Chris Durdin talks about his lifelong interest in birds, his involvement in various projects, particularly protecting little terns and the return of cranes during his long career working for the RSPB. He organises tours for people interested in finding out more about conservation and wildlife.
I was born in Hendon, North London, and lived there with my parents and three sisters. My father was in the motor trade. He was keen on gardening and the natural world and we would look at birds while walking our dog in Sunnyhill Park and Copthall playing fields and, sometimes, I went birdwatching at Scratchwood by the A1. When I was young the family often had holidays in Norfolk, staying at a guest house in Mundesley and would see ringed plovers, oystercatchers and terns on Cley marshes. All this helped to nurture my interest in natural history. I had a friend at school who was also a birdwatcher. It wasn’t considered odd but, like today, it wasn’t that common among schoolboys.
Life at the University of East Anglia
Watching and identifying birds was a hobby and I didn’t think it would lead to a career. I studied Economics rather than Biology or Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. The course in Social Sciences was broad-based, giving me an opportunity to study Philosophy and Sociology but I didn’t think much of them, so I concentrated on Economics.
Being in Norfolk gave me a chance to join the Bird Club and Conservation Corps at UEA. At weekends the Conservation Corps helped manage Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves. I was Treasurer of the Bird Club for a couple of years. We went on a couple of really good trips, to the Camargue and to the Pyrenees, seeing lots of birds, making lots of good friends, all part of my formative years. I’m still in touch with several of those friends, including some of a gang that took part in an expedition to Turkey to study the migration of birds of prey through South-East Turkey, in the summer of 1976.
I became the first sabbatical Treasurer of the Students’ Union, after quite a tough three-way election battle. This proved to be a useful stepping-stone to a job because it was good work experience, and I was paid for it. I believed in the Students’ Union, enjoyed UEA and student life and I thought being Treasurer was a way of contributing. Jim Halliday, a rival candidate for the job of Treasurer, saw an advertisement in the New Scientist for a Development Officer for the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and sent it to me saying ‘Well, this sounds like you Chris’. I applied and, though I think they were looking for people with more life experience, I got it. I was only 22. The job included working with volunteers, public relations and presenting RSPB travelling film shows in front of up to a thousand people. People better qualified than me applied for this kind of job but I think my experience working with clubs, societies and the Students’ Union played a part in making me a good candidate.
Working for the RSPB in Sandy, Bedfordshire
As a birdwatcher the idea of working for the RSPB was the Holy Grail. It wasn’t particularly well paid and it was working with birds indirectly rather than directly, but that was fine. It was a privilege to work for the RSPB at its headquarters in Bedfordshire. My father was very pleased as he’d taken me there as a small boy in the early 1960s, and was a member, indeed a fellow, of the RSPB for many years. When I joined the staff in 1978 the total membership was around a quarter of a million including family supplements and the Young Ornithologists’ Club, the YOC. Numbers gradually increased through very active recruitment drives with coupons in the Radio Times and daily newspapers, face to face at film shows, at the reserves and through local groups. Many of the RSPB staff knew a lot about birds but as time went by more and more people who were not naturalists were recruited to specialist positions, such as in IT and Human Resources.
In 1979 the Wildlife and Countryside Bill was introduced – it became the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – and the RSPB’s conservation department was very active in lobbying to improve parts of the legislation to protect sites and species. I was involved in encouraging RSPB members to write letters to decision makers, particularly Members of Parliament. It was the first time the RSPB had done this in a coordinated way and it did bring the whole subject up the agenda for MPs, and, of course, it gave me an insight into how conservation works. A range of voluntary conservation bodies was involved, working through a coordinating body called Wildlife Link, though the RSPB was always the biggest and most professional of those and so was a key player. The key element of the Act was site protection. Sites of Special Scientific Interest were established back in 1947 in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act but they had no legal safeguard but in the 1981 Act they were now protected which was a huge step forward. The Act also covered species protection, updating the Protection of Birds Act 1954, as well as site protection. The driving force behind the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was, above all, the European Union’s Birds Directive. Even now the two nature directives from the EU play a big part in protecting nature in the UK.
Working for the RSPB in Norwich
After three years working at RSPB Headquarters in Bedfordshire, I had the chance to join John O’Sullivan, known as JOS, at the RSPB regional office in Norwich. The regional network started in Northern Ireland, followed by Scotland and Wales and more far-flung areas from HQ and Norwich was one of the last regional offices to open. JOS was a great ambassador for the RSPB and had the knack of being both a boss and a friend at the same time, something not everyone can manage. Those early days were very happy times. I met many conservationists, for example John Goldsmith who worked at the Castle Museum in the Natural History department, then dealing with numerous enquiries about birds which later tended to come to the RSPB as I developed the Society’s public profile. John was famed for his knowledge of bats and celebrated as Norfolk’s bat man. I also met Richard Hobbs who worked for the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust, now Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and Richard remains a friend. The late Ian Keymer was a key contact at the Veterinary Investigation Centre (VIC) for its work on post-mortems, if birds were dying for unexplained reasons. Some road casualties were also monitored for background pesticide use. Botulism in ducks and gulls was then quite often an issue. One winter we collected a huge number of dead auks, guillemots, razorbills and puffins. They were all emaciated and had died because of really difficult conditions at sea.
