RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Harbours crucial for endangered birds

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Chichester, Medmerry and Pagham are among the world’s harbours and estuaries highlighted by 100 international scientists as being of crucial importance to some critically endangered water birds.

Horrifying news has recently emerged via the BTO website that over half of the world’s different species of curlews and godwits face extinction in the near future. Even the Eurasian curlew and the Black-tailed godwit both of which spend six months of their time in our Sussex tidal zones are suddenly under severe threat.

Nicola Crockford, principal policy officer of the RSPB said: “The Eurasian curlew is an iconic species; its appearance in spring is announced by one of nature’s most evocative calls. Sadly, like many UK species, it is in trouble. Its numbers have dropped dramatically, putting it at risk from complete disappearance in the UK.”

Both breeding and over-wintering numbers have declined by 40 per cent. Curlews and Godwits both nest on the ground and among the most destructive predators of flightless young are Red foxes, whether in the UK or worldwide. There has also been damage to UK breeding habitats from drainage and afforestation. Both RSPB and BTO are working with farmers, landowners and conservation bodies to stop the destruction. Chichester harbour hosts over 1000 Curlews, Pagham has up to 600 in March as the birds gather from the continent to fly north to breed.

Far worse problems face these birds in America and China. Eskimo and Slender-billed curlews are probably already extinct, while the Far Eastern and the Bristle-thighed curlews are getting perilously close. Pressure is greatest in the Yellow Sea of China and Korea. Those mudflats provide an essential rung in the ladder for New Zealand, Australian and Indian birds trying to reach Alaska and Asia. A quarter of the mudflats in the Yellow Sea have been destroyed and the rest seriously degraded by pollution. Authorities there are hostile to criticism and conservationists are bullied or imprisoned. Dictators see mudflats as wasteland, ready for development.

Fifty years ago when I first came to Sussex part of Langstone Harbour adjoining Portsmouth was in-filled with rubbish, and so was part of Pagham Harbour. The Sidlesham field museum and its immediate surrounds stand on what was once a curlew habitat.

Fortunately no mudflats were lost in Chichester harbour but there was a proposal to build part of the city bypass over Fishbourne channel just north of Dell Quay. I like to think that my conservation report, the fore-runner of estuaries enquiries for the UK, convinced the city elders that birds were sacrosanct to civilised thought and culture particularly in wetland areas which many then thought of as nothing more than wasteland.

Let’s hope the Chinese and the Koreans catch up too with modern philosophy instead of destroying anything that gets in their way. Birds are one of the key species on the planet that give us fair warning for ourselves, as to how safe it is for us humans to be able to exist. Ignore them at your peril.