History of the Friends of Chichester Harbour
Why and how were the Friends formed?
Way back in the relatively early years of the Conservancy there was only one member of staff dealing with environmental matters, the Amenity Officer Philip Couchman, and he was dealing with development control, footpaths, education etc as well as conservation. Joan Edom was the honorary Conservation Warden, primarily involved in counts of wintering birds, and protecting the nesting seabirds in summer. Not much practical work took place: as the Conservancy did not then manage any land, and there were no agri-environment schemes, the requirement was minimal compared with now. Volunteers from the Sussex Ornithological Society helped with work to build up the seabird islands, but that was about it.
Gradually the harbour entered into agreements to manage places such as Salterns Copse and Fishbourne Meadows, the 1987 storm led to grants for tree planting, and farmers began to undertake projects such as hedge and pond restoration. In 1983 the Chichester Conservation Volunteers began as part of nationally increasing movement. They were supported from the beginning by the Conservancy by offering work and hence experience. Their first task was in Salterns Copse and they soon became involved in other activities such as tree planting and reedbed management. So opportunities for practical work were increasing, but there was no link between groups, and nothing to generate interest from within the harbour community. The Friends came about in 1987 as a focus for voluntary effort in the harbour, and to try to involve more people.
Martin Beale of Cobnor, Joan Edom’s brother and one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the Conservancy itself was the first formally to back the idea of the Friends when I suggested it. I was a volunteer helping Joan with the bird work, and also a member of both groups already contributing practical help. Joan was looking to retire and it seemed to Philip, Joan and myself that an organisation focussed on the harbour would be helpful in the developing world of environmental management. In addition, we knew that people appreciated the harbour, so if other places had Friends, why not the harbour?
So on a summer’s evening in 1987 some 120 people made their way to a hall in Southbourne for an exploratory meeting. It opened with short talks on different aspects of conservation by the Conservancy, the Chichester Harbour Wildfowlers, and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV). A committee was formed, and a constitution agreed. The objectives of the new group were commendably simple: “to provide a focus for and to encourage the development of voluntary activities in Chichester Harbour and its amenity area”. Initially the emphasis was on practical work with the occasional social activity, such as boat trips and walks – a long way from the high-profile fund raising organisation that now exists.
To keep up the momentum of the enthusiastic inaugural meeting, the first committee meeting was held a fortnight later. The Friends were off to a flying start, and the first practical project was a shoreline litter clearance and a barbecue the following month.
Thanks to Martin the Friends had a seat on the Conservancy’s Advisory Committee from the start, which helped raise the profile and keep the Friends in touch with harbour business. Throughout, various members of the Conservancy played key roles in the development of the Friends.
As anticipated the scope of the Conservancy’s responsibilities increased both in terms of reach and activities. I joined the Conservancy staff as Conservation Warden in 1988, a full time post created after Joan’s retirement to deal with the increasing conservation workload. Philip had to spend much of his time raising money from different sources in order to fund projects. When I first joined there were no rangers, no trucks and minimal equipment . In those days the only transport I could use was my car, not easy for bulky things like trees or large tools, and we were lucky if more than 10 people came to a task. But we kept going, and worked with the existing groups as well. Harbourwatch was started using the embryonic Friends network, and litter clearance was added to the repertoire of regular tasks.
After a few years Friends membership eventually reached 200, having been running along at 40 to 50. It was agreed that we could approach all the boat owners via the harbour dues process, which greatly increased the membership . At this stage the Friends did not have charitable status; this was subsequently achieved when a retired solicitor volunteered to help to deal with the Charity Commission. This added credibility to the organisation from a fund raising perspective. As the numbers increased the Friends had more influence, which together with some influential trustees, enabled the organisation to develop further. The Friends’ increased profile also led to bequests and other donations that enabled the charity to make some significant donations to the AONB. So, like the trees that were planted in 1987, an oak has grown from an acorn.
Anne de Potier