Watch the birdies

rspb - tuesday feature :RSPB North West conservation chief Andrew Gouldstone
rspb - tuesday feature :RSPB North West conservation chief Andrew Gouldstone
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It’s one of the greatest sights of winter – along with the nightly circling of starlings swooping home to roost under North Pier – the Vs of geese choosing to over winter off the Fylde coast, in the final stop on their massive migration flight path.

Yet the hundreds of thousands of wild geese, who make for the Ribble Estuary every year, came perilously close to having to find new quarters as a consequence not just of cockle pickers ... but actions proposed to curb their excesses.

Had the North West Inshores Fisheries Conservation Authority followed through with its threat to dredge cockle beds, it would have scooped up the cockles and the estuary gloop and micro organisms on which waterfowl and wading birds feed and in which other species thrive.

But the danger won’t be totally averted until ill-equipped opportunistic cocklers heed the blanket ban.

Just days after the beds off Lytham officially closed, two months after reopening, alleged cocklers were out – and intercepted by fisheries officers, who confiscated equipment and warned that other breaches could risk a fine of up to £50,000.

The closure is due to reviewed on December 6.

Local fishermen hope for a change of heart.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a different agenda.

The Ribble Estuary is a site of special scientific interest – national recognition of its worth to the bird population.

In global terms too, any loss or impact upon habitat would have huge significance.

RSPB experts say the Fylde coast is one of the best bird watching spots in the whole of the British Isles – but we may not always appreciate what we’ve got until we’ve lost it.

Andrew Gouldstone, RSPB area conservation manager for the North West, says the decision to close the cockle beds is a step in the right direction.

He says forums exist, made up of fishermen, environmental champions and fisheries authorities, to keep waters and those who fish them safe, and share the bounty between bird and man.

“The free for all off the Lytham coast was having impact on the birds,” he adds.

“Action was needed but we’d have been against dredging. We’d be keen to see Natural England look at setting up a forum across the Ribble Estuary, so that all have a clear understanding of the issues, and a mechanism for enforcing regulations.”

There’s one big positive in all the negative publicity attracted by the cockling travesty, it has highlighted just how important the site is to bird life.

Andrew adds: “It’s an SSSI, under UK legislation to protect important wildlife sites, as designated by Natural England.

“But it’s also a Special Protection Area, an SPA, which is basically part of the EU’s birds directive, by which bird conservation measures are delivered by Europe’s member states.

“It is of international importance. To give an idea of just how important the estuary is to wintering birds, an SPA indicates significant numbers – and the cut off is 20,000 or more. In the Ribble Estuary, you have 200,000 birds. It’s well above the criteria.

“Many of the species would qualify individually, pink footed geese, dunlin, pintail, knot, oyster catchers, lots of other birds that use the tidal mud flats for feeding or roosting.

“The cut off figure is what is thought to be one per cent of the world population – which shows how many of these birds use the east Atlantic flyway to head here.

“A lot breed in the high Arctic during the brief summer there and migrate the eastern side of the Atlantic through to here, and beyond, to say, north and west Africa, although for many this is their final stop.

“We know that a lot of estuaries are subject to damaging development and human activities, which are disrupting birds. They have already flown vast distances to get here and to deny them access to areas of estuary impacts on their ability to survive the winter.

“They are constrained by the tide and fairly harsh conditions, which makes it a hard environment to survive in.

“Populations are fluctuating and we need to manage our coastal sites.”

He’s also alarmed by the illegal use of poison to kill birds of prey in the locality, with buzzards, peregrine falcons and hen harriers found dead on the fringes of the Fylde, apparently poisoned. Suspicion falls upon those associated with grouse shooting, although some landowners, in Bowland, actively support the RSPB campaign.

Mr Gouldstone concludes: “Wildlife crime is hard to detect and takes place in remote areas, but there have been 30 incidents in the North West.

“Hen harriers are spectacular iconic birds of the uplands, symbol of the Forest of Bowland, yet there’s a core population of just 10 pairs left there.

“The UK population is in decline. There are 600 plus pairs, but virtually all are in Scotland and Wales. In England they are being driven into decline. Fighting bird of prey persecution is a priority.”