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Walney Island - BirdForum Opus

England, Cumbria

Red Knot over The Spit
Photo by andreadawn
South Walney seen from Pier Hide, December 2016


Sandwich Tern and Eurasian Oystercatcher on The Spit
Photo by andreadawn
South Walney seen from Pier Hide at high tide, early September 2017

The long and narrow Walney Island lies at the northern end of Morecambe Bay and is connected by a bridge to Barrow-in-Furness on the nearby mainland.

The northern part of the island is a National Nature Reserve, whilst the southern part is a nature reserve of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust. There is also a bird observatory in the south. Built from accumulated sand on glacial deposits, the habitats of the island include sand-dunes and shingle, marshes and open pools, saltmarsh and mudflats.

The Walney Observatory blog gives details of recent observations (see external links).


Notable Species

Eurasian Wigeon and Common Goldeneye on the lagoons
Photo by andreadawn
South Walney, January 2018‎

Morecambe Bay, Walney Island and the neighbouring Duddon Estuary are of international importance for passage and wintering waders and many of these form roosts on southern Walney. South Walney reserve once held Europe's largest colony of Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull but numbers have declined substantially in recent years. In 2016 there were just over 3000 pairs of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls combined. Virtually all of these birds nest on the spit at the extreme south eastern end of the island. The spit is not accessible to visitors but can be viewed from the areas around Pier Hide and Groyne Hide. A scope is very helpful here. After a few years of complete failure of the colony there has been some recovery in 2022 following the erection of new anti predator fencing. Although the fencing is somewhat unsightly, it does seem to be forming a secure barrier against the growing fox and badger populations (see external links for report).Common Eider are common breeding birds around the Islands of Furness and can often be seen in very large numbers around Walney with 4000 - 5000 birds sometimes present in winter.

As well as Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, there are smaller numbers of Great Black-backed Gull nesting at Walney and the spit on the southern tip has breeding Sandwich Tern, Common Tern and Little Tern. Other breeders include Common Shelduck, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover.

Passerine migrants move through the area in large numbers in spring and autumn including pipits and wagtails, chats, warblers and flycatchers and rarities and subrarities are frequently seen. Black Redstart, Common Firecrest and Red-breasted Flycatcher are regularly seen.

Offshore there is much movement of seabirds including gannets, shearwaters and skuas and all the species of wader that occur in Morecambe Bay will appear at Walney or on nearby Piel Island. Many thousands are forced onto the spit at the southern tip of Walney by autumn and winter high tides. Divers and grebes appear in good numbers offshore during passage periods and winter. Divers, grebes, wildfowl and auks often make use of the shelter provided by the Walney Channel during periods of bad weather although views tend to be somewhat distant.

Merlin, Peregrine Falcon and Short-eared Owl are regular hunters over the island in autumn and winter, often joined by Eurasian Sparrowhawk. When entering the reserve in winter be sure to check the four posts out on the saltmarsh to the left for raptors, particularly Merlin and Peregrine.


Squacco Heron is among the many rarities seen on Walney Island in recent years.


Birds you can see here include:

Red-throated Diver, Great Crested Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Greater Scaup, Common Eider, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Water Rail, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Eurasian Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Northern Lapwing, Red Knot, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Ruff, Jack Snipe, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Spotted Redshank, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Great Skua, Arctic Skua, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Glaucous Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Little Tern, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, European Turtle Dove, Eurasian Collared Dove, Common Cuckoo, Little Owl, Short-eared Owl, Common Swift, Eurasian Skylark, Shorelark, Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Northern House Martin, Meadow Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Eurasian Robin, Black Redstart, Common Redstart, Whinchat, European Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Eurasian Blackbird, Fieldfare, Redwing, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, European Greenfinch, Eurasian Linnet, Twite, Lesser Redpoll, Snow Bunting

Other Wildlife

Viper's Bugloss beside the track along the Walney Channel shore
Photo by andreadawn
South Walney, July 2012

The shingle and dune plant communities of Walney are among the richest in Britain and include species such as Viper's Bugloss Echium vulgare, Yellow Horned-Poppy Glaucium flavum, Sea Beet Beta vulgaris maritima, Sea Campion Silene maritima, Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum, Sea Spurge Euphorbia paralias, Sea Bindweed Calystegia soldanella and Thrift Armeria maritima.

