Reflecting on another year on Northumberland coast

The Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership held its annual forum in Bamburgh last Friday.

Saturday, 7th October 2017, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 11:05 am
The group walking up the Northumberland Coast Path in the summer, which was the subject of an AONB blog.

As in previous years, members of the ‘small but beautifully-formed’ AONB staff team opened the event by talking about what they had been up to, before the guest speakers took to the floor, reflecting on the variety of projects taking place in the area, which stretches from the Coquet estuary up to Berwick.

AONB officer David Feige began by looking quite a way back but with relevance to the future; 2018 marks the 60th birthday of the Northumberland Coast AONB.

After the Second World War, Britain needed 750,000 new houses, the country was nearly bankrupt, hundreds of thousands of soldiers needed to be demobilised and the world was moving into the Cold War era. There were also major steps forward with the development of the NHS, the welfare state and the guarantee of education for all.

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But among all this, there were also people who were concerned about protecting our landscapes, nature and the environment.

“I find it so inspiring that people were still thinking about wildlife and our beautiful places and how they should be protected,” David said.

Reports that were commissioned led to the 1949 National Parks Act, which included areas of outstanding natural beauty, and the Northumberland Coast AONB was designated on March 21, 1958.

David referred in his speech last year to the many unknowns surrounding Brexit and mentioned it again in relation to starting to look at the partnership’s next management plan; the current plan is for the period 2014 to 2019. “Those uncertainties remain uncertain,” he added.

Iain Robson, the access and natural environment officer, also referred to Brexit, in terms of the what will happen with agri-environmental schemes.

“Providing good-quality advice to farmers is key,” he said, with a trip to the RSPB’s commercial arable farm in Cambridgeshire helping him on this front this year.

He also reflected on some of the projects which he has been involved in, including Coast Care and Peregrini, which are dealt with in more detail on these pages.

Ongoing at present is the development of the England Coast Path, a project being implemented by Natural England to create a continuous path around the country’s coastline. The Northumberland Coast Path provides a template for a large part of this in the county, but there are issues in finding the best route at Waren Mill and Budle Bay.

It ‘hasn’t been a great year’ for the little tern project with the weather being a factor at Lindisfarne and predation causing problems at Long Nanny. A complaint has also been lodged with the Civil Aviation Authority after a microlight caused problems at the latter.

Iain said: “The only way to protect breeding birds on the shore is to fence them off.”

“It wouldn’t be a talk from me if I didn’t mention buses,” he continued, mentioning the journey planners which have been produced to help visitors explore the area without using their cars. Parking is one of the main concerns on the coast and one double-decker bus can take 70 cars off the road.

It’s all part of one of the key balancing acts in the AONB: “How do we retain the economic value of tourism and protect the very thing that people come here to see in the first place?”

Historic and built environment officer, Jessica Turner, talked about the progress of the Accessing Aidan project to transform the crypt at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh into a visitor centre.

Also in Bamburgh, a conservation area appraisal has been carried out, while a conservation area assessment in Beadnell concluded that it does warrant a historic core, with work now taking place with the county council’s conservation officer.

Underling the fact that ‘chance finds still happen’, Jessica reported that the exciting discovery of a skeleton of a man aged around 20 in a Bronze Age burial cyst on a farm near Rock, which is still being investigated.

Finally, Catherine Gray, communications and funding officer, provided a run-down of the many ways that the AONB partnership gets its message out there, from its visitor guide to social media. This year, a blog of guided walks up the Northumberland Coast Path was published on its website as well as in the Gazette.

Catherine is also responsible for the Sustainable Development Fund, which, so far this year, has supported a project at Howick Arboretum, skiff-building, the Bellshill Farm trail, Wilson’s Tales, a feasibility study in Seahouses and Dig It!, an exhibition at Alnwick’s Bailiffgate Museum.

