I did my very first RSPB Avocet Cruise on the Exe Estuary in Devon in 1989. Simple maths tells me that’s 21 years ago. This makes me feel old. The cruises had started only a few years previously, and were quite a novel idea. Indeed, when the idea was put to the local pleasure boat operator at the time he dismissed it, claiming that no one would want to go out on the river in winter watching birds. How wrong he was. The cruises have grown in popularity over the years with many thousands of people enjoying the sights and sounds of what I think is one of the best birdwatching spectacles in the UK.
What impressed me in 1989, and still impresses me to this day, is both the variety of birds you can see and how close you can get to them. This makes them ideal for everyone. And over the past few years I think our ability to share our enthusiasm for the estuary has really grown with the involvement of RSPB volunteers working on board to make sure everyone gets to see everything.
But what about the birds? Here’s my top five experiences on the cruises...
In at number five it’s the brent geese. It has to be said I’m not a huge fan of ducks and geese. Don’t ask me why, just never been that keen. With the exception of brents who, again for reason’s unknown, I think are perfect little creatures. Maybe its something to do with the fact that when I see them on the estuary in autumn I know they’ve just flown in from Siberia. And I like their small size, their neat proportions. And their calls when they flock. And indeed their flocks – seeing them fly off Exminster Marshes together and land en masse close to the boat is quite unforgettable.
At number four its grey seals. Yes, I know its not a bird. But a glimpse of grey seal in the estuary always gets people chattering. Individuals will sometimes haul themselves out onto the sand banks down near Dawlish Warren, but the most exciting views I’ve ever had is watching one breaching dolphin like in front of the boat no doubt hunting for fish.
Number three is great northern diver. We don’t see these all the time every year. But there have been occasions when we’ve had amazing views of this northern wanderer incredibly close to the boat. A primeval bird, with a huge and fearsome bill, they sit low in the water frequently diving for food. And a truly wild bird nesting in the arctic wilderness.
Number two is avocet. Lending its name to the cruises this bird never fails to put on a show. And touch wood I’ve never been on a cruise yet when we haven’t seen them. They normally congregate between the Turf Inn and Topsham. Because the estuary narrows here, you can get incredibly close to these wonderful two tone birds. So close that you can hear them calling to one another. But the most delightful experience is to see them feeding in a group in deeper water, dabbling tails up like a group of ducks, spinning round in a circle to bring out from the silt the tiny shrimps on which they feast.
The number one slot for me goes to the black-tailed godwits. Elegant, stately visitors from Iceland, usually in a flock there’s just something about these birds that brightens up my day. And we have had the most spectacular views of them. My personal favourite though was watching a group of a few hundred birds late one freezing January afternoon. The cold winter sun was setting a fiery orange, and as it glanced off the mirror like mud on Greenland bank it illuminated the birds from beneath. This made them appear to glow against a gun metal grey sky of an approaching storm from the east. It’s one of those moments that makes you thankful that you enjoy the natural world.
For more information about book places on an Avocet Cruise visit our cruise webpage
So what do the spending cuts mean for wildlife in the south west?
Well, let’s start with some good news. Following months of campaigning by the RSPB, it appears that the principle agri-environment scheme that works for birds such as stone curlew, chough, cirl bunting and many others – Higher level Stewardship (HLS) - has been spared the axe.
This means that it looks like farmers engaged in wildlife friendly farming in priority areas will continue to receive the support the wholeheartedly deserve for producing both food and wildlife.
So a huge thank-you to our many supporters who petitioned the government, and to the landowners and farmers who provided support and quotes for our press work around our campaign.
Somewhat remarkably it actually looks as though the HLS budget will actually increase. We are being told that this has been made possible because of the currently favourable exchange rates that mean the EU contribution to stewardship is worth a lot more than it was. This enables both a saving to the taxpayer and an increase in funds! I imagine somewhere someone in Defra, who manage the scheme, is feeling particularly pleased with themselves. And, of course, thank you to Caroline Spelman for listening to our concerns.
But of course the spending cuts also present some challenges. With cuts of around 30% Defra has fared badly – second only to Communities and Local Government. And this of course will effect the “arms length” body under Defra’s wing responsible for biodiversity - Natural England (NE).
If NE is weakened, the challenges of actually delivering wildlife conservation will increase. How will agri-environment schemes be managed and administered effectively? How will we ensure we meet our statutory obligations to Sites of Special Scientific Interest – the very best wildlife sites in the country? What of the National Nature Reserve estate – will it be sold off? And who’s buying? And what about marine conservation – of which there has been no mention despite the ongoing work following Marine Bill’s successful passage into law?
There is much to work out – we will need to be inventive, we’ll need to work out how to do more for less. But it’s possible, and we know from our campaigns that it’s what people want.
The news that the government was unlikely to invest taxpayer’s money on the Severn Barrage and related schemes began to break with a call for comment from the Independent over the weekend. We’ve campaigned vociferously against the barrage for years with the simple logic that constructing a renewable energy scheme that would trash its immediate natural environment was like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
The reports were confirmed by a statement from Chris Huhne on Monday. Naturally we were delighted. The pro barrage lobby of course reacted with anger and disbelief and I, or rather the RSPB, were accused in one on air exchange as being “negative”.
Rightly or wrongly I took this to mean that “once more those wildlife people with their precious birds have succeeded in stopping yet another scheme that would bring untold rewards and prosperity for all”. Its an all too common, and in my view weak, accusation.
As I’ve said before, the natural heritage of this country is as important as any other aspect of its heritage. Imagine the uproar if a renewable energy scheme threatened to destroy, say, Stonehenge or Canterbury Cathedral. Could anyone seriously be described as being “negative” if they opposed this? Well, those 69,000 wintering birds on the Severn have the same value.
But, and this is a hugely important, opposing the Severn Barrage does not mean we oppose all renewable schemes on the Severn. Indeed our position has always been quite the opposite.
If the UK is to meet its targets on carbon emissions by 2020 it needs renewables. And there is a great prize to be won if the power of the Severn can be harnessed to contribute to this. What the RSPB would now like to see is a re-doubling of efforts to develop economically viable and environmental benign tidal power schemes for the Severn.
Submerged tidal reef systems, a nascent technology, have been proposed as a possible solution. They will not lay waste to thousands of hectares of mudflat and, to me, seem like an elegant solution compared to a huge concrete wall. And what’s more, if we invest in this field we could develop an industry where the UK could lead the world. Coming from a engineering family I’d love to see an ingenious device of which Newcomen, Trevithick, Watt and Brunel would be proud.
So far from being “negative” on this, the withdrawal of government support for the barrage actually presents us with an opportunity to do something better. Our line is simple, renewable energy has to be developed, but with solutions that work with rather than against the natural world.