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Conservation and community interest at the Wigan Flashes PDF Print E-mail
The Wigan Flashes team, led by Mark champion have been worjkin for eight years dilivering habitat and community outputs on the site. These have included the development of 70 ha reedbed. 12 km of paths and 600 volunteer day per annum.


The Wigan Flashes were formed through the extraction of coal, which led to subsidence and extensive flooding.  During the 1960s and 1970s, they became a horrifying testament to Wigan?s industrial past.  They were heavily polluted with iron so that they were bright orange in colour, with added problems of sewage pollution.  The site is fringed with colliery spoil waste tips and a domestic refuse tip.  There was virtually no vegetation cover and the site had effectively no value either to nature or the local population who lived in an area of high unemployment and social deprivation.


This bleak picture has been transferred by persistence and partnership working and by encouraging natural re-colonisation, most recently by the Wigan Flashes Project, to a site of very high conservation value and an enormous asset for recreation for the local community.


The Wigan Flashes are a group of eight shallow wetlands, formed originally as a result of mining subsidence, which extend south from near Wigan?s town centre.  Over time, the industrial landscape has evolved in to a mixture of open water, reedbed, mossland, willow carr and fenland.  Management of the site aims to further enhance it to become one of the most important wildlife sites in the North West.  Work already carried out at the site has made quantifiable improvements in terms of habitat development and recreational amenity.  Community groups are involved along side the working group of the Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, Lancashire Wildlife Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), English Nature and the Environment Agency.


The area is extensive, covering over 240 hectares, making it comparable to the nearby Leighton Moss Nature Reserve, in terms of its ability to support reedbed species including the nationally rare bittern, which now over-winters on the site. It is hoped that the large reedbeds will become a breeding site for the bittern.  The Wigan Flashes have been recognised as being nationally important with areas being designated as a Site of Biological Importance (SBI), and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  Most recently, the whole site has been designated as a Local Nature Reserve.  The site is delivering towards the bittern and reedbed Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs).


The Wigan Flashes offer a unique opportunity for informal recreational uses, not only for the people of Wigan but for the whole of the Greater Manchester and South Lancashire area.  Three million people live within 30 minutes? drive of the site, which is used for walking, cycling, fishing and bird watching. One of the flashes is used by Wigan Sailing Club and the Wigan Youth Service for water sports activities.


The site is also important as a flood plain, storing water during high rainfall, and preventing excess water entering the River Douglas upstream of much of Wigan, via the Smithy Brook.


The project of enhancing the Wigan Flashes is very much a working partnership of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Wigan Council, who own much of the land, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).  The Wigan Flashes Working Group was formed to guide and monitor the ecological management, planning and implementation of work on the Flashes. The Wigan Flashes Conservation and Community Group was formed to represent the views and opinions of the people who regularly use the site. This group has, during the period of the project, grasped the opportunity to become an independent community group and is actively seeking its own funding for the programmes of improvements that the community wishes to see on the site.



Habitat Improvements


Willow Clearance

In order to improve the wetland habitat, more than 22 hectares of willow scrub have been cleared from the site. This work was to be paid for by English Nature and Landfill Tax money.  The scrub clearance on Bryn Marsh, Pearson?s Flash and on Ince Moss will allow the development of tall fen and reedbed. 


The willow cleared during the past winters was treated with glyphosate and there have been follow-up treatments as required.  It is particularly pleasing to report that at least two bitterns have wintered in the reedbeds that have developed in the clearance areas on Horrock?s Flash.


By clearing willow scrub and developing a matrix of wetland habitats, a range of species have been encouraged to breed. These have included, redshank (2 pairs), snipe (1-2 pairs), lapwing (22 pairs), pochard (2 pairs) and gadwall (3-4 pairs).  Other BAP species which nest are the little ringed-plover, garganey (occasionally), willow tit (20 pairs) long-eared owl and reed bunting.


Reedbed Creation

An area of about 30 hectares of reed has been created on Rainford?s Flash, part of the Horrock?s Flash complex.  This work has been done by removing a large pile of around 40,000 tonnes of post-industrial mineral waste, containing soil, clay, ash and some building waste.  Prior to the work, the vegetation in the flash was sampled as were other biological taxa and nothing of note was found.


Three lobes of material were placed in the flash to form ?naturally? occurring ditches that were further landscaped to form bittern-friendly profiles. Most of the material placed in the flash was sandy topsoil or clay, but some brick-based builders? rubble was also used.

The spoil heap was 80% removed and the area re-landscaped to ground level over most of the area. The remainder of the mound has been lowered and re-contoured to fit the landscape, with topsoil used to cover the building rubble found.  Some of the willow trees removed were replanted into the newly re-landscaped area to minimise the impact of the work.  An existing causeway that was steep-sided, with little room for marginal or emergent vegetation, was re-profiled to form a beach area suitable for sedges and rushes.



