Seabirds, Environmental Change, and Morecambe Bay

Copyright Catherine Oliver 2022

On the 18th January 2023, a long-awaited announcement was made by the UK government: Morecambe would be receiving £50 million for the Levelling Up fund to cover half the costs of the Eden Project North. The project seeks to “re-imagine Morecambe as a seaside resort for the 21st century” bringing their trademark domes to inspire, educate, and connect with the Bay’s natural beauty.

Two decades ago, Morecambe Bay was described by Lancaster University ecologist and entomologist JB Whittaker as a “laboratory for climate change” where the flourishing and disappearance of insect “signal species” might be traced. More recently, the local chapter of the global Extinction Rebellion movement have been campaigning for the council to act on carbon emissions and the climate crisis that could potentially see Morecambe disappear in just a few centuries. Last year, local high school and college students worked with design and computing researchers to create visualisations of local coastal ‘pasts and futures.’

Vintage railway poster, LMS

Morecambe’s watery landscape has also been a rich source of inspiration in literature and nature writing: Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney; Sarah Hall’s Electric Michelangelo; Jenn Ashton’s The Fell; and Karen Lloyd’s The Gathering Tides. These recent fictional and memoir accounts represent the haunting, dangerous, and compulsive local landscape. Beauty goes together with the potential terror of sweeping tides and hungry quicksand, with words of warning accompanying every tale of the coastline. But what is it about Morecambe Bay that offers so much inspiration?

In a new pilot study, funded by Lancaster University’s Research Catalyst Fund, I am working with Morecambe Bay’s communities and seabirds to think of the Bay as an ever-changing more-than-human landscape, shaped by animal presences and absences as much as it is by human, geological, and tidal ones.

Morecambe Bay

Morecambe Bay stretches from the south west coast of Cumbria to Fleetwood in Lancashire, featuring coastal towns like Grange Over Sands, Morecambe, and Barrow in Furness. It is a huge sandy bay covering 310 square kilometres, where according to the BBC’s 2006 Seven Wonders series, “visitors are often surprised by the seemingly endless expanses of sand and the vastness of the bay.” As well as the quarter of a million birds, the sand is “crammed with juicy worms, tiny crustaceans and shellfish” which the birds feed on, whilst the salt marshes encourage a unique community of plants.

Morecambe Bay is renowned for its fast flowing tides and quicksand. However, when the tide comes in, it is fast, whirling, and if you are caught in it, deadly. As the Morecambe Bay Partnership wrote in a pamphlet warning of the bay’s tides, “The bay’s broad funnel-like shape and shallow depth affects the tidal ebb and flow, creating strong currents. Tidal bores can roar over the sands at speeds of nine knots. These powerful tidal currents mould the soft sediments, piling them into sand banks, gouging out deep muddy channels and scooping out deep, dangerous holes that fill with quicksands whose positions can change daily.”

Across Morecambe Bay, these rich and diverse landscapes offer not just beauty and danger, but critically important ecological habitats. For example, Arnside & Silverdale is an Area of Natural Beauty where birds nest in the spring. Nearby Leighton Moss is an RSPB-protected site, with hides to watch the migratory birds. Heysham, at the southern end of the Bay, is a headland with a Viking history. Grange-over-Sands offers spectacular mudflats, while on the opposite tip of the Bay, Walney Nature reserve is home to a grey seal colony.

Copyright Catherine Oliver 2022

With this new wave of investment, Morecambe Bay – and Morecambe itself – has become a site for ecological regeneration. When I moved to Lancaster last year, and then to Morecambe in early 2023, I immediately knew that I wanted to work in and with Morecambe Bay’s beautiful, terrifying, and changing landscapes – and of course the animals making lives here.

The Bay’s Birds

Birds have long served as “signal species” of anthropogenic climate change and a human-altered earth. Broiler chickens indicate a reconfigured biosphere, Adelie penguins trace the impacts of melting ice caps, and plastic particles found in vultures feeding on landfill signal chemical pollution.

But, in Morecambe Bay, avian life can thrive in a rich and diverse natural landscape, that patchworks ‘salt marshes and sand dunes, woodlands and limestone grasslands [into] a haven for wildlife’ (Morecambe Bay Partnership). However, climate change and human disturbance are seeing declining numbers of many threatened birds species. Across Morecambe’s beaches and town centre, local avian life isn’t just celebrated, it is memorialised in statues, art, and poetry throughout the town.

Copyright Catherine Oliver 2022

Morecambe Bay is a complex site. Alongside danger and beauty, it is also an internationally important site for wildlife, with the maximum level of legal protections. Its diverse patchwork of landscapes – saltmarshes, sands, and mudflats – is one of the top three places in the UK for overwintering birds.

Morecambe Bay is home over the colder months for migrating birds who travel from the arctic regions and stop in Morecambe Bay to feed on the creatures living in the flats. Then, in the Spring, the Bay is home to rare and declining beach-nesting bird species like the ringed plover, oystercatcher, little tern and arctic tern. According to the Morecambe Bay Partnership, over 240,000 birds are supported by Morecambe Bay each year, numbers that are sadly in decline.

Copyright Catherine Oliver 2022

At the moment, the “bay is brimming with waders and wildfowl… knot form large flocks around the coast and estuaries, alongside curlew, lapwing and oystercatcher, and pink footed goose that have headed south for winter.” The hours before and after the high tide, when the bay is covered in water and underneath the waters, life is swirling – is the best time to see birds as they move in-shore following the tides so they can eat. An hour or so before sunset, starling murmurations occur around the bay, a few small flocks building into a seamless aerial display. Waxwings sometimes descend in large numbers from Scandinavia, and the ‘evocative call of the curlew’ echoes along the sea shore.

