The best job in Norfolk?

Ajay Tegala has just landed his dream job as a permanent member of the Norfolk Coast team on Blakeney Point. And with the first grey seal pup of the season expected any day now, who can blame him for being over the moon. 

AjayAjay is no stranger to Blakeney Point, working as a seasonal Assistant Ranger on the Norfolk Coast reserve last year. So what is it about Blakeney Point and the job that he loves so much? We’ve been along to find out more…

Why do you do what you do?

It dates back to 1901. During the Victorian times lots of “gentleman gunners”, as they were called then, came to the North Norfolk Coast to shoot rare birds. This enabled us to learn more about birds and helped develop our identification guides; however it was of course destructive and detrimental to our migrant and breeding birds. So in 1901, the Blakeney and Cley Wild Bird Protection Society was set up and Bob Pinchen was appointed as the first Watcher on the Point, to protect the breeding birds. When the National Trust acquired the Point in 1912, they continued to employ Bob in the breeding bird season.

Fast forward to 2013 and I am the seventh person to live on the Point to protect its breeding birds, with the assistance of two seasonal rangers.

It’s all about protecting wildlife. Each summer, the UK’s largest colony of Sandwich Terns arrive on the Point having migrated from West Africa. My/our job is to fence off their breeding area, as they could abandon the site if they are disturbed. I spend a lot of time on the beach talking to visitors. This is something I love; it’s great to meet those that have chosen to walk the three miles on shingle to see the wildlife or to just enjoy the environment. Sometimes people are surprised to find someone so far from the mainland.

Sandwich TernsThere are not just unique species of birds here, but plants too. We have some important habitats: vegetated shingle, saltmarsh and sand dunes. These all have a number of unique plants that are adapted to survive in sandy, salty or shingly conditions. So another big part of my role is leading guided walks and student groups, showing them the flora and fauna and explaining its importance. Most people appreciate the beauty too.

What do you love most about the job?

I love so many things. The sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing I have played my part in conserving the terns, as I watch them fly with their young that have hatched on the Point. Being in such a beautiful place and watching it change. Everyday the beach changes with the tides. I get to see all kinds of weather, watching stormy conditions move the shingle and re-shape the dunes and also seeing the wind blow sand, forming embryo dunes and seeing them grow and get colonised by plants – it feels like this is as close to wilderness as you can get in England.

…and least?

One of the most frustrating things is when things happen beyond your control. The weather is exciting and dramatic, but can be catastrophic to fragile birds nesting on the shoreline. Seeing Little Terns lose their nests to the sea can be depressing, but other than that you really just can’t beat it.

What is it like living on the Point?

Living on site in the iconic former Lifeboat House, built in 1898, is a pleasure and privilege, especially this year following a major renovation. Being organised is essential when living in such a remote location. On our weekly day off, all of our supplies for the week ahead must be bought. They are taken back to the Lifeboat House either by quad bike and trailer along the beach from Cley at low tide, or by boat across Blakeney Harbour at high tide. It is very much like living on an island. The spit is never cut off, but the four-mile walk on shingle from the Lifeboat House to Cley is enough to make it feel separate from mainland Britain.

From the top of the tallest dune, I love to just gaze out at the magnificent (often orange) sky. The tide has gone out and everyone has gone home. Hares run though the Marram grass and the evening air fills with the calls of birds. You just can’t beat it.

Sunrise on the Point

So how has the wildlife fared this year?

Sandwich Terns have had a great year, with record numbers breeding this summer. Thanks to a new colour-ringing project in partnership with the BTO, we are getting information on their migration. Terns hatched on the Point have already been seen on the Dutch, German, Danish and French coast. Then there’s the Grey Partridges, which have declined nationally over the past few decades. However on the Point we are watching them increase and fledge healthy numbers of young.

With seal pupping season almost upon us, I’m guessing you’re always busy…

The spring starts with putting up fences for the breeding birds, which are then taken down in August once they have fledged. Two months on and we’re putting up more fencing, this time for the seals. It’s another exciting time of the year for us, eagerly anticipating the birth of the first Grey Seal pup. Since they started giving birth here in 2001, numbers have rocketed from 25 to over 1,000 pups, making us the third largest rookery on England’s east coast.

Because the pups stay in the dunes for three weeks until their non-waterproof white fur is shed, we have to make sure people and dogs do not come into conflict with aggressive seal parents! So we are putting up a string fence-line, but we have also designed a trail so that walkers can get good views of the pups from a safe distance.

We’re also getting ready for any rescues that may be needed. This involves working with the RSPCA and our seal volunteers, and this year our neighbours the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. So if a seal is sick and injured, we can help get it to the RSPCA animal hospital.

Grey Seal pup (Graham Lubbock)
Photo credit: Graham Lubbock

I love that life here is constantly changing. It’s going to be another busy few months, but for me, this is my dream job and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. 

You can catch up on all the latest news from Ajay and the team on their blog.

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