Report spells out the state of nature across country

The aim of the State of Nature report is to provide a clear, unified message for politicians and policy-makers on the natural world in the UK.

Involving more than 50 organisations, from the large to the very focused, as well as thousands of volunteers carrying out surveys, it strives to be objective, not subjective, and non-campaigning, according to the RSPB’s principal conservation scientist, Mark Eaton.

The involvement of so many groups in its production, along with the backing of Sir David Attenborough, means it carries weight with people in government.

“The support of Sir David Attenborough has been immensely important in terms of getting the message out there and getting media attention,” Mark said.

In terms of what the report says, between 1970 and 2013, 56 per cent of species declined with 40 per cent showing strong or moderate declines. Forty-four per cent of species showed an increase with 29 per cent showing a strong or moderate increase.

Between 2002 and 2013, the figures are similar with 53 per cent of species declining and 47 per cent increasing, although across different species, there is a huge mix.

An index of species’ status, based on abundance and occupancy data, has fallen by 16 per cent since 1970, although again there is a large range – the abundance of little egrets has gone up hugely.

An index describing the population trends of species of special conservation concern in the UK has fallen by 67 per cent since 1970.

Mark said that while this is not surprising in some ways as these species were given the status for a reason, it is still worrying that despite additional protection and support, the declines have still been dramatic.

The report also looks at the reasons behind this, with the positive and negative impacts of various factors measured. The factor with the largest negative impact is the intensive management of agricultural land.

Climate change has also had a highly significant impact on the UK’s nature, although to date there has been a more even balance between positive and negative effect, with more species extending their range.

However, as climate change progresses, the effect of increasing temperatures may not continue to be positive.

While it is difficult to provide objective data for a small area like Northumberland, Mark did reflect on national trends and what it could mean for Northumberland’s uplands, farmland, coast and sea.

In conservation we trust

Enterprise Neptune was launched 52 years ago and the National Trust now looks after 778 miles and counting of our coastline.

Phil Dyke, the Trust’s coast and marine advisor, explained that the key messages, then and now, are think for the long term, have good evidence, be ambitious, capture people’s imagination and harness public support.

In 1895, Dinas Oleu, in Barmouth, Wales, was given to the National Trust by Fanny Talbot, becoming the charity’s first piece of coastline.

Nature began to come under threat from 1900 to 1920 before pressure from industry increased after the First World War and pressure from housing increased from the 1930s onwards.

In 1964/65, work took place to survey the coasts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland and while one-third was deemed to be already developed beyond conservation, around 900 miles was said to be pristine and warranting protection. And so, the Neptune campaign was born with its first purchase being Whiteford Burrows, in South Wales.

The acquisitions continue to this day with the Trust buying 200 acres of land at Tughall Mill to continue its conservation work for Arctic terns recently, and its purchase of land at the White Cliffs of Dover was announced last week.

Looking to the future, Phil explained that there are six themes for what our coast should be – healthy and adaptable; rich in wildlife; enjoyed; beautiful; rich in culture; productive.

Taking care of coastline

Coast Care is a new initiative to train, support and resource volunteers for the Northumberland coast from Amble to Berwick and inland as far as the A1.

Project assistant Laura Shearer explained that it will involve a number of different roles, for example, practical conservation, site wardens, administration, photography, wildlife surveying and heritage at risk monitoring.

Volunteers who sign up will benefit from training and skills development, will become part of a team and make a difference to the coastline, while Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Go Outdoors are offering rewards for those providing 50 or 100 hours of volunteering.

Coast Care is only eight weeks old, but a fair amount of progress has already been made with a volunteer centre, workshop and storage unit set up at The Hub in Seahouses.

Seventy volunteers took part in the Great British Beach Clean, clearing 130kg of rubbish from beaches in Berwick, Beadnell, Bamburgh and Alnmouth, while Coast Care so far has a total of 130 volunteers on its books and a presence online and on social media.

The aim is to engage with 2,000-plus volunteers, including setting up a Young Rangers programme.

