Friday, 22 April 2016

Pomona Island: ducks, docks and urban greenspace

Posted by Stu and James Walsh

In this post published on Earth Day 2016, Stu and James Walsh, Mancunian birder and ecologist, talk about the past, present and future of Pomona Island – a small patch of Open Mosaic Habitat nestled in a sea of redevelopment at Salford Docks. The island may be small, but has a big history, and important presence for wildlife and recreation, and a very uncertain future.

Above: Pomona Island habitat (Photo: Stu), Below: The island and surrounds (Google Earth)

Disappearing ducks

Stu has, for many years, had a special affection for the area around Salford Docks (Port of Manchester). In the late 1990s, He did a two-year research project on the large flocks of Pochard Aythya ferina and Tufted Duck A. fuligula that used to feed at the turning basin at Salford. Up to 3-4,000 diving ducks used to congregate at night on the docks and at Pomona – to feed on chironomids (bloodworms), Oligochaete worms and other pollution-tolerant invertebrates (Marsden & Bellamy 2000). When disturbed during the day, they would fly to quieter spots such as Chorlton Water Park and Rostherne Mere (Marsden 2000).

Pomona and surrounding development (Photo: Stu)
Large numbers of Pochard (above) and Tufted Duck used to feed at night at the docks (Photo: pyntofmyld)
Despite the site being one of the UK’s most important for Pochard, and by far Greater Manchester’s most important wildlife phenomenon, the ducks were forgotten, and the docks developed. Now, just a handful of diving ducks use the site due to increased disturbance levels from quayside developments, but more importantly due to improvements to water quality at the site. Ironically, while Pochard was doing well in the 1980s and 1990s making their loss no big deal, the species has just been uplisted to Globally Vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List. What a sorry state for the bird to be in – and it makes me wonder what if the redevelopment at Salford were taking place now? Would it be so easy to ignore such important numbers of a globally threatened bird species on the site? Probably.

Past Pomona

Now, almost the whole of Salford Docks/quays has been redeveloped. But one tiny portion remains undeveloped for the moment. Pomona Island is a patch of ‘Open Mosaic Habitat on Previously Developed Land’ to give it its proper title, an important mostly urban land use rich in biodiversity. Pomona island is a human-made island, bordering Pomona docks, the site where ship carrying Guiness and less important cargos unloaded from the Manchester Ship Canal’s opening in 1894 to its effective closure in 1982. 

The island has a long and important history – in the 1830s, it was home to the ‘Pomona Pleasure Gardens’, a playground for Manchester and Salford’s growing upper classes. Then in the 1860s, the 30,000 capacity Pomona Palace was added. This was a major venue for social events and political rallies – Benjamin Disraeli spoke to a vast crowd here in 1869. There is some wonderful information on the island’s history here and a great film about the place by George Haydock here.

Present Pomona

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Pomona Pleasure Gardens were a huge draw for the people of south Manchester who came in large numbers for fresh air, entertainment, and green space. Looking down on the site now, it is again an oasis, the only green space left among the sea of redevelopment. Walking around the island recently with James Walsh and staff from MMU really brought home the beauty of the place, along with its importance for wildlife.

Common spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsia (Photo: S.Björn)
Around 150 plant species have so far been recorded at the site – including, of course, many introduced species, but also some interesting species such as Bee Orchid, and Northern Marsh and Common Spotted Orchids. A list of plants recorded is available online. The site looks to have excellent potential for butterflies and moths, and Bee numbers at Pomona are extremely high. Surveys of various faunal groups might throw up a few surprises. 
Above: Wheatear, a common Spring migrant on the island, Below: the Schedule 1 breeding Little Ringed Plover (Photos: James Walsh @MancunianBirder)

It is the site’s birds which are best known, mainly thanks to the efforts of James and a committed group of community ecologists. More than 125 species have so far been found at the site. These include lots of nice migrant records including Osprey, Jack Snipe, Whinchat, nine warbler species, and lots of spring Wheatears. But it is the bird species that are in general decline across the country that are most welcome at Pomona – Snipe, Lapwing, Skylark, Reed Bunting etc. The site houses 50 pairs of Sand Martins on the dock walls, and is also home to the Schedule 1 breeder, Little Ringed Plover. A current list of birds recorded is on James' blog.

Future Pomona

The island has, for many years, remained undeveloped. Now, however, it seems that just about the last green/brown space at the docks is to disappear. In November 2015,
the controversial Pomona Island plan was discussed at Trafford Town Hall (for live coverage from the meeting which reads more like commentary from a boxing match than a planning application debate see Todd Fitzgerald's piece. Like most bouts, there was only ever going to be one winner, and that was housing development - which has started already at the northeast of the site. Of course, the city needs homes, but the Salford Docks area has already worked very hard for the Northern Powerhouse, to the extent that the island is all that's left undeveloped.

There is such a strong recognition now that urban nature reserves are fantastically important - every swan and butterfly within them is so much more important than their rural cousins because they are experienced by so many people. Many cities around the world are reaping benefits from their mini-reserves - Toronto has the Humber Bay Park, Buenos Aires the fantastic Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve. These cities point the way towards where Pomona could have gone, and many believe it might be an opportunity lost. 

Save Pomona (Artwork: Liz Ackerley)

Perhaps most frustrating for us two Mancunians is that at almost the exact moment that the first bulldozers start work on our island, London opens the Woodberry Wetlands Reserve. Woodberry Wetlands is an urban nature haven, centred on an old reservoir in North London - just a little further from Arsenal's Emirates Stadium than Pomona is from Old Trafford. 

Alternative ideas for Pomona Island
 Pomona is, most believe, a lost opportunity to create a world class nature reserve/tourism attraction, but there are some who are optimistic that the situation can be turned around, and that the science, business and political communities can find a solution that is beneficial to wildlife. Protection of Sand Martin nesting walls, creation of green roofs and saving just a small area of habitat as a nature reserve would be a big victory for the environment and the people of Manchester, the European City Of Science 2016. 


Marsden, S. J. (2000). Impact of disturbance on waterfowl wintering in a UK dockland redevelopment area. Environmental Management 26: 207-213.

Marsden, S. J. & Bellamy, G. S. (2000). Microhabitat characteristics of feeding sites used by diving duck Aythya wintering on the grossly polluted Manchester Ship Canal, UK. Environmental Conservation 27: 278-283.

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