Forty years ago there was a dilemma. How do you manage one of England’s busiest harbours that is home to more than 12,500 sailing vessels?
Throw in 50,000 migratory birds, a population of seals, and the fact Chichester Harbour straddles two counties with four councils all vying for a piece of it, and you can see why it became a bit of a headache.
The turning point was when Chichester Harbour was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1964.
But for this crucial designation, tower blocks and developments like Gunwharf Quays and Port Solent might now be a feature in the harbour.
Public pressure grew for a single authority to not only manage the harbour but preserve it for future generations.
There was initial talk of creating a National Water Park – similar to a National Park – but this was rejected by the local authorities as they would have lost their planning powers.
An Act of Parliament was needed as the new authority needed legislation to manage the surrounding land.
And so in 1971 Chichester Harbour Conservancy was born.
Fast forward four decades and we have one of the most beautiful and well-managed leisure harbours in the country with a clear emphasis on wildlife conservation.
It’s something worth celebrating and there’s an exhibition at Emsworth Museum depicting the history of the organisation, which has its base at Itchenor.
‘This anniversary is a proud moment for us,’ says Ali Beckett, pictured above, the information officer for the conservancy for the past 16 years.
‘Before 1971 the harbour had been split between the two counties – Hampshire and West Sussex. Each local authority had some responsibility for managing its own area but no-one was in overall control.
‘This meant there were all sorts of anomalies, such as a different speed limit on each side of the harbour.’
The exhibition runs throughout September and includes colourful displays on the harbour’s wildlife, how it can be navigated and key achievements over the past 40 years.
Ali explains: ‘I’m sure that people visiting the exhibition will remember many of the changes and improvements and that the timelines will bring back a number of memories for them.
‘We also have short films running which are memories of what people have enjoyed around the harbour.
‘For example. one chap talks about rediscovering his first boat and Sid, the harbour hand at Emsworth, remembers the night of the Great Storm in the 1980s.’
So what is the day-to-day work of the conservancy?
Officers maintain hundreds of navigation aids, keep a patrol presence on the water and provide moorings throughout the harbour.
Staff also maintain and improve access by keeping footpaths clear and work with the local councils to protect the harbour from inappropriate development.
Regular surveys are done to keep an eye on the delicate wildlife habitats and each year thousands of saplings are planted to create woodland.
Ali says: ‘It’s a good place to work as many of the staff have been here for 10 years or more with three of them having worked here for well over 20 years.
‘There is a happy working atmosphere, as we are quite a small organisation we are all there to help out when needed.
‘In reality this means one day you may be helping with a fish survey, another guiding an early morning walk or helping send out the 8,000 harbour dues that are issued each year.’
The conservancy’s patrol staff attend more than 250 incidents every year.
This can be anything from boats that have collided to serious medical emergencies.
The authority’s name, however, is a give-away to perhaps its most crucial function.
Ali explains: ‘Chichester Harbour may only be a relatively small area, but it is absolutely essential in terms of conservation.
‘Over 50,000 migratory birds rely on the harbour over the winter months. They come here as there is a plentiful supply of food for them in the mudflats and also they are relatively undisturbed.
‘The harbour is internationally important for fi e species of birds including brent geese, dunlin and bar-tailed godwit.
‘It is also internationally important for its saltmarshes and mudflats which are both vulnerable habitats.’
Education is a big word at the office in Itchenor as staff know the future of the harbour lies with the younger generation.
Ali said: ‘In recent years we have developed a very successful education service.
‘Over 9,000 student sessions are held each year with field trips throughout the harbour closely linked to the National Curriculum.
‘We run an activities programme of guided walks and boat trips throughout the year to introduce people to the harbour.’
So what does the future hold for the harbour and can the delicate balance of development versus conservation be maintained?
Ali says: ‘There are a number of challenges in the coming years.
‘Funding will be tighter and we will become more reliant on groups such as the Friends of Chichester Harbour to help us undertake projects.
‘On the water the types of craft are changing, there are more fast racing dinghies, kayaks and canoes have become more popular in recent years, we need to keep working to maintain harmony on the water between the different users.
‘We face issues with large-scale developments, replacement buildings and large extensions which can have a significant and lasting impact on the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’
Summing up the achievements of the conservancy, Ali uses a quote by the conservancy’s chairman, Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Thistleton-Smith, in 1972.
He said the conservancy was created by ‘a complicated pregnancy’ that led to the ‘production of a lusty child’.
She laughs: ‘We like to think that “child” has now matured into an adult!’
Charities play a big part in helping conserve the area
THE conservancy would not be where it is today without the valuable partnership it has with two charities.
The Chichester Harbour Trust exists to conserve, protect and improve the natural beauty and wildlife of the area for the public benefit by acquiring land, sites and buildings.
Meanwhile, the Friends of Chichester Harbour, which has more than 3,000 members, funds conservation, amenity and education projects in the harbour.
At the helm of the Friends is Bernard Clarke, a sailing fanatic who circumnavigated the world in 2007.
Originally from Lancashire, Mr Clarke moved down to Chidham, near Emsworth, from his then home in Buckinghamshire 21 years ago after falling in love with the views from Cobnor Point.
He said views of the harbour are among the best in the country.
Regarding the exhibition, he said: ‘If you look at what we have achieved over the past 40 years it gives us confidence about what we can continue to achieve despite the enormous pressures being brought to bear on the harbour and its environment.’
He said he was concerned about overdevelopment in the harbour and surrounding areas.
Mr Clarke said one of the great achievements of the friends was donating £30,000 to fund a new education centre called The Stables, which opened in May.
The centre is based at an organic beef farm on Thorney Island and will be used as an education base for the conservancy to promote the importance of farming in the area.
· The conservancy has an annual budget of about £1.8m. This comes from harbour dues and moorings fees, funding from Defra, grants and donations and also a precept from Hampshire County Council and West Sussex County Council.
· The Harbour Master is Richard Craven, who is part of a team of 20 permanent staff, including rangers, a moorings officer, a conservation officer, and teaching staff.
· Siun Cranny, a keen sailor, has just been appointed to the newly-created post of director of the conservancy.
· The harbourside villages are: West Wittering, West Itchenor, Birdham, Dell Quay, Fishbourne, Chidham, Prinsted, Thorney Island, Emsworth, Langstone and Northney.
· The harbour is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a wetland of international importance, a Special Protection Area for wild birds and a Special Area of Conservation.
Fundraising exhibition dates
THE organisation has not been without its own share of tragedy.
Last year its long-standing harbourmaster John Davis OBE, 62, died after suffering a heart attack while out racing in his beloved keel boat Fleury.
Since then his wife Valerie has set up a memorial fund with the aim of acquiring a customised boat which will provide water-based opportunities for all three military services and injured service personnel and their families in Chichester Harbour.
An art exhibition is being held at Upper House, Itchenor, on the weekend of September 24 and 25 to raise funds.
An exhibition about Chichester Harbour Conservancy is at Emsworth Museum, North Street, Emsworth all this month. Admission is free.
For information about conservancy visit conservancy.co.uk. For Friends of Chichester Harbour visit friendsch.org