Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Northampton Washlands aka Clifford Hill Gravel Pits - 19th March 2014

There's a site near me that is fantastic for birds! Actually that's a lie and I shall explain why in this post. The truth is there's a site near me that would be incredible for birds if it wasn't for a few sections of society. The Northampton Washlands  (otherwise known as Clifford Hill Gravel Pits to local birders) is a large wetland area which includes a large lake in the centre of an even larger basin. It is designed to act as a barrage lake for the nearby river Nene in order to prevent flooding in periods of heavy rain and in some years the sluices are opened nearly filling the basin but for most of the time the area is absolutely perfect for birds! Large expanses of shoreline provide a valuable habitat for waders, the lake itself holds important numbers of wildfowl, the adjacent hedges seem to be very popular with passing migrants (it doesn't seem a year goes by without Redstarts, Wheatears and Whinchats on the fences) and the large flat expanses of floodplain are very appealing to Golden Plovers. Unfortunately though not everyone seems to appreciate the need for disturbance to be kept to a minimum. A footpath leads along a short section of the eastern edge but the rest of the site has been opened up with permissive access along the top of the basin but this doesn't seem to enough for a lot of the people that use the area for dog walking or general recreation. For years we have watched people wander down into the basin with a blatant disregard to the chaos it causes. In fact not only have I watched people standing there open mouthed while the flocks of birds take off and whirl around them but I have witnessed countless times people driving their dogs towards them scattering the geese in terror while their owners stand there laughing. I even witnessed one women using her phone to film her dog doing it! Now I appreciate certain dog owners maybe reading this with outrage so lets make one thing clear. I love dogs! I was brought up around dogs and it was taking my parents dogs for a walk that got me into wildlife watching in the first place when I was a child. I love meeting dogs when I'm out even if they do jump up and make me muddy - it absolutely doesn't bother me. What does bother me though is when despite there being miles upon miles of footpaths leading across fields and recreational areas people insist on letting their dogs off the lead when on a nature reserve, especially when there are signs people have to pass telling them NOT to let the dogs off the lead! It's a real shame as not all dog walkers here at the Northampton Washlands are like it but I regret to say it's most of them. Of course it's not just the dog walkers so I don't want to be accused of singling them out. Part of the areas rules also includes not walking into the basin but I have witnessed walkers, runners, cyclists, kite and model aircraft flyers doing just that and also swimmers and people in boats in the water in warm weather. I genuinely have no idea what goes through these peoples minds when they do it. I know of a lot of birdwatchers that simply won't bother coming to the Washlands because of the level of disturbance, and to put it mildly sometimes I wonder why I bother too. You could be birding patiently on the bank one minute only for someone to walk down the bank and send all the birds scattering in all directions. Trying to remain calm despite the rage that can be building up inside truly tests the nerves!

