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Volunteering to save sand martins

At Waterfront, we often feature stories about our wonderful volunteers, but this month, we’re celebrating the sterling work of one of our award-winning volunteer leaders, Aaron Batsman.

A selfie of volunteer leader Aaron Batsman smiling in front of the water, with trees and fields lining the bank.

After joining us in July 2021 as a waterways environment apprentice on the River Severn, with a lifelong passion for nature, it wasn’t long before he distinguished himself in his new role. In May last year, he became one of our youngest-ever volunteer leaders overseeing the work of fellow volunteers across Worcestershire. And he was rewarded for his hard work by winning the prestigious Clive Porter Values Award, recognising people who truly embody the values of the Trust.

Aaron spends a lot of his time at Diglis Island, nestled in the heart of the River Severn. The island was created in the early part of the 19th century to help boats navigate Diglis Weir. Today, this man-made island is a popular visitor attraction, boasting several heritage structures, an iconic fish pass and a fascinating ecosystem. For Aaron, it poses a unique set of challenges.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act,” he tells us, “because obviously, we have to manage the island for visitors while doing everything we can to benefit local wildlife. At the moment, we’re trying to establish several wildflower meadows on the island to encourage insects, and we do a lot of composting and hedge laying and manage the fruit orchard for the bees and birds.”

One bird, in particular, has caused quite a stir on the island. The sand martin, a regular visitor to our shores in the summer months, likes to nest in sandy cliffs and banks near lakes, rivers and wetlands. In the past, a handful of these migratory birds established a colony at Diglis Island in a somewhat precarious position.

“They were living in the water outlet pipes at Diglis Oil Basin,” says Aaron, “so if there had been any major rainfall during the nesting season, all the nests would have been swept away.”

Three sand martins nest in a sandy cliff

Sadly, European populations of sand martins have declined over the past 50 years, partly as a result of droughts in their African wintering grounds and the loss of nesting sites here in the UK. To protect the colony at Diglis Island, Aaron and his team decided to act. With the help of volunteers from Malvern and Worcester RSPB and Worcester Environmental Group, they set about creating and installing a custom-made nesting box.

Thanks to their hard work and ingenuity, this summer, the colony abandoned their perilous perches and took up residence in their new home. As Aaron explains: “It was mind-boggling because it all happened so fast. We started building the nesting box in January and put it up in March, and two or three weeks after that, the front of the box was just alive with activity. I almost shed a tear; it was so exciting.”

A sand martin flying to a nesting box at Diglis Island

Building on their success, Aaron and the team constructed two more boxes on lock islands further upstream, and early signs are encouraging. Next year, he plans to install cameras in the nesting boxes so he can keep closer tabs on the sand martins’ progress. With any luck, this delightful little bird will continue to flock to Diglis Island for years to come.

Aaron is just one of our incredible volunteer leaders, all of whom are spearheading similarly vital projects up and down the country. He and his colleagues help our volunteers choose from a wide variety of opportunities, from lock-keeping and towpath maintenance to protecting wildlife and restoring our heritage structures.

So, if you or somebody you know would like to get involved and help us maintain our precious canals and rivers, why not pop along to one of our local volunteer welcome sessions? Just like Aaron and his team, you could end up making a huge difference in your local community.

Two volunteers in high vis jackets gardening on the canal towpath

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Last Edited: 20 December 2023

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