The Tees estuary has been used by people over thousands of years with communities harvesting its waterfowl, salt, fish and reeds for generations. Prior to the recent managed realignment of Greatham Creek, archaeological evidence of Bronze Age burial mounds and an Iron Age settlement were uncovered on the fringes of the saltmarsh north of the creek itself. The mounds of the medieval salterns in this part of the esturay reveal the importance of the salt making industry for food preservation in a time before refrigeration and the Greatham Creek houseboat community in the late 19th and early 20th century originally comprised salmon fishermen with stories of local families catching flatfish in the creeks with flattie stabbers, 3 pronged forks similar to Neptune’s trident.

This long history of human activity bears testament to the richness of the estuary’s wildlife and mineral resources as well as the suitability of its geography which now attract industrial investment and wildlife tourism to the area. Opening its doors 10 years ago, RSPB Saltholme is the perfect place to explore the latter. A series of shallow lakes, muddy scrapes, shrubby woodland and open fields, the site provides a wealth of habitat for huge numbers of birds and other wildlife. The common terns of the summer have long gone, heading south on their annual migration, to be replaced by birds from the colder north such as geese, waders and ducks. A memorable visit last winter saw us walking back from the southernmost hide when a sudden explosion of birds filled the sky, probably spooked by a passing peregrine falcon. We watched in awe as the wigeon, golden plover, lapwing and other waders and ducks traced their own patterns against steel grey clouds, their calls filling the air with sound. It was a beautiful sight and one which must have been so common when the estuary was in a more natural state.

However, it’s also heartening to see that industry can exist alongside nature and that significant numbers of birds now use Saltholme’s pools, lakes, wet meadows and fields over the winter months. If you’ve not visited before, do go and see it for yourself or better still, become a regular visitor to see how it changes through the seasons. Wrap up well, it’s a flat landscape and the winter wind can be sharp but there’s always the café with soup and hot drinks to warm the soul!