Wildlife Conservation versus Visitor Engagement
At Mid Point a lone, old ambulance stands incongruous. The ever changing Severn Estuary stretches out in front of it, sometimes brimming full, sometimes just trickling across hectares and hectares of mud. Here it is easy to see why Peter Scott chose Slimbridge to found the charity that has become the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).
Mid Point is at the end of Slimbridge’s Summer Walkway. The name is a clue to one of the big challenges WWT faces. With reserves that are famous for ground nesting waders in spring and overwintering wildfowl throughout the darker months, it is crucial that WWT can restrict public access through much of the year to give the birds a chance to breed or feed and rest.
Peter Scott was an early champion of the benefits of engagement. He believed the only way to build support for nature was to give people an amazing, up close experience of wildlife. He built WWT on the basis of “conservation, research, education and recreation” and back in the 1940s the latter two were really quite revolutionary. But if the reserve is out of bounds for much of the year, how do we engage visitors with nature?
Lauri MacLean, WWT’s Senior Reserves Management Planning Officer, explains that this dilemma has physically shaped WWT reserves: “If you look at a map of Slimbridge, you’ll see that the visitor centre and the grounds where visitors can freely walk are in the centre with all the hides looking out onto the surrounding reserve.”
The birdwatching hide is one way we get around the dilemma of conservation versus engagement. Again, Peter Scott had clear ideas on hide design. They were not just a place for people to observe nature, but also a building which would be acceptable to ducks. He would even go to the length of stipulating that cow dung be thrown onto the tiled roofs of new hides to quickly encourage lichen growth and age the tiles.
We also create special habitats close to hides, such as the bank of nest holes by the Kingfisher Hide at Slimbridge – the diameter and length of the holes have been designed specifically to suit kingfishers and the depth of water outside is perfect for them to fish. Similar banks, but designed for sand martins, have been built at the London and Arundel Wetland Centres.
And so, with some careful thought, it becomes less of a trade-off between what’s good for the birds and what’s good for the people. The birds don’t feel threatened by the obvious presence of people and the people get a chance to observe them up close. Another trick that Scott championed is shielding the approaches to hides with earthen banks and avenues, allowing you to reach your vantage point in comfort without flushing the birds or having to stoop and crawl.
Comfort has been another guiding factor at WWT. Scott was apparently inspired on a trip to a North American hunting lodge where he was able to watch roosting snow geese through a picture window from the comfort of an arm chair. The effect is recreated in WWT throughout the UK. And it fits with Scott’s intention that a day out at WWT should be as appealing to those in smart coats and high heels as it is to those in wellies sporting binoculars. It is something that Lauri also picks up:
“I think the thing that sets WWT apart from other places I’ve worked is the lengths it goes to engage as wide an audience as possible. It’s fantastic because pressure on conservation is increasing everywhere as populations grow, so it’s vital we get people to value nature. Obviously as a Management Planner I can see the limitations, but a lot of thought goes into opening up areas wherever possible.”
WWT Arundel Wetland Centre is cited as one of the best places in the UK to see water voles. You might see them if you wait patiently on one of the paths, but your chances are much increased if you take one of the
free, guided electric boat safaris. Silently gliding across the water, getting away from the paths and the noise, many people come away having heard the distinctive plop and seen a water vole’s whiskery nose and
bright eyes propelled across the surface. It's a thrilling experience and one that brings the best of both worlds. The voles are thriving and the visitors are too.
Similar experiences can be had at Slimbridge, Llanelli and Martin Mere in the two-man Canadian canoes for hire. Low to the water and gliding quietly through reed beds, visitors get a completely different perspective on reed warblers, purple loosestrife and water voles. Well thought out access to parts of the reserve opens a window on a world that is often the preserve of reserve staff and volunteers but is truly powerful stuff.
Engagement is in the DNA of WWT but there’s no doubt that we have to manage for wildlife by limiting access. For all the weight that Peter Scott gave people in the success of conservation, he was far from blind to the impact of humanity. In one of his more radical paintings, The natural world of man, man’s dilemma in his relationship with nature is symbolised by his one white hand and one black hand.
So really, does it just come down to a moral balance? Is there always a trade off between conservation and engagement? Well, with a bit of thought, it seems there are all sorts of neat ways to allow wildlife space and peace whilst people still get up close and, hopefully, become totally enthralled in wildlife and conservation.