IT'S 40 years since conservation charity the RSPB first purchased an area of saltmarsh and mudflats the size of 2,000 football pitches at Parkgate on The Wirral in 1979.

In doing so they created a sanctuary area for the tens of thousands of water birds that flock to the Dee Estuary from Arctic regions every year, to spend the cold winter months in the UK.

Four decades later Burton Mere Wetlands straddles the border between Cheshire in England and Flintshire in Wales, and includes a large area of mixed wetland habitats, bluebell woodlands, and arable fields, making it the fifth largest RSPB site in the country.

Over this time, the RSPB's work on the Dee has created valuable spaces for birds and other wildlife to thrive, and they've undertaken extensive land management to support a variety of species to nest. This year alone has seen the appearance of rare bearded tits and herons and it is hoped the reserve can continue to provide a safe environment for both endangered wildlife and those who want to see them.

"Shortly before the RSPB established the reserve, by purchasing the land from British Steel, there were proposals to build a barrage across the Dee, or create a recreational lake within the marsh at Parkgate. Either of those would have caused the bird numbers to plummet further," says Graham Jones, RSPB Dee Estuary site manager

"The Dee was always an area that was incredibly industrial and important to shipping but as those businesses failed or moved on, there were these opportunities for the RSPB to buy land and maintain the estuary for nature."

The site had originally consisted of tidal mudflats until the late 19th century, when it was reclaimed during the building of the Wrexham to Bidston railway line. The resulting land was used for grazing and duck shooting and was later used for arable farming.

"Back in the 1970s, the RSPB decided to buy up as much estuary land as it could because it realised just how important this land was, especially in winter," explains Graham. "A lot of wildfowl and waders come here in winter and many of the UK's estuaries were under threat from industry and development. It was probably one of the best strategic decisions the RSPB ever made because it's meant all of our estuaries are now protected on a national and international level, and the Dee is one of the most important."

Since securing the initial part of the reserve on the estuary, originally known as Gayton Sands, the RSPB land holdings have expanded significantly, particularly around the village of Burton, four miles from Parkgate.

"The brilliant visitor facilities we opened at Burton Mere Wetlands in 2011 have been a major step in bringing the Dee Estuary's rich wildlife closer for the public to enjoy easily," says Graham. "Since opening, we've welcomed nearly a quarter of a million visits, with excellent wildlife spectacles to be enjoyed every day that continually change through the seasons.

"As well as protecting these valuable spaces for birds to spend the winter, we've also undertaken extensive land management to support birds to nest, helping species like exotic avocets establish breeding, the largest little egret colony in the country and for the first time in 2018, a successful pair of marsh harriers raised young. The reserve also supports a whole range of other special wildlife; from the large, like badgers and otters, to the small, such as insects, orchids and lizards.

"But what Burton Mere was really set up for was breeding waders through the winter and migration seasons, including significant numbers of black-tailed godwit, spotted redshank, greenshank and ruff. Just across the border into Wales we have the highest density of breeding lapwing in the whole of the country.

Graham, who is from the Wirral, has a special relationship with the site, having spent many happy hours there as a youngster.

"I started coming to Parkgate as a teenager in the 1980s to watch the birds that thrive on the marsh and mud," he remembers. "This place played a major part in growing my knowledge and passion for birds and wildlife and helping me end up in the fortunate position I am today. To be on the estuary which I will always consider home is fantastic."

To mark the reserve's significant milestone, the RSPB will be running some special events in 2019 to celebrate 40 years of giving nature a home on the estuary. They hope to welcome back those already visiting the site, as well as introduce more local people to the extent of this important reserve. The site now encompasses half of the Dee Estuary, including most of the Welsh shore, forming one of the largest protected wetlands in the country and Graham adds how he wants people in Flintshire to feel ownership of the reserve, despite it being on the English side of the bank.

"We don't want the site to just be for the hardened bird watcher or people in camouflage with big cameras," laughs Graham. "It's about everyone who lives locally being able to come here and appreciate what we've got on the Dee.

"The brilliant visitor facilities we opened in 2011 have been a major step in bringing the estuary's rich wildlife closer for the public to enjoy easily and since opening, we've welcomed nearly a quarter of a million visits, with excellent wildlife spectacles to be enjoyed every day that continually change through the seasons. We're also very lucky how easy it is for people around here to access the estuary - there are a lot of estuaries where people struggle to get this close.

"We have a long-term lease on around half of the estuary and half of that half is just as much on the Welsh side as it is on the English side and for us it is all about the Dee itself, rather than England or Wales, and the birds certainly don't respect the border!

"We may be celebrating 40 years but for us it's just the start and although nature may be in trouble at the moment one of the good things about the Dee is that there is always lots of good news, so you can always feel positive - it's a very special place."