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  • Writer's pictureOur Green Warrington

Woolston Eyes Nature Reserve

David Bowman talks about the beauty and history of this wonderful Warrington nature reserve.


Woolston Eyes Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), is one of the most important wildlife reserves in the north of England and is unparalleled for species variety in the Warrington area. Its status was confirmed when it reached the short list of five, selected by Chris Packham for BBC Wildlife Magazine, in a competition to find the best nature reserve in the UK. Chris, by the way, was so impressed on a previous visit that he agreed to become our patron. A visiting senior manager from the RSPB also described it as “the best community-run nature reserve in the UK”, so we feel justifiably proud of what we’ve been able to achieve on behalf of the wildlife and residents of our area.

The Reserve consists of four huge, circular bunded “beds”, which lie to the east of Latchford, in a little-visited area between the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. These beds were built by the Manchester Ship Canal Company (MSCCo) to receive dredgings from the Ship Canal and thus reduce the flooding risk to land adjacent to the Canal. They are numbered, from west to east: 4,3,2,1. Only one of these is currently used for dredging, No.2 bed and another, No.1 bed, is also still an operational site. So, the main parts of the Reserve for visitors are No.3 bed (the jewel in the crown!) and No.4 bed, which is currently being developed as a major new wetland using £650,000 we’ve raised from grants.

Looking east over Woolston Eyes Nature Reserve from Latchford Locks

For more than forty years, the Woolston Eyes Conservation Group (WECG) has been managing the non-operational aspects of the site to maximise its wildlife potential, on behalf of the MSCCo. WECG is a charitable body and consists of a management committee, supported by a team of voluntary wardens and volunteers, all of whom give their time freely. Over the past ten years we have built strong relationships with the RSPB and Natural England, which have been invaluable in terms of technical advice and support.


Although there is a footpath, which runs alongside the Ship Canal from Latchford before veering north to cross Woolston Weir, this walk, though good for birds and other wildlife, doesn’t let you see the most impressive parts of the Reserve. As the rest of the area is private land, MSCCo requires all visitors to have an access permit. These are issued by WECG and are easily obtained via our website at

A permit and a key to No.3 bed are issued on application and give you access to the heart of the Reserve. There are six viewing hides, five on No.3 bed and one on No.4 bed. When the new No.4 bed wetland is completed, we intend building more viewing facilities on that bed. There are toilet facilities on No.3 bed and opening hours are advertised on the website. Unfortunately, due to the paths being grassy and inclined to be muddy in winter, allied to the steepness of the land in places, wheelchair access can be difficult. This is something we hope to address in future.

The John Morgan Hide on No.3 bed at Woolston Eyes


Birds The Reserve’s bird list currently stands at 244 species, a truly remarkable number for an inland site. I will just mention a couple of the highlights and you can see a full list on our website. Pride of place must go to the Black-necked Grebe, a rare species with maybe fifty breeding pairs in the UK, with Woolston Eyes being the stronghold. This attractive small grebe is migratory, usually arriving in mid-March, and staying till the end of July. They can be easily seen from any of the hides on No.3 bed and it is a particular delight to see the adults carrying the tiny, stripey young on their backs in early summer, soon after hatching.

A pair of Black-necked Grebes on No.3 bed

Willow Tits are another important feature of the Reserve, as they are rapidly declining across the UK with just 3,400 pairs now thought to be breeding nationally. They have unique habitat requirements, needing damp, rotting trees in which to excavate their nest holes, allied to plenty of young, vigorous growth to provide the insect food they require for feeding their young. We have always successfully managed our woodland and scrub habitat with Willow Tits in mind and have a current breeding population of around forty pairs, which is of national importance. Willow Tits have a distinctive “wheezing” call, which can be heard all across the Reserve once you’re familiar with it but they are most easily seen from the Morgan Hide or Hogg Hide on No.3 bed, where they regularly visit the feeding stations.

Willow Tit at a feeding station on No.3 bed

Mammals We offer a safe home for all the mammals you would hope to see in lowland Cheshire, including Roe deer, badgers, foxes, stoats, weasels, rabbits, hedgehogs, moles, brown rats, grey squirrels, various mice, voles, shrews and bats, including brown long-eared bat and Daubenton’s bat. There have also been less regular sightings of otter and grey seal. It is not uncommon to be walking around No.3 bed and find yourself eye to eye with a badger or a fox, which will watch you unconcernedly before ambling off into the vegetation. Less welcome is the presence of the alien American mink, a voracious predator on our breeding waterbirds.

Fox on No.3 bed

Dragonflies Twenty-one of the fifty-six regularly recorded species of UK dragonfly and damselfly have been seen on the Reserve, including Red-eyed Damselfly, Ruddy Darter and Banded Demoiselle, all of which breed annually.

Migrant Hawker Dragonfly on No.3 bed

Butterflies Twenty-six species of butterfly have been recorded, including some scarcities such as Dark-Green Fritillary, White-letter Hairstreak and Ringlet. The most uncommon of our breeding species is the Purple Hairstreak, which favours Oak trees. You can best see these by scanning the tops of the Oaks along the south bank of No.3 bed on a warm, late summer evening.

Common Blue Butterfly on No.1 bed

Other Flora and Fauna There just isn’t the space here to go into detail about all of the other moths, amphibians, reptiles, flowers, trees, insects, spiders etc which occur in such profusion, so I’ll settle for giving a few honourable mentions. Great Crested Newts are a protected species of amphibian and occur in large numbers (we once counted 1,600 during a systematic survey). Broad-leaved Helleborine is an understated orchid, which is scarce in Cheshire and we recently found a colony of several hundred, while Bee-orchids are less common, with small numbers in most years.

Bee Orchid on No.2 bed

Learning More About the Wildlife

As already mentioned, our website at is a mine of information about the Reserve and its wildlife, with species lists for all the main flora and fauna. It is regularly updated with the most recent sightings, as is our Woolston Eyes Facebook page. If you have queries about anything at all you can contact us via either of those routes. Every year we produce, for our Permit Holders, an illustrated 100 page Wildlife Report, which summarises all of the wildlife sightings for the previous year. This can be purchased, for a very reasonable price, either as an electronic copy or as a hard copy – or both! I do hope this tempts you to become a Permit Holder, as all of the money we raise from the sale of permits goes directly towards either habitat management or the improvement of visitor facilities.

David Bowman WECG Vice-chair

View from the John Morgan Hide on No.3 bed

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