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Imagine a wildlife paradise and youll probably think of the Farnes, Kielder or Weardale. It is unlikely youll conjure up a picture of smoke stacks, cooling towers and a nuclear reactor but that is the paradox of Greatham Creek.
I fell in love with the place shortly after I arrived in Durham in 2009. It was surprising enough that you could see seals from the A178, the main road from Stockton to Hartlepool, instead of having to take a boat to a remote island or inaccessible beach but to be able to see them with the backdrop of industrial Teesside was truly astonishing.
When the tide is out, the creek is little more than a stream. There are no seals at this point: theyre more likely to be seen lounging on the broader mudflats of Seal Sands, half a mile away, although they are much more distant from land. But when the tide turns and the sea rushes up the creek you can often see their alert, dog-like faces swimming along the creek, then hauling out onto the mud.
On a good day you can see over 40. At high tide, the water will cover the mudflats and some of the surrounding salt marsh, and only a few seals are likely to remain.
The creek is part of a larger area much of which now belongs to the Teesmouth National Nature Reserve which has been substantially cleaned up after over a century of heavy industry.
Salt extraction has shaped this stretch of the north Tees estuary for hundreds of years theres evidence of salt panning going back to the 13th century but the discovery in the late 19th century of a 100 metre thick salt seam almost a mile underground transformed this into a major industry.
In 1894 the Greatham Salt and Brine Company was founded by George Weddell, and although salt extraction ceased in 1971, the site continued producing other food-related products for another 30 years.
Throughout this time seals were entirely absent they disappeared from the estuary in the mid-19th century, only returning in the late 1980s, after major efforts had been made to clean up the pollution.
During World War Two Greatham Creek was an important defence area, as part of a system designed to protect the shipyards at Hartlepool from invasion, and a number of concrete rifle posts can still be seen scattered throughout the area. Many of the wartime constructions have now been taken over by the wildlife which is making the area important again.
During the summer, avocets breed on the ponds at Greenabella Marsh, on the south of the creek. These charismatic black and white birds are easy to see from the bus-stop hide just off the A178. They feed by skimming the water-surface with their up-turned bills, unlike most waders which rely on probing the soft mud under or near the water.
Avocets disappeared from the UK for about a hundred years, until 1947 when pairs began to nest in East Anglia. They are fussy about where they breed, depending almost entirely on saline lagoons, such as the pools of Greenabella Marsh.
Waders frequent much of the area from the seals mudflats, downstream along the creek, past the A178 and out to the Tees Estuary at Seal Sands. Curlew, redshank and oystercatchers are regulars for most of the year, increasing in numbers in autumn and winter, when they may be joined by the occasional red-breasted mergansers, colourful fish-hunting ducks.
More unusual birds can be seen as well in the past couple of years a black-necked grebe appeared, as did a sharp-tailed sandpiper, a rarity which stayed for a few days but is more at home in Eastern Siberia. Its also an excellent spot for watching birds of prey.
Peregrines regularly frequent the area, using the nuclear reactor on the north side of Seal Sands as their observation post, and short-eared owls are often seen hunting during the day-time. last winter I watched a short-eared owl and a barn owl which had been using one of the old wartime bunkers as a roost hunting simultaneously.
Greatham Creek may not be the prettiest place for watching nature but it is full of heritage and shows how quickly wildlife returns once efforts are made to clean up the environment. It is a remarkable area that rarely disappoints.

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