Where once were terns

I don't know what has sparked it off, but a number of birders on social media have voiced their dissatisfaction about the way in which certain organisations are managing nature reserves. Along with my thoughts about the Surrey Wildlife Trust's custodianship of Holmethorpe (see last post), there have been missiles lobbed at the Kent Wildlife Trust (Oare Marshes) and the RSPB (Dungeness). I can add my two-pennies about the latter...

The reserve at Dungeness has come on an awful long way since my first visit in 1976. There has been much beneficial habitat creation, with 'new' reed beds that now support Bitterns, Marsh Harriers and Bearded Tits, and a mosaic of water bodies that are excellent for wildlife beyond birds. The visitor centre, when it was opened, was a massive step up from the wooden hut that used to stand there. And where there was just the one hide, at least nine are now scattered across the reserve. So, what's not to like?

If I were being uncharitable, things seemed to have stalled several years ago. I started to notice that the upkeep of the hides had been allowed to slip. Slats would become un-openable. Holes in the floor or side walls appeared, would remain, and, without remedial work, became larger. After a while whole sections would be cordoned off, like a police crime scene - for weeks, sometimes months at times. COVID lockdown closed the reserve (understandably), and, to the uninitiated like me, it would have been prime time to repair the infrastructure of the reserve - after all, there was no public to get in the way. Instead, nothing appeared to have been done.

The reserve (particularly Burrowes) once boasted a thriving tern colony. The islands used to be home to hundreds of nesting pairs, mostly Common, quite a few Sandwich, and, now and then a pair of two of Roseate. Terns are fickle, and at times large numbers would desert Dungeness for nearly Rye - but - even in these fallow years, a decent number of pairs would remain. However, in recent times the water levels on Burrowes has risen, and the islands that the terns used to nest on sent underwater. Could the water level have been better managed? A few tern rafts were created as mitigation, and towed out onto Burrowes (and Dengemarsh). These did attract a few pairs of Common Terns, but so did they entice Herring Gulls. Unchecked, the gulls hatched their young and then walked across the rafts to pick off each and every tern chick. It seemed to me (rightly or wrongly) that there was a shrug of the shoulders from the RSPB as to the fate of the terns, as if there was nothing that could be done about the situation. I'm pretty sure there could have been. 

The hayfields (another good bit of habitat creation) never seems to be in the best of conditions, and any wader that is encouraged to breed have to then watch their offspring run the gauntlet of Carrion Crows, Foxes and Badgers. I know what the reserve wardens of the past would have done. Prick the gulls eggs and shoot the crows and foxes. Maybe this is archaic reserve management in 2021, but there must be solutions to such problems - or, at least, effort put into trying to save the chicks. After all, isn't that what managing a reserve is all about? Does the raft design need a revamp? Is its positioning a problem? What about the timing of its launch?

Another modern phenomena at Dungeness are the obscene (and I use that word correctly) number of Cormorants that haunt the reserve. Literally thousands. They have taken over the islands that are festooned with dead trees, nesting in their hundreds. Vast rafts gather to feed and so out-fish and out-compete the ducks and egrets. Is it the case that a Cormorant is worth as much as a Little Egret, that a Carrion Crow is worth as much as a Lapwing and that a Herring Gull is worth as much as a Common Tern? Can the Cormorant nesting 'trees' be removed? 

So why does the RSPB manage reserves? On the RSPB website they state that :

Reserves are at the heart of what we do. They're vital to our conservation work and priceless spaces for everyone to get close to nature.

At Dungeness, it is difficult to get close to anything at the moment, with closed hides, viewing ramps that are positioned in such open places that the birds are spooked as soon as a birder looks out from them. And what do you do when the wind is up and the rain is falling, as frequently is the case at Dungeness? And if they are serious about engaging people in the battle for saving wildlife and the wild spaces, then why give the birdwatcher visiting Dungeness such poor viewing facilities? Where, if it isn't raining, the birding experience is one of which you can watch gulls kill terns, and go home with a count of 2,756 Cormorants in your notebook, but little else?

