Fairburn Ings is one of Britain's best known bird reserves. Roger Ratcliffe meets its warden, Steve Wadsworth.
Steve Wadsworth stands by the door of the large visitor centre at Fairburn Ings and points across the lake to the house in which he was born.
"There it is, third cottage down, the one that's cream-coloured. These days I now live in a detached house not far away, so basically I've known Fairburn all my life."
His interest in birdwatching began as a child growing up in the village that gave its name to Yorkshire's most famous bird reserve. He had no binoculars to give him close-up views, no one to help him identify species, and a just copy of the little pocket Observer Book of British Birds for guidance. Half the time, he admits, he didn't know what he was looking at.
It wasn't until he was in his thirties, in fact, that he began to get really serious about birdwatching. Now aged 59, for the last three years Steve has had the job of warden at Fairburn, which is one of the RSPB's main flagship sites with around 140,000 visitors every year.
He was still in junior school when Fairburn's importance for birdlife was recognised in 1957 and designated only the third Local Nature Reserve in Yorkshire – Askham Bog and Spurn were the others. A
few years later it became a statutory bird sanctuary and was taken over by the RSPB in the 1970s.
The reserve was created by years of subsidence at three local collieries – Fryston, Wheldale and Allerton Bywater. This had left a superb chain of lakes, pools and muddy flashes, which became a sort of service station to refuel species of wildfowl and wading birds
on the so-called Aire Gap migration route between Morecambe Bay and the Humber Estuary.
Another reason for Fairburn's extraordinary appeal to birds – its species list is heading towards the 280-mark, extraordinary for a location so far from the sea – is that it also stands on the low ridge of magnesian limestone running along the course of the A1 from South Yorkshire as far as Ripon.
This is used by many smaller birds for moving around the country, but in particular it is well known as a route for birds of prey.
Steve came to the job of warden after a career as a mining engineer. When he left school at the age of 16 he got a job as an apprentice fitter with the National Coal Board, and one of the first things he can remember doing was working inside the firebox of a steam locomotive used for shunting coal wagons.
Later, he qualified as a mechanical engineer and went to work at Stillingfleet Mine in the Selby coalfield. Around the same time he began working at Fairburn
as a volunteer, helping with everything from footpath maintenance and habitat management to showing school parties around the reserve.
Within a few years he had been appointed chairman
of the reserve's management committee, while his day
job at the time was working for the Groundwork Trust on a huge regeneration project at Castleford.
"I did areas like the playing fields, the playgrounds – all the green bits basically," he says. "It was good preparation for working
on a bird reserve."
His skills were spotted by the RSPB, who asked him to project-manage the yet-to-be-completed St Aidan's nature reserve being
created from an old open-cast coal mine beside the River Aire. He was also brought in to develop a reedbed project at the RSPB's Old Moor reserve in the Dearne Valley.
Fairburn requires a similar approach. Gone are the days of a bird reserve warden walking around in camouflage clothes with binoculars round his neck. Steve wears a hard hat and reflective safety jacket, although he always keeps his binoculars ready to "glass" any birds that crosses his path.
In the last couple of weeks he has had to oversee the installation of a new steel hide, and he says: "I am in charge of the work site, and as a qualified engineer I have to ensure that we work to correct health and safety standards."
There is always work going on at Fairburn, whether upgrading footpaths, replacing hides or major habitat-creation work on the 356-acre spoil heap – now part of the reserve – that was once in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest mound of colliery waste in Western Europe. The vast area of spoil is gradually being restored as heathland, reedbed and woodland.
In summer it has more than 80 pairs of breeding skylarks, and lots of breeding reed warblers and reed buntings. Some of the newer woodland is attracting species like blackcaps, whitethroats and garden warblers.
But it is for water birds that Fairburn is famous. All year round, visitors can usually count on seeing species like great crested grebe, gadwall and kingfisher, and in winter it hosts large numbers of wildfowl like smew, shoveler, pintail and goldeneye.
The spring and autumn migrations times bring not only a lot of transitory birds but also many visiting birdwatchers. Waders calling in during migration include wood sandpiper, spotted redshank and ruffs.
Steve is particularly heartened by the numbers of birds of prey that come to the reserve. Ospreys and red kites – rarities a decade ago – are now regular visitors. There are also rare honey buzzards and marsh harriers, which Steve hopes may eventually breed in the area.
There's always new work going on at the reserve, and as he does his rounds he likes to chat with birdwatchers. The large visitor centre, he says, has struck the right balance for the place.
"First and foremost this is a nature reserve, a bird sanctuary and a Site of Special Scientific Interest," he says. "So, while we like the public to enjoy coming here, we can't turn it into Flamingoland or Lightwater Valley.
"Whatever we do, it has to be the highest quality. Otherwise it doesn't last. Nature has a way of finding any weaknesses."
n Fairburn Ings lies close to the west side the A1, a few miles north of the M62.
From Leeds it is reached by the A63 road then signposted off the A656.
The visitor centre is open 9.30am-5pm all year round except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
It closes at 4pm in winter. Parties of eight or more are asked to book in advance. For further information find the Fairburn website by visiting www.rspb.org. uk/reserves