Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council created the reserve, which opened in 1998, but the RSPB took over management of the site in 2003 and developed it further, with funding from several sources including the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The reserve, along with others nearby, forms part of a landscape-scale project to create wildlife habitat in the Dearne Valley. It is an 'Urban Gateway' site with facilities intended to attract visitors, particularly families. In 2018, the reserve had about 100,000 visits. The reserve may benefit in the future from new habitat creation beyond the reserve and improved accessibility, although there is also a potential threat to the reserve from climate change and flooding.
The area has been settled continuously since prehistoric times, with villages developing on the drier sandstone ridges above the flood plain from at least the late Saxon period. Mining is recorded from at least the 13th century, and probably back to Roman Britain, and the area became heavily industrialised in the 18th century with the arrival of the Dearne and Dove Canal. This connected Barnsley to the River Don and beyond, aiding the intensive exploitation of the locality's coal, sandstone and iron ore. Over the next two centuries, especially following the arrival of the railway in 1840, the area became dominated by its heavy industries.
The name Old Moor may derive from an archaic meaning of moor, referring to a marshy area that was more difficult to cultivate than the alluvium of the flood plain. It had been enclosed as a 103 hectares (250 acres) farm by 1757, when it was owned by the Marquess of Rockingham.