Volunteers accuse National Trust of ‘sheer arrogance’

Keep Newtown for the Birds’ John Willmott says the estuary will be lost as a nature reserve within ten years

Keep Newtown for the Birds has accused the National Trust of ‘sheer arrogance’ in ignoring the torrent of criticism over its management of the IOW’s premier nature reserve.

And the former volunteers say this is nowhere more apparent than in the loss of its nightingales.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology, over the past six years nightingales have fared better on the IOW as a whole than across the water in Hampshire – much less than half the same rate of decline, in fact.

his is probably partly because we don’t have any deer to strip away the scrub layer the birds like. But the Nightingale Nights group says there is “no doubt that ‘tidying up’ of thickets and scrub and the outright destruction of other places where nightingales used to nest, including woods, has had a negative effect on the population.”

Keep Newtown for the Birds spokesman James Allaway says this is exactly what has happened at Newtown. “Last year just two nightingales were heard on the NT estate at Clammerkin – but they didn’t stay,” he told us.

“Yet on the other side of the lake on MOD land – which is largely undisturbed – they managed to breed.

“Nightingales used to be recorded at Cassey Bridge in Newtown. No longer – disturbance by launching of paddleboards and canoes and people picnicking on the marsh has pushed them out.”

Last year the campaigners swiftly gained solid support – and widespread publicity – for their plea to stem the tide of visitors threatening to overwhelm the wildlife sanctuary.

Just three pairs of breeding Redshanks were recorded last year

Backing came from the top level of the IOW Council and leading conservation groups including Natural England, the Hampshire and IOW Wildlife Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England – who said there was a danger Newtown’s ‘special character and tranquility’ could be endangered by the NT’s burgeoning commercial stance.

Last month top Government veterinary scientist Gerald Wells said he was ‘dismayed’ at the pressure on wildlife caused by the island’s growing population and visitor numbers.

But now the National Trust’s new season programme reveals a total of 37 special events centred on the IOW’s sole National Nature Reserve – may of them set at the height of the breeding period.

As an example, the Easter Egg Hunt on April 21-22 calls for ‘the whole family to hunt high and low through the meadows and woods to find the clues.’

The invitation is practically identical to the one issued for last year’s notorious Trust-sponsored ‘Bear Hunt’ at Newtown – thanks to the campaigners’ intervention this was later transferred to St Helen’s Duver, a move hailed as a ‘victory for common sense’.

“This is sheer arrogance,” says James Allaway. “It means there will be no chance of peace for birds prospecting for a nest site. It all looks very familiar, with the place being changed to a playground by stealthily adding activities that appear to be in harmony with an NNR.

“Ironically, the Redshank is featured on the same page of the Trust’s prospectus. This charming little wader has itself declined so much that it now merits inclusion on the national red list – last year they were reduced to just three breeding pairs at Newtown from a healthy breeding population noted by the Reserve’s original warden Mercia Seabroke in 1990.

Newtown is practically the only estuary on the South Coast untouched by development

“Even so, the Trust still encourages kayakers here. It may offer a guide to ‘the safest places to go’ and ‘how best to protect the fragile environment when canoeing’ – but if it ever took the time to listen to its volunteers it would know this advice is frequently ignored. And now we have paddleboarders to contend with, which are even more intrusive.”

The campaigners have also warned about the danger to wildlife posed by large groups of cyclists from the mainland. Yet the Trust was this year actively promoting a cycle trail from the East Cowes car ferry terminal to Newtown.

” ‘Do find time to explore the nature reserve, perhaps visiting one of the bird hides’ it says – then confusingly advises: ‘Please note paths to hide and meadows not suitable for bicycles.’ It concludes: ‘The unspoilt beauty and tranquility make this a very special place’ with ‘ancient meadows and woodland . . . where ‘traditional coppicing provides perfect conditions for red squirrels.’

“Well, it used to. Unfortunately since those same woods have been opened up – their paths widened to suit long-distance hikers as well as cyclists – we have lost whole colonies of squirrels as well as lizards and owls.

“Great play is made of protecting the environment – the phrase ‘gentle stroll’ occurs five times but no restriction on numbers is mentioned anywhere.

“As the Council’s Deputy Leader Stuart Hutchinson wrote to us in 2018: ‘There are few public spaces on the Island so free of human presence and setting in place activities to attract more will simply diminish what the reserve is intended to deliver.’

“That certainly looks like what is about to happen this year. Newtown is practically the last unspoilt estuary on the South Coast – but water-borne visitors alone have increased fivefold since the 1970s.

“At this rate the time will soon arrive when there will be no birds left for them to come to see. And no amount of ‘bird walks’ will bring them back.”