The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK. Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years. I wanted to find out more so I went to Stantyway to see for myself.
The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon in the west of the country. It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band. The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century. Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.
With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline. In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields. In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important food for chicks. With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.
Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes. The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable. This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.
The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range. So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011. Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.
Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership. Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support. This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food. These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon. The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates. Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.
In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed. Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers. About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed. Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.
I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway. I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine. The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead. Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.
I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle. The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers. This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.
My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields. Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head (see picture at the top). Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers. I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.
It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths. Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information. An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend. All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming. When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife. I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could. His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.
I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article which appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.
This is a long post describing how a group of concerned people, including myself, noticed some unusual plastic pellets appearing on several beaches in the vicinity of Charmouth in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. After a tortuous investigation, we identified the source of the plastic pellet pollution as a local water company carelessly and unnecessarily discharging the pellets into the sea.
The story started on a sultry day in late July 2017. I was driving back from the Wareham area where I had been walking across one of the remaining fragments of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the fictional landscape that plays so important a part in his novel The Return of the Native. I found myself approaching Charmouth, a small village in west Dorset and decided I needed a cup of tea. Charmouth village lies a short distance inland from the sea and Charmouth beach is popular with families in the summer, the cliffs are famous for their fossils and in her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen refers to “its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs”.
I was the only customer in the Bank House Café that afternoon and as I waited for my tea, I noticed some copies of the village magazine, Shoreline. I picked one up and started to leaf through. It’s an interesting read but my attention was taken by an article about “nurdles” written by Eden Thomson, a volunteer at the local Heritage Centre that organises marine and fossil events. I quickly learnt that nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets used as easily transportable raw materials in the plastics industry where they are used to make many of the plastic goods we have become accustomed to. There is considerable loss of these pellets during transport and during use. Some of these lost pellets end up in the sea and Eden reported finding large numbers of turquoise pellets on the beach at Charmouth with light grey and dark grey also being common. I didn’t have time to go to the beach to look that day but my curiosity was piqued.
Looking for pellets
Now, when we walked on beaches, both Hazel and I looked to see if we could find any plastic pellets. It took me a while to get my eye in, Hazel saw them more quickly, but gradually I noticed a few pellets on most beaches. My first big find was at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone in south Devon after some hefty storms in mid October 2017 where hundreds were sprinkled along the strandlines. These were all 5mm or less across, some were lentil shaped and translucent, many were cylindrical and grey and a few were irregular grey and black with clear ridges. By reference to the Great Nurdle Hunt web site I reckoned most were nurdles but a few might be biobeads (see below).
Then in late October 2017 I had a chance to return to Charmouth and look at the beach. Not only was there a lot of general plastic pollution among reedy/woody debris either side of the river Char where it approaches the beach, but among this debris were many plastic pellets. There were a few of the translucent or yellow or green lentil shaped pellets, also some grey or black cylindrical pellets. Most of these were nurdles. Also, as Eden Thomson had described, there were many bright blue cylindrical pellets. When I examined these, I felt they were quite different from other pellets I had seen; in particular they had many fine ridges and I thought they might be biobeads (see below). We returned to Charmouth in January 2018 and again found many of the bright blue ridged pellets littered around the two sides of the river and on the car park edges. We also made a brief visit to West Bay, about 7 miles to the east of Charmouth and found many bright blue ridged pellets there as well.
Dawlish Warren is another beach where we find plastic debris especially after storms and we had a look for pellets in March 2018. We found them distributed along both inner and outer beaches, they were mostly cylindrical, pale blue, grey and green but there were a few knobbly dark grey pellets, some also having ridges. We also found a few of the bright blue ridged pellets seen at Charmouth.
Trying to understand
In trying to understand these observations, I was greatly helped by the influential report from the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) lead by Claire Wallerstein. The CPPC had found huge numbers of black plastic pellets further west along beaches in Cornwall and, following extensive investigation, showed that these were biobeads, plastic pellets used in some sewage plants to promote sewage digestion and water purification. Biobeads are usually ridged or knobbly to provide a greater surface area for bacteria to grow and help digest the sewage. The CPPC showed that most likely the biobeads they found on beaches were escaping from biobead-dependent sewage plants run by South West Water, the local water purification and sewage company.
Based on their findings, I worked out that I was collecting both nurdles (preproduction plastic pellets) and biobeads. For the most part when I collected pellets from beaches in Devon, I found mixtures of nurdles of different shapes and colours together with a few black knobbly biobeads. At Charmouth and West Bay in Dorset, however, the predominant pellet was bright blue, cylindrical with fine ridges, typical of a biobead. There were definitely also some black knobbly biobeads on the beach at Charmouth. The four pictures below showing samples of pellets collected from two regions of Dawlish Warren beach in Devon and two sides of Charmouth Beach illustrate these differences quite well.
