Just eight miles from York is a wetland nature reserve of international significance. STEPHEN LEWIS enjoys a day’s birdwatching at Wheldrake Ings

AYOUNG heron stands kneedeep in the grey waters of a flooded water meadow, preternaturally still, its blunt, stabbing beak angled to one side. Above it, in the wide open skies, a flock of lapwing swoop and circle, changing direction in concert, their white flashes gleaming in the low winter sun.

On the still waters below the circling lapwings there are thousands of birds: ducks and geese and waders of all shapes and sizes, bobbing and dabbing on the waters, rearing up to flex their wings, or feeding with sharp thrusts of their bills into the water.

There are teal, and wigeon; shovellers with great spatulate bills rummaging around between the flooded stalks of grass for food; shelduck with their distinctive green heads; greylag and pinkfooted geese; a pair of mute swans and, on the far side of the flooded meadow, a single hooper swan.

The birds fill the air with their sound; the honking call of geese; the dabbling and chuntering of ducks; the lovely, whistling call of wigeon.

Welcome to Wheldrake Ings. At this time of year, when the meadows are covered with standing water, this is a magical place: home to a community of thousands of water fowl that you’ll rarely see anywhere else.

Many of them have arrived south from further north and east to spend the winter here.

“We’re just eight miles from York,”

says Jono Leadley, the head of communications with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, who has been coming to the Ings since he was a boy. “But some of these birds have come from western Russia, the Ukraine or Lithuania to be here with us.”

If you’ve not been here before, Wheldrake Ings is perfect for birdwatching.

The Ings are – be warned – very muddy, a consequence of the flood waters that bring the birds here at this time of year in the first place.

But if you’re prepared to walk a bit and to put up with splashing through some glorious mud, you can reach two wooden bird-watching hides managed by the wildlife trust, that are placed far out on the Ings themselves.

The route takes you along a muddy path that borders a dry area of the meadows, past a large hide – the Tower Hide, which is being repaired – and then along a wooden walkway through reed beds to the hides themselves.

There you can set up camp for as long as you want – a flask of coffee might be advised – and watch nature in all its wild beauty.

You don’t need to be a bird-watcher to enjoy it, Jono stresses. The Ings are wild, and flat, and open – and wonderfully desolate. The modern world feels a million miles away. In fact, this is one of the few places locally where you can’t hear the sound of any traffic.

“You can just come to enjoy the wideopen landscapes; the sounds; the stillness,” he says.

At this time of year, the Ings are all about the waterfowl. But one of the great things about this unique is that it changes with the seasons. By late April and May, the reeds will be bright with marsh marigolds, and alive with the song of warblers and reed bunting.

Then by June the floodwaters will have receded and the meadows will have burst into life. They are wonderfully rich, says Caroline Comins, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s regional reserves manager.

For centuries, the Ings have been managed traditionally. There have been no pesticides here, no ploughing of the land. So the flood meadows are diverse as a habitat. The Ings slope very gradually, so that one end is always wetter than the other, and there is a gradation of habitats. So in June and July, when the meadows are in full flower, the profusion of grasses and wild plants is breathtaking, Caroline says.

“There are a huge range of different grasses,” she says. “And then you have plants like great burnett, which has burgundy heads that look like raspberries; meadowsweet, with its fluffy white flowers, and meadow vetchling, which is a vivid yellow.”

In late June or July, the Ings change again. The lush grasses that cover the meadows are cut for hay. Within a few weeks, the meadows start to green up again with the ‘fog’ – the new young grass growing up to replace that cut back. Sheep and cattle are turned out onto the Ings to graze, in a timeless pattern of land management that goes back centuries.

Autumn is quieter, but when winter comes round again, the Derwent bursts its banks, the Ings flood, the wildfowl return, and a new cycle begins.

Wheldrake Ings fact file

Wheldrake Ings are almost 390 acres of flood meadow bordering the banks of the River Derwent just south and east of Wheldrake that are part of the Lower Derwent Valley national nature reserve.

Because of the ecologically diverse habitat, with its gradations of flood meadow and changing seasons, and the fact it has been traditionally managed for centuries, it is a wetland of international significance, a national nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust bought the Ings in 1973 and continues to manage them traditionally to this day.

To visit the Ings, go through Wheldrake on the Thorganby road. Out of the village there is a sharp right-hand turn. Round the bend, there are two small entrances opening off to the left, one marked Natural England. Go past these until you reach a narrow lane on the left shortly afterwards, with a green strip of grass running down the centre.

Follow this until you come to a small car park next to a wooden bridge.

Cross the bridge on foot – boots or wellingtons are advised – and then follow the muddy track that skirts to the right of the meadows, past a disused hide, until you reach an old wind pump.

Turn sharp left and follow the walkway across the Ings to the two hides.

This Sunday, staff and volunteers from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust will be at the Ings to point out features of interest to visitors.