There’s no doubt that these birds are part and parcel of the cultural heritage of the Bay, as much as they are part of its ecology. With that under threat, there are rocky paths ahead for the birds of the bay.

Beginning in Morecambe

Today the town of Morecambe, like many other British seaside resorts, is far from the thriving resort of its heyday and the town has a fluctuating history of glamour and deprivation – what Roger Bingham has called the “ebb and flow” of Morecambe mirroring its tides. In 1846, the Morecambe Harbour and Railway Company was formed to build a harbour and a railway, obviously. A settlement grew around the harbour and this became Morecambe in 1889.

In the early and mid-20th century, Morecambe was a thriving seaside resort, attracting visitors from Yorkshire and Scotland due to its railway connections, while nearby Blackpool attracted visitors from the Lancashire mill towns. The sun and sea air attracted workers and the town grew around these visitors, with buildings like the Winter Gardens theatre opening for entertainment and urban parks that still exist today. In 1933, the art deco Midland Hotel opened – the jewel in Morecambe’s crown, hosting events and dinners. It was renovated in 2006 and stands proud even today. Sea air was meant to be restorative, but the town thrived due to working class occupations, a legacy that lives on today.

Copyright Catherine Oliver 2022

However, funding and visitors started to dwindle and in the latter half of the twentieth century, like many other seaside resorts, Morecambe saw a decades long decline damaging the local people and economy as the resort lost piers and attractions. Morecambe is far from the thriving seaside town it was in its heyday of the 1930s, yet it is filled with echoes of this history. From the Midland Hotel’s refurbishment to the annual Vintage Festival, Morecambe is not a town that hides its past, but one that celebrates it.

Set against the vistas of glacial landforms of the Lake District, Morecambe has been described as a “juxtaposition” to these coastal zones of exceptional quality. It’s also a town that is proud of this past, that wants re-enliven it and bring back that glamour, as the town grew, shrunk, and got “left behind” as tourism transformed. Surrounding the town, however, was that ever-changing yet ever-present landscape of the Lake district’s hills, the intervening flats, and the receding and returning tide.

Copyright Catherine Oliver 2022

As I’ve moved to Morecambe, this is where my journey of the Bay – and its birds – will begin. But that isn’t the only reason for Morecambe being the starting point for this journey — as the town has already built cultural connections with the avian life on its shores, coinciding with a previous investment from the government.

An Avian Identity

In 1990, substantial government funding for coastal protection and land clearance saw “a search began for a subject around which the new Morecambe could evolve and establish an identity. What could be more appropriate or obvious for a theme than the bird life of Morecambe Bay?” And so, the TERN project was born. The Morecambe Tern Project was installed in Morecambe between 1999 and 2002 and spreads across the five miles of Morecambe’s promenade.

Copyright Catherine Oliver 2022

A multi-disciplinary team of engineers, landscape architects, planners, artists, sculptors and RSPB education officers set out to curate a celebration of avian life in the bay, building the birds into the coastal defences and promenade restoration. Large pieces of quarried rock were embellished with steel cormorants, gannets and razorbills. Cast iron cormorants sit on top of pollards on railings. Perimeters of fence are decorated with flocks of birds, imitating the whirling flight of knot and dunlin over the shore. On the stone jetty, the only surviving feature from the 1853 harbour, a central spine is dotted with a maze, a magpie hopscotch, a food chain, riddles, word searches, all cast in bronze. A huge stone bird sits in the middle.

This artistic landscape simultaneously responds to and creates Morecambe as an avian-loving landscape, but twenty years after its completion, a climate and environmental crisis threatens the community built around birds.

Climate Changing Landscapes

In Morecambe, the avian landscape is intimately connected with “reading” the area and with temporal and seasonal markers. The honking migration of the pink-footed goose in late August marks the end of the summer and the beginning of the autumn. The arrival of the birds in Morecambe represents the winter turn, the end of the summer season, and time to close up for winter. These intimate relationships with avian life are allowing people to feel and track the patterns and temporalities of migration. One of the reasons that birds serve so well as “signal species” is that they ‘are mobile and responsive to environmental changes,’ and can ‘show meaningful patterns’ (BirdLife International, nd).

Copyright Catherine Oliver 2022

In the last quarter of the 20th century, farmland bird populations plummeted in Europe due to intensification of agriculture which ‘had deleterious and measurable effects on bird populations on a continental scale’ (Donal et al, 2001, 25). Birds have also been used by scientists as indicators of biodiversity to understand wider ecosystem trends (Gregory et al, 2003), but observing birds as environmental signals is not limited to specialists. Local community engagements with the changing patterns of migrating birds point towards the importance of local understandings of avian lives and the climate emergency — recognising the importance and value that birds have to these landscapes, as well as their right to them.

The Avian Blue Ecologies Project

The Avian Blue Ecologies project looks at the unique relationship between Morecambe Bay’s landscape, its seabirds and marine animals, and local communities. Over the next six months, along with researcher Rachel Verrall, we will be sketching out the contours of avian blue ecologies in the Bay and trying to pinpoint how our research can positively impact humans and birds, understand their importance culturally as well as ecologically, and collaborate with local people and organisations.

We have three aims for the next six months on this project:

  1. To understand the importance of migratory avian life to residents, communities, and ecologies of Morecambe Bay, and how climate change is affecting local seabirds, the humans who commune with them, and relationships with the marine ecology.
  2. To look at the impact that ecological regeneration, such as the Eden Project, will have on local multispecies communities and their continued access to more-than-human interaction in Morecambe.
  3. To develop methods to trace the changing historical avian “blue ecologies” in Morecambe Bay using birdwatching and photographic approaches.

We’ll be posting regular updates on Twitter with some longer reflective pieces planned for the blog. If you are interested in talking to me more about the project, please get in touch via the contact page!

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