So, did South West Water (SWW) have a role in the biobead pollution appearing on Charmouth beach? The company runs a sewage works in nearby Lyme Regis based on biobead digestion. The actual works is located in Sleech Wood above the town but the purified sewage effluent is discharged into the sea some distance off the town of Lyme Regis below the Cardinal Buoy. I began to develop a working hypothesis whereby SWW uses these blue biobeads and probably also the black knobbly equivalent in their Sleech Wood works but containment of biobeads is incomplete and some are discharged into the sea and are washed back on to Charmouth and West Bay beaches. Another possibility was that pellets were being lost into the river Lim, which passes near the sewage works, to enter the sea with the river water.
A Nurdle Hunt
In the meantime, I took part in a nurdle hunt on Charmouth Beach organised by Sophie Thomas from the Charmouth Heritage Centre one Saturday in February 2018. There were 30 nurdle hunters on a bright sunny morning including Eden Thomson who wrote the article in Shoreline Magazine and it was good to meet her. It was also good to meet blogging friend Sarah West from Transition Town Bridport and her husband John. Altogether we collected 6650 pellets many of which were bright blue biobeads although a few black knobbly biobeads were mixed in with the blues. It is my impression that the black type may often be ignored in favour of the much more visible bright blue pellet.
I wrote an article for the local Marshwood Vale Magazine describing the nurdle hunt and its background. This was published in May 2018 and soon after, I was contacted by Joe Hackett of Transition Town Bridport who had organised a beach clean at West Bay (seven miles east of Charmouth) and found many bright blue pellets there. He had noted the similarity between the pellets found at West Bay and Charmouth and wondered if we could discuss the situation. We spoke by phone and have been in contact since then.
In March and April 2018, I became very frustrated at my inability to tie down the nature and the origin of these blue and black biobeads. I had contacted various academic experts, pressure groups and one local plastics company to ask if they could help me understand the nature of the pellets and the background to what was going on. I was very surprised to find that none of these people was prepared to get involved. Of all the people I contacted, only one replied and she was “too busy to help”.
I did investigate one possible hypothesis, namely that the biobeads were being lost from the Lyme Regis sewage works into the river Lim. I walked along the river Lim in Lyme Regis to see if any pellets were visible at the river’s edge but found none suggesting that this route was unlikely. When I talked to Joe Hackett, it turned out he had done the same accompanied by local environmentalist, Horatio Morpurgo. They also found nothing suggesting that pellets were not being lost in to the river Lim. This meant that most likely the biobeads were being discharged into the sea along with the treated sewage.
Claire Wallerstein from the CPPC offered to ask SWW what biobeads they used at their Lyme Regis sewage works and was told, “we don’t know and it would cost too much to use a crane to lift the lid to check”.
I enter the South West Water labyrinth
In desperation, I contacted the South West Water (SWW) Press Office in May 2018 and my enquiry was forwarded to Paul McNie, Environmental Manager of Waste Water Customer Service & Networks. I received a reply from Gavin Lincoln, Wastewater Treatment Process Consultant, asking what I wanted to know. I sent him a list of questions about biobead-dependent sewage treatment including asking what type of biobead was used at Lyme Regis but heard nothing. After discussions with Joe Hackett and Horatio Morpurgo, I wrote a paper letter to McNie in July 2018 asking about the nature of the biobeads used at the Lyme Regis Sewage Works. This occasioned a reply from Sue Richards, Customer Manager for SWW towards the end of July introducing herself as my dedicated case manager (it felt as though my enquiry ranked at about the same level as a leaking water pipe). I received a second letter in early August from Katie Hudson, also a Customer Services manager telling me that Paul McNie would be in touch about my queries. He never did get back to me and the rest of my interactions with SWW were through Sue Richards who, although courteous and helpful, appeared to be poorly briefed as she made some obvious errors of fact in her letters to me. The saga continued in this vein but she did reveal that the biobeads used at Lyme Regis were “black with a hint of blue” and after I asked what this meant she sent me a low-resolution photo printed on letter paper showing the biobeads used there. They all appeared to be black and strongly resembled one class of biobead found at Charmouth as well as the majority of those found by CPPC in Cornwall. I spoke to Sue Richards by phone several times and raised the issue of the blue biobeads only to have the conversation closed down quickly.
To summarise, SWW told us three contradictory stories:
They didn’t know the nature of the biobeads used at Lyme Regis sewage works (via Claire Wallerstein)
The biobeads used are black with a hint of blue
The biobeads used are black and knobbly
This was all very confusing and I was left not knowing what to believe.
Living the high life – visits to the sewage works
In the meantime, Joe Hackett had been busy organising visits to Exmouth and Lyme Regis sewage works as it was felt that this was our last chance to understand what was going on. The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition had visited the Plympton sewage works early in 2017 and found biobeads littered about the site. This was a key piece of information linking poor biobead housekeeping by SWW at the Plympton sewage works to the extensive biobead pollution on Cornish beaches.
The Exmouth visit took place in November 2018 but I was unable to be there. Those that visited had an interesting time and learnt about the basics of the biobead sewage treatment. They did not find any biobeads loose on the site but noticed a huge pile of used/depleted biobeads, the size of two buses, covered with sheeting. The SWW representative expressed his frustration over the problems the company faced with biobeads in the following admission “If we’d had a crystal ball back in the 1990s and could have seen how controversial plastics would have become, we might not have gone down this road”. I believe this was a reference to the pressure put on the company by Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC over losses of biobeads from the Plympton sewage works.
