Reedbed - Marsh Harrier - Amy LewisReedbed - Marsh Harrier - Amy Lewis

What are they?

The extensive, golden reedbeds that are formed by stands of one plant, the common reed, are a familiar sight of wetlands across the UK – their large, feathery flower spikes can be seen blowing in the breeze from late summer onwards. The majority of reedbeds are freshwater, but they are also found in brackish and tidal waters.
Common reed is an active coloniser of wet areas or open water including ponds, ditches, dykes, fens and estuaries. Over time, reedbeds naturally dry out as plant litter builds up, and are encroached by scrub and eventually woodland if they are left alone. However, for many years they have been cut and managed to produce reeds for thatching buildings. Continuing this form of management keeps the habitat intact, providing a home for specialist wildlife.

Where are they found?

There are about 5,000 hectares of reedbeds in the UK (that’s equivalent to an area about the size of Oxford). But of the 900 or so sites contributing to this total, only about 50 are greater than 20 hectares in size, and these make a large contribution to the total area.

Why are they important?

Reedbeds are among the most important habitats for birds in the UK. They support many breeding birds including the nationally rare bittern, marsh harrier, Cetti`s warblers and the bearded tit which lives exclusively in this habitat. More commonly, reed and sedge warblers sing out from the stands and kingfishers flash past, their metallic colours catching the eye.

In winter, reedbeds are used as roosting sites for several raptor species, while wildfowl like gadwall, tufted duck and shoveler feed in the shallows. Many migratory species also arrive to feed and roost in our reedbeds, including the globally threatened aquatic warbler.

Reedbeds are also good for invertebrates – iridescent damselflies like azure and common blues rest on the emergent vegetation, while nimble dragonflies, such as the four-spotted chaser and hairy dragonfly, hawk the area for insects. Five Red Data Book (a British list of endangered species) invertebrates are closely associated with reedbeds including the reed leopard moth and a rove beetle.

Mammals also frequent reedbeds: otters prey on amphibians like newts and frogs, and water voles feed on the banks of open waters. Noctule, Daubenton’s, whiskered and pipistrelle bats can be seen feeding over reedbeds throughout the summer months.

Reedbeds used to be important for the local economy as they were traditionally harvested for thatching material. Today, reedbeds play an important role in water treatment processes: they can be used for filtering sewage from water, and buffering pollutants from agricultural and urban land.

Are they threatened?

The small total area of reedbed habitat in the UK, and the critically small population sizes of several key species dependent on this habitat, make reedbeds extremely sensitive. Reedbeds have been lost to water abstraction and drainage, and intensive agriculture. Poor management, including the decline of traditional uses for reed, has degraded many areas, leading to scrub encroachment. While pollution from toxic chemicals and sediments has caused problems in some areas.

Many important reedbeds are found on the coast of eastern England, where sea-level rise as a result of climate change is predicted to lead to the loss of significant areas of habitat. 

How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?

Reedbed restoration projects carried out by local Wildlife Trusts are aiding these vital habitats by reinstating natural water levels, cutting back scrub and encroaching woodland, and providing homes for rare species like bitterns. We are also working closely with planners, developers and farmers to ensure our wetlands are protected. 

What can I do to help?

  • Take part in conservation measures on your land – ask your local Wildlife Trusts for advice on managing reedbeds sympathetically.
  • Support the work of The Wildlife Trusts restoring and managing reedbeds across the UK – become a member of your local Wildlife Trust.
  • Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust and help your local reedbed wildlife; you could be involved in everything from scrub-cutting to raising awareness about these special areas.