On Sunday 11th August the Cornubia Community centre in Par was the focus of a fantastic, friendly gathering of the great and the good in local wildlife and environmental volunteering. The event being celebrated was the 10th Anniversary of the Friends of Par Beach, and they had turned it into a proper discovery day featuring Ian McCarthy’s much-loved film ‘Cornwall – Out On the Edge’ and talks by a series of top local speakers. How could I resist? http://www.parbeach.com https://www.facebook.com/groups/123478384321/
My countryside ranger friend Jenny kindly gave me a lift from East Cornwall, notably (for me and no one else) taking us past the Par athletics track where, age 11, I won my heat in the county school sports championship hurdles, only to trip over a wonky hurdle in the final.
We parked by a nature area and walked past a community flower and veg area (very impressive). On arrival, we were given a warm welcome – particularly Jenny, who is involved in the management of local wildlife areas and knows members of the group. Through the attractive grey matching T-shirts of the Friends I spotted, centre stage, the famous Septimus White, Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust’s seal skeleton. All around the room were displays by more than a dozen wildlife groups (listed later).
After a brief introduction, the assembled crowd headed upstairs and packed the hall, where Ian McCarthy presented his lyrical, evocative and very personal film about Cornwall’s wildlife and wild places, heavily featuring the peregrines and kingfishers he has watched for many hours. This was my second viewing, and I was able to pick up on detail I’d missed or forgotten from the previous showing. Find out about Ian at https://www.wildstudiocornwall.co.uk/
Next, seal hero Sue Sayer and another keen volunteer, Septimus-discoverer Rob Wells, shared the stage as they told us the story of how this large male grey seal was recorded and later discovered dead by Rob – the third biggest dead seal recorded in Cornwall to date.
We learned how the seal decayed on the beach, photographed by Rob, over 100 days. How his potently stinking carcass was then carried from the beach to Sue’s car and left inland to decompose over two years, feeding a healthy crop of nettles. How the bones were painstakingly collected, cleaned, sanitised and left out in the sun to bleach. How they were sorted into containers, and (thanks to generous financial contributions from individuals and groups) pieced together by professional bone articulator Derek Frampton, recommended by Richard Sabin of the Natural History Museum. How the piecing together revealed a number of horrific injuries that had befallen Septimus during his lifetime – a bump that had damaged his spine, leaving a distinctive triangular scar when he was alive, broken ribs, painful infected flippers, a sinus infection bad enough to cause an area of his cheek bone to decay, and a shotgun bullet in a rib! Sue mused about how many other seals around our shores are suffering from similar illnesses and injuries. The story was embellished by photographs, including an impressive scan undertaken by a student, which enables us to look at the 3D image of Septimus’s skeleton from all angles on-screen. Learn more at https://www.cornwallsealgroup.co.uk/
After the interesting talk and discussion, Jenny and I rushed down, with empty stomachs, to the rather quaint catering van outside. The Feral Goat’s tasty coffee and paninis hit the lunchtime spot as Par bathed in summer sunshine.
After the lunch break, there had been some drifting away, so quite a few people missed the treat that was Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Youth Engagement Officer Jenn Sandiford’s highly inspiring and also extremely important talk. She showed us how a group who always seem to lose interest in wildlife – teens and young adults – are now involved with shoreline activities.
I think Jenn’s previous experience teaching this age-group, plus her own energy, heaps of enthusiasm, imagination and a significant flair for collaboration, have worked absolute wonders. She, her helpers, and the many groups she has worked with, have turned things right around. Their valuable work includes engaging young people living difficult lives, offering discoveries and achievements not so far from their own homes.
You can find out how the Beach Rangers ‘engage, inspire and protect’ at beachrangers.com – it involves a lot of snorkelling, some coasteering, paddleboarding and other adventurous activities, but the Your Shore Beach Rangers can also teach youngsters to swim as they discover wondrous sea life, involve them in beach litter picking and related craft activities, help them discover rockpool life at night … and so much more that my mind was boggled. There are bronze, silver and gold awards to work towards, and a range of life skills can be learned and rubber stamped with training and workshops that build knowledge and confidence, as well as genuine interest and care in the coastal environment. What a boost for the youth of Cornwall and for other age-groups, too. You can tell I was massively impressed. The Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/beachrangers/ and there is plenty about the Your Shore Beach Rangers on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust website, www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk
I stayed in my seat for Dave Groves’s pictorial guide to the mammals of Cornwall, in which he stressed the importance of sending in records.
Particularly memorable were a powerful-looking white hart and a stoat in full ermine. Dave’s commentary included an interesting discussion about the influx of new species of mammals in ancient, Victorian and recent times. What does the future hold as some mammals are reintroduced in limited ways (water voles, red squirrels and beavers) or recolonise (polecats, pine martens)? I found discussions about red squirrels and badgers particularly interesting, but the smaller mammals – wood mice, voles and the different shrews – were given plenty of attention too. (Dave’s favourite is the otter, and he is often to be found searching for their droppings, or ‘spraint’.) When is a polecat not a ferret? DNA testing has revealed answers. The important thing to remember is that all mammal records are useful, to measure rising and falling populations of species such as rabbits and rats as well as our more unusual mammal sightings. https://www.cornwallmammalgroup.org
The final talk of the day was no less interesting. Delia Webb of the Cornwall Plastic Pollution Coalition was a fount of knowledge and information about plastics found in the sea and washed up on beaches, from discarded clothing and ghost fishing gear to lost shipping containers, marine creatures made of Lego and microplastics. It was interesting to discover the difference between the coloured nurdles used in the production of plastic products and the similar-sized bits used for filtration by the water industry – which have also escaped into the environment. We passed around a lump of burnt and fused plastic that was black and visually exactly like a rock. Who knew that these are on our beaches, too? Much of the information was highly shocking and thought provoking. Our day-to-day lives are now so bound up with plastics. We create microplastic pollution every time we wash clothes made from oil-based products such as nylon. One of the most alarming problems is the lack of regulation of the so-called biodegradable products that only biodegrade in industrial refuse plants of types we don’t even have in Cornwall, and certainly won’t biodegrade in seawater. Bioedegradable body glitter is one of the many things that doesn’t break down, sadly. To make matters worse, these products contaminate and ruin the recycling process if they are added to standard plastic recycling. Add on the fact that the publicity for such products seems to actually encourage people to throw them away into the environment, believing that they will soon biodegrade, and you find that a new dimension to the disaster has been spawned. What an eye-opener and what a huge problem. Recycling is not at the top of Delia’s list of actions we can take. The top one is simply to refuse to use plastics as far as we can. And please remember to avoid the so-called biodegradable products unless they genuinely break down harmlessly in the environment and the manufacturers can prove it! https://www.facebook.com/yourshoreplastic/
The whole event demonstrated the positive spirit and actual achievements that benefit a place and its community when different groups work together to do their bit for a good cause – the local environment and its people and wildlife.
Displays at the event (information partly gleaned from a pre-event printout)
Friends of Fowey Estuary
Cornwall Wildlife Trust
Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust
Cornwall Bat Group
Friends of Luxulyan Valley
Cornwall Mammal Group
PL24 Community Association
Par Bay Big Local
Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society
Friends of St Andrews Wetland Reserve
Cornwall Plastic Pollution Coalition
Woodland Valley Beaver Project
… and the Friends of Par Beach themselves.