Where better to be on a scorching day than out enjoying the coastal scenery of the Swale?
However, concern is growing about the increasing numbers of fast powered watercraft using the water and the affect this is having on our wildlife.
300,000 birds use the estuaries of North Kent during migration and their survival is entirely dependent on stocking up during daylight hours on the protein rich crustaceans within the river mud. Flushing these birds for a few minutes might not seem much for an individual racing down the river but over time this, along with dogs off leads, has had an impact on the numbers of birds that survive.
It is easy to label everyone spinning along the water as a menace and think the best way to deal with them is to ban the lot but this is unfeasible and impossible to police. Therefore it is better to work with other people who wish to enjoy the beauty of the estuary and find ways to minimise the disturbance.
It was with this intention that I set out on a hovercraft last weekend with Carl Cristina of The Hovercraft Guild of Great Britain. My aim was to see the estuary from the perspective of the hovercraft users and witness first hand the impact it has on wildlife.
Tucked into my seat like a regal princess we were soon flying along the Swale. The roar of the fan softened by earphones. The hovercrafts undoubtedly have an impact on wildlife, flocks of black tailed godwits took flight at our approach but surprisingly, birds a little further away stayed put. It seemed it was not so much the noise which bothered them, amazingly this disappears a short distance from the craft, but the proximity.
I pointed out to Carl that the hovercrafts were using the most sensitive area of the river from a wildlife point of view. The point where land becomes water, the soft muddy edge where the birds find the easiest meal. He explained that this was because, if the craft stalled in deeper water, they were harder to get started again. A procedure, which is known in the trade as, “getting over the hump.”
Carl later demonstrated the technique needed to get over the hump but admitted that many hovercraft owners didn’t know how to do it. Further training might therefore be needed.
Chatting to the other hovercraft users it was also clear that there was a lack of knowledge about the special nature of the estuary and it’s international importance for wildlife. “They’re all just seagulls, aren’t they?” was one comment.
Hearteningly there was also a desire to learn more. Understand where the most sensitive areas were and when they were best avoided. Several solutions were suggested including colourful markers and waterproof maps.
Following stops at the Harty Ferry Inn for lunch and Leysdown-on-Sea for ice cream we headed back. Carl trying a variety of techniques to see how riding in different ways affected the birds and avoiding a colony of seals hauled out on the sands. At only a short distance, birds stayed put, alert, but not flying off.
There is no doubting the cleverness of the hovercraft and the fun of getting out onto the river and being whipped by salt spray. I am no killjoy when it comes to speed and an adrenalin buzz but it is essential that we all live in harmony with the wildlife we are lucky to live surrounded by and I am hoping this trip is the first step in finding practical solutions which help us all to enjoy the coast benignly.