The location of Wheelwrights Cottages in the village of Shapwick places it at the heart of the Somerset Levels, an area rich in biodiversity of national and international importance. The Levels support a vast variety of plant and bird species and is an important feeding ground for birds which benefit from 32 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, of which 12 are also Special Protection Areas. The area has been extensively studied for its biodiversity and has a growing ecotourism industry.
The complex landscape of lakes, reed-beds, fens and woodland which we see today has been formed from extraction of peat which was removed huge quantities by machine for horticultural use in the 1960s by the Peat Industry.
The following guide suggests some of the most local and accessible locations for visitors to enjoy watching birds and other wildlife within a relatively compact area.
There is interest all year round but in Spring a growing population of Bitterns are almost unmissable – both seen and heard.
Other reedbed specialists such as Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, Cetti’s warbler and Bearded Tit are resident along with Great White & Little Egrets and a wide variety of wildfowl including Garganey.
Spring and Autumn always brings passage migrants, particularly waders, numbers of which will vary depending on water levels providing suitable feeding areas. In the winter months the Starling murmuration at dusk can attract a large crowd of admirers!
During the spring a cacophony of croaking Iberian Marsh Frogs can be heard from the ditches but can be surprising hard to spot with just their eyes visible!
A good number of Dragonflies and damselflies are on the wing during the summer and autumn with large numbers of Four-spotted Chasers on the wing in May/June.
The open areas viewed from the hide on the northern side of the drain can attract good numbers of waders when water levels are suitable during the early autumn.
Otters are present throughput the reserve, with dawn or dusk the best times to look for them.
In the winter months a large number of wildfowl are present as the area floods, comprising Wigeon, Pintail, Gadwall & Teal.
The car park hide is a reliable location to see a range of birds of prey with Marsh Harrier, Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Buzzard present throughout the year and Hobby adding to the mix in the summer. The pool in front of the hide can provide exceptional views of Great White Egrets.
Tower hide is always worth a visit for Kingfisher, Marsh Harrier and other reedbed specialists with Otter a possibility.
Distance from Wheelwrights Cottages: Approximately 4 miles/7 minutes by car
Access: From the car park there is a circular walk just under half a mile long (700 metres). It is clearly signposted, easy to follow and suitable for wheelchairs and buggies.
What to look for: There are a couple of hides giving views over the wetland where Wildfowl, Snipe, Redshank, Kingfisher, Marsh Harrier and other birds of prey can be observed.
Distance from Wheelwrights Cottages: Approximately 5 miles/12 minutes by car
Access: The reserve has a car park with a disabled access trail and Blue Badge parking. There are a number of trails with quite a few hides and observation screens which can be viewed on this map.
What to look for: As with the other locations, Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Barn Owl and Egrets and a variety of wildfowl can be expected through the year.
Water Voles are present too.
All images © Dave Rimes www.lookathebirds.co.uk
Distance from Wheelwrights Cottages: Approximately 3 miles/10 minutes by car
Access: There is a large car park directly off Station Road (parking is free for RSPB members) with an information centre and toilets. There are a number of trails to viewing platforms and hides over an extensive area much of which is accessible for wheelchair users and children’s buggies.
What to look for: The vast reedbeds and meres attract and support a wide variety of bird species but it is the ease with which visitors can see scarce or rarer birds that is gaining this reserve an enviable reputation.
Distance from Wheelwrights Cottages: Approximately 2 miles/4 minutes by car
Access: This magnificent and varied nature reserve covers over 500 ha at the heart of the Somerset Levels. The majority is located between Shapwick Road and Ashcott Road and can be accessed from either end from the footpath along South Drain. There is a car park at the Ashcott Road end and roadside parking at the Shapwick Road end which also allows access to the area to the west of the road too.
There are a number of hides, but stay alert whilst walking as wildlife can pop up and be observed from anywhere along the footpaths!
What to look for: Due to the habitat diversity a wide range of bird species can be encountered with residents supplemented by winter, summer and passage migrants. As with other locations listed the marquee species of Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Great White, Cattle & Little Egrets are present year-round with Bearded Tits and Cetti’s Warblers.
Distance from Wheelwrights Cottages: Approximately 4 miles/10 minutes by car
Access: The hide in the car park at ST 400 417 has all year wheelchair access. The path leading to the Tower hide further into the reserve is uneven and muddy in parts. A boardwalk leads off the drove road to the Tower hide but the hide is not wheelchair accessible.
What to look for: This reserve is becoming very well known as one of the best places to see the growing population of Cattle Egrets on the Levels during the livestock grazing season.