RIVER users at Beaulieu have been warned not to land on Gull Island after two chicks born to a very rare species of bird died when their nest was disturbed.
It is illegal for people to set foot on the island, but Beaulieu Estate owner Lord Montagu said some had been ignoring the rule – even having barbecues – which has had tragic consequences for some of the wildlife there.
He said: “If a nest is disturbed, the parents will leave it until they perceive the threat has gone.
“Unfortunately, the people having the barbecues would have been on the island for several hours, during which time the chicks were unattended.
“They became dehydrated and died. The warden who found them reported that the parents did not realise what had happened and very sadly continued to keep bringing food back to the nest for them.”
The peer added: “They are a very rare species of bird, which makes it all the more tragic.”
The island is part of the North Solent Nature Reserve as well as being a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation.
Lord Montagu said that in the past people had on “rare occasions” landed on the island but most “responsible river users” knew that it was illegal to do so. He did not want to reveal the species of bird affected for fear of attracting further attention to the spot.
He said he believed that the people who had gone onto the island may have been inexperienced paddle boarders who did not realise what they were doing was wrong.
He added: “I can understand people getting frustrated during the lockdown and wanting, when the restrictions were relaxed, to get out into the fresh air.
“There has been a huge increase in the use of paddleboards and unfortunately I think some less experienced users are just ignorant of the fact that the island is a protected area.
“There are signs there, but this was not enough, sadly. I am not saying that what happened to the chicks was deliberate, it was more a case of ignorance.”
Lord Montagu said the situation had been “exacerbated” by the fact that all the Natural England staff who normally patrol the area had been furloughed during the pandemic.
Gull Island stands at the mouth of the river. It was originally an island but is now a spit.
Natural England wardens who returned to work this week found the chicks and the discarded barbecues.
He is now urging people to visit the River Beaulieu’s official website where they can book a slot to launch from Buckler’s Hard and “educate” themselves about the rules governing it and where it is safe to go.
Lord Montagu said there had also been numerous reports from local residents about the misuse of the river, including people swimming, fishing without permits and the launching of watercraft from unauthorised areas.
The viewing hide on the Beaulieu to Buckler’s Hard footpath has also been vandalised and used as a public convenience.
The riverside adjacent to the footpath was closed last winter to allow the ground to recover from years of soil compaction and the trampling of vegetation by walkers and cyclists.
It was hoped it would be reopened soon, but a recent ecology survey had found that impossible.
Lord Montagu said that despite warning signs that the area is closed, people had continued to walk in the wood “compounding” the damage already done.
He said: “We need to protect this fragile area, so we are asking people to respect it and stay on the footpath.”