The Lyme Regis visit took place in February 2019 and a large group of us representing Transition Town Bridport, Charmouth Heritage Centre, Litter Free Coast and Sea Dorset, together with individuals each with their own interest gathered at the site in Sleech Wood. We were welcomed by two representatives of SWW, Rhidian Howells and Stephanie Jones who were both courteous and helpful. Rhidian Howells explained how the automated process removed large items from the crude sewage and then passed the remains through the biobead reactor where bacteria digested it. Ultraviolet irradiation completed the treatment and the effluent was then discharged to the sea. He went to some trouble to explain how SWW was installing new filters on all their biobead plants to make sure that biobead loss was minimised. The installation of these extra filters is a direct result of the work of Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC identifying the source of biobeads on Cornish beaches as South West Water.
While we were looking about the biobead reactor area, one of our party found a few of the bright blue ridged biobeads on the ground. A little later, someone found a clutch of black knobbly biobeads on the ground near the parking area. This immediately answered the question about the source of the biobeads on Charmouth beach: despite what SWW had told us we now knew both black and blue biobeads were used at the Lyme Regis sewage works (Howells confirmed this) and were most likely escaping from the reactors to end up in the sea. I became very angry with Howells at this point; as I explained to him, we had spent so much time and energy trying to identify the source of the biobead pollution at Charmouth. South West Water had fed us contradictory stories, when all along they knew the source of the pollution which was their own sewage works.
Chemical analysis of pellets
The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition biobead story featured on a special edition of Inside Out South West on BBC TV in October 2018. The programme included visiting Dr Andrew Turner at the University of Plymouth where he had been analysing pellets for Claire Wallerstein for potentially toxic elements. I wondered if similar analysis might help understand the Charmouth blue pellets so I contacted Dr Turner. I was most grateful when he replied quickly and in the affirmative. I made two special collections, one at Dawlish Warren and another at Charmouth and I also sent him some of the black biobeads picked up at the Lyme Regis sewage works.
While this was in progress, Dr Turner along with Claire Wallerstein and Rob Arnold published a paper detailing X-ray fluorescence analyses of nurdles and black biobeads collected at a variety of locations in the south west (including Plympton sewage works and several Cornish beaches) and elsewhere along the English Channel. The technique identifies potentially toxic elements in the pellets and, whereas nurdles were usually devoid of these contaminants, the black biobeads contained varying quantities of lead, bromine, cadmium and antimony, a chemical signature characteristic of recycled electrical equipment containing flame retardants. Sometimes the levels exceeded permitted levels rendering the pellets toxic and potentially hazardous to life.
Black biobeads collected at Dawlish Warren, Charmouth and at Lyme Regis sewage works had the same chemical signature (bromine and antimony and sometimes lead and cadmium) as the black biobeads collected at Plympton sewage works and along Cornish beaches. This shows that the same black biobead is used by SWW at different sewage works and is escaping to end up on local beaches in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Nurdles found at Dawlish Warren and Charmouth (lentil shaped and smooth, cylindrical) did not hold any toxic element contamination whereas the blue biobeads found at Charmouth contained copper probably part of the blue pigment used to give the distinctive colour.
I am most grateful to Andrew Turner for supporting us by analysing these pellets.
The source of the black and blue biobeads polluting Charmouth and West Bay beaches is the Lyme Regis sewage works run by South West Water where these pellets are escaping with treated sewage effluent to be discharged into the sea.
The black biobead is the same pellet found along beaches in Devon and Dorset and in huge numbers on Cornish beaches, it is made from recycled electrical equipment and may contain toxic levels of trace elements. South West Water is responsible for this extensive pollution.
Subsequent investigation found that the blue ridged biobead is also found at Burton Freshwater beach (a mile east of West Bay, found by Joe Hackett) and on the main sandy beach in Lyme Regis (about 2 miles west of Charmouth, found by Harry Dennis of Surfers Against Sewage). The pellets found on these beaches almost certainly come from the Lyme Regis sewage works
One sample of pellets that I collected from Westcombe beach near Kingston in south Devon showed surprisingly large numbers of the blue ridged biobeads. Perhaps this can be explained by proximity to SWW’s biobead-dependent sewage works at Modbury.
At Charmouth, West Bay and Lyme Regis, these biobeads are found in parts of the beach where children play in the summer. They are also found at Charmouth by the river where both gulls and ducks feed so it seems very likely that these birds will be accidentally ingesting pellets.
South West Water are installing extra filters at their biobead-dependent plants to minimise pellet loss as a result of the efforts of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition. Providing that programme is completed and is successful, the number of biobeads on local beaches should diminish. This of course does not deal with the reservoir of biobeads now in the sea and also buried in sand. It is very difficult for me to see how these pellets can be cleaned up without damaging the fabric of the very beaches we wish to protect.
Greater legal protection for the marine environment should be introduced so that companies like SWW who release biobeads, also plastics companies that release nurdles could be prosecuted for polluting seas and beaches.
I should like to express my thanks to everyone who helped bring this tortuous story to a conclusion.
