Wiltshire’s Winter Lakes

PUBLISHED: 15:21 04 December 2008 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013

Little Egret at Langford Lakes (credit to David Kjaer)

Little Egret at Langford Lakes (credit to David Kjaer)

Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Melanie Vincent invites you to discover the magic of a wildlife nature reserve in the depths of winter

On a chilly winter's morning, it can be all too tempting to contemplate spending the day indoors, snuggled up under a throw on the sofa with a hot drink cupped safely in our hands, with maybe an engrossing read or a faithful classic on the telly for company. The world outside may seem a desolate place: a once-bountiful landscape now lies stripped bare of its colour and song, with many animals escaping the harsh winter conditions by going into hibernation or migrating to warmer climes.

But far from being a bleak season, winter plays host to a whirl of wildlife activity; you just need to know where to look and where to go to find it. Langford Lakes, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's flagship nature reserve in the south of the county, is such a place as it's rapidly becoming an outstanding site for over-wintering birds. Situated in the heart of the Wylye Valley, near Wilton, the former fishery, purchased by the Trust in 2001, has since been transformed into an award-winning reserve consisting of three lakes and a half-mile stretch of the River Wylye. Large bodies of open water are a rare type of habitat in this part of the county, making the lakes a welcome home to numerous species of waterfowl which otherwise would not be here. Common and widespread species like mallard, tufted duck, coot and great-crested grebe mingle with less common ones like gadwell and pochard. In the cold months, numbers swell with the arrival of winter visitors. Among them are wigeon and teal flying in from the Baltic and Siberian regions, and migrant birds, like terns and osprey, stopping to use the reserve on their long journey south.

In 2007, a pair of common terns stopped to breed for the very first time on platforms put out on one of the lakes for that purpose. Three young were raised, and although this was not repeated in 2008, the Trust hopes that the terns will return one day to build a new colony on the reserve. One thing not to miss early on in the year is the graceful courtship display of the great-crested grebe in which a courting pair will rise out of the water while shaking their beautifully adorned heads. This bird was once almost hunted to extinction. 'Grebe fur', the name given to the great-crested grebe's breast feathers, was highly desirable as a fur substitute in ladies' fashions in the 1800s, but could only be taken by killing the bird. Luckily the trend did not last.

Other spectacular species to see include the kingfisher with its vibrant blue and orange plumage, and the elegant little egret, a small white heron and one of the country's most recent colonisers; up to a dozen roost here in the winter. If lucky, you may even spot a bittern, one of the UK's most endangered and elusive birds.

Sometimes the most numerous species of bird is the Canada goose, an introduced species from North America. Although it is considered a bit of a nuisance in some places, it is still a beautiful sight to see a large flock of them - over 400 have been counted this autumn - flying into the lakes from nearby feeding grounds, or to hear a group gossiping on the water.

Since opening the reserve in September 2002, about 150 different bird species have been recorded on site. Such wealth of bird life is testament to the hard work that has gone into turning the lakes, which were once gravel pits, into an ideal place for breeding and over-wintering birds. Some of the shores have been reshaped to increase the range of habitats for birds and fish, and three islands have been created and shores planted with rushes, sedges and reeds to create safe breeding places. The screens of woven hazel, which were erected along the approaches to the hides when the reserve was first opened, are slowly being replaced by natural reed fringes growing along the lake shores. These ensure that birds are not disturbed whilst visitors are still able to watch them from close quarters; notebooks in each of the hides invite the visitor to record sightings and behaviours, and make interesting reading.

Langford Lakes is continuously undergoing improvements for the benefit of wildlife and for the enjoyment of people. One of the latest developments is the new circular path 'Glebe Walk', which leads through the old water meadows next to the reserve. Here you can see a fine example of the native black poplar, and birds that you might not see elsewhere on the reserve, including snipe and stonechat in the winter, and whitethroat in the summer. But it's not just birds that are the main draw. There is a wealth of other wildlife too. The River Wylye, an internationally important chalk stream which runs along the northern border of the reserve, is home to brown trout and grayling, ensuring that anglers are another regular visitor.

Otters and water voles have been spotted along the river's banks, and in spring and summer the reserve is abuzz with dragonflies, butterflies and moths.Langford Lakes is also a fine example of how different interest groups can share the same space - birdwatchers, anglers, families coming for walks, as well as school visits and children's and youth groups taking advantage of the educational facilities - all enjoy what the reserve has to offer. What's more, the site and all of the facilities (including hides and angling platforms) are accessible to wheelchair users.

So, there's no need to shy away from the cold this winter. Brave the weather with your finest woollies, and if there's a slight chill in the air, it'll be all the better for it. There is something quite magical about Langford Lakes on a crisp winter morning - the frost on the lakes and glittering ice on trees, the sound of flapping wings against the water and the gentle ripples they create across the surface. If you only do one thing this season, come here - I can think of no better way to bid farewell to 2008 and welcome in the New Year. Entrance is free. The reserve is open daily from 9.00am to dusk. No dogs are allowed on the reserve. Toilets are available but there is no caf.

For more information, including details of coarse fishing and fly-fishing facilities, contact the Langford Lakes office on (01722 729010, or the Trust on (01380 725670.

Langford Lakes on Christmas cards

This year's selection of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust Christmas cards celebrates the beauty of the winter landscape and includes two stunning images of Langford Lakes. The other two designs feature Blackmoor Copse Nature Reserve and this snow-covered woodland footpath. Prices are £4 for a pack of eight, two of each design. To order please visit the Trust's website, www.wiltshirewildlife.org, or call (01380) 725670.

Could you do better?

Enter the Trust's photo competition

The Trust is inviting people to send in images of Trust nature reserves in winter for a chance to have their photos featured on next year's Christmas cards. "We are looking for images that capture the stunning winter scenery of our nature reserves, " says Tom Cairns, the Trust's fundraising officer. "Get ready to wake up early, wrap up warm and venture outdoors armed with your camera and a flask of tea. Dawn in winter can offer some fantastic opportunities for taking photos - think about frost on trees that hasn't yet melted, or fluffy piles of snow not yet trodden on. The competition is open to all ages, so why not make it a family outing?"

The competition has three age categories: 4 to 11; 12 to 18; and the over-18s.

The closing date for entries is 28 February 2009. Digital images can be sent via e-mail (maximum file size of 10MB) to christmas@wiltshirewildlife.org or saved on CD and posted to: Tom Cairns, Christmas Card Photo Competition, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, Elm Tree Court, Long Street, Devizes, SN10 1NJ. High quality prints

(7in x 5in) will also be accepted.

A panel of judges will select the best image from each age category, and the overall winner will have their photograph featured on a Trust Christmas card. Winners from the other categories will receive a framed print of their photograph and a free pack of next year's Christmas cards.

Full terms and conditions are posted on the website at www.wiltshirewildlife.org and also available from Tom Cairns at the Trust.

Wiltshire Magazine is thrilled to be associated with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Christmas card competition for 2009. Winning entries and a selection of the short-listed images will be printed in a forthcoming issue of the magazine. Watch this space!

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