Each winter Britain sees the arrival of millions of waterbirds of many different species from the Arctic and northern Europe. The Solent is one of the prime destinations for these birds. The marshes, beaches and creeks around the Solent are important feeding and nesting sites for many wading and waterbirds. The waders and wildfowl for which the Solent is internationally important are: Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Little Egret, Redshank, Ringed Plover and Teal.
The RSPB reserve at Langstone occupies one third of Langstone Harbour - a muddy estuary that attracts large numbers of birds all year round. Terns, gulls and wading birds descend to breed on the islands in spring and summer, while thousands of waders and brent geese migrate from the Arctic to feed and roost in safety here. The reserve occupies one third of the Langstone Harbour tidal estuary and consists mostly of intertidal mud but includes five small islands composed of saltmarsh and shingle ridges. Apart from a landing area for recreational boat users on one of the islands, access to the reserve is restricted, thereby allowing birds to breed, feed and roost in an undisturbed state and the fragile habitats, with their specialised fauna, to develop naturally. The invertebrates and vegetation of the mudflats are a rich food source for wildfowl and waders, while the islands are used for breeding by gulls, terns and waders and as a roosting site during high-tide periods.
In the last five years, Langstone Harbour supported an average of 37,593 birds, while North West Solent supported 14,922, Portsmouth Harbour supported 14,324 and Southampton Water supported 13,039 (source, RSPB). The biggest UK colony of Mediterranean Gulls also nest in Langstone Harbour during the summer among the giant colonies of Black-headed Gulls and important numbers of their slimmer cousins, the fork-tailed Common, Little and Sandwich Terns.
There are approximately 67 ha of seagrass beds in Portsmouth Harbour, which are found mainly in the north-west of the harbour. These beds include both Zostera marina (found on the low shore) and Zostera noltii (on the upper to mid shore). The seagrass beds are amongst the most extensive in Britain and are an important food source for dark-bellied brent goose. The saltmarsh areas are mainly comprised of cordgrass (Spartina) swards and provide feeding and roosting areas for overwintering birds.
On the Isle of Wight, the RSPB’s Brading Marshes Reserve covers most of the beautiful valley of the lower River Yar running from the village of Brading to the sea at Bembridge Harbour. The extensive series of footpaths around the site provide the chance to see a wide range of birds including buzzards, little egrets and green woodpeckers. In 2012, Natural Enterprise was commissioned by the Isle of Wight Council to bring together, into one database, the available published survey information on the numbers and locations of selected winter birds feeding at low tide on Ryde Sands SSSI. The purpose of this work is to aid the identification and delivery of mitigation requirements for the European and equivalent Ramsar site within the Ryde Area Action Plan. A second report provided an Assessment of the Recreational Impacts on the European Sites of the River Medina and Ryde Sands with Recommendations for Mitigation.
All this richness combines to make the Solent one of the most important places for wetland birds in Europe, protected under international law, and a delight for visitors. For more information please visit the websites of the RSPB, Wetland Bird Survey and the Hampshire Ornithological Society.
Tens of thousands of birds come to the Solent coast for the winter and there are three Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to safeguard them. New housing around the Solent will lead to more people visiting the coast for leisure, with the potential to cause more disturbance to the birds. Research shows that additional disturbance will affect the birds' survival unless mitigation measures are put in place. Bird Aware Solent is a tool being used to lessen potential impacts from increased local housing development. The initiative is run by the Solent Recreation Mitigation Partnership made up of 19 organisations, and funded by contributions from all new residential dwellings within 5.6km of the SPAs.
The planned mitigation measures are set out in the Interim Solent Recreation Mitigation Strategy. The main one is a team of rangers to help coastal visitors and communities understand the importance of the different bird species and the impact of disturbance. Additional work is taking place to encourage responsible dog walking and visits to less sensitive parts of the coast. This work is particularly important as research shows that around 40% of bird disturbance occurs as a result of interactions with dogs. The Bird Aware Solent team have also secured £0.6 million of Local Growth Deal funding which has been spent on creating or enhancing alternative local greenspaces for some people who would of otherwise visited the coast.