Less salt-tolerant plants such as Common Heather Calluna vulgaris and Cross-leaved Heath Erica tetralix, Tormentil Potentilla erecta, Gorse Ulex europaea and Bracken Pteridium aquilinum grow in the drier areas.

There are also large numbers of Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) around the south end of the island. Prior to 2015 the seals used the sands at the southern extremity of the island purely as a haul out site, with as many as two hundred sometimes present. However in 2015, two pups were born at the site, followed by five in 2016 and ten in 2017 so the site has now become a breeding colony. Unfortunately the colony site itself cannot be seen from any of the trails except for distant views near to Groyne Hide, but there is a webcam with views displayed on a monitor in the new visitor cabin. At high tide the seals can often be seen in the water in front of the Pier Hide or beside the main track that follows the shore of the Walney Channel with good close views often possible.

Site Information

The inter-tidal areas around the Islands of Furness and the Duddon Estuary are very extensive with the sea retreating a long way at low tide. There are many areas of soft mud and sand. The tidal streams flow strongly on the flood tide, gullies can fill suddenly, and exposed areas can very quickly become covered. Please check the local tide times carefully if venturing away from the shore.

History and Use

Archeological evidence has been found of occupation of Walney since the last ice age, and a Viking influence is evident in place names on the island such as Biggar (barley field –Bygg gar) and Earnse Bay (Sea eagles – Ernes). Medieval farming is evident through the ridge-and-furrow marks still evident in fields around the north and south ends of the Island, with the land held by nearby Furness Abbey.

The island became part of the Borough of Barrow In Furness in 1872, and rapid development followed in line with the industrialisation of the town. The island was seen as a recreational retreat for the workforce of the town, until the late 1800s when Vickerstown was constructed and the island became more of a suburb of Barrow.

Industrial activity on the island included the discovery of a salt deposit underground in the 1890s. It was pumped up from underground near Biggar Village, and piped to the South End for processing and export. A large development around these works was planned but only partially complete when the industry collapsed in the early 1900s; there was not as much salt as originally thought, and it could not compete with other producers.

Far more successful was gravel and sand extraction at the South End, which continued right up to the 1980s and resulted in the creation of the lagoons at this location.

The lighthouse at South Walney was constructed in the early 1800s. Being owned by Lancaster Ports and not Trinity House, as most lighthouses in the UK are, it became notable for two achievements – the only lighthouse to have had a female principal lighthouse keeper, Peggy Braithwaite, and for being the final lighthouse in the British Isles to become automatic.

Both World Wars saw development at the ends of the island, with improvements to an existing military fort, Fort Walney, at the north end of the island prior to World War I, and a gun emplacement built at the South End, Hilpsford Fort. Both were improved and expanded during World War 2, including an airfield and gun ranges at the North End.

The current population of the island is just over 10,000.

South End History

The nature reserve at the South End of Walney was formed officially in 1963, however ornithological interest is much older, with a “watcher” having been employed by the landowners since the 1870s. It has been actively wardened since 1963 by the Lake District Naturalists Trust, which became the Cumbria Wildlife Trust in 1974. Walney Bird Observatory, a completely separate organisation to the Trust, actively rings at the South End reserve and occupies a caravan on the site, maintaining a number of Heligoland traps around the reserve.

The primary interest of the South End reserve through much of the 20th century was the large colony of Herring and lesser-black backed gulls, which reached a peak in the early 1970s at around 45,000 pairs, making it, at the time, the largest colony in Europe. A rapid decline, firstly due to closure of the neighbouring tip in the early 1990s, and the arrival of fox and badger at the south end of the island in the mid 1990s, have reduced the number of pairs to less than 1,000 recorded in 2020.

Areas of Interest around Walney Island

For the North Walney Nature Reserve where the rare Natterjack Toad Bufo calamita can be found, follow signs for North Walney and park at Earnse Point.