I will, at this point, hold up my hand and acknowledge that I do not know whether or not the RSPB staff at Dungeness are having to follow strict guidelines from Sandy (HQ) which stops them from managing the breeding terns and waders, or if they have no budget to carry out repair work to the hides. But whatever the reasons behind these perceived failures, and whether or not they are echoed at other RSPB reserves, as one of the 1.1 million members, we each have a right to question what our membership money is being used for and what we are supporting. And that brings up something else. I was a member until the start of this year. After 45 years of membership I resigned out of protest at what I was seeing at Dungeness, so my 'right' to question may, in itself, be questioned, but I'll lean on my years of paying subs to allow myself the right to do so. Do we, as members, stand passively by and watch flagship species fail and accept a sub-standard birding experience, for which we pay £60 a year? Or do we ask questions - not to apportion blame - but with the hope to get, what was once a great reserve, back on track?

I will, once again, state that my observations are made without knowing the conditions under which the Dungeness RSPB staff are working. I could stand corrected. I am, I admit, a bystander without all of the facts in my possession.

I'll leave the Wildlife Trusts for another day.


Paul James said…
Spot on as always Steve. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I've also noticed that wardens seem to me to be a lot less visible on their reserves than they used to be. The cynical view would be that they are too busy answering emails and playing around with spreadsheets to actually get out there and engage with the public and do some management and repair work. Your comments about the state of the hides at Dungeness don't surprise me in the slightest and, even when things do get done, it often seems to be volunteers doing the work.
Derek Faulkner said…
Unfortunately, the RSPB and some other conservation bodies seem to be paying too much lip service to anti predator control people such as Wild Justice, led by Mark Avery and Chris Packham. Hard as it may be to accept by some people, nature reserves have to control predator species just as gamekeepers on a grouse moor would. It's a complete waste of time and money attracting threatened species of wildlife to a reserve to breed, if you are then going to stand by and watch large numbers of common predator species such as crows and gulls move in for easy pickings. I recall hearing that at Oare, the KWT trapped and culled mink up until the breeding season, they then stopped in case a culled mink had young somewhere depend on it. That of course meant that the mink would continue to feed it's young on any young birds that it came across through the breeding season. Predator management can seem unpleasant to many people but it has to take place for a nature reserve to be successful.
Ken Noble said…
I've only ever been to Dungeness a handful of times but I've always enjoyed it. But perhaps I have lower expectations than those who write above.
But surely predator control is part and parcel of managing a reserve. If you just let nature take its course, you'll end up with far less biodiversity. To take an obvious example, there are millions of foxes so if one is threatening the eggs of a rare ground-nesting bird I think that it is entirely justified to control it.
There is also a complete absence of logic in only controling pests when they are not breeding. Either you are trying to reduce the numbers or you are not. Baby rats grow up into fully grown rats. It sounds as if sentimentality is getting in the way of conservation priorities. Of course it should be done as humanely as possible.
My main gripe with the RSPB is that I think they have forgotten that many of us used to enjoy 'Birds' magazine. The new magazine hardly features birds at all. Ken Noble
Steve Gale said…
Thank you all for your comments which adds all the more to this thorny subject.
Unknown said…
I agree that some degree of predator control is necessary at times, but please remember that Herring Gulls are a red listed species, and the RSPB will be fully aware of this. When Herring gulls begin to nest on my roof I'm not permitted to disturb them, so I have to deter them prior to the breeding season. Regarding mink at Oare Marshes. Monitoring rafts were put in place on the reserve as part a North Kent Water Vole Project. No mink were trapped and no mink were culled. It is true that any mink trapped during the summer would have to be released because of the possibility of lactating young being present - not a decision made by KWT.
I have been a member of the RSPB for 45 years, and although it's not perfect I would rather continue to support them for their protection of all wildlife ( Nature's Home replacing Birds magazine ). This is paramount to me, and not necessarily my birdied aspirations.
Best wishes
Kevin Duvall
Steve Gale said…
Thanks for your considered comments Kevin.
Derek Faulkner said…
Perhaps the RSPB should consider re-naming themselves as the Royal Society for the Protection of Wildlife then, seeing as they seem to have drifted away from being solely concerned with birds. Or perhaps leave the wildlife to the Wildlife Trusts and go back to concentrating on birds alone which was their original aim.
Ken Noble said…
I suppose that leaving general conservation to the wildlife trusts would be an option - although I'm not always impressed by what I've seen of their decisions.
I think that the RSPB probably need to be conserving habitat rather than focusing entirely on birds. But I sometimes feel that they've almost forgotten about birds. Nature's home is a sort of quick squint at random aspects of the natural world - mostly what will attract the most interest. But I do accept that maintaining the interest of only casually interested punters is unavoidable if they want to flourish. I guess that they have to try to be all things to all people.

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