Guest blogger Tilly Hopkins caught up with Barry Yates, Rye Harbour Nature Reserve Manager
When did you initially develop an interest in the natural world?
A young age, about five or six. I was regularly taken fishing by my father, and fishing teaches you to sit, watch and observe. I’ve got a mind that likes looking at detail and I think those fishing trips started it all.
How long have you worked at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and what was your route to it?
This is going to sound an awfully long time… 37 years!
I came to it through an unusual route in that I went to university and studied entomology, then I went on to do a PhD studying the breeding of Redshanks up in Lancashire on the Ribble estuary, and that’s where I first got a love for being outside, living in wild places. Then I did some research contracts with the RSPB. My first was in Sutherland in the north of Scotland, counting Greenshank and Dunlin nesting there. I then got my favourite role with the RSPB, studying Red-necked Phalaropes on a little island in Shetland, and that’s where I discovered nature reserves. The following year I was all set to do another research contract when this job appeared. I got the job and have been here ever since.
What are the best parts of your job?
The variety, waking up in the morning and not knowing how a day is going to turn out. It could be looking at wildlife, or it could be spending all day on the computer. It’s dealing with people, it’s being on your own in nature, it’s trying to be creative with the landscape and the wildlife potential. It’s like having a big garden with visitors.
What is less enjoyable?
Dealing with people who are not respecting the nature reserve or the wildlife.
What are some of your most common tasks?
It’s gone from being the hands-on practical management of habitats to spending more time in meetings and writing things. My job started out being mostly outdoors.
Over time the team has grown. First had a summer assistant and then a full-time assistant, then two wardens and somebody to do the educational work, and of course when the Rye Harbour Discovery Centre opens sometime in May, the team will have more than doubled in size.
Are you out on the reserve all year round?
Yes. I had a great experience recently cycling around the reserve in strong winds. I enjoy being out in all weathers, it makes you appreciate how the wildlife has to cope with extremes. As long as I’m warm and dry I like being out in wet, windy, cold weather - but it is nice to come home and warm up.
What’s your favourite season?
I like it as spring turns in to summer, so the last week of May and the first week of June are my favourite. There are so many flowers out, and insects. And in a good year for the birds, lots of chicks and a lot of breeding activity.
If you had to choose your top three birds to see on the reserve, which would they be?
The top bird has to be the Redshank because I spent three years trying to study their breeding biology for my PhD. When they’re breeding, they’ve got the most fantastically intense coloured legs and they’re always noisy. Throughout the year they’re ever-present on the marsh.
Second has to be Little Tern because I’ve spent far too long trying to get them to breed successfully. We’ve got the fences, we’ve got decoys, we’ve got sound systems - we put a lot of effort in to it. The Little Tern was also what really cemented the volunteer support and the popular support for the nature reserve.
My third favourite is the Black-winged Stilt because it was more than 30 years of being on the reserve before I saw one here. They’re such ridiculously long-legged birds, it doesn’t seem possible that they can function.
Black-winged Stilt at Rye Harbour 8th April 2018
Is there a stand-out moment from your time working at the reserve where you’ve had an incredible wildlife encounter?
It was that first encounter with a Black-winged Stilt on this nature reserve. It was a perfect late spring day, very calm, and I saw it from a distance and thought that looks a bit unusual, cycled round closer to it and there it was just striding around, so that definitely stands out.
What’s your favourite sound to hear on the reserve?
In about a month’s time we’ll hear it again, it’s the seven notes that the Whimbrel calls. Every time I hear it, it takes me right back to the lovely summer I spent up in Shetland where they nest. They are birds generally of remote places, and it’s a very clear, distinctive call.
Morning person or night owl?
Definitely a morning person, it’s a really lovely time of day to be out and about. I find I work best in the mornings, so sometimes I try to do the work for the day that needs doing first and then go out later on, but I should do it the other way around.
Your photos and videos on social media are great - what do you enjoy most about capturing the landscape, and do you have any tips for taking a great picture?
I enjoy photography because you can only think about the photograph and the subject you’re photographing at the time, so it’s been really good therapy during the last 12 months. I also really enjoy seeing people’s reactions to some of the photos, and with social media you get instant feedback as people are telling you what they like and don’t like. Well, they don’t tell you what they don’t like, but the low number of likes immediately lets you know that people don’t enjoy that as much as something else.
A tip would be that when you’ve got something that you think is worth photographing, take lots of pictures of it from different angles and different perspectives. Sometimes the lighting can change in a minute or two, so it’s worth spending the time with something you want to photograph. I was brought up being told only take photographs with the sun behind you, but that’s hopeless. My best photographs are always taken looking into the sun.
What main piece of advice would you give to a young nature lover, hoping to have a conservation career one day?
Develop an interest in a group of plants or animals, as it’s not too difficult to become knowledgeable and almost expert quite quickly in a small group, and then you can spread out. To choose conservation as a career, volunteering is a good route as you get to see various aspects and decide if that’s really what you want to do. It gives you the chance to be out in all weathers too, if you enjoy that. The other thing would be to find somebody or groups of people on social media with a shared interest and connect with them, as there can be shortcuts into interesting areas of conservation.
Is there a particular achievement from your time managing the reserve that makes you feel really proud about the work you’ve done?
What’s particularly rewarding has been the opportunity to plan two large-scale habitat creation projects. One of these was the reedbed area at Castle Water. The work for that started more than 20 years ago, and to follow it through all the processes of planning and then to carry out the works and watch it mature and develop has been really good. More recently the saltmarsh work too, as it’s just amazing how quickly nature can recover if it’s given half a chance.
What are your hopes for the future of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve?
I’m fully expecting that in a couple of hundred years sea level will have risen so much that most of the reserve will have become inter-tidal and would have rolled back in land, but that’s a good thing, that will be a natural process and some parts of it can be defended and other parts will be let go. I hope that there’s still enough popular public support and interest in wildlife, plants and animals that there’s enough resources to keep the nature reserve going. I guess at the moment I can’t look further than the next five years, and its going to be a struggle given the pressure on public finance, but it is encouraging how there’s been a dramatic change in political perception on biodiversity and climate change. Those two have got to come together to do the right thing because we live in a pretty impoverished country already, and instead of watching it decline further, we should be able to encourage it to bounce back.
I hope the nature reserve can play its part in that by interacting with lots of visitors and perhaps giving them that first experience that makes them become supporters of the reserve and Wildlife Trusts, and to get involved. If everybody just sits back, as most people have been doing for the last 30 years, whilst knowing about the decline in the environment, then none of us will have a chance. I want to be positive about it and try to use the nature reserve as a demonstration of what can be done in the wider countryside.