So why am I bringing this up now? This has after all been happening for years but a couple of things brought a glimmer of hope but it looks like it doesn't seem to be working. Firstly work has been carried out at the site to really improve the wader scrapes and make the habitat even better for the birds so surely if people see money being spent they'll realise this place must be pretty special? Secondly even bigger signs have been put up than the previous ones and some of these even include pictures showing the people who obviously have difficulty reading the error of their ways! To show the depth of feeling for this important habitat the signs were actually paid for out of a local chaps back pocket! It is so frustrating to think that despite all these efforts they all seem to be getting ignored. The signs explain how important the area is to nature and even shows local footpaths where you can let your dog run as free as the wind aswell as telling you the areas where they must be kept on a lead (ie on the reserve). They even use colours showing the basin shaded in red so you know where not to walk! They even include telephone numbers so you can ring someone up and they can talk you through it! One set of signs has been placed on the entrance gates and others have been placed at a slant infront of you so you have no excuse not to see them! Have these steps worked? No they haven't! This evening (19/03/14) during the hour I was there I saw 3 groups of dog walkers and none of them had their dogs on a lead. I even watched one couple walk up to the reserve along a path in an area you can let the dog run free with their dog on a lead - they opened the gate to the reserve (a gate with the words "keep dogs on lead at all times") and promptly let their dog off. They walked around the reserve with a wander down into the basin (also not allowed) before returning to the bank while their dog ran everywhere. They eventually got back to the entrance gate, opened it up and you guessed it they put their dog back on a lead and walked away. I know lots of dog walkers that would be horrified by this behaviour but for some reason at the Northampton Washlands it's normal and  I can't understand why. Is it ignorance? Stupidity? Or just a "don't care" attitude believing they don't have to comply with the rules that makes them do it? Is it a feeling that they don't cause any long term disturbance? Well I can tell you, in fact quite a few people can tell you that they do! Most people visiting the site do one lap, which takes about an hour. So perhaps they feel that in that time they're not doing any damage if they head into the basin or let dogs run free etc. As a birder though I may stand there for hours and I watch group after group of people all doing the same thing and during this time I watch the birds being flushed time and time again before they invariably have enough and fly off. If someone can explain to me why the below signs are hard to understand I'll be glad to tell the person who put them up but they look pretty simple to me.

Sign at the Northampton Washlands, Northampton

Sign at the Northampton Washlands, Northampton
Over the years we have unfortunately watched watched the wintering Golden Plover numbers decline and the main reason for this is the constant levels of disturbance. It's sadly not just here either, local reserves have also encountered the same thing with one reserve suffering mortality of it's livestock to a dog attack. The other thing of course is the irresponsible walkers and dog owners out there often act aggressively when challenged, which of course means not challenging them is the safer option, perhaps these are also the people that consider it to be ok to throw their dog poo bags into the bushes before they get back to the car or leave empty Coke bottles laying around when they've finished with them!

The really unfortunate thing is though is most of the ramblers/cyclists/dog walkers I meet elsewhere are perfectly responsible. The countryside should be there to be enjoyed by everyone. I apologise for this rant as this blog is normally kept a simple diary but sometimes things just need to be said! Let's hope through education and awareness we can come to some solution but depressingly I don't think it will happen. So what's the answer? We have a choice as to where we spend our time but the wildlife doesn't have that privilege and needs all the help it can get. Perhaps we should just close the place down to everyone, including me, and leave it to nature. I'd rather see that than let it carry on the way it is!



7 comments:

  1. David some time ago I sent Mike Alibone an email regarding a story in the local paper regarding Clifford Hill/Washlands, they were asking for people to join a group/committee about the issues you have laid out in this post, problem is I wonder how many birders have got involved? No birders on the panel (if there isn't any) then the problem will sadly keep happening, the other problem I see is who is going to enforce these rules the moment that happens then the problem may cease, I don't feel you should apologise for genuine concerns as a dog owner/birder it really gets on my nerve the behaviour of some dog owners, but I have to cast my mind back to a day out I had at Summer Leys a few years back, when I asked a dog owner to put his dog on a lead and was told of by a member of the Northants Wildlife Trust for doing so! It wasn't my "job" to do so apparently....damned if you and damned if you don't.

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  2. Wholeheartedly agree with all you've written Dave-I said to Mike the other week the general public need to be controlled and corralled at some places.Signs will only work on those with the intelligence to understand/respect what is written on them.Fencing around the entire perimeter is the only solution,when Summerleys was first created the same problems arose,people walking everywhere,thankfully with all the fencing its no longer an issue.CHGP is somewhere I only rarely visit for precisely the reasons you mention,especially as i'm not a dog person!

