Apologies for this blog being a day late. The hotel last night had very dodgy wifi and I have now learned that WordPress and bad wifi do not mix. The day started well with a relatively short ride to Barrow-in-Furness from John and Fi’s house.

Riding along beside estuaries is always fine – no hills! Though the strong northerly wind was not ideal
The limestone crags around here are good for interesting plants and insects, however sadly no time (or weather) to check them out
A challenging hill

In 1974 I was employed by Oxford University’s Animal Behaviour Research Group under Niko Tinbergen as a research assistant on South Walney Nature Reserve. The post would probably be described as an intern these days as I received no pay, just full board and lodgings. My role also included cooking for the group of students and others on a shoestring budget. This was my reason for coming to Barrow-in-Furness and Walney. I enjoyed my time (basically the gull breeding season) very much and learned a lot of seabird biology (not just animal behaviour) in what was then a huge gull colony of 10s of thousand pairs – mostly herring and lesser black-backed gulls. My main research role was to check around 1000 nests on a near daily basis to track the progress of each. I put colour rings on each of the chicks as they hatched (having first marked each egg as it had been laid). The gulls tended to attack intruders by swooping, sometimes bashing your head with their feet, and often dumping on you too. For these reasons we were issued with a brown lab coat (the “shoat”) and a safety helmet that we attached to the back of the shoat with a wide piece of cloth. If we had a spare hand, we would carry a bamboo in the air too.

Modelling the shoat and crash hat combo in front of South Walney coastguard cottages, spring 1974
Same place, but with 2019 bicycling attire. Hair may have changed a touch…
The shoat, crash hat and stick being deployed (my mother and I). Note the delicate tracery on the shoat)
This tent in the Coastguard cottage garden was often my accommodation (I got booted out of a room in the cottages if the Professor or one of the seniors arrived)
The coastguard cottage garden now – all trees are new!

Anne has driven down from Banchory to be with me (when not cycling) for a couple of days, so we went to Walney in the afternoon and had a look around. The first thing that struck me on the way down was the replacement of a monster rubbish tip by a large green hill. This tip used to feed quite a few gulls. The next thing that struck me was the almost total lack of gulls. We found out that between 1 and 2 thousand are all that are left, at the far end of the reserve. There have also been a lot of earthworks near the coastguard cottages to create some wetland habitat. One of the hides overlooking one pond was called the Tinbergen hide – there were no signposts for it though and we stumbled upon it almost by accident. It turned out to be a wonderful shrine to the man – and different to any other bird hide that I had been in.

Typical – a chain-smoker
Also prominent in the Tinbergen hide was mention of the warden who was there when I was – Walter Shepherd. He knew a great deal about everything on the reserve and had a tame eider duck Daisy – who I also photographed in 1974
My picture of daisy, 1974
Female and male eiders, 1974
Gulls were everywhere in 1974
Complete lack of gulls here – there were about 500 pairs in the area covered by this photograph in 1974
The coastguard lookout also lost its top since 1974
The gravel workings have closed and been replaced by an oyster farm in the pits.
A wooden fish box washes ashore in 1974 – never seen nowadays as they have been replaced by the more cleanable plastic. I used to enjoy beach-combing and one day found around 20 mail bags that had evidently fallen off the Liverpool-Belfast ferry. There were many personal letters, often with money (cash and cheques) so I carefully dried it all out (took me a few days) and then on my next weekly shopping run went to see the receiver of wreck who could not have been more disinterested, so I took them to the post office who just took them without a word of thanks. This has irritated me ever since!
Offfshore wind farms and a hydrocarbon drilling rig – neither were there in 1974 (or even dreamt of)
Needless-to-say, I went birding (South Walney is a bird observatory also) a in 1974 found Cumbria’s first hoopoe. The “first” bit of this was not to difficult as Cumbria had only just been created – annexing Barrow and Walney from North Lancashire to the annoyance of some

3 thoughts on “Walney

  1. This is so fascinating, informative and entertaining, Mark! I really knew nothing about your life before or since knowing you as a student in Durham. It’s all so long ago and I seem to have sleepwalked through some of it! I do like the before and after photos in front of the coastguard’s cottage (Neil from the Young Ones springs to mind)


  2. Handing in the found letters: shades of Apsley Cherry-Garrard and handing in the Emperor Penguin eggs to the Brit Mus


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