I got to know Mike Blackburn at Strumpshaw Fen and other RSPB nature reserves staff. At times my role involved public relations, dealing with media issues relating to nature reserves and supporting volunteers. Minsmere, in particular, had a good team of volunteers and I helped coordinate local groups from Lowestoft, Ipswich and Norwich in recruiting members. The RSPB has many good volunteers but recruiting is always a challenge, particularly now with an ageing membership and declining attendance at meetings.
For many years I was the RSPB’s spokesman and was often on BBC Radio Norfolk including as Radio Norfolk’s bird man on the Dinnertime Show.
My role as Conservation Officer
In the 1980s I was involved in Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) as Conservation Officer, dealing with conservation in areas not protected by nature reserves, like the Brecks, the Broads and the Suffolk River Valleys. ESAs were set up by the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, later DEFRA, to put money into wildlife and landscape-friendly farming, and the project officers worked in collaboration with the likes of the RSPB, wildlife trusts and English Nature. Much of the work was establishing policies, themes and practices behind the ESAs. RSPB survey teams were in touch with farmers and I was involved in managing surveys of the Broads, requesting access across their land so we could count the birds, such as breeding waders and wintering waterfowl.
Farmers were very supportive and did take up the ESA schemes but, in my opinion, not enough in the elements that improved areas for wildlife. The schemes kept the status quo more or less but not enough to improve conditions on the ground for the wildlife. Farmers, in effect, received environmental subsidies, either for continuing to keep the area in grass in the Broads ESA, or a higher subsidy for being more proactive protecting wildlife and landscape, such as raising water levels. The schemes were revolutionary at the time, putting money into nature and landscape rather than production. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I think early ESAs were too focused on prescriptions rather than outcomes. The current Environmental Stewardship schemes are more geared towards delivering outcomes for wildlife.
The ESA scheme followed the ‘Halvergate controversy’ when grazing marshes were drained, particularly between Norwich and Great Yarmouth but also elsewhere in the river valleys of the Broads, and grass marshes were turned into arable crops, such as winter wheat, with a substantial loss of landscape and wildlife. That prompted the Broads Grazing Marsh Conservation Scheme, a collaborative project between the Broads Authority and the Countryside Commission, in effect a pilot project for the later ESAs. Both put money into farmers’ pockets to keep things as they were, a step in the right direction at that stage. Inevitably financial incentives offered to farmers affect decisions, be that to drain their land and grow wheat, or to manage in more environmentally friendly ways.
The RSPB Little Tern project
In 1986 I began running the RSPB’s little tern project. It began when a birdwatcher reported seeing several pairs of little terns nesting on the beach at North Denes, Great Yarmouth and was concerned about their safety. I agreed and we fenced off part of the beach to allow the birds to nest undisturbed, and employed a warden. Little terns like to nest on sand and shingle, just the kind of beaches that people like to visit, so this provided a practical solution. Early in the season there were about 20 pairs but more arrived and by the end of the season we had 55 pairs of little terns which fledged around 90 young. As ground-nesting birds little terns are vulnerable to predators and, as at Great Yarmouth, hedgehogs may eat the eggs and kestrels would take chicks. Once we’d run the protection scheme for five years the data showed the Great Yarmouth North Denes site was important for little terns. Eventually it was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as receiving the highest conservation designation you can have, a Special Protection Area, a site of European importance. The terns’ nesting sites have moved around east Norfolk in recent years: where they nest depends on coastal erosion and other changes.
The return of Cranes
When I arrived at the RSPB’s then East Anglia Regional Office in Norwich in 1981, I was told that in the autumn of 1979 cranes had turned up at Horsey in East Norfolk. They hung around during 1980 but hadn’t attempted to nest, but the following year they paired up and established a nest. Immature birds often prospect new areas before starting recolonisation. Cranes used to nest in quite small numbers in the UK more than 400 years ago. They were lost when wetlands were drained, and they were hunted: records show cranes were eaten at medieval banquets.
The farmer who first reported the sighting telephoned the late John Buxton of Horsey Hall to say he’d just seen two of the ‘biggest bloody herons’ he’d ever seen. John guessed they were cranes. Cranes had remained reasonably common as a breeding bird in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia and the late 1970s numbers were increasing. In autumn, some migrate to the Middle East and Africa but most of the population flies west, through Germany, France and into Spain. Happily, some migrants came to the UK as part of cranes’ spread to their former range farther west. To start with, we kept their presence quiet and, for a decade, RSPB seasonal wardens helped the Horsey Estate to guard the cranes.
