With my half-term break being halted by a tumble into a fence post, that subsequently meant bed rest, I turned to my other love. Archives. Being a student of history (and a teacher of it…), I always find comfort in going down a bit of a rabbit hole in archives, and I thought it could be fun to take you on this one. Initially, I started looking into historic ‘bike birding’ and whilst I have no doubt it’s existed for a while, there is very little online archive evidence for it. So I broadened my search and came across some images labelled up on the Historic England photographic archive as ‘”Countyman Cruise”, a bird watching cruise from Plymouth along the River Tamar onboard the boat “Scomber”. My interest was piqued.
A quick google of the organiser of the cruise, Tony Soper, did not disappoint. If you’re a birder or a keen naturalist, it’s probably a name you’re more than well aware of. Shamefully, it’s not one I recognised. But what a life! Born in 1929 in Southampton by 1947 after not following in his father’s footsteps at the wharf he was working as Youth in Training for the BBC with an illustrious career to follow. Tony started of as World Service Radio Technical Assistant, before moving on to work at the West of England Home Service, in 1950 he worked as a producer on programmes such as ‘The Naturalist’ and ‘Birds in Britain’. by 1957 he’d co-founded the BBC’s Natural History Unit and began producing incredible programmes such as ‘Plapp’ the story of a cormorant that was weak due to oil pollution – this aired in 1958 on Christmas Day! To see the incredible life of Tony Soper head to his website here.
After detouring in Tony’s life and awesome body of work, I was back onto the initial interest – his tours of the River Tamar. On his website Tony mentions that the cruises were started with the purpose of ‘supporting an RSPB appeal’, this of course sent me off track into a different rabbit hole. It’s been difficult to find any mention of a specific RSPB appeal in 1967, however this was the year of the horrific Torrey Canyon Oil Spill. A disaster which saw an estimated 117,000 tonnes of crude oil being spilt into the sea off the south-west coast of England (making it Britain’s biggest oil spill), impacting the coastline which the River Tamar feeds into. The Torrey Canyon oil spill was an ecological disaster through which it is thought 15,000 sea birds were killed, despite heroic efforts from the RSPCA, RSPB and Wildfowl Trust – which you can read about in this report. So perhaps this is what Tony was raising money for on his cruise – the clean up effort? Perhaps not…
This initial date of 1968 didn’t match up with the photographs I’d come across – 1973, so the reading continued. It turns out that in 1973 and 1974 Tony was living a self-describe ‘Walter Mitty’ period as captain of his own 60ft passenger vessel the ‘Scombar’. Tony labels these as ‘avocet cruises’, so that’s the next bit of research. Why avocets and why the Tamar?
The River Tamar is a natural county border between Devon and Cornwall, starting just miles below Bude on the Cornish coast and meeting the sea 50 miles later in Plymouth Sound. Another quick tangent playing around on Magic Map allows me to see the significance of the landscape surrounding the River Tamar, heavily patchworked common land, areas of outstanding natural beauty, nature reserves, and sites of special scientific interest. A hint as to why birdwatchers would love it.
Flanked by ancient woodland along lengthy stretches, the river also provides rare habitat. The intertidal systems are perfect for mudflats, saltmarshes and reedbeds – all home to birdlife, including the avocet. The woodlands are also a haven for birds and butterflies as well as rare lichen and orchids. There is important heathland up-river as well, where rare birds like the Dartford Warbler can be found.http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/devon/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8897000/8897885.stm
Avocets are one of those incredibly unique success stories of protection and conservation projects in the UK. They returned to specific areas of East Anglia in droves when areas were flooded to protect against invasion, subsequently creating the perfect habitat for breeding. Since then their numbers in the UK have been on the rise, with 50% of avocets nesting on RSPB reserves – no wonder it’s their logo! Overwintering on the South West coast the River Tamar plays host to huge flocks of avocets, making it the ideal place to host winter wildlife river cruises! These are still running by Tamar Wildlife who also have an incredible list of ‘where to watch birds’ – if you’re local these will definitely be worth checking out, and I shall admire from afar (for now…).
Having been inspired by so much of this research, I have of course created a Komoot wish list tour of the River Tamar – skirting as close to it as I can. Not knowing the area at all, I’m sure I’ve made some blunders and would love to hear from locals (or previous visitors) about spots that shouldn’t be missed on the River Tamar!
If you want to hear Tony Soper talking about sea birds you can catch him on BBC Sounds ‘Soper’s Sea Bird Safari’. A great listen! Plus a quick search for his books shows up some real treats! I’m so pleased I came across his story and was submerged into researching a variety of tangents to come back to the simplicity of birdwatching.