The site has had 1.5 kilometres of security ditching dug to prevent access to the more sensitive areas, this has led to the development of a heronry on Ince Moss. In addition, 19.5 hectares of ditching and bed lowering has been completed in the reedbeds as part of the extensive Life bittern project.  Bed lowering ensures that the ground is no longer above the summer water table.  The Life Bittern project is funded by Europe to conserve bitterns and the reedbeds in which they live.  It covers 8 different sites in the UK with a range of partners led by the RSPB.


In addition to the Life Bittern work, a similar project is planned with separate funding on the Pearson?s Flash.  This work aims to remove areas of urban dereliction within an existing seven-hectare reedbed and use the material to develop a reedbed extension.

Elsewhere on the site stream banks have been cleared to develop habitat suitable for water vole as part of ditch maintenance works, designed to prevent excess winter flooding of the reedbed habitats.


Consideration has been given to fish movements around the site.  Therefore we have developed a series of innovative fish weirs used by coarse fish fry, to permit their movement into reedbeds whilst being able to control water depths.


Woodland Improvements

The woodland areas around Ochre Flash and Hawkley Hall School were thinned, keeping the native trees as much as was possible, and felling the faster-growing alien species.  A structure of glades was also developed, to be colonised by native woodland vegetation, although some native planting was necessary to start this process.  To this end violet has been planted.  This was growing on willow stumps in the Hawkley Hall Reedbed and was being shaded out by the colonising reed.  It is hoped that careful management will encourage willow tit to nest in these areas, as they remain relatively common on the Wigan Flashes.


Around 350 native shrubs and small trees were added to the woodlands, with emphasis on those that would add colour and texture to the landscape, as well as on those that would improve the ecology of the site.  Species planted included whitebeam, field maple, guelder rose, crab apple, holly and hazel.  This work was carried out by Wildlife Trust Volunteers based at the Wigan Flashes.


In the Westwood area of the Wigan Flashes a further glade has been developed.  The area is about 0.25 hectare and is on an area of fly ash that is dominated by tall grey willow and birch.  It is planned that after an initial period of glade development, the ground vegetation will be cut and the area may be raked to expose new bare fly ash.  The existing four glades are all managed for their floristic diversity, by brush cutting and removal of the cuttings.


The main paths through Westwood have been cut as rides, to allow the movement of butterflies and other wildlife through this area.


Fish and Fishing

The fishing on the Wigan Flashes is now considered to be some of the best in the area, especially amongst the anglers who wish to catch specimen fish.  The main species of interest to local anglers are pike, tench and roach.  The quality of the fishing is a reflection of the improvements that have been achieved at the Flashes.


English Nature gave permission for an up-grade of a limited number of the existing fishing pegs on Horrock?s Flash and Bryn Marsh SSSIs. This has allowed us to repair those that are in poor condition and helped us to rationalise the fishing away from the more sensitive sites, whilst giving anglers much better conditions.  This made the clearing up of litter and fishing line much easier.


The Environment Agency has assisted in the project by using sonar to survey the fish population.  This showed that we had large numbers of fry fish as well as the larger specimens; this confirms visual records from the site.



Public Access


Path Work

A project to improve the path network has delivered nearly 6 kilometres of footpath, using 20mm crush and run black limestone, laying the path on geo-textile mat.  To enable visitors to avoid a section of public footpath also used by the neighbouring farm, and therefore muddy, a permissive section of path has been built through the trees to the south of Ochre Flash. A wooden bridge has been built over a small ditch leading to the path.


The regular flooding of the footpath network around Ochre Flash was investigated and the outflow ditch from Ochre Flash cleared out by digger, along with Reed Brook. The clearance of trees blocking the steam has allowed water to pass through the system more efficiently, while maintaining habitats suitable for fish and aquatic invertebrates.


The Promenade Walk being constructed by British Waterways has been completed through its length at The Flashes. This is a popular piece of work with local people and links the various parts of the Wigan Flashes path network together.


We plan to continue developing the access to the site in the future.


Monitoring and Survey



The bird numbers have been surveyed and these figures passed on to the Greater Manchester County Recorder.   Count figures have been added to a log on a daily basis whenever anyone has been in the field.  An annual breeding survey using CBC techniques over the whole site is carried out as a more formal survey of populations.  The ranger has been involved with local volunteers in collecting WEBs data and again this has been passed on to the local representative.


Other Taxa

Lists of all other taxa are being maintained and these have been passed on to the Borough Ecologist and to Bolton Museum.  Data have also been passed on to county recorders and other interested local people. Much of the recording has been by local enthusiasts and the Wigan Naturalists.


