The River Irwell: a vital habitat for wetland birds

Rivers up and down the country provide important habitats for a wide variety of species, including invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals.

In the North West, the River Irwell in Greater Manchester provides a particular haven for wintering ducks, with regionally significant numbers of goldeneye and tufted ducks being recorded.

The River Irwell flows for 39 miles from its source at Irwell Springs in the Pennines, until it reaches the Manchester Ship Canal.  It runs through a variety of landscapes, including many urban areas, and is described as ‘heavily modified’.  However, thanks to a concerted effort by many groups and organisations, work to clean up and improve the river has been taking place and wildlife is returning.

In 2016, in response to reports of significant changes to the wintering duck distribution on the river, the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit as part of Natural Course created an annual monitoring campaign.  The ‘Winter Wetland Bird Blitz’ takes place over a morning, and involves a simultaneous count of water birds that are present up and down the river, giving a snapshot of the current populations.

Mike Beard – Natural Course Project Officer says…

“Regular monitoring of species such as wetland birds provides us with vital data and evidence, helping to understand more about where these birds are congregating over winter. 

Last year’s survey recorded 1601 individual birds of 22 different species. 

Some of these birds will be resident here all year round, whereas others such as the goldeneye use our rivers as their winter feeding grounds, before flying back to the Highlands of Scotland and Northern Europe for the rest of the year

One section of the River Irwell is designated as a Site of Biological Importance because of the regionally significant numbers of wintering goldeneye and tufted duck.  Our records show their numbers have been declining in line with the national trend, so the River Irwell remains a stronghold for these species and really is an important habitat for them”

Mike, the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit and a team of volunteers will be conducting the next survey on Sunday 12th January 2020, so look out for their results later in the year.

Goldeneye bird


Photo credit – Adrian Dancy