Escaping the city at Farlington Marshes

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Perched on the north west corner of Langstone Harbour, Farlington Marshes is a natural haven for wildlife.

This patch of wilderness on the edge of one of the most densely-populated cities in the UK has always had a unique relationship with both its natural residents and the visitors that come to spend time around the marshes.

Escaping the city at Farlington Marshes

Escaping the city at Farlington Marshes

‘It’s the only bit of wilderness in reach of Portsmouth,’ says Steve Wiltshire, Reserves Officer for Farlington Marshes.

‘When you are right out on the point you can’t even hear the road – you can lose yourself in the marshes.’

The marshes are a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, run by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.

‘People use the marshes for a variety of reasons including walking, bird watching and jogging and we see a lot of families here at the weekend,’ says Steve.

‘It’s also a fascinating landscape for geographers and archaeologists to see. In the First World War there was an ammo battery here and it was also an important site in the Second World War when people lit fires to convince German bombers to bomb here instead of Portsmouth. Many of the bomb craters are now ponds on the site.’

The marshes represent a rare type of habitat that is vital for birds.

Steve explains: ‘The marshes are crucial for local wildlife, they’re the only green space in Langstone Harbour. At high tide the area that you’ve got all these birds feeding on floods. The feeding birds have got nowhere else to go and come piling into the marshes. They have to have somewhere to roost so it’s vitaly important for them.’

The marshes are home to many different birds. including grey plovers and bearded tits and some long-distance visitors.

Steve says: ‘Brent geese are a key species for Farlington. The marshes are crucial for them because they feed on eel grass in the harbour. Farlington is the major resource for this and around 7,000 geese use Langstone in the winter. Once they have fed here they will go on to Arctic Russia to nest over the summer and then come back in October.

‘Flying back thousands of miles from Russia, there also needs to be a good food supply ready for them.’

The area is also popular with summer visitors like the lapwing.

Steve says: ‘There’s nowhere else in the area where you will get these birds breeding. Breeding lowland lapwing numbers have absolutely crashed because of changes in farming, draining the land and intensification of farming methods have destroyed their natural habitat so there’s no land for them to nest on.

‘They like to nest on short grass so that they can spot predators. So in April and May we get local farmers grazing their cows here and we cut the grass with a tractor too. The geese also do us a favour because they nibble the grass down to a fine sward.

‘Lapwings don’t like hawthorn hedges because predators like crows and magpies tend to sit on top and swoop down to steal the lapwing’s eggs.

‘Because of this we are quite keen to take down the bushes here. I think crows are cracking birds but there are lots of them and not so many lapwings, so we try to remove perches and high ground to dissuade them from using the area.’

Conservation work like this is undertaken largely by volunteers.

Steve adds: ‘The volunteers are a hardy bunch. They are down here at least once a week and they’re very hard-working – the trust couldn’t function without them.

‘The trust is funded by membership. It runs 50 reserves across the Isle of Wight and Hampshire and without the support of members we couldn’t manage the work here.

‘People want to give something back and protect wildlife in this increasingly urban area and they do that by volunteering or becoming members of the trust.’

The marshes were created in 1773 by Peter Taylor, the Lord of the Manor of Farlington, who built a sea wall to enclose the land so that cattle could be grazed there for sale at the market in Portsmouth.

The wall is now maintained by the Environment Agency, but the recent storms have taken their toll.

‘The high rainfall has been great for us but the sea over-tops the wall during storms and it makes us wonder how long we can maintain it. The top of the sea wall is really rubbly and rutted right at the point and there’s quite a large chunk of concrete taken out of it,’ says Steve.

‘The frequency of winter storms is going to be an issue in the future. If we lost the wall we’d lose the marshes. The land here is fed by springs coming off Portsdown Hill but over-topping compromises the marsh as we get more saline here.

‘If that continues this area will turn into salt marsh. That would change the plant life and make it unsuitable for nesting waders. If we do lose the site – as it looks like we might in the next 100 years or so – we need to be a bit more farsighted and get some new habitat in place.’

Losing the marshes would have a massive impact on local wildlife, but Steve thinks it would be a big blow to people too.

‘People are increasingly realising that human beings need green space around them. With busier lives and increasing technology there are definitely benefits to getting away from it all – having somewhere to escape to is really important.

‘I think Farlington is a really valuable resource. If it wasn’t here people would really miss it.‘

Roger Blanchard, 65, from Waterlooville, volunteers at Farlington Marshes to help manage the site.

Roger says: ‘I have been volunteering for about two and a half years but some people have been here for 10 to 15 years so I’m a newcomer.

‘I just enjoy being outdoors. You don’t want to stay at home all day and get under the wife’s feet!

‘I enjoy the banter of the team here, it’s always something to look forward to. There’s a strong team spirit and the camaraderie is an important part of doing the work.

‘You normally start between 9.30am and 10am and we usually aim to finish about 3pm. It can be hard work, especially if you are fencing. Some days I go home tired but you feel you have achieved something. I enjoy what I do and I am also contributing to local conservation.

‘You’ve got to understand that you’re going to get wet and muddy working here and not get upset by that. It’s an open site so you do get exposed to wind and horizontal rain. Common sense does occasionally prevail and we have to give up but that’s pretty rare. After all if you are here and wet what does it matter if you get any wetter!’

To volunteer at Farlington call Rob Skinner, Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust on 07970 564535 or email rob.skinner@hiwwt.org.uk.

Phil Skyrme, 58, from Swanmore, is a keen birdwatcher who loves to come and enjoy the wildlife at Farlington and isn’t put off by the unpredictable weather.

Phil says: ‘It was tipping down when I left the house but I came down because there’s a spoonbill been seen down here and I’d like to see that.

‘I’ve been coming here for about five or six years. I enjoy the wildlife and getting to see the birds.

‘Farlington is really important for the local area, it’s a great place right on your doorstep and it’s really important for people to experience nature.

‘I like the wilderness here. When you are down in the marshes you can’t even hear the traffic. It’s a nice way to get away from things.

‘If the government cut back on places like this they will miss out on what people really want and need.’

Farlington Marshes at a glance

WHERE: Just off the Eastern Road junction of the A27

WHEN: Open all year

ADMISSION: Free

CALL: 01489 774400

VISIT: hiwwt.org.uk

*A 125-hectare (301-acre) area of grazing marsh on the northern shore of Langstone Harbour.

*Home to a wide variety of wild birds including bearded tits, sedge and reed warblers, Brent geese, redshanks, lapwings and skylarks

*An area of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation supporting many birds whose natural habitat is being destroyed

*Extensive coastal path ideal for walking around and exploring the site