The part of the Lower Aire Valley covered by the Group is to the east of Leeds and stretches from the old Skelton Grange power station ash lagoons on the western boundary to Lowther Lake in the east. The main sites include the restored St Aidan’s Opencast Site, Astley Lake, Lowther Lake, Leventhorpe water meadows and much of Temple Newsam Park. Birdwatching has been carried out in the valley since before WW2 by many individuals, the old Swillington Ings site became well known when the first breeding Little Ringed Plovers for Yorkshire were found in 1946. This bird has been adopted as the Group’s logo. The site was watched by various people until the New Swillington Ings Bird Group was founded in 1989 when a number of the local birders got together to promote nature conservation and protection of wildlife habitat in the area. It’s aims are also to produce an annual report and to keep members informed of sightings and contribute to habitat preservation in the valley.
Parts of the area have been extensively opencast and in 1990 the operators, British Coal, were persuaded by the Group to fund an elevated public observation hide, which would be positioned overlooking the newly created Astley Lake at St Aidan’s. The Group provided the specifications for the hide and undertook to carry out the management and maintenance. The hide is now the focal point for the Group’s activities, which include conservation work on St Aidan’s site. The Group has become well established and has been represented on a variety of conservation bodies gaining much respect and influence.
Opencast operations at St Aidan’s were suspended for many years after the 1988 River Aire inundation, which created a massive deep-water lake – a great attraction to birdlife. Coal extraction was resumed and completed after a major civil engineering project had created a new river channel around the south side of the site, allowing the lake to be drained. The final detailed restoration plans for St Aidan’s were agreed after many years of discussion, in which our group involved, resulting in the creation of a 400 hectare informal country park and nature reserve. In 2005 the RSPB was appointed to undertake the future management of the site for Leeds City Council as part of a major regional nature reserve stretching from Fairburn Ings to Skelton Lake. Restoration of St Aidan’s was essentially completed in late Summer/Autumn 2012. The RSPB set up their visitor centre and opened the site in May 2014 but due to the financail difficulties of UK Coal, the site owners, the RSPB withdrew their public operation in July 2014. When the ownership and land issues are resolved the site will be handed over to Leeds City Council with the RSPB again assuming the management.
The Group was re-formed into a more formal body in 2002 with the membership growing to around 200 ten years later. Meetings are held in the first week of every even month ( February, April, June etc – see Notice Board page). Non-members are welcome and there is no admission charge. Annual Reports are available from the Treasurer or Secretary and these include mammal and insect reports in addition to the main body of bird sightings. The report for the preceding year is usually available in early Spring and a copy is available for a small fee from any Group member.
The birdwatching hide is managed by the Group and is the focus for field activities. It contains the sightings log and notice boards with a variety of local information. The hide overlooks Astley Lake and is situated at the end of Fleet Lane , Oulton; it is secured by a combination lock allowing full access to members. Members of the public are most welcome and free to use the hide when it is open and a member is present..