NEXT to the second most densely-populated city in Britain is an idyllic place where thousands of birds fly free and seals swim the seas.
It’s Langstone Harbour, of course.
The huge expanse of tidal waters between Portsea Island and Hayling is in fact one of the top 10 sites for seabirds in the whole country.
As well as the being an internationally-recognised nature reserve, the harbour is used by commercial ships, kayakers, jet skiers, swimmers and pleasure boaters.
Managing this complex mix of needs is the Langstone Harbour Board, which is based in a small quaint-looking building at the mouth of the harbour on the Hayling side.
But the long-term future of the board and its nine permanent staff has now been thrown into question after the harbour’s managing committee – made up of Portsmouth and Havant councillors – agreed to slash local authority funding by £60,000, with a view to perhaps providing no public funding in future years.
It’s a worrying time for staff, but they remain positive and I meet some of them on a windswept day at their office.
Welsh-born Louise MacCallum, 35, from Southsea, is the harbour’s environment officer.
She explains: ‘We do a lot of different things.
‘We are a port authority and we are also a local lighthouse authority.
‘We are also an authority for the Solent European Marine Site because of the wildlife. We make sure there is not too much conflict in the harbour because it’s used by such a wide variety of people from commercial fishermen to kayakers to wildlife enthusiasts. Our purpose is to manage those users so everybody has a good time and is safe.’
I interview Louise in the top floor of the harbour office, which has several labyrinthine charts and maps of the harbour on the walls.
They include quirky names for places in the harbour, such as Baker’s Island, Sword Sands and The Deep.
A steady stream of mariners are visiting the office at this time of year to renew their mooring licences.
The harbour board maintains around 700 moorings, as well as the Hayling ferry pontoons.
Louise explains that managing the harbour is a year-round job.
She says: ‘We can have hundreds and hundreds of people launch their boats on a summer’s day.
‘Throughout the summer it’s manic. In the winter months we have 40,000 seabirds arrive from Scandinavia, so it’s continually very busy.’
As we look out of the window at the breathtaking view – surrounded by The Solent, South Downs and shimmering waters – we see a huge ship go past.
Today it’s being piloted by the harbour master, Captain Nigel Jardine, who helps out if the ship’s master lacks the experience of navigating the shallower waters of the harbour.
The ship is carrying hundreds of tonnes of gravel that is collected off the coast of the Isle of Wight and delivered to one of two wharfs in the harbour.
The Spinnaker Tower was built from this material, which is delivered into the harbour five or six times a week.
But Louise’s focus is protecting the flora and fauna of the harbour and she conducts bird and fish surveys every year.
She explains: ‘It’s my role to make sure activities in the harbour, whether it be holding a regatta, to people wanting to build new structures, that none of these have a negative impact on wildlife.
‘The wildlife is protected by a lot of legislation.’
Louise started an online catalogue, aptly called The Langstone Ark, of all species photographed in the harbour. So far more than 600 images have been sent by local people of around 250 different species.
Louise says: ‘A lot of people don’t realise there’s a colony of seals living in Langstone Harbour.
‘There’s between 20 and 30 and they haul up on to the mud to rest.
‘We have lots of very unusual birds like little terns. At the moment we have a red-breasted goose. A lot of people think that’s quite cool!
‘There are probably otters, although I have never seen one, and we get porpoises and we had a bottle-nosed dolphin once. We probably have sharks. When I say that I mean sharks, probably about a metre long.’
As a regular summer swimmer at Eastney, I feel more comfortable in my chair as Louise assures me they are not man-eating.
As well as facing threats to funding, Langstone Harbour has been the victim of several pollution incidents, with raw sewage being released into the sea from Southern Water’s pumping stations.
Louise, who used to work at the Blue Reef aquarium in Southsea, says: ‘It astonishes me that we can put men on the moon and robots on Mars and yet in this day and age we are still releasing untreated sewage into a designated nature reserve.
‘That is shocking.
‘On the flip side of that, I work with Southern Water and I’ve visited all its pumping stations.
‘They are fundamentally working with antiquated technology. The population has increased massively in this area.
‘I would definitely encourage Southern Water to improve its system because it’s just so sad in this day and age for that kind of pollution.’
For now the jury is out on what the future holds for the Langstone Harbour Board and its staff.
But whoever manages this stunning beauty spot, there will be always be a long list of conflicting interests to negotiate.
Louise adds: ‘It’s important because we are very knowledgeable about the harbour. The harbour authority has existed for about 50 years. As staff members we really love Langstone Harbour.
‘The wildlife here is so amazing and I feel very privileged to work here.
‘On Monday morning, I never get that feeling “oh no, I’ve got to go to work”.’