Along the water’s edge, dense green swathes of reeds sway in the summer breeze. Above their rustle and hiss, reed and sedge warblers sing. While overhead swallows and swifts skim the tops of these statuesque plants searching for insects.
And as dusk settles across this waterlogged world, the boom of an elusive bittern carries across the reedbeds joined by the occasional distinctive pig like squeal of a secretive water rail as it browses for food. For in these areas of dense vegetation, sound is the best form of communication.
Come winter and the vista and soundscape change again. The reeds fade to a delicate blonde and the once lush vegetation is now crisp and dry. The hollow stems are empty save for the tiny creatures that take shelter there during the harshest months. The stillness of dusk is now interrupted by a darkening cloud as thousands of starlings approach from afar. There is a soft rush as the swirling murmuration passes overhead and the birds head home to roost in the reedbeds.
Reedbeds develop as young reeds colonise open water or wet ground. As reedbeds age, a litter layer builds up that can then become taken over by scrub or woodland. They don’t generally grow in very acidic water, where they’re replaced by bogs and fen. They are dominated by the common reed which can grow up to two metres high, almost to the exclusion of other species. They have underground ‘runner’ stems or rhizomes that spread out and produce tightly-packed fresh shoots that emerge each year. It’s these tender new stems that provide food for many wetland residents, including water voles and insects.
Reedbeds generally form as a feathery margin of reeds along the edges of low-lying river floodplains and coastal estuaries where they can sometimes form extensive swamps. Once common throughout the UK, they’re now mostly confined to isolated coastal areas of East Anglia. Our reedbed at WWT Arundel is one of the largest in Sussex and is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. At WWT Llanelli, Slimbridge and Martin Mere you can take to the water on one of our canoe safaris and paddle through the reeds where you might spot a water vole or hear one of the many warblers that make their home here.
Despite their lack of plant diversity, reedbeds can support a wide range of wildlife provided they’re managed to provide a variety of ages and structures, as we do on our wetland reserves.
You’re more likely to hear the birds that take up residence in our reedbeds than see them. Listen out for the distinctive sound of the Cetti’s warbler exploding over the water amongst the more rhythmic raspy, chugging song of the reed warbler coming from deep within the reeds. Sedge warblers tend to be found more on the edges and often sit up high on the top of the reeds to sing out their loud and erratic scratches and whistles. Bitterns prefer wet reedbeds and feed at the water’s edge where fish are more plentiful. Spring is the best time to hear booming males. Reedbeds are also home to the secretive bearded tit and reed bunting, while overhead marsh harriers patrol on the hunt for food.
Reedbeds also support a wide variety of mammals, with drier areas providing burrowing habitat for voles, water shrews and harvest mice and otters can be found basking in the sun on scrubby islands. Young fish shelter in the submerged roots feasting on plants, insects and larvae. While dragon and damselflies, beetles, water fleas, shrimps and water spiders all make their home amongst the reeds.
Traditionally the bare stems of this quick growing plant were harvested in winter and dried for thatching, as well as for woven baskets and simple mattresses. This helped prevent the development of fen and maintain single species stands of reeds. Some stems were even used to craft musical instruments, arrows and pens. Indigenous people of America would also dry the stems and grind them into a fine powder to make a sweet dish similar to marshmallow and the sap was used to make sweets.
Reedbeds don’t just provide a wonderful home for wildlife. They’re also great at helping clean our water, filtering and purifying wastewater and providing a buffer against pollutants from industry and farming. They're often used in treatment wetlands, like the Slimbridge Five Acre, for just this reason.
From the 17th Century onwards, large-scale drainage schemes meant extensive areas of reedbed were converted to agricultural land. Pollution from agricultural run-off and urban development continue to threaten existing sites. There are about 900 reedbeds in the UK, but only 50 are big enough to support bitterns, which need at least 20 hectares for a viable population. Coastal reedbeds are under threat from sea-level rise due to climate change. However, in recent years the development of new markets for biofuel and compost and support for the reed-cutting industry has seen the rejuvenation of existing reedbeds.
Reedbeds are a priority habitat for nature conservation in the UK and WWT is working hard to restore and maintain this vital habitat for wildlife. Our ambition is to secure their future and inspire everyone to value these amazing places and what they can do for people and nature.