I had a Damascene moment a few years ago at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve on the East Sussex coast. This marvellous shingle beach (yes, just like Dungeness!!) had recently undergone some major work. Additional marshland had been created out of farmland and a large circular footpath installed. This walkway was several miles in diameter, made of compacted matter, quite wide and allowed easy viewing over the whole of the reserve. As I took in the stunning views and was being appreciative at the ease of birding that the footpath allowed, I was also aware that I was sharing it all with quite a few other people - and very few of them were birdwatchers. They were a mix of ramblers, cyclists, joggers and dog walkers. All had been welcomed with open arms onto the reserve and all appeared to be more than aware of the surrounding countryside. None of them got in ‘my’ way, nobody disturbed my birding. It struck me that, if anything were to threaten this corner of Sussex, then it would be these non-birdy people who would make up the bulk of any subsequent protest. The same could be said for any area of countryside or urban open space where people go, for whatever reason. There just aren’t enough of us birders out there to make a difference in any local ding-dong. All users of these areas need each other. And so, rather belatedly, the penny dropped and I realised that the only way forward in our crowded isles is to embrace everybody as potential guardians and custodians of what we hold dear.
Speaking as a (sometime) dog walker, as a (lapsed) cyclist/jogger and a regular walker, I seek (sought) out my places to carry out such leisure activities with care - and this is true for the vast majority of the people that get involved with them. People usually go out of their way to get to a particular wood, or stretch of downland, or patch of heathland because it adds another dimension to their activity. It might be because the area is ‘green’ or has stunning views or has traditional family ties. And as such, these people will be just as - or even more - vociferous about protecting them as us birders.
So the next time we huff at a dog-walker, sigh at yet another lycra-clad cyclist or despair at a gaggle of oncoming joggers, maybe we need to remember that, apart from having as much right to be there as ourselves, we might be grateful for their support of the habitat in the future.