The last couple of years have certainly been strange, and everyone is still trying to figure out what the new ‘normal’ might look like. There has been constant change over the last couple of years, interspersed with three national lockdowns. No one could have predicted that!

Despite the national lockdowns and all of the disruption brought about by COVID, the RSPB Dungeness team have been hard at work improving the area for wildlife and our fantastic visitors.

A few visitors have asked some questions about the reserve and our plans for the future, so we’ve answered some of the questions below.

If you have any questions, please do speak to the Welcome Team on your next visit – we’re always happy to have a chat!

 

Visitor infrastructure

RSPB Dungeness is the oldest RSPB reserve, and attracts an audience which is just as diverse as it’s wildlife.

Some of our visitors are seasoned birders and have been birding around Dungeness their entire life. Others are brand new to nature reserves and are visiting for the very first time.

If we want to tackle the nature and climate crises, we need to appeal to everyone. And that means providing an experience that works for everyone.

These differences work at all levels of the visitor experience but are perhaps most pronounced in the bigger infrastructure. Some visitors prefer to watch wildlife from more traditional hides, sitting and waiting to see what wildlife appears. Other visitors find these structures quite intimidating and unwelcoming, and much prefer wide open structures where you can immerse yourself in the landscape. And of course, there are an infinite range of visitors in between.

At RSPB Dungeness we’re working to create a range of viewing opportunities so there is something for everyone, and everyone can enjoy the reserve. Historically we’ve been very hide-heavy compared to most reserves, which has led to quite a reliance on these structures to see wildlife. With large shingle banks and walls of scrub, it’s quite common for people to say they feel Dungeness is a “march between hides” if you want to see any wildlife. This is something we really want to change.

Dungeness is an amazing nature reserve, and we want everyone to feel welcome and immersed in nature, throughout the whole reserve.

Firth Lookout - Gareth Brookfield

We’ve had brilliant feedback about the new Lookouts, with lots of people asking us not to replace them with new hides. The viewing spectacle is unrivalled, and the disturbance has been reduced greatly by not needing doors or windows (a frequent complaint about hides is people ‘banging doors and windows’ leading to disturbance). They are also far more accessible and work for a far greater variety of visitor – including making people feel more at ease throughout the COVID pandemic.

This doesn’t mean we want to remove all hides by any means. But we do need a variety of structures across the reserve, so there is something for everyone.

Most of the hides at Dungeness are rather old (nearly 30 years) and have had a rather good life given the traditional Dungeness weather. They are all a similar age, and the team are working on plans for what we can do to improve them.

Three structures are open now that COVID regulations have eased (Dennis’s hide, Christmas Dell hide and the Viewing Screen), while others remain closed.

Dengemarsh and Hanson hide both remain closed while we repair the substructure. The team went to replace some slightly rotten boards on the access ramps and found that the majority of the substructure has rotten and needs a complete replacement. This has happened quickly, and over the last couple of years – the rot wasn’t there when our Wardening team was underneath Dengemarsh hide replacing its foundations two years ago.

Firth and Makepeace hides have both been surveyed over winter by the Wardening team, who have also sought advice from external contractors and building surveyors. Both hides have come to the end of their lifespan due to the extent of rot in the substructure, which is quite expected after 30 years of use.

After the vastly positive feedback about Firth Lookout, and the reduced disturbance that most visitors are reporting, we will be looking to remove Firth Hide and extending the Lookout to create an even bigger area. We will be adding some windbreaks, but the main structure will remain quite open.

Makepeace is arguable the centrepiece of the reserve and will be replaced with a much more visitor-friendly hide, which is accessible for all of our visitors. We will be taking advice from different user-groups to make sure the new hide is truly accessible for all of our audience and provides great viewing opportunities as well.

The team are also in the process of replacing the old boardwalk along the Willow Trail, which came to the end of its life just before the first national lockdown. We secured funding from Affinity Water to replace the boardwalk with new, longer-lasting materials which turned up just after the lockdown began. Since then, due to a combination of COVID regulations and water levels it’s not been possible to start the work as quickly as we had planned. The team started the boardwalk a couple of months ago and have made brilliant progress. We’re fighting water levels though, which (as mentioned below) are far higher than an ‘average’ year. This work is a priority, as if we miss the window of opportunity we’ll need to wait until the water level in ARC lake drops next summer, significantly delaying the work.

 The boardwalk underway - Dave Sage

The boardwalk's getting there - Dave Sage

Predators

Predation is a natural part of a healthy ecosystem. Removing one predator has many unknown effects on the rest of the food web, which can be hard to predict.

The RSPB carries out evidence-driven conservation management, and as such when there is clear evidence that predation is contributing to a population decline, the RSPB might intervene. In these cases, non-lethal control is always the first port of call. This can include habitat manipulation, disturbance of the predator species, and the use of anti-predator fences.

A good example of this is anti-predator fencing – fences designed to keep certain species away from vulnerable ground-nesting birds, where there is clear evidence that ground-predators are causing a population decline. An anti-predator fence was installed at Dungeness in 2010 in order to keep foxes and badgers out of the Hayfields (where the main breeding wader population was at the time).

