Frequently Asked Questions
We're making several changes at Willow Tree Fen nature reserve. Please take a look at some of our FAQs below.
Q: Why is the reserve closed?
A: In 2020, common cranes arrived at Willow Tree Fen and are now resident on site for much of the year. They are an incredibly rare breeding bird in the UK and very susceptible to disturbance. Unfortunately, the reserve is too small to allow access in the way that we used to without causing disturbance to the birds. There is a strong possibility that this would lead to them deserting the site.
Although the cranes are not on site at the moment, the reserve has remained closed whilst the central track is removed and the car park is raised to create a new viewing area and walk along the Counter Drain bank so people can view the reserve and hopefully see the cranes too.
Q: When will the reserve re-open?
A: The car park and a walk along the Counter Drain will open in early spring 2022. The material used to raise the car park needs time to settle. Once settled it will be topped with gravel and new fencing installed.
Q: Why can't people and cranes both use the site?
A: The cranes arrived at Willow Tree Fen during the first lockdown when there were no visitors or staff on site. It is unlikely that they would have arrived otherwise. Cranes are very sensitive to disturbance. Research has shown that if people get any closer than 200 metres, they will flush them and there is a high likelihood that they would abandon the site. This means that in order for us to secure their presence as a breeding species at Willow Tree Fen, we need to ensure that the reserve is as free from disturbance as possible.
Q: Why is Willow Tree Fen the only site closed when other sites with cranes are open?
A: Willow Tree Fen is one of the smallest sites in the UK to hold breeding crane. Elsewhere, large core areas of undisturbed wetland have allowed the birds to co-exist with human visitors. But at Willow Tree Fen, the birds would probably not have arrived if it were not for the first lockdown and there is a clear risk that the birds would desert if the circular routes were reopened.
Q: I saw cranes elsewhere and there was not a problem with access
A: During the breeding season, most of the UK’s cranes nest in very undisturbed sites. Outside of this period, they may roam the countryside and form loose flocks – especially during the winter months. At this time, disturbance is still strongly discouraged but is less critical than during the breeding season. However, the cranes at Willow Tree Fen have never encountered visitors and the birds have used the site territorially right through to the autumn.
When the reserve was re-opened to visitors during the winter of 2020/21, the cranes returned in January but kept circling the site and then flying off again. It wasn’t until the reserve had been closed again, that the birds felt safe enough to actually land and use the site.
Q: Where else am I able to go?
A: Once the reserve re-opens in the spring, visitors will still be able to view the wildlife and there are plenty of walks in the local area. For birdwatching and a circular walk, Deeping Lakes nature reserve is a 15 minute drive away (please note that dogs are not allowed)
For dog walking and longer walks, it is possible to walk along the River Glen on the Macmillan Way between Pinchbeck and Surfleet. In addition, there are also a number of walks in South Holland. See:
Q: What advice have you sought in coming to this decision?
A: We have consulted widely over the best course of action including from the UK Crane Working Group, the RSPB and a noted UK expert with years of experience in working with breeding cranes.
Q: We were told that access would be re-opened once the breeding season finished. Why has this changed?
A: The cranes are now using the site for most of the year – defending the reserve from other cranes from early in the year until late autumn. This pattern is likely to be repeated every year and is longer than we originally expected would be the case.
This means that the birds are only away for a matter of weeks, leaving a backlog of work and safety checks that would need to be done before reopening. With the birds potentially arriving back at Willow Tree Fen in January, that would mean only opening for a matter of a few weeks.
The sensitivity of the cranes also means that there’s only a small window of opportunity to complete the removal of the track and creation of the new car park, whilst the cranes aren’t on site.
Q: Can we still visit to view the cranes?
A: The car park and walk along the Counter Bank drain will be open in spring 2022 to allow visitors to visit the site and view the cranes and other wildlife. The views across the reserve are superb and much of the wildlife will be visible from the proposed viewpoint.
In 2021, volunteers on the bridge logged an astonishing 97 species of bird and several species of mammal just from the one spot, including marsh harrier, redshank and lapwing. We are therefore confident that the wildlife spectacle will be worth visiting, even if there will not be the wider access that was previously available.
Q: How long will the work take to complete?
A: The work to remove the central track and create the raised car park will be completed over the winter 2021/22.
Q: Do you see a time when people will be allowed back on to the reserve?
A: It is hard to say at this point. For now, we are still learning the habits of the cranes. With the reserve being one of the smaller breeding sites in the UK, they are at the limit of what we know in relation to their requirements.
However, the crane population in the UK is gradually increasing and over time, this may mean that birds will start to seek out new sites. As the prime spots get taken, they will therefore have to choose sites that are less optimal. This may lead to us learning more and becoming more comfortable with what we allow in terms of disturbance and habituation. But only time will tell.
Q: What are your wider plans for the area?
A: The Trust already manage several reserves in the local area including Pinchbeck Slipe and Baston Fen, and our aspiration is to restore lost fenland habitat at the landscape scale. This may allow us to build in further opportunities for species such as crane whilst also allowing us to create new opportunities for visitors to enjoy the wildlife.
Q: What will happen to the visitor facilities now that people are not allowed on site?
A: Some of the infrastructure will be reused in creating the new viewpoint and walk along the counter drain. Some, such as that around the work yard, will be maintained in the hope that alternative access can be arranged in future and some may be used on other sites.
Q: Why can’t I just go on site anyway?
A: We firmly believe that the welfare of such a rare bird must come first and would hope that our visitors would too. Staff and volunteers keep a watch on the site and anyone trespassing on the site risks police intervention.
Q: Why are the warden and volunteers allowed on site when the public are not?
A: When the cranes are on the nature reserve, the wardens and volunteers do not go on the site at all unless it is absolutely essential. That means that the usual work and habitat management has to be put on hold and compressed into just a short window of opportunity during the winter months.
Q: Where is the watch point?
A: You will be able to view the reserve and hopefully see the cranes and other wildlife from the car park and the Counter Drain bank.
Q: When are volunteers on site?
A: The volunteer watch will commence once the cranes have returned and settled back in for the breeding season. It is likely that there will be a regular volunteer presence from about March but this is subject to change depending on the activity of the birds.
If you would be interested in joining our volunteer team and showing people these special birds, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Can I walk the dog on the counter drain path?
A: We have taken the decision to not allow dogs on the nature reserve at all. Cranes are particularly sensitive to the presence of dogs – even if on a lead.
If you can't find an answer to your question, get in touch and a member of our team will get back to you as soon as they can.
Tel: 01507 526667