MIKE DILGER'S WILDLIFE WATCHING
BBC Wildlife|October 2021
ON THE MUDFLATS In his series of great places to watch wildlife in the UK, the star of BBC One’s The One Show points out the surprising joys to be taken from the muddiest of places, teeming with invertebrates and a refuge for waders and wildfowl.
MIKE DILGER

Occupying that space where land, sea and sky seem to merge, intertidal mudflats must surely be one of the most ‘natural’ of all the many highly modified habitats now enountered in modern-day Britain. Entirely framed at its lower reaches by the sea, the area of mudflat closest to land – and therefore furthest away from the daily scouring effects of the tide – will eventually morph into vegetated saltmarsh.

Located in estuaries and bays, mudflats will form in any relatively sheltered location where fine silt and clay sediments that have originated from rivers are allowed to settle, before ultimately forming the wide, open expanses so familiar along large sections of our coastline. To the untrained eye, mudflats can appear superficially similar to both sandbanks and sandy beaches, however, the physical properties of mud enable it to retain moisture far more easily, giving estuaries a watery sheen even at low tide.

Mudflats also differ in possessing far more organic matter than their sandy counterparts, making them a very fertile habitat, often teeming with bristleworms, bivalves and mud snails. In fact, 1m² of the finest estuarine mud may well contain more than 1,000 worms, which in turn provide vital sustenance for a vast array of waders and wildfowl arriving for the winter to gorge on this huge invertebrate banquet. Brent geese and wigeon will also be attracted to feed on mudflat plants such as eelgrass.

Welcome break

Additionally, the comparatively mild British winters further enhance mudflats’ attractiveness to wildlife migrants right across the northern hemisphere. Numbers of birds build from September onwards as these muddy sanctuaries provide a pitstop for recuperation after the rigours of the breeding season. Here, the travellers can gradually return to their fighting weight in preparation for the long flight back north the following spring.

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