Slimbridge's Nature, Gloucester
PUBLISHED: 18:14 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013
From ducks to water voles via swans and more ducks, katie Jarvis finds a fun way to get closer to Slimbridge's nature.
IF you were a duck, what kind would you be?
In the duck world, there's something for everyone. Trendsetters might favour the ice-cool tufted duck with its sleek Elvis hairstyle. Those of a puritanical nature should cross the female mallard right off their list. She tends to lay an egg a day for a fortnight, all of which will hatch to call a different drake 'Dad'. (The reasons why are not suitable for a family magazine; but let's just say it's the drakes that need to examine their consciences.) No offence, but last on the list might well be the reed warbler. Not only would its own mother admit it's plain but, to be frank, the name is shockingly misleading: its raucous cry would never get past Simon Cowell.
I'll plump for being a pretty shelduck myself, with its red bill, green head and chestnut and white plumage.
It's not quite such an academic question as it might seem. Slimbridge (where all these species and many more besides can be found) has a propensity for blurring the difference between humans and birds. The Crane school has proven that - where visitors don Crane costumes and help rear Eurasian Crane chicks so the babes don't become too accustomed to humans.
The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust's latest innovation doesn't involve dressing up. But it does involve seeing the world from a duck's eye view. For they've introduced new 'canoe safaris', which invite visitors to paddle in canoes, between reed beds and beside mud banks through specially-constructed channels, at perfect bird height; and if the ducks are surprised to see featherless, beakless visitors gliding along beside them, they're much too well bred to show it. (This is Slimbridge, after all.)
There's no doubt the safaris are an experience Slimbridge's founder, the late Sir Peter Scott, would have adored: his overriding ethos was always to bring people and wildlife together.
"We see as another way of doing just that - bringing people very close to the wildlife," says Paul Daunter, a former volunteer who now runs the safaris. "It means visitors can get down to the birds' level, paddling through banks of green in the ducks' own environment."
Which is exactly what I intend to do. We make our way to the far end of the Slimbridge centre, where the various looping channels that form the kilometre-long safari were dug out last year. In the replica fisherman's hut where we don lifejackets (though the water is but a metre deep), there are colourful charts showing some of the birds, animals, insects and plants you're likely to spot around the water. Though I'm being paddled - Queen of Sheba-style - through the reeds by Paul, it's normally a paddle-yourself experience. But before you embark, the boys running the show will - time permitting - talk you through whoever is 'top of the bill' on each particular day.
Today is mid-June. "You're likely to see damselflies and dragonflies," Paul says. "The resident wild birds in the middle of the summer will be mallard - which are everywhere - gadwall, tufted duck and little grebe."
We might see water vole, if we're lucky; a harmless grass snake; the yellow flag, a common marsh plant distinguished by its sword-like leaves (and a favourite water vole snack); the marsh marigold; purple loosestrife. A flash of electric blue would signify a kingfisher.
But this is a time when your ears are as vital as your eyes. The reed warbler can be recognised by its rhythmic calls from April to late summer; then there's the sedge warbler, less common but louder and more grating; the reed bunting will often be heard singing its shrill chirping song from the top of shrubs among the weeds; while the cettis warbler will potentially drown them all out with an impressively loud burst of song.
We start to paddle, quietly and slowly (those who go in for any dragonboat-style racing will see nothing at all), passing through dense reeds, a habitat for the smaller duck, dragonflies, water voles, coot, and the comical 'does my bum look big in this' moorhen. "They have a very distinct way of showing their displeasure," Paul says. "They make themselves look as big as possible - not from the front but from the rear."
In fact, self-defence is a concerning issue for all inhabitants of Slimbridge. This is the time of year when plentiful chicks abound, but only a relatively small proportion survives. They're literal sitting ducks for the large gulls and herons that swoop down and steal the youngsters from open water.
We are somewhat safer. Yet it's still a world in which you can feel like a Lilliputian. On our left, there are the tall reeds which tower above us; on the right the banks are covered with forget-me-not and sedge. The moment you're on the water, you're transported to a different world - the birds' world, from the point of view of perspective; and, more significantly, because you are changed: from invader to participant.
We pass black coot with their distinctive white beak, and a pair of drake mallards. Above us a reed warbler sings raucously. Below the surface of the water, different plants wave in the murky depths. Such is my adaptation to this aquatic medium, I wouldn't be surprised if they suddenly looked appetising.
As we follow a straight channel, we suddenly come across a layby, discreetly screened, from where you can view the Long Ground Pool - a huge expanse of water that wasn't easily visible before the canoe safari was created. Here we spot a brown female tufted duck taking her four fluffy chicks out for a morning constitutional, along with several males marked by beautiful black and white plumage. We see two female gadwall swimming together - they nest in low numbers in the UK and are on the 'amber' list; heron fly overhead while, on the far bank, lurk shelduck, my adopted alter egos.
"Up to about three weeks ago, there was a pair of mute swans nesting on the causeway in front of us," Paul says. "Their cygnets have now hatched, but they'll stay together as a family group until next year, when the next cygnets hatch."
As we glide away, the trail changes. Here are water vole holes, very small and perfectly round. They're shy creatures, not often seen, who choose areas of high cover. "Sometimes you might just see a reed disappearing gradually down a hole, and there'll be a vole on the other end, chewing it," Paul says.
What you'll see will change with the season, of course. In spring, you'll come across nesting birds. "We had a child's birthday party here one day. As the children rounded the corner in the canoes, there was a greylag on her nest with five bundles of fluff under her wings that had hatched that very day. The kids were thrilled."
In July, the reeds will be seven or eight foot high, in places blocking out anything other than the sky. At this time of year particularly, a good part of the safari team's work each morning is clearing the channels and dealing with overhanging branches.
"We get a lot of visitors who've never been in a canoe before," Paul says. "And in some ways, they're the people I most enjoy seeing. Sometimes they're grandparents, bringing grandchildren along, who are a bit worried about having a go. But they'll come back beaming, having had a real adventure: 'We saw water voles, and grass snakes on the bank!'"
But despite the hugely fun element, this is about so much more than entertainment, as Paul acknowledges. "There's a fine balance between a fairground attraction and what we're trying to achieve, which is a wetland experience: a way of getting into a reed bed and seeing the animals within it.
"It's about educating people about the world around them and the importance of wetlands, which are so fragile. The next time they read in a paper about a habitat being threatened, it will be much more real to them, having seen it for themselves."
And that's what the trust is so good at doing: seeing things from a bird's point of view. In which case, it doesn't much matter what kind of duck you decide to be: just make sure you get a nesting space at Slimbridge.
The canoe safari costs 5 per canoe, which can hold three people, with the 1km trail lasting around 40-45 minutes. Open from 10.30am every day until October 31; then weekends and school holidays until the end of March.