Human activities can have significant impacts on wildlife in quite subtle ways that are not always appreciated by those of us who enjoy going out to look at nature. For example, simply walking close to sensitive areas such as bird nesting or roosting sites has the potential to drive those birds from an area. This was the theme of a workshop we attended yesterday afternoon, hosted by the local Wildlife Trust as part of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Project.
During the afternoon Colin Wilkinson from the RSPB presented the results of a survey that had been commissioned to assess the level of public access and usage of the Upper Nene Valley gravel pits. These pits have Special Protected Area status due to the numbers of migratory over-wintering birds that use them. They are also well used by the public but at the moment we have no idea what impact this is having on the birds, though there is anecdotal evidence that it is considerable at some sites.
The consultants who conducted the study used a combination of face-to-face interviews, site surveys, etc. There’s too much in the report to go into all of the detail – you can access the full text here – but I’ve copied the highlights from the summary below:
- The majority (98%) of visitors were on a short visit from their home
- Group size for interviewed groups ranged from 1-8; 51% of interviewees were visiting on their own. Stanwick Lakes was notable in that group size tended to be larger here.
- Half of the 939 interviewees had dogs with them (636 dogs in total).
- Across all sites and survey periods, dog walking was the most common main activity (48% of interviewees).
- During the winter, a higher proportion of people interviewed were dog walking (48% of interviews during the winter compared to 36% in the spring at the 6 locations surveyed in both seasons).
- Over the winter, the main activities given by interviewees were: dog walking (53%), walking (26%), and wildlife watching (6%).
- Most (77%) interviewees had arrived by car to the survey point
- Most interviewees were frequent visitors (60% indicated that they visited at least once a week).
- Most visits were short: 50% of visitors stated that they spent less than one hour on site and, in total, 88% spent less than two hours at the survey location.
- The quality of the site was the most common reason for choice of site (61% interviewees), but was not the most common ‘main’ reason’; 32% interviewees gave proximity to home as the main factor underpinning their choice of site. Proximity to home seemed particularly important for dog walkers (44%) and those fishing (40%).
- A total of 863 visitor routes were collected, either through lines on paper maps during the interview or via GPS units which were given out.
- There were significant differences between sites in the lengths of routes taken by visitors. There were also differences between activities. The mean route length for dog walkers was 3.1km. For cyclists the average route was 7.3km while those fishing tended to have the shortest routes (0.6km average).
- At three of the six sites that were surveyed in the winter and the spring/summer, the median route length increased in the spring/summer when compared to the winter, stayed the same at two and fell at one, suggesting no real pattern of people walking further in the summer .
- A relatively high proportion (78% of interviewees) indicated that they were aware of the importance of the area for wintering birds. Around a quarter (24%) of all interviewees responded that they were aware that of the international importance of the area for nature conservation.
- 908 postcodes were mapped reflecting the home postcodes of visitors. The two main settlements were Northampton (137 postcodes from the winter interviews fell within the settlement) and Wellingborough (88 postcodes from the winter interviews).
- Dog walkers and joggers lived closest to the site at which they were visiting, with median values of 2.3 and 2.9km respectively
- Visitor rates (visits per household) declined rapidly with distance such that a relatively small proportion of people visit from distances beyond 3km of the surveyed access points.
The challenge now will be to understand if and how these visitors are impacting on the abundance and diversity of birds in the Upper Nene Valley, and what can be done to minimise any disturbance. Clearly there’s a balance to be struck between public recreation and wildlife protection, and this will be the theme of future work by the Nene Valley NIA Project.