Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Save Our Starlings!

Flocking starlings are one of the most stunning sights in the natural world. And their free ariel display has been a feature of Brighton seafront for many years. 

But now their numbers are in decline and the spectacle around the shell of the West Pier is now smaller and less frequent than in years gone by.

While Brighton Bloody Council continues to entertain speculators’ dreams of observation towers, twisted skyscrapers and outsized ferris wheels along our seafront, they seem oblivious to the dwindling of a true natural wonder in our town.

My friend Lisa who runs a cafĂ© in town suggested that we should do more to encourage them back. This could be done by replacing some of the wood that burnt down a decade ago in a mysterious fire on the West Pier. Once thousands of starlings roosted on the derelict pier’s wooden structures.  Now only a steel skeleton of the pier remains – hardly a comfortable perch.

Installing perching beams would entail work on a dangerous structure, but need not be prohibitively expensive. It would not need to be safe for human visitors.

The West Pier Trust, which owns the wrecked pier, has given up on redeveloping it. Lottery funds evaporated, developers went bust, etc… But it makes sense to leave it be.  We have one serviceable tourist pier already.  The end-of-the-pier shows it was once home to are ancient history.

Instead, the trust wants to build a 150-metre high observation tower at the pier’s entrance. It’s as if someone looked at Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower and said lazily, “me too”.

Observation towers presuppose there is something remarkable to observe.  In Portsmouth, it’s the ships.  Up a Brighton tower, tourists could look out to sea - and see the horizon a little lower down than before; alternatively, they could do a 180 and look at Brighton itself, although that’s better done from any of the South Downs behind the town. It’s a town surrounded by hills – you don’t need to climb a spire to see it.

You don’t need an observation tower to watch starlings paint the sky either, but at least it would give tourists something incredible to gaze at from their raised glass bubble.

What I propose is that we investigate making minimal alterations to the West Pier to encourage the starlings back.  This is going to be a tough sell in Brighton, which has never quite got over its reputation as a town that’s helping police with their enquiries in a kiss-me-quick hat.

But let’s be optimistic. The property bubble is well and truly over, so all those extra luxury flats aren’t going to happen now.

We have elected the country’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas.  It’s time we lived up to our new image by doing something for wildlife.

Incidentally, some fascinating research on birds’ flocking behaviour can be found here:

Thursday, 7 April 2011


It looks like a dinosaur devouring a building. The hydraulic crane’s steel jaws are pecking away at the vast former nurses’ residence in the hospital behind our road. Its sharp, angular outline has dominated the view up the hill for decades; soon there will be a toothy gap between the houses.  Since the plan was announced a few years back, I have imagined a wrecking ball or dynamite. This slow grazing by steel diplodocus has me baffled.  My neighbour, whose father used to be a demolition man, says she used to help him salvage bricks as buildings were slowly dismantled. Are bricks now so cheap that we don’t recycle them?
The site will become a car park. The planned development of blocks of flats has been put on ice as the property mania subsides, and housing association grants are slashed.
Still the destruction goes ahead. My neighbour has a theory as to why. Some of the local kids have been breaking into this semi-derelict ex-warehouse of angels. Letting fireworks off, that sort of thing. It is so labyrinthine that the police can never find the culprits when they arrive. The graffiti they have left on the walls of a fifth floor flat is now visible as the building’s secret insides are laid bare. I never knew this world existed until now.
They won’t touch the main hospital because it is listed. A former workhouse, it was also a hospital for  Indian soldiers who fought for the British in the fields of France during WW1. At least, they sent the lower castes to the workhouse. The wounded officers were billeted in the Pavilion. It has the same angles as the nurses block, but they will never mechanically devour a building with a clock tower.
I will miss the Victorian monstrosity that was the nurses’ home, however. If you looked towards moonrise and Jupiter, it had a ghostly presence in the east. I always thought I saw lights on, human life, but these were tricks, echoes.
It was part of that feeling that you were on the edge of civilisation – where the rows of houses suddenly ended with fields that just go on. I’m romanticising a little here. Brighton racecourse buffers the countryside. But the badgers and the foxes don’t seem to mind that too much. I hope they aren’t spooked by the prehistoric roar of modernity, modernising.