In 2018, following an initiative by the former Devon Birds Chairman Kevin Cox, access restrictions at South Milton Ley were lifted allowing the public to use the paths around the perimeter of the reserve. However his plans to allow dogs in were blocked, following a concerted campaign by Devon Birds’ members.
In practice, the changes have made little difference to the numbers of visitors. Outside of the early breeding season, when males are singing throughout the reserve, birds can be extremely difficult to see in the dense cover of the reed bed and there is little to grab the attention of people making their way through to Thurlestone Sands. Concerns about litter, barbeques, theft and vandalism have proved to be largely unfounded. Late summer is the one period of concern.
A field adjacent to the sewage works operates as a low cost, no frills camp site from late July to the end of August each year. Their website asks guests to respect the environment and the surrounding countryside, which the majority do but it is clear that a few of the campers are not “country savvy”. Earlier this month I wondered what the farmer’s reaction would have been to a family playing football in the middle of his ripening wheat field!
As a lone ringer, I have done everything I can to reduce the time it takes to set up and take down the nets at SML. In many of the net rides I attach the net loops to the poles using small carabiners or snap hooks, tied to the poles with elastic cord, rather than by slipping the loops over the poles themselves. This means I can leave the poles tethered in place between sessions which halves the setting up time. Unfortunately, these carabiners seem to be attractive to campers and there have been several thefts, always at this time of year. It has now reached the stage where I take a bag of replacements with me and remove those carabiners closest to the path at the end of a session, which rather defeats the object of using them in the first place!
Dog owners are the other issue. A minority seem to think that they and their animals have a right to access other people’s land without restriction. Thus, when I intercepted a family today, with two dogs off the lead and running around a net ride, I was not best pleased. A medium sized dog blundering into a mist net can reduce it to shreds in seconds and at c.£100 a net this is best avoided. I know another ringer who would have hurled abuse at them and adopted a confrontational approach and I had to resist the urge myself. I did point out that they had entered the reserve via a gate with a large “No Dogs” sign on it and then explained that dogs were a significant threat both to my nets and any trapped birds but also to the ground nesting and feeding birds, reptiles and small mammals at the Ley and that, even when on a lead, there is overwhelming evidence in the literature that their presence reduces the numbers and diversity present.
To be fair to the family, the animals were immediately restrained, and they offered to retrace their steps to the entrance. It was their assumption that they had a right to enter the reserve with their animals and could ignore the signs on the gate that rankled. Putting that aside, I explained what I was doing and how ringing data contributes to conservation efforts and showed them the ringing process with a Robin, Dunnock and Pied Flycatcher. They were a little surprised at the use of a film canister to weigh the birds and I had to reassure them that it was quicker and eliminated the risk of injury when compared to previous methods! PR exercise over, they continued on their way to the beach.
The Pied Flycatcher apart, which was my first in eight years ringing at SML, things were pretty quiet with 35 new birds ringed: 4 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 10 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Goldfinch, 1 Pied Flycatcher, 2 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 8 Sedge Warbler, 1 Spotted Flycatcher and 3 Tree Pipit.