Welches Dam and The Ouse Washes

Welches Dam, part of the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire is more than just a beautiful place for a weekend walk - it is a critically important wetland habitat that we have an urgent responsibility to protect for both wildlife and people.

This 20-mile stretch of wetlands, the largest of its kind in the UK, plays a crucial role in managing flood water thereby protecting surrounding communities and providing habitat for countless bird species. 

On a recent winter visit, my husband and I saw firsthand the abundance of life the Ouse Washes support. From the honks of overwintering geese to the soaring silhouettes of marsh harriers, the wetlands were teeming with birds. I'll share more about our trip shortly. 

RSPB data shows the Washes host up to 5,000 Whooper swans, nationally important numbers, from November to February. They also provide vital habitat for waders, ducks and many other species.

Organisations like the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts are working hard to preserve this habitat through water management, grazing and restoration efforts. But they need the support of nature lovers like you and me.

By visiting reserves like the Ouse Washes, we can all learn more about how critical wetlands are to both wildlife and people. 

Our Journey to the Ouse Washes

From our previous visit, I remembered the last stretch of road to the Ouse Washes was rough and uneven with bumps that made me feel like the car was on a roller coaster.

This uneven surface not only made for an uncomfortable ride, but also posed safety risks, as in some places, one side of the vehicle was higher than the other, giving the unsettling sensation that the car might tip over.

The narrow road, with no possibility of pulling over to allow oncoming traffic to pass, (without ending up in the river) required extra caution.

The blind bend beside a derelict pub was the scariest moment of the journey. As the driver, I needed quick reflexes and be prepared to stop suddenly should another vehicle appear dead in front of me. 

But if you are a careful driver you should be able to navigate the route safely, and it is well worth the effort.

Whooper swan in flightOuse Washes - home of the Whooper Swan

After navigating the challenging roads, we arrived at the visitor centre, collected a map and then headed up the steps to cross the bridge over the Old Bedford River on foot.

Although the path was wet and muddy, due to recent rains, we pressed on towards the row of bird hides, which were accessed by long flights of wooden steps leading up the bank. 

The steps up to one of the bird hides at Ouse WashesThe steps up to one of the bird hides at the Ouse Washes

You can watch Whooper and Bewick Swans from the hides throughout the winter, in nationally important numbers. The best time to see large flocks of these species is between November and February.

Look out for the yellow and black bill markings distinguishing them from the more common Mute Swans

On this visit there were only a few other people at the reserve so we had the hides mostly to ourselves. In fact we didn't see anyone else until we entered the fifth hide. 

One thing to keep in mind during these colder months is the position of the sun.

At sunrise, it is directly in front of the hides causing the birds to appear as silhouettes and making photography "challenging". However, this golden hour can be one of the most rewarding times of day for wildlife photography if you know how to tackle it. 

Initially, it took some time to "get my eye in" and see the abundance of birds around us.

I appreciated the tranquillity, listening to the whistles of Wigeon, peewit-peewit of Lapwing, honk of geese, and the wing beats of the swans as they flew past.

Swans flying by with Ely Cathedral in the backgroundEly Cathedral in the background

From the hides, we spotted a variety of ducks including Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Shoveler, Pintail, Goldeneye, and Tufted Duck.

Several Corvids were present, along with a Grey Heron, Starlings, and a Pied Wagtail along the shoreline. 

With a female Marsh Harrier soaring overhead, her pale head glowing in the sunlight; a Peregrine Falcon perched on a fence post and a male Kestrel on the wing; and a Merlin, the UK's smallest bird of prey, I was in my element. 

The Lapwings were easily disturbed by these raptors, while the ducks were less concerned. 

Female Marsh Harrier in the distanceFemale Marsh Harrier harassing the Lapwings
Photo of Pintail DucksPintail Ducks

Making Friends

As we watched and photographed the birds, we met a retired couple who were longtime RSPB members and volunteers. Talking with them and other birders enriched our visit and opened our eyes to even more species we would have missed on our own.

This is what I love most about birdwatching - the chance to connect with nature and with a community who share a passion for protecting it.

So next time you're looking for a meaningful way to spend a winter day, consider a visit to the Ouse Washes or your local wetland.

Go with an open mind and a willingness to chat with your fellow visitors. I guarantee you'll come away with a new appreciation for the wild places that sustain us all - and hopefully a commitment to fighting for their future.

The Ouse Washes opened my eyes to just how important wetlands are, for birds and for people. We all have a role to play in protecting these special places.

I know I'll be back with my boots, my binoculars and a donation for the RSPB. I hope you'll join me in supporting the Ouse Washes and wetlands everywhere.

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