We actually got to walk round the reserve at Farlington today, a rather rare event, the reason was that we were accompanying a group from Sparsholt College. The walk could have been made in more pleasant conditions, the stiff south-east wind along with a temperature of about three degrees, without the windchill, kept us on the move. Seeing the birds well was a bit of a challenge too and many were flightier than usual, as they often are in windy weather. We did see good flocks of brent geese and at the Deeps the largest flock of black-tailed godwit I have seen for sometime, something like 150 birds. Also at the Deeps we saw colour-ringed brent goose R6GX, a bird ringed at Farlington as a juvenile female on 1st December 1999, her parents were R7GX and RNGJ, I don’t know if either of them is still alive.
The Sparsholt students had visited the London Wetlands Centre a few weeks ago, the contrast with Farlington was probably quite stark, it also illustrates the change that has taken place in the priorities for site management in the forty or so years between the start fo work on the two sites. Fifty years ago when Farlington was first made a reserve designations were few and the emphasis was very much on “saving sites”, from development, mismanagement or just general lack of them being valued for what they were. Sites were being lost regularly, so this was entirely reasonable. Since then most sites of high value for wildlife have been designated and now they are also required to be appropriately managed, so saving has become, at least theoretically unnecessary. Today the visitor is at the heart of many, if not most new reserves, so access and facilities to enhance the experience are key features.
Farlington is very much of a time, the reserve has no formal parking, hides, toilets or any of the other typical infrastructure of the modern nature reserve. When it was set up we just took over the management of the best bits for wildlife, leaving nowhere to put facilities without damaging the habitat, all of which is now protected. To run a modern reserve you actually need a good bit of peripheral area to put car parks, buildings etc on and we just don’ t have that at Farlington. I previously worked at Blashford Lakes, which is typical of what can be done on a less designated site with good access and room for infrastructure, all in all it makes for a much better reserve for visitors. However there is no doubt that Farlington Marshes is a hugely much more important site for wildlife and rarity of habitat than either Blashford Lakes or the London Wetland Centre, so it would be wrong to say it was not such a “good” reserve.
A good visitor reserve will be easy to access, have a good area of undesignated land around it and will probably be a wetland. Why a wetland? It is a matter of how easy it is to make new features and have them settle down and how easy it is to attract larger, attractive and easily seen wildlife. In fact this can quite easily be done on sites with little or no existing wildlife, so long as the geography will allow the right habitat to be created. The upside of this is that we can make a site of value to wildlife and visitors where there was almost nothing before, so a real win for conservation and support for the idea of looking after habitats. The downside is that more “difficult” habitats, ones where the wildlife is less obvious or the experience of visiting just more difficult begin to seem somehow less important, when they are probably the more important for the longterm survival of species and biodiversity.
Obviously both have important roles, conservation needs popular support and the Blashford Lakes of this world will attract people and garner support, they will do something for habitat and species conservation too, but we will always need sites like Farlington top deliver much of our conservation, even if they struggle to deliver the best visitor experience. Of course if you are very, very lucky you might just get a site where you an successfully do both.