The Lyme Regis Museum reopened last year after a major makeover including the addition of a new wing named after Mary Anning, the famous fossil hunter and one of Lyme’s most celebrated citizens. Mary Anning possessed a unique talent for finding, reconstructing and interpreting fossils in the cliffs of west Dorset and her discoveries transformed the field of geology in the 19th century. The new Mary Anning Wing has transformed the Museum into one fit for the 21st century.
I remember visiting the Museum some years ago on a bitterly cold mid-December day. I recall a pretty but rather spartan Victorian building crammed with interesting exhibits but very much a museum in the old style. I returned this January to a completely different experience. The Museum now has a spacious, welcoming entrance area and shop with natural light flooding through plate glass windows giving spectacular views across Lyme Bay and the Jurassic Coast. The important features of the old building such as the beautiful spiral staircase and rotunda are still emphasised but there is a new Fine Foundation Learning Centre and with the installation of a lift, the Museum is accessible to all.
I enjoyed the bright, interesting and well-presented galleries covering the Early History of Lyme, the Cobb and the Sea, the Undercliff, Lyme during the War and the Branch Line Railway. A large display on Literary Lyme features, in particular, the writer John Fowles, who lived in the town and was a great supporter of the Museum acting as Curator for a decade. Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was famously made into a film putting Lyme on the international map. Jane Austen also features strongly; she spent holidays in the town and set some of her novel “Persuasion” there.
All this alone is worth the price of admission but, in my opinion, the real jewel in the crown is the new interactive Geology Gallery. Here the visitor can see fossils similar to those discovered locally in the 19th century that changed the face of geology forever and made Lyme Regis famous around the world. The Gallery celebrates these discoveries and the people who made them while not forgetting those who continue this quest into the 21st century.
The large, high-ceilinged room is packed with exhibits: many different kinds of fossil, drawings, artefacts and mementoes. There are striking examples of large fossilised creatures on the walls and suspended above are models of these same creatures. The exhibits are so impressive and so well presented that there is a strong “wow factor” but the interactive displays bring the exhibits to life showing what the fossilised bones mean and what these creatures might have looked like. It is a gallery for all ages but there is no dumbing down.
As I looked around the Gallery, I felt that even if she wasn’t actually there by my side, Mary Anning “spoke to me” from almost every exhibit. Her story is outlined in the displays, how she was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 to a very poor family, received no formal education but learned from her father the way to collect fossils from the surrounding cliffs. When she was about 12 years old, she and her brother made their first major fossil discovery, an Ichthyosaur, a now extinct “fish-lizard”. One of the most dramatic objects on display in the Gallery is a partial Ichthyosaur skeleton, about 5 metres long, discovered in 2005 by Paddy Howe, the Museum geologist, similar to the one discovered by Mary Anning. There is also a massive fossilised Ichthyosaur head in one of the cabinets, so we can get a real sense of how exciting it must have been to discover one of these creatures for the first time. Mary went on to become the greatest fossil hunter ever known, possessing a unique skill and persistence in finding and reassembling fossils together with the intelligence to learn about the underlying science. Among her other unique fossil discoveries were two Plesiosaur skeletons, the first ever found and probably her greatest finds. The Plesiosaur was a small-headed marine reptile with a very long neck and the Gallery contains the skeleton of a juvenile Plesiosaur with a model of the creature hanging above the display.
Despite her lack of formal education and her humble origins, Mary came to be well respected by the leading geologists of the time, Henry de la Beche, William Buckland and William Conybeare, all of whom are described in displays. These men sought her out in Lyme and befriended her but despite this friendship, they used the fossils she found to further their own reputations and gave her little or no credit. As a woman in the 19th century, she was never able to assume her rightful place in the scientific hierarchy. After she died in 1847, however, Henry de la Beche read a eulogy to the Geological Society dedicated to Mary Anning and her discoveries. This was an honour usually accorded only to fellows of the Society which did not admit women for another half century.
The new Gallery tells the story of Mary Anning but I feel that her importance is slightly underplayed, especially in relation to the male scientists of the time. Her discoveries were unique, showing that large reptile-like creatures had existed millions of years ago but were now extinct. These findings challenged existing ideas in geology and questioned contemporary biblical accounts of creation. They also contributed to changes in thinking that led Charles Darwin to propose theories of evolution by natural selection. The importance of Mary Anning should not be underestimated and it is surely significant that in 2010 the Royal Society voted her one of the 10 most influential women in science.
I very much enjoyed my visit to the remodelled Lyme Regis Museum with its new Mary Anning Wing. It is a treasure trove of fascinating displays, a museum fit for the 21st century, and the staff should be congratulated on their achievement. I urge you to visit, you will not be disappointed.
I wasn’t sure what to expect today. Major engineering work had been carried out at Dawlish Warren over the past year to stabilise the beaches and dunes and this was our first visit since the project had been completed. I hoped the area hadn’t been changed too much as it’s a special place.
