Half century of Doncaster’s Potteric Carr premier reserve in focus

An aerial view of Potteric Carr nature reserve
An aerial view of Potteric Carr nature reserve

Potteric Carr Nature Reserve was officially opened 50 years ago this July, with the formation of a Reserve management Committee (RMC) in July 1968.

The area we know as Potteric Carr has a long history, dating back to the end of the last ice age. The area would have been a vast inaccessible wetland, stretching between the Don and Trent, but people would have travelled across the area and used the rich resources for food, clothing and trade.

Installing a sluice gate to control water levels for wading birds and wild fowl.

Installing a sluice gate to control water levels for wading birds and wild fowl.

Little changed until the 18th century when some land drainage and agricultural development began. But it was the arrival of the railways that had the biggest influence on the site. This commenced in 1849 when the Great Northern Railway pushed south from Doncaster towards London forming what is now the East Coast Main Line. Over the next 140 years, various additions and realignments have occurred, with the land becoming isolated and flooded.

Through this “neglect” a habitats not too dissimilar to that which occurred prior to the 18th Century slowly developed.

In the post-war years, a small but keen group of people had taken an avid interest in the flora and fauna of the area. This culminated in the leasing of 13 hectares of land around Low Eller’s Marsh from British Rail by the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union – which later became the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

The resolve of the RMC was severely tested during 1971 when the Government proposed that the M18 should run straight through land adjoining the nature reserve. With the support of the local authority and the Trust, an alternative ‘outer route’ was chosen. This was a significant victory as the outer route was selected based on environmental issues.

A Wigeon at Potteric Carr nature Reserve.

A Wigeon at Potteric Carr nature Reserve.

Further developments during the ‘70s included the creation of Piper Marsh – although it took until the next decade to complete the work. In 1975, the site took on its first paid employee, John Palmer. Further land was also acquired or leased, taking the area protected to more than 100 hectares. In recognition of the area’s importance, the then Nature Conservancy Council declared much of this area a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1977.

But in the same year, a new threat emerged that could have destroyed much of the nature reserve: to use the area to store floodwater. However, with persistent and persuasive lobbying, the plans were altered to fulfil benefits for wildlife and to protect homes and properties from flooding. In the early 1980s, these plans were realised, and alongside further developments on site throughout the 1980s, not least the establishment of the field centre and habitat improvements, much of the current site’s infrastructure was either established or in development.

In 1993, Sir David Attenborough visited Potteric Carr to celebrate its 25th anniversary. At the event, he praised the efforts of the public and private and voluntary sectors in working together for the wider benefits of the environment. Just a year later, a new management and development plan for the site was developed in response to Doncaster Council’s proposal to put forward more than 1,500 hectares of land for development around the nature reserve. By 1996, the nature reserve’s plan had evolved and aimed to secure the heart of the existing site, to improve visitor facilities and to add land to act as a buffer in response to the wider development in the region.

Over the next 19 years, this plan was fulfilled, thanks to the tremendous efforts of all those involved not least Roger Mitchel whose vision and drive underpinned the reserves development. Visitor facilities were improved with the completion of the field centre in 2005 and 10 new bird hides. Potteric Carr now covers more than 235 hectares, with a further 100 hectares surrounding the nature reserve forming a buffer zone. In December 2016, the new visitor centre opened, which has attracted more than 40,000 visitors to the site during its first year. The tremendous dedication and commitment of a small army of volunteers over the past half century was recognised this year when, in May, the Potteric Carr volunteers were collectively awarded the Queens award for Voluntary Service (QAVS). This award was given to honour 50 years of voluntary involvement in Yorkshire’s wildlife conservation, the QAVS is the MBE for volunteer groups and represents the highest award given to local volunteer groups across the UK to recognise outstanding work done in their own communities. But what will the next 50 years hold? The area has changed almost beyond recognition – the site is now bordered by development and we are seeing new species arrive but others vanish as the climate shifts and habitat is lost.

A Bittern seen in flight at Potteric Carr Nature Reserve.

A Bittern seen in flight at Potteric Carr Nature Reserve.