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  3. The meetings are still going a head Doug but from what I hear it's not going well conservation wise. There are plenty of people at the meetings that are sympathetic for the cause but a few still feel the right to do whatever they please. Also I guess that most of the people that are willing to walk passed plain signs and ignore them aren't likely to be interested in going to a meeting either. I have already raised that question with someone very much involved regarding fencing as I agree with you in that respect but it doesn't seem like a simple option either. As the basin is designed to be flooded the fence may stop the sheep from getting up the bank when it floods therefore causing them to drown. It really is a crazy scenario! Where grown adults are behaving in this way because they feel that their hour of dog walking should be put before everything else! It's such a saddening display of selfish ignorance to have so much contempt for the natural world when you consider the hour with your dog to be more important than international important numbers of wetland birds! When you can let your dog run free over miles and miles of countryside right next door!

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  4. Of course, "yes" to all that has been said. But the mentality of someone who will pick up dog crap in a bag and then throw it in the bushes perhaps explains a lot. What chance of making Clifford Hill a fully-fledged reserve? Even a SSSI, if such things still exist.

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  5. Hi David, exactly the same problem is happening at the Wildlife Trust's reserve at Ditchford Lakes and Meadows. I am the voluntary warden and have asked members of the public many times to put their dogs on a lead and to clear up after them. Some will cooperate but the majority will not.One result is that the sheep flock was attacked in 2012 and 2 sheep were killed,9 were injured and 1 disappeared completely. Last summer one of the cattle was attacked. The reserve is now used by people who, I think, are running dog care businesses. One car stops there most mornings and the owner takes out ten dogs and lets them loose on the reserve.

    As one of your other commentators states, I think a total ban on dogs on these reserves is the only answer.

    Chris Green

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  6. Hi David. I don't think you need to apologise for the "rant": I also get angry with irresponsible people (who doesn't?) when wildlife - and other people's enjoyment - suffer as a result. As the RSPB's conservation officer involved in the Nene Valley NIA work at Clifford Hill and other sites, I hope you’ll permit me to say a few things. I can tell the partner organisations locally are throwing a lot of time and energy at addressing the problem of disturbance here, but we all have to recognise it's a tough nut to crack. The highly visible notices put up on the site are just the most obvious thing we’re done so far. Along with the signs, explanatory leaflets went to thousands of local households. But we always knew that just telling people not to do stuff wouldn't solve the issue on its own: as you say, a minority of people always seem to feel the rules don’t apply to them.

    What else are we doing? Douglas mentioned the community group. This was (admittedly) something of an experiment, to create a community panel to work with nature conservation experts to try to build better understanding between different user groups and especially, to come up with an action plan for the site to tackle the various challenges on the site. The group met four times between December and March just gone. I attended two of the meetings and was really impressed with the willingness of people to listen to one another and work constructively towards a plan to address all the issues on this site. To reassure people, the Panel did include at least a couple of birders, as well as dog walkers, anglers, general users and the tenant farmer. The Panel also took technical advice from a couple of nature conservation experts, me included.

    For very practical reasons you’ve touched on, I think a fence would have to be the option of last possible resort, on this site. The Panel has come up with some interesting ideas, some of which will cost money to implement – money which we will have to apply for, first. Some level of regulatory control is a possibility but that still requires enforcement to be effective: who would shoulder that responsibility, and with what costs?

    But perhaps more pertinent to this on-line discussion is the idea (originating from the Panel, not from us “experts”) of forming a “Friends of...” group. I think we’ve already got as far as we’re going to get with signs and leaflets: addressing the balance of the problem is a matter of education and engagement, getting eyes on the site, perhaps using peer pressure from the responsible dog-walkers out there, backed up by enforcement if this becomes absolutely necessary. The RSPB has already confirmed that we will give staff time and resources to helping such a group get on its feet and find funding. So my challenge to anyone reading this blog is: are you willing to be a Friend of Clifford Hill? If you are, then you can drop me a line via colin.wilkinson@rspb.org.uk and later on this year, we will include you in a start-up meeting to explore the structure and role of such a group.

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  7. Is this the Clifford hill gravel pit which the RNLI used for life saving certificate awards in 1977 ?
    Then they said it was unsafe. Many thanks. J.Tomes

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