The last couple of years has hit everyone pretty hard. During Covid-19 restrictions, we’ve been encouraged to head outdoors to boost our mental and physical health. At face value, it seems like it would be difficult to have any problem with that, and being in nature has certainly helped me a lot over this difficult period. However, let me set a scene for you. A flock of Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica has just landed on the local shoreline. After migrating thousands of kilometres, they are exhausted and are searching for an area where they can feed and rest – a sandy beach with shallow water, for example. All too often these areas, which historically would have been a safe haven for such birds, are now recreational grounds for humans, leaving the birds with a dwindling area of disturbance-free space. It’s not just the fact that there are more people on beaches than ever, it is also what we are choosing to do there – and who we take with us – that is having an impact. 

Coastal water sports have become hugely popular. Around Britain, our shorelines play host to cold-water swimmers, paddleboarders, jet skiers, surfers and kitesurfers. It is not just these ‘high-energy’ activities that are causing disturbance, though. Beachcombing and even a shoreline stroll are also playing their part. These seemingly innocuous activities, which offer so many positives for us, flush wader roosts, disturb nesting shorebirds, and prevent coastal wildlife from feeding.

We are often also accompanied by our furry friends. Dog ownership in Britain is at a record high (https://bit.ly/bbeyedogs) and associated disturbance to our shoreline wildlife is on the rise, with many Grey Halichoerus grypus and Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina pups being taken into care to have dog-bite wounds treated (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-59997657). As a dog owner myself, living close to the coast, I understand the attraction of a walk along the beach. Concerningly, though, it is not unusual for me to see other individuals who have allowed their dogs off the lead, running riot amongst flocks of wading birds. I have also often heard these same dog owners referring to the sight of murmurating waders as ‘beautiful’, as they watch them swirl and bank in a tight flock just offshore, while, in reality, these tired and hungry visitors are fleeing in fear from an oncoming potential predator. Such occasional disturbance has been happening for centuries but, while stressful for the birds, it soon passed. Now, with a near-ubiquitous human presence around many stretches of Britain’s coastline, such constant disturbance becomes the difference between feeding and resting or not; and for many birds, the difference between surviving or not. 

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80. Roosting Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus being flushed by a dog; Musselburgh, East Lothian, August 2020.

Ian Andrews

There is another issue when it comes to us enjoying nature, and one that many who should know better are guilty of. Some individuals appear to find it impossible to enjoy wildlife from a sensible distance, pushing ever closer to a flock of roosting waders for that slightly closer view, slightly more frame-filling photo… or slightly more Instagram-worthy selfie. Believe it or not, wildlife isn’t always happy to see you, even less so when you’re up close and personal! A boom in wildlife enthusiasts, including those who now stop to take note of coastal wildlife and are increasingly aware of its existence, can only be a good thing – but boundaries need to be set. Observing nature from a distance should be the priority. It is a small minority who deliberately push the boundaries in this respect, but it is nonetheless an important – and easily changed – contribution to the disturbance. Appreciating nature while knowing you are having minimal impact should be the norm when entering wild spaces. 

We as a population can become so numb to the effect we have on species that what we conceive as normal and day to day may be in fact doing more harm than we think: flocks of waders flying from one stretch of beach to another, and then back again; seal pups dashing into the water; bird calls filling the air, as they give nervous alarm calls when someone approached too closely. All things we consider ‘normal’ sights at the coast. There’s a perception that being out in nature, with the obvious positives for boosting our awareness of conservation and benefiting our mental wellbeing, has little or no detriment to birdlife. In reality, we are often disturbing the wildlife surrounding us and interrupting their chances of survival. 

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81. A family stops to observe a group of roosting waders; Northumberland, December 2021. 

Nick Patel

As well as assessing the potential damage we are causing, we have to first start by asking ourselves a few key, if controversial questions. Are humans more important than wildlife? Should recreational activities and access to nature take priority over conservation of species in decline? How can we continue to improve our wellbeing through the outdoors without impacting on wildlife? I believe there is an important compromise to be made.

In my opinion, the most practical way of addressing these issues is to start by condensing the areas where humans can roam and participate in their hobbies. This could include providing areas safe from disturbance in the form of no-public access zones on a proportion of Britain’s shores. One of the biggest issues on beaches, particularly during Covid, is that people don’t always want to spend time near one another, and so people tend to spread out across all available areas. The result is zero refuge for birds. A potential way to help birds in future is more allocations of certain coastal areas for birdlife and some for human use. We already see small sections of certain coastal spots cordoned off for nesting waders and terns in summer. These are minuscule in comparison to what’s required. In honey-pot areas that become busy with people in the high season, should we be thinking about cordoning off almost half a beach, the entirety of marshland and big chunks of open-water areas? Compromises may have to take place to get this sort of coastal conservation legislation in action. 

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82. A busy beach leaves no room for wildlife; Northumberland, December 2021. 

Nick Patel

Another important factor is more awareness campaigns on shorelines for dog owners. As a group, dog owners are generally animal lovers and do not intentionally want to do harm. A lot of the time, there is a lack of public education to explain why it is important that dogs are to be kept on leads in certain areas and at specific times of the year. Education on the species present and the hardships that they are facing will help many people to be more considerate. It is unreasonable to expect every member of the general public to know the complex ecosystem they are entering, but by offering information on how every person is having an impact, people are able to consider their portion of the responsibility.  

While this piece focuses on disturbance at coastal sites, it’s important to note that this increasing use of outdoor space at the detriment of wildlife has been replicated throughout the year in a variety of habitats: woodlands, meadows, the uplands, rivers and even in urban green space. These problems need to be considered just as vitally in these habitats as on our coastline. Addressing the issue of disturbance of birds by humans is an ongoing and increasingly urgent issue that will need tackling with haste – taking into account the pros and cons on both sides of the argument. Unless appropriate measures and solutions are put in place, these problems will multiply and accelerate the major declines of British bird species, overall worsening the nationwide biodiversity crisis. 

Nick Patel, Northumberland; e-mail [email protected]

Volume: 
Issue 3
Start Page: 
122
Display Image: 
Subtitle: 
why a walk on the beach could be more damaging than we think

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