Biodiversity & Conservation

Phragmites australis swamp and reed beds



Image Harvey Tyler-Walters - Edge of a Phragmites reed bed in February, Tamar Estuary. Image width ca 1 m in foreground.
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Distribution map

SS.SMp.Ang.S4 recorded (dark blue bullet) and expected (light blue bullet) distribution in Britain and Ireland (see below)

  • EC_Habitats
  • UK_BAP

Marine natural heritage importance

Listed under EC Habitats Directive
UK Biodiversity Action Plan
National importance Scarce
Habitat Directive feature (Annex 1) Lagoons

Biotope importance

Phragmites australis reed beds are highly productive systems (see productivity) that support a diverse array of species and contribute to the aquatic and terrestrial food chain. In addition, their roots systems bind sediment and may protect the edges of lakes and saline lagoons from erosion. Reed beds are important habitats for a number of macroinvertebrates and amongst the most important habitat for birds in the UK (Anon, 1995; Hawke & José, 1996). Tyler (1992) reported that there were only2,300ha of reed bed over 2ha in size in Britain (as of 1992) 'making it by far the rarest bird habitat'. The following examples illustrate the importance of reed beds as habitats for wildlife in the UK.

  • Reed beds support a breeding assemblage that includes six nationally rare Red Data Book bird species; the bittern Botaurus stellaris, the marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus, common crane Grus grus, Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti, Savi's warbler Locustella luscinioides and bearded tit Panurus biamicus (Anon, 1995)
  • Reed beds provide roosting and feeding sites for migratory species including the protected hen harrier Circus cyaneus and the globally threatened aquatic warbler Acrocephalus palludicola (Anon, 1995; Hawke & José, 1996).
  • Reed beds provide roost sites for several raptor species (Anon, 1995).
  • Five GB Red Data Book species of invertebrates are closely associated with reedbeds, including the reed leopard moth Phragmataecia castaneae and the rove beetle Lathrobium rufipenne (Anon, 1995).
  • Other invertebrates of conservation importance include the rove beetle Ocypus dimidiaticornis and dytiscid beetle Rhantus grapii and the nationally scarce ground beetle Dromius longiceps (Fojt & Foster, 1992; Arnold & Ormerod, 1997).
  • Reed beds in Norfolk Broads and Suffolk support the internationally rare Fenn's wainscot Photedes brevilinea (Hawke & José, 1996).
  • The British race of the swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon britannicus) feeds on milk parsley, a species associated with reed fens (Hawke & José, 1996).
  • The nationally scarce foxtail stonewort Lamprothamnium papulosum may also be associated with brackish water reed beds (Connor et al., 1997a).
Most of the significant reed beds in the UK, although mostly freshwater, are notified as SSSI or ASSI and many are Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention and SPA's under the EC Birds Directive (Anon, 1995).


Reed beds have been grown or harvested for use:
  • to stabilize river and canal banks;
  • for draining new polders in the Netherlands;
  • as a source of cellulose (aerial stems) in the paper, hardboard and synthetic textiles industries;
  • for thatching;
  • for fencing, fodder and litter;
  • as a coffee substitute (rhizomes);
  • the fruits and associated silky hairs have been used for stuffing (Haslam, 1972), and
  • as a treatment systems for waste water such as sewage effluent (Hudson, 1992).
In Britain, common reed is used to support local thatching industry (Haslam, 1972; Hawke & José, 1996). Management, including a careful regime of cutting and harvesting, burning and water level control, is important for the conservation of reed beds and the wildlife they support. The literature on reed bed management and conservation is extensive and the reader should refer to Ward (1992) and Hawke & José (1996) for further details.

Additional information icon Additional information

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This review can be cited as follows:

Tyler-Walters, H. 2002. Phragmites australis swamp and reed beds. Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Sub-programme [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 25/11/2015]. Available from: <>