Dawlish Warren is a massive sand spit that extends north-eastwards for about 2km across the mouth of the River Exe from its western bank. It reaches out like a giant hand towards the town of Exmouth but fails to make contact, leaving a narrow channel where tides and the waters of the Exe flow in vast amounts each day. The sand spit is about 500m wide but incomplete; a huge bite has been taken out of the inner side creating the inland bay, leaving the tip of the spit, Warren Point, attached by a thin strip of dunes. Some of the recent stabilisation work was aimed at strengthening this dune strip against future increases in sea level. Much of the Warren is now a nature reserve with several rare habitats including vegetated dunes, mud flats and salt marsh and has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The Warren was once used for breeding rabbits for food, hence the name, but with the arrival of the railway, it became a popular holiday resort. It now also has a golf course, fun fair, shops, cafes and a pub although these are concentrated at the western end and do not detract appreciably from the nature reserve.
Despite heavy overnight rain, the day was dry, and warm for the time of year (11 degrees) but feeling cooler in the stiff sea breeze. Layers of dark cloud dominated the sky but occasional linear shafts of sunlight broke through towards the steel-grey sea. There were clear views from the promenade along the outer sea-facing beach with its many groynes and across the water to Orcombe point, the start of the East Devon/Dorset Jurassic Coast.
We left the promenade via a boardwalk descending to the central, low-lying part of the reserve, once a tidal lake but long since filled in. Today the area was puddle-strewn and barren; later in the year, it will be a colourful mosaic of wild flowers. A large pond with wildfowl lay behind a tree screen where an exquisitely pink male bullfinch showed for a while. On the water, two swans performed like synchronised swimmers.
A sandy track led us up to the marram grass-fringed path along the crest of the outer dunes with views over the golf course and inner bay to the north and across the outer sandy beach and sea to the south. A large flock of Brent Geese were feeding on one of the greens, no doubt to the irritation of the golfers. Dropping down to the inner bay we walked along the stony foreshore, finding it littered with large amounts of debris, mostly wood and reeds but also industrial pellets and shards of plastic.
On one side of the inner bay there is a large bird hide that looks across mud flats and salt marsh at low tide. Huge numbers of waders can be seen here. Yellow gorse sparkled near the hide together with several small stands of flowering ragwort; fuzzy, lime green lichen coated some bushes. From the hide, we watched ghostly black cormorants on a mud bank spreading their wings to dry and saw hundreds of oystercatchers huddled together, the colours of their plumage merging into discrete layers of black and white. A little egret flew across displaying its yellow feet and a curlew probed the mud with its long curving beak.
From the inner bay we accessed Warren Point and the soft sandy beach that leads around the tip of the sand spit. At the back of the beach there were dunes clad with marram grass, a subtle mixture of green and yellowish-brown spikes. This part of the Warren is both strangely beautiful and unsettling and as we circled the Point, we were conscious of the vast amounts of water passing at the foot of the sloping beach and the apparent proximity of Exmouth just across this turbulent channel. Again, there were huge amounts of debris on the beach, wood and reeds predominantly but mixed with plastic including more industrial pellets. On the inner beach, we also saw as many as eight green tennis balls, many plastic bottles, several golf tees and many fresh green leaves. I presume this waste had come down the Exe propelled by the heavy rain that had fallen inland over the past few days. Once we had rounded the Point and started walking back along the outer beach, the nature of the debris changed and we saw mainly plastic rope and twine, probably fishing-related.
By now it was mid-afternoon and the low tide gave us the chance to walk below the end of the newly reinstated groynes that stalk, triffid-like, across the wide sandy beach. The sea was calm but the gentle waves were enough to satisfy a lone, silhouetted surfer. Then, for a few minutes, the low sun broke through the layers of grey cloud, casting an intense yellow light across the dunes at the back of the beach, creating a mysterious, unnatural landscape where, surrounded by pink sand, the marram grass had turned to gold. At the same time, the western view was filled with an intense white light, bleaching grey out of the cloud and sprinkling silver across the sea.
Eventually, we reached the commercial part of the Warren where the mystery might have ended, but there was one final treat in store: a queen buff-tailed bumblebee as large as my thumb, collecting pollen from purple Hebe, presumably to stock her nest.
My concerns about the effects of the engineering work turned out to be mostly unfounded. Only one part of the Warren is visibly different, the narrow dune strip which is now topped with bare sand. The area has, however, been planted with marram grass which will take over in time. Overall, Dawlish Warren remains a special, elemental place.
The featured image shows the outer beach and groynes viewed from the dune strip, with, in the distance, Orcombe Point and the start of the East Devon/Dorset Jurassic Coast .
Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock in west Dorset. It’s a beautiful, natural spot, a rich concoction of sea, sky and shingle where wildlife prospers despite the sometimes harsh conditions. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the scatter of plastic pollution on the beach and the potential effects of this manmade material on marine life.
It felt unseasonably warm as I walked downhill from the car park, more like a late summer’s day, although the blood-red rose hips and smoky-black sloes decorating the leafless scrub spoke of a different season. The vast shingle bank of Chesil Beach dominated the long view, a yellowish-brown convexity edged with white waves sweeping eastwards towards a mistily mysterious Isle of Portland. The sea was calm and a steely grey except where the low sun’s rays highlighted individual wavelets whose reflections merged in to a broad, silvery band of light.