Large numbers of waders and waterfowl can also be seen from this part of the island during passage periods and in winter. A distinct form of the Bloody Cranesbill known as the Walney Cranesbill Geranium sanguineum lancastrense can be seen in the North Walney NR and at a few other places on the island.

In addition to the two reserves large numbers of waders may often be seen anywhere along the island's shores whilst large numbers of wildfowl are often present on the saltmarsh along the eastern shore. Wylock Marsh and Snab Sands can be particularly good at high tide during large spring tides.

Other nearby areas of interest around the tip of the Furness Peninsular

The entire coastline of the Furness Peninsular is worth exploring from the Leven Estuary in the east to the Duddon in the west. Waders and wildfowl can be found more or less anywhere along the coast, most of which is easily accessible. There are also many areas of scrubby woodland and rough grassland adjacent to the shore which can be worth checking.

Piel Island is very interesting and has a castle and a pub. The island can be accessed by a small ferry service from Roa Island (road connection to the mainland) between April and September. The island has some scrubby vegetation, the immediate shorelines are stony, and at low tide good views are obviously available of the surrounding mudflats.

Piel Island website

Also nearby and accessed from the road causeway to Roa Island is Foulney Island, another Cumbria Wildlife Trust reserve. Foulney is a long shingle ridge connected to the road causeway by a rough foot track at low tide and is an interesting, if very exposed, place to visit. At high tide, particularly on spring tides, this foot track will be covered by water for several hours. During the summer access to some parts of the island is restricted due to nesting terns. A warden is usually on site in summer. Outside the breeding season access is unrestricted. Also, on a rising tide, there is usually plenty of interest on either side of the road causeway.

Foulney Island

Immediately to the north of Barrow-in-Furness is Sandscale Haws, a National Trust reserve. The reserve is comprised of a large area of dunes with some wet areas and some scrubby woodland, and is surrounded on three sides by the extensive sand and mudflats of the Scarth Channel and River Duddon Estuary, both of which can be good for waders and wildfowl in winter. There are also very fine views of the Lake District Fells. Access from the A590 signposted Roanhead - ca parking at National Trust pay and display car park.

Sandscale Haws

Access and Facilities for North and South Walney Reserves

Follow the A590 to Barrow. Follow signs for Walney and cross the Jubilee Bridge to the island.

North Walney has free public access at all times. Cross the bridge and turn right onto Promenade, left onto Mill Lane and right onto West Shore Road. Large free car park at the end of the road or continue along rough track for parking closer to site (this track is currently closed due to storm damage).

South Walney reserve is open daily from 1000-1700 (1000-1600 in winter). With very high tides or with large storm surges the reserve may be cut off from the rest of Walney for a couple of hours around high tide.

To reach South Walney cross the Jubilee Bridge and turn left, head south on Ocean Road, then left onto Carr Lane and keep going until a caravan park sign is reached, continue ahead on the minor road (vicious speed bumps) to the reserve car-park.

There are six hides and two screens around the marked trails each of which has its own particular habitats.

Following the main trail leads past gravel-pits and shingle ridges to the Pier Hide overlooking the spit with terns in summer and waders at other times. The trail then leads past the lighthouse and along the seaward side of the island and back to the car-park.

The hides along this stretch of the trail offer excellent seawatching opportunities in season and can be especially productive after westerly gales.

Another trail leads down past the Oyster farm and between the main lagoons where two screens can give good views of winter wildfowl.

The reserve is very exposed to bad weather and there is little shelter.

A telescope is very useful.

A new visitor cabin has recently been opened and is full of interesting information about South Walney and has items of interest found around the reserve. Tea, coffee and biscuits are available in exchange for a small donation.

There is disabled access to part of the reserve.

Contact Details

Cumbria Wildlife Trust, South Walney

External Links

Predator exclusion at South Walney gull colony from the journal of the Seabird Group - http://www.seabirdgroup.org.uk/journals/seabird-35/seabird-35-c.pdf

Recommended Citation

Content and images originally posted by Steve