworth, Carsington"Water’s capacity of 7.8 billion gallons makes it the seventh largest reservoir in the UK. Opened by Her Majesty The Queen in 1992, the reservoir and its surrounding woods, fields and wetlands are a mecca for wildlife enthusiasts. They boast a bird list of 209 species and a supporting cast of dragonflies, butterflies, moths, mammals and plants.

The Valley has seen a number of changes over the years; the most dramatic being when it was flooded in the late 1980s. Prior to this the landscape had been subtly moulded by man since the Bronze Age 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, as a burial mound near today’s visitor centre testifies. The Romans left their mark with numerous small lead mines to the north of the present reservoir and when the Anglo-Saxons arrived the villages of Hopton and Carsington were founded. From this time until the 1970s the area probably didn’t change extensively. It was a typical English farmed landscape of fields with small woods and a good wildlife population.

Up to the 1980s our insatiable demand for water was resolved with the expensive construction of huge reservoirs such as Rutland, Kielder and Carsington – the latter at a cost of �107 million. Carsington Water is a compensation reservoir. This means that water isn’t treated and used directly from the reservoir. Its purpose is to regulate the flow of the River Derwent. When rainfall is high and demand is lower, usually in winter, excess water that would otherwise be lost to the North Sea is taken down a 10.7km aqueduct and stored in the reservoir. Then in summer, when the volume is lower and there’s an increased demand for water lower down the county at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester, the stored water is pumped back in. This regulation of the flow also reduces the impact of any dramatic changes on wildlife. There should be less chance of summer droughts and lower water volumes, certainly before Derby, so fish, crayfish and river birds benefit, and in winter a reduced likelihood of damaging floods should help water vole populations.

Flooding a valley has a dramatic effect. As well as aesthetic considerations, the loss of fields, woods and their plant and animal life are negative aspects often focused on when a reservoir is proposed. But nearly 30 years on from Carsington’s official opening, opinions have softened and today the majority view is a positive one. The visitor centre is now a popular attraction with an exhibition area, shops, cafe and restaurant and the reservoir is a focus for outdoor activities like sailing, walking and cycling.

Severn Trent own and operate Carsington Water and while the company’s primary purpose is water supply, it takes great care about impact on wildlife. The area was landscaped to improve views and over half a million trees were planted to form a mosaic of wetland and woodland fringe around the reservoir. This is in part responsible for the high number of bird species and abundant dragonfly population.

As the seasons progress bird life changes. The focus switches from winter survival to breeding in thespring. In winter a number of bird watchers’ favourites such as smew and goldeneye grace the open water. The muddy shores provide good feeding for flocks of lapwing and occasionally a few exotics like greenshanks drop in to add a dash of glamour. During landscaping, island havens were created to provide fox-proof nesting opportunities for ground birds such as oystercatchers and common terns. Cormorants are ever present and the increasing and delightful little egret, a relative newcomer as a breeding bird to the UK, is fairly reliably seen alongside its larger cousin the grey heron. The half million trees provide excellent habitats for a wide selection of woodland birds and you can be assured of finding nuthatches, woodpeckers, finches and most of the parus tribe. Owls are well represented with occasional sightings of both long and short-eared, plus the ever-present tawny, barn and little.

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Dragonflies, those fearsome, summer, insect warriors patrol the water’s margins. Later in the year migrant and southern hawkers appear. Migrant hawkers have an innate curiosity and will often fly up to people and hover in front of them. Golden-ringed, when it does turn up, adds a dash of sparkle to the ensemble. Mammals are less easily seen and the once good population of water voles has unfortunately succumbed to mink. Stoats and weasels are present as well as foxes and badgers, although they are less easily come across.

Bats flit around the reservoir at dusk, providing a fitting way to end a day’s visit. To get the best out of the area and its wildlife there is an 8.5 mile, well-signposted walk circum-navigating the reservoir that is a great way to explore. It takes in the visitor and wildlife centres and there are bird hides. Great views along the way and the villages of Hopton and Carsington are other attractions. The gardens at Hopton Hall are open to visitors in early spring and summer.

DRAGONFLIES - There is a good selection of dragonflies that can be watched around the reservoir during the late spring, summer and early autumn. Common darter, four-spot and broad bodied chasers plus brown hawkers are always present and emperors often put in a flight. Golden ringed can be often seen in July. Later in August and September migrant and southern hawkers fly strongly along the margins of the water

THE"BIRDS - Carsington Water has an extensive bird list. Waders include greenshank, avocet, Bairds’s sandpiper and Teminck’s stint, snipe, redshank, lapwing and oystercatcher. In winter the many duck species can include sinew, goldeneye, common scoter, pochard, teal, scaup, pintail, shellduck, wigeon, mallard and gadwell. Most winters will see an occasional diver like the rare great-northern diver, rarer grebes such as black-necked plus innumerable gulls. Little Egrets are common, plus cormorants and common terns in summer. In spring there are nearly always ravens, hobby, migrating ospreys (it can only be a matter of a few years before a pair stop to breed), and buzzards. Woodland birds include all the main finches and all three woodpeckers can be seen or heard. Common warblers breed here and redstarts are fairly obvious in summer. The feeders near the wildlife centre are the haunt of nationally scarce tree sparrows.

For a definitive bird list and up to date sightings visit www.carsingtonbirdclub.co.uk

FACILITIESWildlife centre, excellent parking, four bird hides, restaurant and cafe facilities, toilets, picnic areas, wheelchair friendly access, water sports centre (sailing, windsurfing, kayaking). Adventure playground and well signed footpaths.Where is it?Carsington Water lies between Ashbourne and Matlock on the B5035.  DE6 1ST

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