Minsmere's visitor boom

MINSMERE'S popularity as a tourist attraction has grown as Britons take more interest in the environment in general and conservation in particular.Membership of the RSPB has grown over the years - when Minsmere was first managed by the society in 1947 it was a few thousand and only broke through the 10,000 mark nationally in 1960.

MINSMERE'S popularity as a tourist attraction has grown as Britons take more interest in the environment in general and conservation in particular.

Membership of the RSPB has grown over the years - when Minsmere was first managed by the society in 1947 it was a few thousand and only broke through the 10,000 mark nationally in 1960.

It increased five-fold in the 1960s, passed the 100,000 mark in 1972 and has continued to grow ever since.

The Society's membership passed the million mark 10 years ago and has continued to grow.

At Minsmere that growth has been mirrored.

During its early years the reserve attracted about 600 visitors a year, who had to apply in writing for a pass from RSPB head office before arriving.

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Over the Easter weekend this year the reserve had 600 visitors a day - and that figure is expected to be matched this weekend if the weather is fine.

Interest in the environment and conservation has been reflected in many books and television programmes - which often cannot resist coming to Minsmere.

Among those who have done much to popularise the interest in birdwatching, and the countryside in general is Bill Oddie who first visited the reserve, without a permit, as a teenager in the 1950s.

He recalled: “Back in those days Minsmere security would have done credit to a prisoner of war camp. Nevertheless I was young, fearless, and - above all - desperate for new birds.

“Thus it was that I climbed a gate, slipped under a fence, scampered along a footpath and hurled myself into the nearest hide.”

Things have changed since then and Bill said that the friendlier it got towards people, the more birds seemed to fly in.

In his programme “Birding with Bill Oddie,” he told viewers: "If you asked me where I would go to see the biggest number of different species of birds, in Britain, in one day, I'd say Minsmere, in Suffolk, in early May.”

And if that recommendation doesn't attract birdwatchers to Minsmere over the next few weeks, nothing will.

See tomorrow's Evening Star for full details of Minsmere's anniversary weekend.

MANAGERS at Minsmere rely on an army of volunteers to help them run one of the largest bird reserves in the country.

Without them it would be impossible to give visitors the kind of experience they find at the reserve.

Volunteers help run the shop and the tearoom - with professional support - and also staff the main desk which issues permits to visitors.

An important role for visitors at busy times is to sit in the hides and help less-experienced birdwatchers to identify what they are looking at.

The advice they are able to give is often welcome and can help convert someone with a casual interest in birds into someone determined to find out more - to join the RSPB and come back to Minsmere time and again.

Volunteers also get their hands dirty and help professionals on some of the physical work that needs to carry on throughout the year on the reserve.

Maintaining the habitat is vital - otherwise the reedbeds would cover all the water and eventually all the ponds that are vital for so many birds would be lost.

The work is managed by professionals, but they are often grateful for the muscle provided by willing volunteers.

Ian Barthorpe, who organises the publicity and marketing for the reserve, said: “One of the important things is to match up the volunteer to the most appropriate job.

“If you have someone in a hide they have to be able to identify different birds, which can often be quite similar to each other. But you also need someone who has good communication skills so they can tell the other visitors what they are looking at.

“But there is no point in having a volunteer who is able to talk to people but can't spot one bird from another.

“However they could be very useful in the visitor centre advising people here for the first time where to go on any particular day. It really is a case of horses for courses,” Mr Barthorpe said.

HEATHER Maclean is a regular volunteer at Minsmere helping visitors get more out of the reserve. In fact she loves the place so much that she moved to nearby Sizewell from London so she could spend more time there.

She has two main roles at the reserve - she leads guided tours showing visitors around and also spends time in hides pointing out the birds that can be seen.

“As part of the guide in a hide scheme, I'm really carrying on doing what I had been doing for years anyway,” she said.

“I've always been happy to help people identify what they are looking at or pointing out what is around, but it is much easier when you are wearing an official badge. Visitors feel much happier about asking advice if you are there officially.”

Ms Maclean visits Minsmere regularly. At this time of the year she is there three or four times a week, and part of the attraction for her is that there is no fixed rota.

“When I'm a guide in a hide it's a case of just turning up and putting on the badge. There is a group of us and we're usually about at weekends and during the holidays. This coming weekend with the anniversary events will be very busy,” she said.

She is originally from London and has had a holiday home at Sizewell for about 20 years. Four years ago she decided to move to Suffolk permanently.

“I always tried to get up to Suffolk as much as possible, and in the end I couldn't stay working in London - it was getting in the way of the important things in life, like visiting Minsmere!” she said.

THINGS at Minsmere have changed dramatically over the last 60 years as the number and variety of birds that can be found at the reserve has multiplied.

Birds like avocets and marsh harriers which were once considered real rarities are now commonplace there, while every year there are subtle changes to what can be seen.

Whether it has anything to do with global warming is open to question, but the fact is that some species that were always seen as rare passage migrants which attracted a rush of “twitchers” are now turning up at the reserve on an annual basis.

It is possible in the future that spoonbill, common crane, and bee-eaters could breed in the reserve. Little egrets have become common residents over the last few years.

Another possible - and spectacular - arrival could be the white-tailed, or sea, eagle which could be re-introduced to the Suffolk coast by Natural England.

This is Britain's largest bird of prey and is already established on the west coast of Scotland.

A warmer climate would benefit many insects.

Recent arrivals - Mediterranean gull, Dartford warbler, and a massive increase in Cetti's warbler population - are all believed to be partly due to global warming.

But global warming is not all good news for the reserve. It has also been blamed for recent falls in the numbers of lesser spotted woodpeckers, willow tits, and spotted flycatchers.

The spotted flycatchers' problems stem from the contraction of its wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa which are being eaten up by desert.

Other species could be at risk from global warming in the future - numbers of winter wildfowl could fall and lapwings will come under more pressure if marshes dry out. However declines more difficult to predict than new arrivals.

Global warming presents other threats to the reserve itself as the sea level rises and the east coast of Britain sinks.

The increasing frequency and ferocity of winter storms is also a major concern - last winter the sea wall was breached in several places along the Suffolk coast.

The sea did break through the first of three defences at Minsmere, but it did not get into the Scrape or other delicate habitats.

Much of the ongoing conservation work is aimed at ensuring the freshwater habitats can be protected - further up the coast part of the Dingle Marshes was flooded by seawater which led to the loss of valuable habitat for bitterns.

The Environment Agency is looking at plans to protect Minsmere in medium term while the RSPB is looking for new locations for creating reedbeds and other freshwater habitats in areas not vulnerable to the sea to establish alternative sites for bitterns.

In the very long term (60+ years), Minsmere may become an estuary, which would mean a different range of wildlife.

THE RSPB is a charity and relies on the support of its members - which total more than a million.

Much of our work has been supported by grant-giving organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), DEFRA (through agri-environment schemes), Suffolk County Council, Suffolk Environmental Trust, EEDA and SITA.

All of these have supported Minsmere in recent years, and continue to do so.

Special places like Minsmere just wouldn't be around without ongoing support from grant givers and individual supporters of the RSPB and other environmental charities.

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