Celebrating Our Diamond Jubilee, 1962 To 2022

We were delighted to offer a number of walks, talks and events to celebrate this special occasion, all of which were FREE! We also celebrated this milestone by asking visitors to help paint a mural of some of the birds special to Sandwich Bay.

Thank you to everyone who attended our celebrations on Sunday 28th August, and a special thanks to all of our amazing volunteers who helped make this event such a success.

2022 marked the Diamond Jubilee Year of Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory.  It is sixty years since the Observatory was founded, although a Ringing Station had been set up on the Estate ten years prior to that and an interest in the birds and other wildlife of the area was already well-established. The picture below shows a field meeting taking place in the Little Gully area of the Estate in the early 1960s. The green building on the left did not just ‘fall off the back of a lorry’ but actually is the back of a lorry! It is the old Ringing Hut.

In 1962 the ‘founding fathers’ of the Observatory started to lease the middle one of three First World War barrack buildings at Old Downs Farm. Although conditions were very basic, for the first time it became possible to offer accommodation for local bird watchers and those from further afield and from these beginnings, everything else has followed.

In the early days of the 1960s and 1970s, Observatory membership only totalled about forty or fifty people, though steadily growing. Most members and activists were young single men and it was only much, much later that the appeal of birdwatching was to take hold with women. Over a period of 20 years or more, much more was learned about the birdlife of the Sandwich Bay area but members at that time also did studies of birds throughout much of East Kent. For example, Sand Martin colonies were visited, the Nightingale censuses of the 1970s, initiated by a member of the Observatory, eventually expanded to become a national survey and studies were done at Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve for several years, at Langdon Bay and many other sites.

As well as the regular recording of the local birds and other wildlife, the Observatory has always had an active interest in helping in the conservation of local wild places and their natural history. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was threats to the Pegwell Bay area that occupied members’ minds, with increased disturbance from such disparate groups as bait-diggers, nudists, the new Hoverport and the Richborough Power Station. Campaigning by the Observatory was a major factor in eventually getting the area designated as a National Nature Reserve, working alongside other conservation organisations – and, of course, both the Hoverport and power station are long gone…

In the early 1980’s attention began to be focussed on the Observatory acquiring its own land, rather than only relying on the cooperation and goodwill of local landowners. An opportunity arose to buy the land which we now know as Restharrow Dunes and this became the first of the Observatory’s nature reserves. Part of the purchase process also led to the Observatory becoming a Charitable Trust, a position which has been maintained until the present year.

Continued expansion took place in the 1990’s, with a steadily-growing membership and range of activities on offer. Much use was made at this time of various Government support packages for youth employment schemes. Many young people, as well as the Observatory, benefitted from the injection of money, including funds to support the employment of a full time Warden. More land was leased to construct an artificial scrape at Backsand Point downstream from Sandwich on the River Stour, a situation which was only undone by its destruction in a storm surge in 2013.

In 2001-2002, a combination of an unexpected legacy, a National Lottery appeal and European Funding allowed the Observatory to not only buy the premises that it had been renting since 1962, but also to completely renovate it, so that it became the superb facility that it is to-day.

It was at about this time that the Observatory also started leasing the Restharrow Field, soon to greatly improve it by the excavation of a ‘scrape’ on the site.

The past two decades have been notable for the consolidation of the role of the Observatory as a place where ‘citizen-science’ and education take place. Our membership is now well over seven hundred people, of all ages and levels of expertise. Many of them are actively involved as volunteers in keeping the Observatory functioning, or have developed their own interests in non-avian aspects of wildlife study – flora, butterflies, moths, dragonflies and others, with which Sandwich Bay is so richly endowed. We have acquired, or been gifted, more land in the Sandwich Bay Estate area. Of especial importance was the huge funding appeal which allowed the purchase of the Restharrow Field in 2019-2020 and the subsequent enlargement of the site for the benefit of both wildlife and visitors.

We now work positively with many local and national conservation organisations and educational bodies, especially the RSPB and the Kent Wildlife Trust. Our work in the ‘education and outreach’ area has expanded greatly in recent years, reflecting the need to involve many more members of the local community and young people in understanding conservation issues. Our ‘citizen science’ work also continues to prosper, both in the more traditional areas of bird recording, bird ringing, butterfly, moth and dragonfly surveys and also in exploring new technologies such as the MOTUS scheme, which allows real-time tracking of birds and bats by radio transmitter.

Despite the setback of the recent Covid-19 period, the Observatory has emerged in a strong and confident position and is looking to the future, as evidenced by its decision to convert its charitable status to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation in 2022. Sixty years on from the foundation of the Observatory is an appropriate time to set the scene for the next sixty!

We will be officially celebrating our Diamond Jubilee by some extra events and displays at the Field Centre during the traditional Open Day weekend of 27th – 28th August. It will be a chance to meet up with old friends and to reflect on and celebrate what the Observatory has achieved over the years.

Ken Chapman - Vice-President - June 2022