When I reached the shingle bank I found traces of the special beach plants that grow so profusely here in spring and summer. Well weathered, blue-green and brownish-grey leaves were all that remained of the sea kale that dominates in May whereas, beneath the brown remnants of this season’s vegetation, fresh glaucous leaves were showing from the yellow horned-poppies. Small flocks of starlings skittered about puddles at the back of the beach like children in a school playground and, in a low sandy cliff, I was surprised to find bees busily filling nests. These were ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last of our solitary bees to emerge, the females collecting chrome-yellow pollen from nearby clumps of flowering ivy. To the west, there were spectacular views of Burton Bradstock’s yellow cliffs and the distinctive flat top of Golden Cap.
It seemed like the perfect natural spot. But was it? Almost all the clumps of beach plants contained plastic waste including pieces of plastic wrap, colourful plastic rope or plastic fishing line. On the shingle between the clumps, I saw the occasional plastic drink bottle, some were intact, some in pieces. The prominent strandline about half way up the beach contained dark, dry seaweed and small pieces of wood mixed liberally with shards of plastic as though objects had shattered in their continual buffeting by the sea. Plastic drink bottles or their fragments also appeared at regular intervals along the strandline. This beach is no longer a completely natural, wild place, it has been contaminated by our throwaway plastic culture. Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tension was a chunk of expanded polystyrene covered with pale grey goose barnacles.
Plastic is, of course, both versatile and cheap. It has transformed our lives but its very ubiquity and ease of use means that we don’t value it enough. Think how much you throw away each week: plastic wrap or bags from supermarket produce, drink containers and lids, plastic trays, pots and so on. We have embraced a “disposable” lifestyle where about half of the plastic we produce is used once and thrown away. Some countries manage to recycle or energy-recover a large proportion of their plastic waste but the UK is not one of them. In this country, more than 60% of plastic waste ends up in landfill where it does not break down and is effectively lost. We are squandering resources and energy on a massive scale, an appalling indictment of our way of life.
But what about the plastic waste I found on Cogden Beach, how does it get there? It comes from the sea and is left behind by the retreating tide. We have turned our oceans into a “plastic soup” composed of plastic bottles and bags, plastic fragments formed by breakdown of these larger items, also microplastics (5 mm or less in size) such as industrial pellets, small fragments and very small fibres from clothing or from car tyres. This is a huge global problem and shows no sign of abating. A staggering 12 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. All countries contribute but a large proportion comes from several in the Far East with poor waste management systems.
The consequences for marine wildlife are alarming. Consider, for example, the Northern Fulmar, a bird that forages exclusively at sea. A study in the North Atlantic showed that 91% of dead Fulmars found on beaches had plastic in their gut, having mistaken the plastic for food, reducing their ability to feed and sometimes damaging their digestive tract. At the other end of the food chain, zooplankton have been shown to ingest tiny microplastic fragments that may end up in fish and perhaps in humans. Plastic fragments also attract toxic chemicals that may affect the creatures consuming them. Our throwaway lifestyle is disturbing the entire global marine ecosystem. The problem is just as serious as climate change.
What can be done? First, we must reduce the amount of plastic in circulation by moving away from single-use items such as plastic bottles, takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic wrap and plastic packaging. The introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% reduction in use, so a levy on single-use takeaway cups and plastic cutlery may also be effective. Second, we need to encourage a “circular economy” where as much plastic as possible is recovered and recycled and none goes to landfill. A deposit return scheme for plastic drink bottles would increase recovery but greater recycling of other plastic containers must also be achieved. It is encouraging that some government ministers are now talking about the problems of plastic waste, but their words must be translated into actions.
Individual decisions can also bring about change. We can refuse to use plastic cutlery. We can choose to drink only from reusable cups. We can use and reuse our own shopping bag. We can recycle all plastic bottles and containers. We can pressurise local businesses to reduce plastic waste. We can participate in beach cleans. If we love our beaches and our seas we must do this.
The west Dorset coast contains many wonders but one stands out above all others. This is Golden Cap, the distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped hill with its golden edge and cliffs falling precipitously to the sea. Visible for miles around and rising above all its neighbours, it stands 191 metres above sea level and is the highest point on the south coast of England. It is a local landmark, a place of legend, and an inspiration to writers and artists.
I first climbed Golden Cap nearly thirty years ago. It was a mild, early spring weekend and I was entranced by the experience. It’s now one of those places I like to visit periodically so, on a warm mid-July day earlier this year, I set out from the Stonebarrow Hill car park above Charmouth. The grassy track descended steeply between brambles and bracken towards Westhay Farm with its mellow stone buildings decorated with roses, honeysuckle and solar panels. I paused in a gateway near the farmhouse to look at one of the hay meadows. Bees and butterflies enjoyed the thick covering of grasses and colourful flowers while the sun gradually won its battle with the clouds. Flower-rich hay meadows were once an important feature of the countryside but they have mostly been lost since 1930 as a result of agricultural intensification. Managed in the traditional way with a late July cut for hay, they support a rich community of invertebrates, birds and flowers. The meadows at Westhay Farm are no exception and rare plants such as the green-winged orchid thrive here. My gateway reverie was interrupted when a fox suddenly appeared in one of the breaks in the meadow. We stood looking at one another, a moment out of time, before the fox lolloped off through the long vegetation.