Since that first pair was established at Horsey in 1980, numbers have slowly increased with around ten pairs in the Broads in recent years. There is a similar number in the Fens, such as at Wicken Fen and the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen nature reserve. They are also a very few pairs in Yorkshire and Scotland, and more the West Country, around Slimbridge and the Somerset Moors and Levels, through a reintroduction project. John Buxton and I wrote a book called The Norfolk Cranes’ Story which tells the story of their return and provides a useful source of information for nature reserve site managers. Book sales have gone well and this year it was reprinted in paperback.
A change of direction
In 1991, alongside my RSPB job, I started Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays. Part of the ethos was to put funding back into nature conservation, helping to protect the nature holiday makers enjoyed, with part of the cost of holiday earmarked for a conservation project in the destination country, such as the French Bird Protection League or the Spanish Ornithological Society. The donations go through the Honeyguide Charitable Trust, set up and run with the help of Malcolm and Helen Crowder. As the business grew it inevitably took up more of my time and, after 30 years with the RSPB, I decided it was time to move on and concentrate on the business. Many of the leaders on the Honeyguide team are my old friends at the RSPB and English Nature.
Thorpe Marshes nature reserve
I lived in Costessey when I first came to Norwich and moved to Thorpe St Andrew when the family came along. Thorpe Marshes is close by and lies between the tidal River Yare and the railway line that runs to Great Yarmouth. Back then it was just an unmanaged piece of ungrazed marsh with an abundance of wildlife. The land is owned by the Crown Point Estate. A tenant farmer, John Rushmer, was offered the grazing on Thorpe Marshes in the early 1960s. When I visited him, in his nineties, he remembered very clearly that in the ungrazed marsh had been allowed to go quite rank, similar to what I first saw in the 1980s. To farm the marsh he had the ditches dug out, installed a diesel pump to improve the drainage of the site and the whole of the marshes was ploughed. No herbicide was applied which was probably a factor in the quick recovery of the area by nature when the farming stopped. The marshes were sown with rye grass, cocksfoot and white clover, creating a typical sward that allowed ordinary dairy cattle to be grazed.
It was a completely open landscape with just grass, some telegraph wires and cattle. John had a milking herd of between 60 and 100 Friesians there. Friesians need good quality grazing and initially they did very well. However, the grazing began to deteriorate and it became difficult to manage the site. Getting cattle onto the marsh was challenging. The only available access is via a little crossing, down Whitlingham Lane off Yarmouth Road, where you phone up the railway, open the gates and take your vehicles or cattle across. There was some grazing of beef animals in the 1970s but that petered out; the marshes were, in effect, abandoned and nature began re-wilding on its own. Today there are seven British Whites on the marshes, part of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s own herd of cattle. It’s a traditional breed that can cope with quite rough conditions. They are quite often at Upton, but they are moved to other sites depending on where they’re needed.
In around 1987 a planning application was made to dig gravel from the marshes at Thorpe and Whitlingham, on the south side of the River Yare. I and colleagues from Norfolk Wildlife Trust and English Nature were involved, especially in commenting on the after-use of the area, and it was agreed that once the gravel was taken out there should be an area dedicated as a nature reserve. Gravel was first dug taken out on the south side of the river where Whitlingham Country Park is today. On the Thorpe side of the river, once the gravel had been extracted, after a bit of a gap the nature reserve was established, taken on by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Thorpe Marshes came with a history of open access so the public can go there, walk the dog, have a barbecue, or take a stroll. This informal contact with nature is a good starting point and for NWT the reserve’s location on the edge of Norwich is an opportunity to engage people with the wildlife around them. There’s an annual family fun day, monthly pond dipping in the spring and summer and I’ve been running monthly guided wildlife walks there since 2012. These are two-hour walks, for ten months of the year between 10 o’clock and 12 o’clock on different weekdays, and in June and July between 7 o’clock and 9 o’clock in the evenings.
Wildlife at Thorpe Marshes today
Living next to the marsh I’ve developed a great enthusiasm for dragonflies and damselflies and have recorded 21 species, most of which we see every year. The best known is the Norfolk hawker which can be found in most of the Broads but are particularly numerous at Thorpe Marsh and can be seen very easily over the ditches alongside the paths, especially in June and early July, so water quality in the ditches is important. Occasionally you might see or hear water voles and there are otters, but you don’t see them often either. Chinese water deer are around most of the time, usually well hidden in the vegetation.
Throughout the year there is always something of interest in the marshes such as singing birds in springtime and marshland flowers, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies in the summer. The gravel pit comes into its own during the winter, attracting wintering ducks including a good number of gadwalls, tufted ducks and pochards and most winters there’s a few goldeneyes joining the tufted ducks.
I’m in my 60s and for now I’ll continue running Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays, looking for new destinations, but carrying on in a similar way for the next few years. My oldest boy, Jim, has an interest in wildlife and maybe Alex and William might also develop an interest in the future but for now they’re mostly keen on football and other sport.
Chris Durdin (b. 1956) talking to WISEArchive on 15th October 2019 at Thorpe St Andrew.
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