Darren Wilson from the Environment Agency Fisheries Team organised an acoustic survey of Horrock?s Flash and Turner?s Flash. This survey showed good populations of fish of a wide range of sizes.





The monthly articles by the Project Officer in the Wigan Reporter continue to be well read.  An article in Geographic Magazine about a day in the life of the Project Officer, gave the site some national coverage.  News stories at a local level continued to be handled by the project officer and a good relationship is being built with the local papers.

The Wigan Flashes display was taken to the North West Bird Fair at Martin Mere.  This event attracted a large number of visitors to whom a large number of the Wigan Flashes leaflets were given.  Several people we met there have subsequently visited the site.

Birdline, the information service for birdwatchers, is contacted when anything of interest appears at the flashes and the project officer continues to write articles for various bird watching magazines.  Several of the partner organisations have included articles in their publications.





Community Liaison

The Project Officer regularly attends general and committee meetings of The Wigan Flashes Conservation and Community Group, and the Local Residents and Users Forum. The latter group is now working towards independent charity status and they are able to assist with local fund raising.  Other groups regularly attended are Hawkley Hall Residents Group, the Worsley Mesnes South Community Action Group the Twin Wards Risk Management Group and various other groups such as Wigan Compact.


The Wildlife Trust has taken the opportunity to appoint a Community Liaison Officer for the Wigan area, and the community work is being shared with this officer. The site is surrounded by estates and areas of housing that are in the top 20% of deprived areas in the country, using the government?s index of multiple deprivation.  This gives us the opportunities to access these areas and assist with community empowerment and development and to meet large numbers of people and assist with green space projects. We have, through our community officer?s input, developed an original package of events and community support in these areas.



A start has been made on surveying the numbers and activities carried out by our visitors, at present this is very ad-hoc, but carefull formulation of date shows we receive 97,000 visit per annum Surveys of visitor activities were carried out by staff and volunteers, 



We have developed a team of local volunteers and now have a regular team of four who work at least three days a week.  All are being trained to NVQ 1 or 2 depending on ability.  These volunteers are also being trained in management and are now able to take on some responsibility for their own work.  The Wildlife Trust has sent volunteers on chainsaw courses. We have also recruited further regular volunteers who are working most days of the week.  A weekend team of people to work on site maintenance has been formed, and will be expanded.  Local volunteer groups including BTCV and Wildlife Trust affiliated groups have provided work parties on the site on a number of occasions, working on willow felling or scrub removal.


All of the site?s volunteers are from the Wigan area, from various backgrounds.  Amongst the group, three have either mental health or learning disabilities, one has a degree and two are older citizens.  This diversity shows that we are able to offer a wide range of training and experience to the people of Wigan as part of our volunteer programme.  In the last 12 months, seven of our volunteers have managed to get jobs, two of which were in the environmental field.


An informal link exists with Wigan and Leigh College, through which three New Deal trainees have completed work experience at the Flashes.  These 18-year-olds used their experiences towards attaining NVQ 1 qualifications.  The College also has a scheme through which their staff and volunteers can attend the flashes for extra development, and the Flashes receive an average of four of these volunteers every week.  An Edge Hill University College student spent five weeks at the Flashes on work experience, and returned to the site to carry out her dissertation. Various colleges and universities also use our site for training purposes.


At present around 440 volunteer days are completed each year on the Wigan Flashes.

The work the volunteers have been involved in has been tree planting, woodland thinning, path construction, reedbed management, survey and monitoring.  It is hoped that in the coming year we will see the development of a Voluntary Wardening Scheme, involving training for the volunteers.


Summary of Volunteer days spent on the Wigan Flashes


                   Apr     May     Jun    Jul    Aug    Sep    Oct    Nov   Dec   Jan   Feb   Mar

BTCV(cs)   15       45        45     45      45      45      45      45      45     45     15      

Students         5         5          8       4                          42      42      42     42     18      

Assistants     40      35       40     45      45      55       60     62       55    65      55     50

WFCCG                                                                                         1       1                  

Groups                                                 12                                                                  

Others                      1          2                1                    1

Figures in the above table relate to 2001/02




The Wigan Flashes have been transformed from a derelict site with no value, to a site of high conservation and amenity value.


Work at the Wigan Flashes has improved the quality of the site significantly, in terms of biodiversity and amenity value.  The Wigan Flashes, which began as an industrial landscape, is now multi-use site where conservation of important BAP species and habitats occurs within an area used by people for a range of activities. The local area is an urban landscape with high levels of deprivation, and the high quality of the experience found on the site helps to improve the quality of life for a large number of people.  The site has provided a quality training opportunity from which a number of people have gone on to get long-term employment.


The ?100,000+ already spent within the local area on the habitat and access improvements shows the importance of this site to the local economy, and at least a further ?250,000 worth of funding is planned for the next few years.