Beyond the farmhouse, the path descended across open grassland dotted with sunny stands of ragwort and tall, purple thistles populated with bumblebees. The sea, a pale steely blue, was now ahead of me, dominating the view. Today it was calm but the slight swell was a warning of its power. Golden Cap loomed to the east like a steep pleat in the coastline and, when the sun shone, the cliff face revealed some of its geological secrets. About half way up, a large area of rough grey rock was visible. This was laid down some 200 million years ago and is mainly unstable grey clays of the Middle and Lower Lias prone to rock falls and mud slides. Towards the summit, tracts of distinctive “golden” rock glowed in the sunshine. The rock here is Upper Greensand, sandstone laid down about 100 million years ago, forming the “cap”.
The coast path continued eastwards in a roller coaster fashion. Prominent fingerposts pointed the way and I passed vast inaccessible coastal landslips and descended into deep valleys with rapidly flowing water, only to climb again on the other side. In meadows alongside the path, bees, moths, beetles and butterflies flitted among the many flowers including purple selfheal and knapweed, yellow catsear and meadow vetchling. The final push towards the summit of Golden Cap began very steeply across open grassland before entering a stepped, zigzag track which was easier to negotiate. As the path rose there was a change in the landscape. Bright purple bell heather began to show and bracken surrounded the stepped path; a kestrel hovered briefly above.
Suddenly the path levelled out; I had reached the summit and here were the familiar landmarks: a low stone marker informing me how far I had walked and the larger stone memorial to the Earl of Antrim. The dedication told me that the Earl was the Chairman of the National Trust between 1966 and 1977. What it didn’t tell me was that he recognised the importance of preserving our coastline from encroaching development and spearheaded the Enterprise Neptune appeal which led to the purchase of 574 miles of coast saving it for future generations. Golden Cap was one of two coastal sites purchased in his memory after he died.
I reminded myself of the long views from this high, flat-topped hill: to the east across Seatown, Thorncombe Beacon, West Bay and Portland, to the west over Lyme Regis and the wide sweep of Devon coastline, to the north across the Marshwood Vale. Looking down, I saw water skiers carving patterns in the sea surface far below. The sea now seemed so far away that I felt momentarily separated from the rest of the world.
On my return journey, I headed down and slightly inland to the remains of the 13th century chapel at Stanton St. Gabriel. Set in meadowland beneath the western slope of Golden Cap, the derelict, grey stone walls and the porch of the old chapel are all that remain. There is also a cottage nearby and a large building, originally an 18th century manor house, now restored by the National Trust as four holiday apartments. But why was a chapel built in this isolated spot and why is it now derelict? A settlement existed here for many hundreds of years and Stanton St. Gabriel was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). There was a farming community of about 20 families in the vicinity until the 18th century and this was their chapel but the settlement was abandoned when some people were lured to Bridport to work in the flax and hemp industry. Others may have moved to Morcombelake when the coach road from Charmouth to Bridport along the flank of Stonebarrow Hill was moved away from the settlement to its present route.
The derelict chapel provides a potent reminder of the community that once lived in this isolated but beautiful spot beneath one of west Dorset’s most striking landmarks, Golden Cap.
This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.
The Isle of Purbeck in south east Dorset is an area of outstanding natural beauty but it is also Dorset’s oil country. I wanted to see how the demands of the oil industry could be reconciled with the demands of nature, so a few weeks ago I drove through the Purbeck Hills to Kimmeridge Bay.
The final stage of my journey took me over the coastal limestone ridge into open countryside where the views became wider, the colours and contrasts more intense. The wide sweep of Kimmeridge Bay lay below me in the sunshine: greens and blues, shadow and light, like an image from a travel magazine. From here the road descended, tentatively, through several broad arcs to reach the thatched, stone-cottaged village and the narrow beach access road. I left the car at the cliff-top car park and got out to look. The wide semi-circular bay, backed by moderate cliffs, spread either side of me and narrow, dark-stone ledges extended from the beach like giant fingers. A few white wavelets interrupted the surface of a deep blue sea and across the water, the vast mass of Portland loomed out of the mist.
I walked away from the cliffs and followed the access road westward around the row of 19th century, grey-stone cottages. The landward side of the road was lined by sodden arable fields enlivened only by a group of pied wagtails, jittering, fluttering. Soon I reached a large wire-mesh enclosure set back from the cliff edge. Inside the enclosure were pipe work, storage tanks and a “nodding donkey” oil pump, its huge black beam moving ponderously up and down as it sucked crude oil out of the reserves buried deep below the cliff.
The pump has been working here since 1961 and is the oldest continuously working oil pump on the UK mainland. The oil-bearing rocks are located about 350 metres below the cliff, yielding 65 barrels of oil a day together with some natural gas. This is a modest deposit but it led to the discovery of the much larger Wytch Farm oilfield located ten or so miles away, stretching long distances under Poole Bay.
