For as long as I can remember the fate of Spurn point lay in the hands of the winter storms. One day, the point would be breached beyond recovery and Spurn would change- That happened in 2013 and the site's owners, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are proposing new visitor facilities which have proved controversial. Our  Director for Northern England,, Peter Robertson sets out the RSPB's position to the these proposals.

A thin curling finger of land, situated at the mouth of the Humber Estuary in East Riding of Yorkshire, Spurn is a popular year-round destination for birders.

Autumn is a particularly good time to visit, with the site offering spectacular views of migrating birds. Flocks of swallows and martins can be seen journeying to their winter grounds, the bushes are alive with goldcrests, while out to sea, you can witness shearwaters and skuas cruising around our coasts. And always the chance of something rarer, adding to the excitement of a visit to this remote sliver of sand. 

But while these accidental visitors are star attractions, Spurn’s real conservation significance as a wildlife site lies in its little tern breeding colony and the thousands of wildfowl and waders that make it their winter home. These are the reasons why it is recognised as one of Europe’s most important sites for wildlife and, consequently, why it enjoys robust legal protection under EU legislation known as the Nature Directives. (You can find out more about our campaign to save the Directives here).

Spurn is under the care of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT), which has owned this National Nature Reserve since 1960. Owing to its remote and exposed location, Spurn has always been a challenging place to manage for visitors. This task was made all the more difficult in December 2013 when a huge tidal surge caused a breach, severing Spurn from the mainland and turning it into an island at high tide.

YWT has now submitted an application to build a new visitor centre at Spurn, which it says would “bring many benefits to the nature reserve’s wildlife and visitors, and a range of benefits to the local area.”

However, not everyone agrees and there’s local opposition to the application.

Although we work closely with YWT on many conservation projects throughout Yorkshire, our role in this context is to ensure that any development close to an internationally protected wildlife site doesn’t have an adverse effect on the birds and their habitats. In other words, our concern must be with the application, not the applicant.

YWT first contacted us in April 2014 about their intentions to build a visitor centre at Spurn. Like many organisations who want to submit a planning application with the potential to affect the Humber Estuary’s internationally important wildlife, YWT asked for our advice on the assessments that they needed to undertake and what measures they should include to avoid any detrimental impact. We have continued to discuss the application with them throughout this process.

We have examined the application submitted by YWT extremely closely. As with any complex application such as this, a team of expert RSPB staff worked through all of the information. This included our local conservation officer, a member of our HQ planning team and two technical experts on waders/estuaries and wetland reserve management.   

 Following a comprehensive review of the documentation, we identified a number of issues that required further discussion. As we would with any other developer, we continued to talk to YWT to understand fully the potential risks to the Estuary’s protected wildlife and assess what measures could be put in place to address them.

There were two main elements of the application that concerned us.

The first of these was the inclusion of Associated British Port’s radar scanner, which could have potentially deterred waders from roosting and feeding nearby; the second was the potential recreational disturbance that could arise from the increased number of visitors attracted to Spurn by the visitor centre.

Our first concern was dealt with simply as YWT agreed to drop the scanner from their application.

The issue around recreational disturbance and its management was more complex to resolve. Evidence shows that disturbance is not just about visitor numbers but how they use and move around a site. It was therefore critical to understand the existing visitor usage patterns, rather than simply looking at potential visitor numbers for a year.

Following our advice, YWT proposed a package of measures including signage, a modified path network, and roving wardens, which in combination, would ensure people could use the site in a way that won’t lead to more disturbance of birds.

Together, this package of measures forms a Visitor Access Strategy. A new management group, including the RSPB, Natural England and YWT, would be set up to ensure that this Strategy is robust and effective and that it will help Spurn to be better managed and cared for.

With these measures in place we believe that the application wouldn’t have an adverse effect on the Humber’s special wildlife and more people would be able to engage with nature and enjoy this special place without damaging the thing that they love.