This has worked to great effect and has excluded all badgers from the breeding wader fields for the last 11 years, and the vast majority of foxes. There have been individual foxes that have learnt how to get inside the fence, and because of this and the impacts it can have we carry out lethal fox control as well.

A combination of the anti-predator fence and fox control has resulted in wader productivity jumping from 0.11 chicks per pair to 1.23 chicks per pair. As a target we aim for 0.7 chicks per pair, which is the sign of a healthy and increasing population.

Lapwing chick - Chris Corrigan

Corvids will inevitably take the odd egg or chick (predation is natural and everything needs to eat), but there is no evidence that corvids are detrimentally impacting any species on the reserve.

The same can be said for the larger gulls across the reserve. They of course eat the odd chick, but due to the great work of the Re-Tern project they tend to nest on different islands. When they do nest on the same island, although a small number of common tern chicks may be eaten, the vast majority survive to fledging.

Since the Re-Tern project common tern are thriving, and until the weird weather caused a blip this year, they are increasing year on year. In 2020 there were 109 common tern nests (the highest number since 1999) which fledged a total of 90 young. In 2019 there were 89 common tern nests and 113 fledglings – which is the highest number of fledglings since 1991! An amazing result so soon after the project finished.

Seabird colonies have very complex ecologies, which work on a metapopulation level over many years. It’s not uncommon to see population levels drop for a few years, as seabirds move between different sites for a variety of reasons – predation pressure, disease control, food availability etc. With Dungeness so close to the continent, it’s quite easy for populations to move around southern UK and the continent as well.

 

Water levels this year

Another factor that influences wildlife is, of course, the climate. With the release of the IPCC’s report it should be no surprise to anyone that the climate is changing, and dramatically. We’re already seeing the impacts of this across the reserve. We’re seeing more extremes throughout the year, with warmer winters, and wetter summers. This year has been a stark reminder of how fragile the system is, and how dramatic the impacts can be.

Common tern arrived later than usual across the country this year due to the wet spring, then started to nest in full force when summer finally came. Just after the tern settled down, another cold, very wet spell hit, which caused the common tern to abandon their nests. The impacts on other species has been evident across the country, with the first brood of breeding waders being hit particularly hard.

The unusually wet weather has also resulted in water levels across the reserve increasing dramatically compared to an ‘average’ year – water levels are currently 40cm higher than this time last year, and we would expect to see these levels mid-winter, not mid-summer.

We are in a fairly unique position with water levels. Most reserves can open or close sluices to move water around the reserve, to maintain the best water level for the time of year. Climate resilience can easily be built into these systems, with excess water moved off site, or stored elsewhere on site and utilised during droughts.

RSPB Dungeness, however, sits on a freshwater aquifer which provides drinking water to the surrounding area. Combine this with the shingle substrate, and we are effectively managing a wetland on a sieve, with no water level control possible. There is limited scope within the Hayfields, but nothing across the main lakes. We are very much at the liberty of the weather, so the habitats need to be built accordingly.

This was trialled in 2017 with the Re-Tern project – creating the new islands at a range of heights, so that no matter what the water level, there will always be some island space available at key times of year. This has worked wonders, and despite the highest water levels on record for this time of year, there are still plenty of islands above the water level. This technique will be used throughout the rest of the reserve with the habitat creation projects we’re planning.

 

Habitat creation

RSPB Dungeness may be the oldest RSPB reserve, but that doesn’t mean we plan to stand still. We have some exciting ideas in the pipeline to keep improving the reserve for wildlife, and to help add climate resilience. The Re-Tern project proved a success in its first year, and we want to replicate this across the reserve. We’re making plans for similar projects on ARC, Dengemarsh, New Excavations and other areas of Burrowes Pit to help increase habitat for threatened wildlife and help bring wildlife closer to our visitors. We’re also working on plans to improve the Hayfields and Boulderwall fields for breeding waders, wintering wildfowl, and bumblebees as well.

Much of Dungeness is pristine vegetated shingle, which is an incredibly fragile and rare habitat. Surprisingly, the reserve supports a third of the UK’s floral species, as well as many specialist fungi and lichens. We need to manage the delicate balance of creating new habitat whilst ensuring existing habitats also thrive.

It goes without saying that habitat works on this scale, and in such a sensitive landscape, are not quick or easy. Plans are in their early stages, and we will keep everyone updated as they progress.

New Excavations - Tilly Hopkins

The whole team have been carrying out a fantastic job in very challenging conditions. The global pandemic has certainly not made things easy and has caused quite a few setbacks. Despite that, our warden and their reserve team volunteers have been carrying out an incredible job managing the reserve – whether that’s water levels in the Hayfields, clearing vegetation at ARC to restore lost habitats, opening up new viewing areas for our visitors, creating fantastic new Lookouts, or surveying our fabulous wildlife. Thank you to all our volunteers – you’re all amazing!

If you have any questions about the reserve or are interested in volunteering to help manage this special place, please speak to a member of the Welcome Team on your next visit. Alternatively, you can contact us on dungeness@rspb.org.uk

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