An Unexpected Utopia

Through the centre of a Northern city, flows a once dirty and industrialised water way. At high tide the dark waters are murky and wide, reaching right up to the trees whose branches grasp at the waters below, but at low tide, the river recedes and miles of thick, sticky, claggy mud flats are exposed. Rowing here is difficult. Boats on shoulders, wellies firmly on, and if by the end of it there’s a part of you that isn’t covered in mud, consider yourself very lucky indeed. But when you’re in the boat and on the water, the true extent of the wildlife present in this most unlikely of places becomes highly apparent.
‘Sebastian!’ I cried joyously from the coaches launch.

Frowning at me from across the boat, my coaching friend shook his head determinedly.

‘No. His name’s Sammy!’

I returned his frown.

‘He has a Facebook page!’ He retorted.

‘Oh well, if he has a Facebook page.’ I replied.

This sarky comment earned me a huge splash of water over my face, which debatably, I may have deserved. Our somewhat childish, yet important argument (one of many) continued until we remembered we were supposed to be coaching our rowers, not bickering over the name of this particular animal. But what/who is this mysterious Sebastian/Sammy fellow who has his own Facebook page? Another rower? A fellow coach? Could the man not decide his own name so we had to decide it for him? Well, no. Sebastian is in fact, a common seal.

A popular sighting amongst us rowers, there have been many occasions where his little head has emerged from beneath the water surface, observing what, he probably considers, as a very curious endeavour indeed. As a common seal, Sebastian (or Sammy, we haven’t settled that argument), is our smaller species of seal when compared to the larger grey seal. Sebastian finds himself among the 83,000 common seals that we have in Europe, 35% of which can be found on our shores. Thankfully and luckily for Sebastian, the common seal, along with the grey, have been protected from persecution since 2013. And if they weren’t, well, let’s just say that our seal would have an army of muddy rowers at his disposal.

But it’s not just Sebastian that makes this river an unlikely wildlife haven. Everyday that we row, we are surrounded by a plethora of fantastic species. In summer, the high sandy banks play host to numerous sand martins that sweep low over the waters, joined by swifts and swallows, as they catch unsuspecting insects. Whilst throughout summer and winter, herons stalk the shallow waters, standing frozen in place before launching their long beaks into the water and retrieving a very fishy prize. We can even boast sightings of a few foxes sitting quietly on the banks, ready to run, if we get too close.

The mud flats however, are one of the most interesting spectacles. Not because once in a while a very unfortunate rower gets stuck and takes a spectacular tumble (a regular occurrence), wellies standing erect and empty, whilst their owner flails about in the mud. And not because it becomes a highly intelligent military operation to try and free them, with everyone involved sporting some kind of creature from the black lagoon fashion. Although these things are all a sight to be seen, it is in fact the birdlife that makes these sticky brown obstacle courses more bearable.

Gulls are one of the most obvious characters present. Herring, lesser black-backed and black-headed all make their presence known as you row through a sky full of noisy white bodies. And though these birds shout the loudest, if you look more closely, there are many more that can be seen searching the mud for morsels of food. The winter brings these birds in their greatest numbers. Teals, redshank, sandpipers, oystercatchers and lapwings, all litter the mudflats, congregating in their own little groups. But these are a special sight, as every single on of these species have something in common. They are on the Amber List of Birds of Conservation Concern. So, not the happiest of circumstances, granted, but they are there and in reasonable numbers. This fact, along with recent reports that our waders are declining and in trouble, makes their presence very important indeed.


They are all fantastic sights to see and they make a tough row much more enjoyable. To some of us at least. I don’t think some others care all that much if I’m honest. When Sebastian reared his head recently, we stopped to stare at him for a while. One of our, perhaps more pushy members of the crew huffed and puffed and nearly blew some houses down at our reluctance to row away, trying to motivate us with cries of:

‘Ok! We’ll do a 5k piece all the way back! Let’s go!’

Nah, we’d rather watch the seal if we’re honest.

Now, don’t get me wrong, venturing off into the wilds of Scotland and into the woodlands of the North (or anywhere you fancy) are some of my very favourite things to do. With a little patience (or a lot), some of the wildlife you’ll see is amazing, but you don’t have to go that far afield. It just goes to show that wildlife pops up in so many places, even a once dirty river (that still isn’t all that clean) that runs through a city until it reaches the sea can boast a pretty amazing collection of wildlife. Proving that wherever you are:

“Seek and you shall find.”

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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