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. However it is also home to a variety of other wildlife including butterflies such as meadow browns, marbled whites and common blues; dragonflies and the endangered red squirrel.
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.
The Solent is also renowned for its coastal walks and other recreational opportunities. It attracts an estimated 52 million visits by people each year, and planned new housing is set to increase that figure to 60 million. People who are walking along the shore can, often unintentionally, disturb the birds. So local authorities and conservation bodies are working together - through the recently formed Solent Recreation Mitigation Partnership - to prevent that disturbance.
Through funding from developers in association with planning permissions for new housing, the Partnership has established a team of rangers who will talk to visitors at the coast to help them understand how they can enjoy their walk without disturbing the birds. Each day the rangers will be at different sections of the Solent coast - between Hurst Castle near Lymington and West Wittering, including Chichester, Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours, and on the Isle of Wight coast between Colwell (near Freshwater) and Bembridge.