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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 November, 2004, 17:25 GMT
Big Tees bird plan moves forward
By Adrian Pitches
BBC environment correspondent

Saltholme Pools (BBC)
Saltholme Pools: The beginnings of a huge nature park
In a bold move to regenerate one of the most run-down areas of north-east England, the local authority is spending nearly 0.5m - on birds.

Stockton politicians are giving the money to the Wild Bird Discovery Centre at the new Saltholme Nature Reserve on the north bank of the River Tees.

The reserve is the biggest habitat recreation project in the North.

It will see 400 hectares of low-grade farmland and waste tip transformed into lakes, reedbeds and wet grassland.

Saltholme is expected to attract 100,000 visitors a year and become one of the region's major tourist attractions.

The total cost of the regeneration project near Billingham will be 5.7m; so far a third of the cost (1.9m) has been secured.

Wetland magnet

Stockton Council's 450,000 grant will go towards the cost of the bird centre, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). It is not council tax money but regeneration cash from central government for which the council had to bid.

Project manager Kevin Bayes told BBC News: "Stockton have been brilliant. They've seen the value of this site on the doorstep of a pretty deprived area called Port Clarence.

Kevin Bayes (BBC)
Kevin Bayes: There will be big spin-offs
"It should benefit the local community in three ways: actual jobs on the reserve (eight full-time and 11 part-time), training opportunities for volunteers and the trickle-down from 1.4m spent in the local area by reserve visitors."

With six-figure visitor numbers projected from 2010, Saltholme will become the largest RSPB visitor facility in the UK.

So, as the RSPB currently has no reserves open to visitors in the entire region, it is a major boost for the one-million-member wildlife charity in the North East.

It is hoped the new wetland complex will attract breeding bittern (Botaurus stellaris), marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus) and bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus) to a region where none of these species nest at present.

Future growth

Development work on the site got underway in the autumn of 2002 but the reserve will not open to the public until 2007, as Kevin and his team only have a narrow window of opportunity in which to work on site.

The existing Saltholme Pools are significant for both breeding and wintering waders and wildfowl, so disturbance is limited to the period from late July to late October.

Bittern (Andy Hay RSPB Images)
The reserve should attract new species such as the bittern (Image: Andy Hay RSPB Images)
For the rest of the year, fundraising is imperative with grant aid from Europe and the Heritage Lottery Fund now being sought.

If the money is found, and this major wildlife/tourism attraction welcomes its first visitors in 2007, it will be 20 years since an "International Nature Reserve" was proposed by the defunct Teesside Development Corporation.

It is now a far grander proposition, though. In coming years, with further land acquisitions to link existing protected areas around Teesmouth, the new reserve could form less than half of a 1,000ha regional nature park stretching from Hartlepool to the River Tees.

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