Old age and SML – Part 1

The membership of Devon Birds has always had a bias towards the elderly. I can remember a former Chairman advising me against a proposal to distribute information via the internet, saying that “there was still a significant proportion of members who didn’t trust even direct debit let alone use the web”. This age range has been particularly evident amongst the few birders who regularly visited South Milton Ley and, as they have gradually dropped by the wayside, the number of records from the reserve has fallen correspondingly. It seems that younger birders don’t have the time or patience to visit a dense habitat where birds are hard to see, preferring to chase after species found elsewhere by other birders.

The aged manager at SML is a committed cyberphobe, and the reserve has suffered as a consequence. Outdated management techniques, based on principals used in the middle of the last century, continue to be employed at SML despite detailed information on more ecologically sensitive methodologies being available online. Repeated and unnecessary drainage operations have been carried out on the SSSI without the required permissions from Natural England and non-native species have been planted, also in breach of SSSI regulations.

The latest major blunder has been the strimming back of bankside vegetation in an area where the presence of Water Voles was finally confirmed just six months ago. This was a unilateral decision by the manager, made without consultation, and breaches Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and Section 41 of the NERC Act 2006 (England). The Water Vole is a priority conservation species. You’re breaking the law if you:

  • damage, destroy or block access to their places of shelter or protection (on purpose or by not taking enough care)
  • disturb them in a place of shelter or protection (on purpose or by not taking enough care)

There is no excuse for this as a detailed Water Vole management protocol was included in the South Huish Management Plan, which the SML manager agreed to and definitely has a hard copy of.

Devon Birds Council must shoulder a lot of the blame for this state of affairs. A lack of continuity amongst Council members and a decided lack of relevant ecological expertise has allowed long-serving reserve managers to do their own thing, largely without question. I have argued before that reserve management proposals should be scrutinised by ecologists before being authorised and funded by Council but, with an organisation firmly rooted in a Victorian management structure, nothing has changed. Even the BTO, not renowned historically for dialogue with its members, publishes agendas for committee meetings in sufficient time for members to engage and submit comments. They also publish the minutes of committee meetings with sufficient detail to enable members to understand how and why decisions were made.

Devon Birds rarely engages with members. Agendas are not published and minutes have only been available since January 2021. Posts on Council are filled without being advertised, unless they are particularly onerous roles, which no-one wants to do. Otherwise, Council seems to be largely self-selecting with people co-opted into roles without vacant posts ever being offered to the wider membership. The minutes published this year mention multiple reports circulated in advance to Council members but none of these ever reach ordinary members in time for them to comment.

From the ringing perspective it was concerning to read in the minutes of the 190th meeting that a non-ringing Council member was bothered by the large number of birds ringed in Devon and that Devon Birds should have a policy on ringing. In the following meeting it was stated that a policy, circulated beforehand, had been agreed. Circulated to whom, one might ask? Certainly not Devon’s ringers. Apparently the, now agreed, policy is available on Devon Bird’s website. Nice of Council to let us all know!

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