“The main thing we would like to do is make a difference,” said Laura.

For more information about getting involved, visit project its wings

Peregrini Lindisfarne is drawing to a close, but there are still projects to be completed and its legacy will live on.

The £1.8million, three-year project is a Landscape Partnership, which aims to preserve areas of distinctive landscape – for Peregrini, that is Holy Island and the adjacent mainland area.

Iain Robson, from the AONB partnership, said that 513 volunteers have been involved so far, providing 11,674 hours of their time, equivalent to £250,000, while 378 skilled volunteers have shared their knowledge while 49 professionals have contributed their expertise.

But while there are just two-and-a-half months left of the three years, its legacy will be in things like the people who have been trained up, for example, four people were given the skills to deliver participatory arts projects, which culminated in 2,500 visitors attending an exhibition in the Crossman Hall during the Holy Island Festival.

The willow sculpture trail on Holy Island, which is now coming down for the winter, will continue to interest those who visit, while whin grassland is being brought back through the volunteers who have cleared vast areas of gorse.

There are also still capital projects, involving a decent chunk of the £1.8million, to be completed, including creating gateway features by the main car park on Holy Island and at Budle Bay, and improvement works at Cocklawburn.

Telling tales of local life

The Wilson’s Tales project is itself a tale of two men – a 19th-century editor of the Berwick Advertiser and a modern-day accountant.

Born in 1804, John Mackay Wilson started publishing at the age of 15 and researching stories from the Borders.

By the age of 30, when he had become editor of the Berwick Advertiser, he had collected 66 of them and began to publish one a week.

They became a minor publishing sensation of their day, but just less than a year after he started publishing the tales, Wilson died on October 3, 1835.

Fast-forward to 2013 and a man named Andrew Ayre began publishing Wilson’s Tales again and volume four is soon to be launched.

However, it has expanded beyond just republishing the stories, with Mr Ayre, the project manager, likening it to the Edinburgh Fringe; it provides a platform for writers, artists and – as the forum was to discover first-hand – actors to interpret the tales in their own way.

The stories are rewritten for a modern audience by local writers, illustrated by local artists and performed by local theatre groups.

And as it turned out, this explanation by Nick Jones, one of the writers involved in the project, was just a prelude to an unexpected performance of one of the tales – Lancelot Errington and his nephew Mark – by the Northumberland Theatre Company, whose three-person cast had the audience laughing and enjoying the dramatic interlude almost immediately.

The Wilson’s Tales project has been supported by the Northumberland Coast AONB’s Sustainable Development Fund.

For more information, visit past treasures

The day concluded with a recap of this year’s archaeological discoveries on Holy Island, which could be internationally significant due to their links to the early Christian saints.

Until this summer, the assumption had been that the original Anglo-Saxon churches stood down in the shelter of a high rocky ridge known as the Heugh in the area now occupied by the St Mary’s Parish Church and the Priory.

But excavations in June up on the Heugh suggest a very different configuration as they revealed the stone foundations of a small rectangular building with a chancel-type configuration at the east end.

The crude and unmortared walls, very simple window arches and positioning of a possible alter stone all suggest an early date which has led to speculation that this is a church building which could date from the seventh century.

Excavations last year further west on the Heugh revealed a massive foundation wall that archaeologists are now speculating is a foundation for a watch tower. The Venerable Bede, in his Life of St Cuthbert, made reference to a signal from Inner Farne being seen from the watch tower on Holy Island to mark the death of the saint.

In her talk, the AONB’s heritage officer, Jessica Turner, highlighted the number of different pieces of information which, based on historical knowledge and other discoveries, lend credence to the theory of this being one of the early churches, despite no dating evidence having been found so far.

What is even more remarkable was that the digs were carried out as part of the community archaeology project supported by Peregrini Lindisfarne and led by Richard Carlton, director of The Archaeological Practice.