It was almost turned into a waste dump. But now the North Cave Wetlands nature reserve is a thriving haven for a host of wild plants and animals – not to mention walkers and bird-watchers. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

A BITINGLY cold February wind whips across the flat East Yorkshire countryside. Snug in our hide, however, we’re out of the wind and have an unobstructed view across the lakes and reed-beds.

We have already seen a kestrel, proud and cruel, perched on a post while it tore to shreds a tiny vole held in its claws.

Now, Jono Leadley is peering through his birdwatcher’s telescope at the birdlife on a shallow, reed-lined lake, giving a running commentary on what he can see.

“There are lots of shovelers, widgeon and tufted duck,” he says. “And there’s a lovely flock of lapwing next to the island.”

The shovelers – surface-feeding ducks with noticeably wide bills – are dipping their bills into the water then shaking their heads from side to side.

They feed by straining the water through their bills to sift out the tiny plants and animals they live off, Jono explains.

His eye is caught by a small group of tufted duck busily nosing about at one edge of the lake. Three males are chasing two females – making a liquid calling noise as they do so. “They’re serenading the females,” Jono says. “They’re the duck world’s version of One Direction.” The females, it must be said, don’t look impressed.

Welcome to the North Cave Wetlands nature reserve. It has the look – in parts, at least – of a classic Yorkshire wetland, one that has somehow survived the depredations of man.

But appearances can be deceptive. This is no ancient landscape: in fact the lakes here are about ten years old at most.

Until not long ago, this area was a sand and gravel quarry. By 1999, the 96 acres that now form the main body of the reserve, north of Dryham Lane, had been worked out. Planning permission was granted to turn the area into Humberside’s next waste tip.

But villagers in nearby North Cave and Hotham weren’t happy, says Caroline Comins, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s conservation manager. They managed to raise £50,000, appealed to a government planning inspector and won.

Humberside Aggregates, which had been quarrying the gravel – and continues to do so on land next to the reserve – suggested the locals ought to buy the area.

They approached the wildlife trust which bought the land in November 2000.

But that was just the start of the story. The trust drew up a conservation plan and over the next two and a half years, 250,000 tons of soil, earth and stone were moved.

Lakes were sculpted and deepened, paths, hides and trails created. Islands were constructed in the middle of lakes to provide breeding grounds for wild birds; reeds and other wild plants and grasses planted.

There is even a system of sluices to control water levels in the reserve. The water is kept high in winter, says Caroline, to cover the islands in the centre of lakes so as to kill off the grass and other vegetation. It is then slowly lowered to reveal bare mud that provides the perfect feeding ground for migrating waders.

The result is a man-made wilderness. The site was opened as a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve in 2004. And it has already, in just a few short years, become a haven for wildlife and for nature-lovers alike.

More than 200 species of birds are to be found here through the course of the year, says Caroline – along with 25 types of butterfly, 16 types of dragonfly, and more than 200 different plant species.

There is a wealth of birdlife here at this time of year – waterfowl such as pochard shoveler, shelduck and widgeon; lapwings and redshank, oyster catchers and avocets.

Look northwards to the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds which rise against the skyline, and if you’re lucky you’ll glimpse birds of prey hovering on the wind currents – buzzards, keeping a lookout for food down below; kestrels; perhaps hobbies, merlin and peregrine falcons, all of which hunt across the reserve throughout the year.

The wind is bitter, but the paths are well marked, the hides comfortable and solid. You can take a brisk walk and know there is always somewhere to shelter from the rain or wind.

The Turret Hide in the centre of the reserve is a beauty: a hexagonal wooden construction with views in almost every direction. From here we spot the kestrel and some oyster-catchers. They’ve probably come from the Humber, says Jono, the wildlife trust’s director of development. “To see them here is amazing.”

The newest hide, Crosslands – completed only in 2010 – is even more impressive than the Turret Hide: a large, roomy construction, also hexagonal, with thick straw bale walls, and a roof carpeted with grass and Yorkshire wildflowers.

From here, look in one direction, and you can see the quarrymen still at work to one side of the reserve.

Look in another direction, and you can see across a sculpted lake that was completed only last year. It has been designed so that a series of water channels run through low mud-banks, to mimic the terrain found on a river delta.

It still looks raw, but once reed-beds have been planted, the appearance will soften – and it will be a perfect habitat for many waders and other water birds.

It’s an example of the most recent phase of work at the site. Other areas will open up by about 2014, as quarrying finishes. And that is still only the beginning.

The wildlife trust has been in regular contact with Humberside Aggregates – they have supported the reserve since it was first set up, says Caroline – and by 2020, a whole slew of other areas still being quarried for gravel will also have been added to the reserve.

“It will treble in size over the next ten years,” says Caroline.

That certainly beats turning it into a landfill tip.

Fact file

North Cave Wetlands is at Dryham Lane near North Cave, about eight miles south of Market Weighton and 28 miles from York.

There is parking, and the Crosslands hide can be reached by people in a wheelchair.

The original 2004 reserve covers almost 100 acres: and a later phase, Dryham Ings just south of Dryham Lane, a further 40 acres. By 2020, once quarrying has finished and more lakes have been dug and planted, the entire reserve is expected to cover about 370 acres.

The reserve is managed by the wildlife rust – with the enthusiastic support of a group of local volunteers.

Discover the wildlife of Yorkshire

The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has brought out a handy – and beautifully illustrated – guide to all 96 of its nature reserves across the county.

These range from wetlands such as North Cave and Wheldrake Ings, to coastal reserves such as Spurn and Flamborough Cliffs, to woods, upland reserves, grassland reserves – and urban nature reserves, such as Askham Bog.

The Discover Yorkshire’s Wildlife guide covers the whole of Yorkshire. Each reserve has two pages of description, stunning photographs, a location map, and a season-by-season guide to the kinds of plants and animals you can expect to see.

The guide is available, priced £12.99, direct from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust offices at 1 St George’s Place, York.

Alternatively, it can be ordered by calling 01904 659570 or emailing, in which case there will be a £2 p&p charge.