PLANS to create a large nature reserve near the Tees estuary have reached a milestone with the handover of 1,000 acres of land for the project.

Already a popular spot for birdwatchers, the reedbeds, reclaimed bog and rough pasture at Saltholme, near Port Clarence, on Teesside, is set to become a major North-East bird-watching site.

More than 100,000 visitors a year are expected at the site when it opens in 2007.

It will have a visitor centre -the Saltholme Wild Bird Discovery Centre, while the creation of lakes, pools, grasslands and reedbeds will attract new and rare wildlife to the area.

New species of birds likely to colonise the area include bitterns, marsh harriers and bearded reedlings.

Saltholme is being created in a partnership between the Teesside Environmental Trust and the RSPB, paid for with funds provided through the landfill tax credit scheme, which allows landfill site operators to donate money to environmental projects.

The land was yesterday formally transferred from English Partnerships to the Teesside Environmental Trust, (Tet) opening the way for work on the site.

Glenn Sutton, of English Partnerships, said: "The creation of Saltholme will benefit not just the Tees Valley, but the whole of North-East England."

Tet chairman David Kitchen said: "Six years of patient negotiations behind the scenes have finally paid off.

"We can now really get stuck into the job of creating one of the most exciting and unusual regeneration projects in the North-East."

In a mark of support by industry for the initiative, John Huntington, the chief executive of Augean plc, announced a donation of £194,000 to the project.