Following the government’s announcement for people to stay at home, along with all other RSPB nature reserves we sadly closed Titchwell Marsh and Snettisham on 24th March to all visitors. This was not an easy decision by the RSPB as we recognise how important access to nature and open space is for people’s wellbeing. However, the health of staff, volunteers and visitors has been of paramount importance to the organisation throughout this pandemic. This initial approach led to reserve based staff working from home and only visiting reserves for essential work under the government’s guidelines, such as legal compliance, animal husbandry and safety works and checks.
With the announcement of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, Martin Harper, Director of Conservation said: “These have been some of the most challenging weeks in the history of the RSPB. We’ve closed our nature reserves, postponed crucial conservation work and brought home colleagues from across the world. These changes have all had a significant impact on our income.
Because of this, like many organisations, we are accessing the Government’s Job Retention Scheme and initially asking around 50% of our colleagues who can no longer fulfil their roles to take leave from their day jobs. This will enable them to focus on caring for others, learning and development or volunteering for other organisations if they are able. “
For the North West Norfolk team who are responsible for managing four nature reserves: Titchwell, Snettisham and two confidential sites, this meant 15 full and part-time staff were furloughed end March/early April leaving Hayley (Senior Sites Manager) and Jim (Site Manager) to look after the reserves. All volunteering roles were also put on hold.
As a result of government and RSPB guidelines all but absolutely essential work on the reserves stopped. This included breeding bird surveys, monthly WeBS counts and general estate maintenance. Thankfully as restrictions slowly began to lift Jim and Hayley were able to restart the protection and monitoring of ringed plovers at Snettisham, which is a Norfolk stronghold for breeding ringed plovers and at Titchwell. At Snettisham lockdown had resulted in more local people exploring what was on their doorstep and the risk of people trampling nests had increased.
As restrictions continued to ease after six weeks of furlough leave, I was able to return to work at the end of May, just in time to catch the end of the breeding season. More on that in another blog.
Following RSPB guidance, it was time to start planning how and when we could reopen Snettisham and Titchwell to visitors. It is important to note that although we were incredibly keen to reopen our reserves to visitors the health and wellbeing of our staff, volunteers, the local community and visitors is of paramount importance. With our reserves having been closed for several months we also needed to make sure the wildlife was ready to welcome people back. Many birds nested on or close to the paths and in other areas we wouldn’t usually expect them, such as hides. They continue to do so into July and we continue to be mindful that reintroducing people to the reserves could result in nest failure which of course isn’t acceptable.
With estate maintenance work having stopped on our reserves, nature certainly took over and it was clear that it would take time to get ready to reopen.
Our quieter Snettisham reserve proved simpler to open; much of it had remained accessible throughout lockdown to the local community because of the public right of way that runs around it. Nonetheless it still required Hayley, Jim and me spending time clearing the overgrown vegetation along the path from the car park to the pits. We also had a suite of new signage to install and repairs to carry out. The end of May to early June is also the height of the breeding season for ringed plovers and so we spent significant amount of time installing and moving cordons in response to where these birds were nesting. On 1st June we were pleased to reopen Snettisham to visitors and in response to lots of new visitors to the reserve we have been able to bring back some volunteers to act as roving rangers; ensuring our nesting birds and roosting waders are not disturbed.
In common with other parts of England as lockdown eased, we too experienced a host of littering on our reserves. Fly tipping at Snettisham car park led to us carrying out several trips to King’s Lynn Recycling Centre when it reopened costing us time and money. We have also been dealing with large amounts of trespass, fence damage and littering at one of our confidential reserves with strictly no public access; again, taking up considerable amount of our time.
For those familiar with Titchwell you will know the paths, especially the West Bank Path, is narrow with limited passing places and there is no option for a one-way system, unlike other reserves such as Minsmere. This makes social distancing challenging. We also knew that the breeding birds, particularly on the beach, would be vulnerable and the site would not be able to provide the necessary space for hundreds of visitors flocking to access the beach during the fine weather without robust visitor management in place. As an organisation it is imperative that we ensure the health and wellbeing of our staff, volunteers, visitors and wildlife hence the careful approach to us reopening.
The small team of three worked incredibly hard monitoring breeding birds, clearing fallen trees across our boardwalks, repairing broken outlet pipes, clearing and widening paths, where possible, maintaining signage, keeping staff areas clean and Covid secure as well as dealing many other issues as they arose.
Last week we welcomed back more volunteers to help with path resurfacing, the cleaning and repainting of picnic tables and other estate maintenance tasks. We also welcomed back our Visitor Operations Manager, Lucy, and four other team members who have all been re-inducted in the new ways of working after four months furlough leave. The visitor operations team have helped us deliver the final touches of the reopening plan and will be the first faces you will see when you visit the reserve.
When you visit will see that contractors have begun work on a new welcome hub near the shop and café, to replace the blue summer house in the car park. This project had been planned for some time and the building will provide a much-improved place for our team to welcome visitors to reserve throughout the year and provide an entry point to the reserve. We had to ensure the groundworks were completed before we opened the reserve to visitors as we could not make the pre-COVID planned diversions COVID secure.
I hope that this has given you a flavour of what we have been up to over the past four months.
Please read this https://bit.ly/394zpuH blog for all the information you need prior to visiting as things will be different.
I hope you have a wonderful visit.
NW Norfolk Reserves Warden
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