Friday evening of the 3rd June finds me at our site at Heysham Head, known to most people locally as ‘The Barrows’, the most southerly location on our patch. It is a beautiful evening – still too hot even at 8.30pm for the NT-branded red ranger fleece I am wearing – with the sun slowly setting far out over the Irish Sea, and with the Lake District peaks hanging smokily over the huge and deserted brown sands of a low-tide Morecambe Bay. The backdrop gives the place a real blast of the wild and the wind-swept, perhaps surprisingly so given that The Barrows are completely ringed on the landward side by a loop of neat houses that ends with the distinctive outline of the Heysham Power station at the southern end.
I am here to participate in a joint police patrol in order to conserve the site’s population of linnets; in fact as it turns out I also joined up with a fire patrol too, so it was quite an evening. Police and Fire crews to support linnets? It might seem like overkill, so I had better explain...
“We’re lucky to have this here” says Linda, one of the Police Community Support Officers, and on the evening I am here the Heysham Barrows are certainly living up to their role as a vital green lung for the people of Morecambe and Heysham There are quite a few dog-walkers, a group of lads playing with an aerobie, a couple of families having picnic teas and another one paddling in the muddy shallows with nets and buckets, some young mothers meeting up together with their toddlers, a courting couple, a few individuals sitting quietly enjoying their own private sunsets, and a group of teenagers swigging from a couple of enormous plastic cider bottles (more of whom later).
And down at the far end, flitting joyously between the gorse bushes and twittering roughly like a flock of wild canaries on cheap cider themselves, are the linnets. They’re a small finch with an uneven mixture of chestnut brown, black and grey markings that make them look a bit like a small sparrow or a dunnock, except with much longer tail and wings. It is the males that really stand out though, with pinky-red breasts and foreheads that are almost glowing this evening where they catch the last firey rays of the sun. Of course there are other birds too, an evening chorus of songthrushes and blackbirds; a single whitethroat scratching away from the top of a bramble patch.
Linnets were once a bird common throughout British farmland, but like many species they suffered an enormous and worrying decline throughout the 1960s and 1970s that continues to this day, so that they are now described as “red-listed” in this country by conservation bodies. They have been pushed out to more marginal areas, with coastal sites such as Heysham now being their most preferred habitat, with gorse a particular favourite.
And this gorse brings me back to the police and fire patrols. Over the unusually hot and dry Easter holiday period earlier this year,the Fire Service were called out 5 times to put out gorse fires on the Barrows, half the total from the whole of last year. Although some might have been accidental given the dry conditions, we think most were deliberately started. Walking round tonight, with green shoots just visible from the large areas of charred gorse stems and with the last of the bluebells curiously unaffected underneath them, it doesn’t look like any permanent harm will have been done, but to the linnets these fires are catastrophic, and the risk of the fires spreading to the nearby houses is very high indeed.
The joint patrols are something that the National Trust, the police, members of the local community and the fire service have all identified as a way of reducing the threat of the fires; and also the teenage drinking that might be the underlying cause. The patrols, in what has now been designated a “no alcolhol zone”, are about warding off incidents before they occur, but also about simply showing that the place is cared for, and that it needs looking after. We have highlighted a special need for them when nice weather and school holidays combine, as they have done this evening...
In fact it is such a likely evening for “trouble” that although it is the police that I have agreed to meet, it is three members of the local Fire Service who turn up first, in a big shiny fire engine, on a chance visit to see who is around. The fire officers approach is relaxed and friendly and very human, first speaking to a barbecuing couple about safe disposal, and then tackling the cider-swilling teenagers in the woods. Once the kids realise it is “only the firemen” the few who scarpered behind a rock come back, and the remainder remove their bottles from under their jumpers. It is a strangely innocent and comical scene, but also rather sad. But the firemen exchange banter with them, pointing out that they should take their litter home with them as “some idiots can try and use it to light fires”. It is an approach that tries and reach out to the kids’ fundamental goodness, to try and use them as a way of passing on a message to the real trouble-makers, the actual fire-starters.
The Police Community Support Officers approach, when they arrive, is more no nonsense, although to be honest with their luminous yellow jackets, most of the kids have fled back into town at the sight of them. Those few that remain, to groans and protests, have their alcohol poured out in front of them, and are then moved on. It is curiously simple and quick, and despite the first name terms there is an undoubted respect on the part of the kids towards the police.
The drinkers gone, and the night reassuringly quieter than expected, we are just having a chat amongst the lengthening shadows of St Patrick’s Church when a larger and more intimidating group of older teenagers – 16 to 18 – walk up the narrow lane to the Barrows with some crates of beer. “Hey!” shout the police officers, and there is a brief chase as the boys run off onto the beach and follow the sea wall back towards Morecambe. Police colleagues away in that direction are radioed through to, and the Community Support Officers are off. Their night is really only just beginning, whereas mine has now finished.
On Monday, at the “Police and Communities Together” meeting at the Heysham Community Centre I learn that not only were there no fires over the half term weekends, but that the total number of recorded incidents on the Barrows fell from 22 in April to only 9 in May....