The oil pump itself is virtually noise-free as it is powered by electricity and, when I visited, there was nobody working nearby. The enclosure is some distance away from the centre of the Bay and partially screened by bushes so it is invisible to many visitors. Nevertheless, I find it incongruous to come across an oil well in this isolated, somewhat desolate and very natural place. To give myself some perspective I went to see more of the bay.
The beach is accessible down a precarious wooden stairway through a break in the cliffs, the Gaulter Gap, a narrow valley containing a fast-flowing stream. It’s a stony beach with pebbles, rocks and sand of many shades of grey, giving way to the dark stone ledges. These are visible at low tide reaching outwards into the sea and tilting slightly upwards to the west. The ledges provide great opportunities for rock-pooling and Ralph Wightman also speaks of a game of pebble bowls played along them.
Near the Gaulter Gap the natural feel of the beach is rudely interrupted by a white cylindrical WW2 military pillbox standing on the beach looking as though someone planned to take it away but forgot. It used to sit on the cliff and its current position gives us an idea of how much erosion has occurred in the passing of 70 years.
The beach is backed by grass-topped cliffs about 10 metres high containing distinct layers of rocks of different colours and textures. Bands of pale reddish brown and grey rock appear repeatedly in a semi-rhythmic pattern; differences in the hardness of the rocks and their resistance to erosion give the cliffs texture and a fascinating mosaic of colours. The rock layering in the cliffs make this both a geologist’s paradise and a geological time machine as each of the layers represents a discrete event in the Jurassic period, 200-150 million years ago.
Within the grey layers of rock is an oil shale for which Kimmeridge has been justifiably famous in the past. The richest deposits of oil shale, the “Blackstone”, are found in cliffs east of the bay. The Blackstone contains flammable hydrocarbons and used to be called “Kimmeridge Coal”. For many years it was used as a fuel, initially for cooking and heating and later for various industrial enterprises despite its high sulphur content and foul smell when burnt. In the 19th century it was mined here on an industrial scale and processed to make a range of petroleum products in Wareham and Weymouth in a series of short-lived enterprises.
The oil shale contains flammable hydrocarbons but it does not contain crude oil. Crude oil forms when the remnants of microscopic animals and plants accumulate at the bottom of the sea and are subjected to conditions of high temperature and pressure. Organic molecules are gradually converted to crude oil and this is what happened, many millions of years ago, in the rocks deep below the oil pump. The oil shale deposits exposed in the cliffs began in the same way but were never subjected to high enough temperatures or pressures to produce mature crude oil.
It’s a pleasant walk along the beach and out along the ledges towards the eastern end of the bay with its slipway, its jumble of boats and the cluster of black-painted, former fishermen’s huts. Behind the huts and partially hidden in the bushes is a scrub-lined, stone stairway heading steeply upwards to the top of Hen Cliff, standing 100m over the bay. This is a hard climb but worth it for the coastal views and for getting close to the Clavell Tower, a 19th century folly and observatory. This three story tower with its Tuscan colonnade stands on Hen Cliff with long views over the bay and the coast. Decked out in pink render and pale stone, it certainly looks very smart. But so it should, as starting in 2006 it was taken apart piece by piece and reassembled 25 metres away from the original site to prevent it falling in to the sea as the cliff eroded. It opened again in 2008 as an upmarket holiday rental. The Tower is now an integral part of Kimmeridge Bay but, in the past, reactions were divided. Frederick Treves, for example, referred to a “ridiculous tower” but to the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, in his poem “The Leady’s Tower”, it was “stately”.
As I stood on the high cliff by the Clavell Tower, the full sweep of Kimmeridge Bay and its various landmarks were spread out below me. I had expected to be offended by the oil pump, fearing it might intrude on the natural world. But I was wrong: the oil pump is just one of several traces left by human hand at Kimmeridge Bay; it has little or no direct impact on the bay or its natural setting and is now part of the scenery. If you are looking to be offended by intrusions of the human on the natural, you could focus on the slew of wind-blown litter along the sides of the Gaulter Gap valley or the derelict, red fire engine gradually decaying behind the stone cottages.
A more fundamental question does, however, arise about whether we should continue to extract this oil. Towards the end of last year the Paris Agreement recognised the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels to 2 degrees or less. Although the Agreement can be criticised for its lack of enforceability, it clearly defines the climate change problem as one of greenhouse gas emissions. A major contributor to these emissions is the burning of fossil fuels such as the oil extracted underneath Kimmeridge Bay.
Early in the 20th century, the novelist EM Forster stood a few miles north east of Kimmeridge and wrote in Howards End: “If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit….”. From this vantage point, Forster saw the rivers and landscapes of Dorset and neighbouring counties as a microcosm of all that existed in England. It wasn’t all beauty as he also saw creeping suburbia and its ill effects. Today we might relocate Forster’s vantage point and stand him by the Clavell Tower to look down on an eroding coastline under attack from increased storm activity and rising sea levels. He would also look down on the oil pump working away to extract more fossil fuels. Perhaps this alternative Purbeck view would illustrate some of the tensions inherent in contemporary England.