BARRY SPENCE, WARDEN OF SPURN NATURE RESERVE, 1964 TO 2002
by
Pete Crowther

On 20th July, 2002, Barry Spence retired as Warden of Spurn National Nature Reserve after 38½ years. He has been for many years a familiar figure to all who come to Spurn or have any association with it. Indeed for most people, he was ‘Mr. Spurn’ himself! His knowledge of all aspects of the Peninsula is unrivalled. As a tribute to him and to his long ‘reign’ and out of general interest for the many people who have long been acquainted with Barry but who may know little of his earlier career and biographical details, these notes have been written.

Barry was born in Northampton in 1937. He lived there as a child on the outskirts of the town within easy reach of the countryside. His interest in natural history began at an early age and was stimulated by seeing, at about 10 years old, a Humming-bird Hawk-moth. In the hot summer of 1947, his forays into the countryside surrounding Northampton had been rewarded by the sight of large numbers of butterflies, and it was to be butterflies not birds which initially became the focus of his interest in the natural world. However, two year later, at the age of 12, he was confined to bed with an infection, and diverted himself by looking through his bedroom window at the birds outside. From such a small beginning arose a lifelong interest and career. His first bird book was a modest little volume in the ‘Wayside and Woodland Series’, but his parents recognizing his new interest, bought for him as a Christmas present, the more authoritative Witherby’s Handbook of British Birds. While still at grammar school, Barry joined the school’s natural history society, and became a member of the Northampton Natural History Society.

On leaving school at the age of 16, Barry went to work on a farm. It was a mixed farm of about 500 acres and was located at Horton near Salcey Forest about 10 miles from Northampton. He was given accommodation at the farm and worked there from October 1953 until Easter 1959. During this period Barry’s interest in birds and birding continued to grow and develop. Much of his spare time was spent at Cley, where he began his training as a ringer in 1954 under the guidance of the observatory warden there, Richard Richardson. After leaving the farm in the spring of 1959, he spent some time at Cley Bird Observatory and was an honorary assistant warden there in the autumn of that year, sleeping in the ringing hut. Although over 18, he had been excused National Service whilst working on the farm, as agricultural work was classed as a reserved occupation. When he left the farm at Horton, however, he was summoned for an army medical and aptitude test. As a result of the latter, he was informed that he had been selected for the Army Medical Corps. Unfortunately the army was to be deprived of Barry’s sevices as shortly before receiving his call-up, when the seasonal job at Cley had finished, he had again taken employment as a farm worker, this time on a farm at Ratby in Leicestershire, close to where his parents had moved from Northampton. Here he remained until 1962, by which time National Service had been abolished. As he was the only employee on the farm, his opportunities for birding were restricted, but he was entitled to alternate weekends off, and so every fortnight he made good use of this opportunity to go back to Cley.

Late in 1961 Barry was offered the job of Assistant Warden at Fair Isle Bird Observatory. This was not the first time that he had been offered the job but on the previous occasion (in 1959) he could not take it as he was then expecting to be called up imminently for National Service. This time, however, there were no barriers, and Barry jumped at the chance! He was appointed as Assistant Warden in March 1962. At that time, the only way to get to Fair Isle for most people was by train and boat. The long journey was not regretted by Barry, as it furnished him with no less than five ‘lifers’—Long-tailed Duck, Rock Dove, Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, and Black Guillemot!

Barry remained at Fair Isle for the next two years, which he has described as two of the happiest years of his life, living in a place where he was able to take an active part in the life of a small tightly-knit community and enjoy unlimited birding amid some of the finest scenery in Britain. Photographs of the time show him, like the intrepid ‘cliff-climmers’ of Filey, attached to a single rope and nonchalantly climbing down vertical cliffs with a sheer drop of 500 feet or more to inspect nesting seabirds or Peregrines. Accommodation consisted of a cluster of huts formerly occupied by Naval personnel. A link with the mainland was provided by a small coaster, the Good Shepherd,  which made regular but infrequent visits bringing supplies and mail as well as visitors to the island. The job of Assistant Warden was seasonal so that Barry had to return reluctantly to the mainland for the winter, and spend December to mid-March working on the farm.
When Peter Davies, the resident Warden of Fair Isle, left at the end of October 1963, Barry’s job, too, came to an end. Fortunately it coincided with the appearance of an advertisement by the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Trust for a new Warden at Spurn occasioned by the resignation of the then Warden, Peter Mountford. Barry decided to answer the advertisement, and duly posted off his application. He received no reply and wrote again to the Trust, this time getting a reply by return of post telling him that the Trust had lost his original letter! The interview was to be at York in a waiting room on the station as the Trust had no offices of its own. There were three other candidates, and Barry thinks that one of them was Bill Oddie, but Barry was offered the job. (How different things might have turned out—Bill Oddie as Warden of Spurn and Barry as one of the Goodies!). He was offered bed and breakfast that night in York, and the next day Dr. Taylor, who had conducted the interviews, offered to take him to Spurn by car. Barry recalls the journey as one of the most frightening of his life since Dr Taylor paid little heed to the rules of the road, overtaking a left-turning juggernaut on the inside with a whisker to spare, and performing other similar hair-raising manoeuvres. It was a bitterly cold grey December day and Barry was only lightly dressed for travel in a heated railway carriage. It was certainly not the sort of day when Spurn is looking at its best. However Barry was not to be put off and after being shown round and meeting Redvers Clubley who explained how groynes were operated to combat erosion to an interested Barry and a rather bemused Dr. Taylor, whose skills were academic rather than practical, he agreed to take on the job. Although the previous Warden had left, the job was scheduled to start in April 1964 but Barry asked if he could start earlier in February and this was agreed. Initially Barry was under a misapprehension believing that his job was to be Warden of the Observatory only, a natural mistake since for the first two years his salary was paid half by Spurn Bird Observatory and half by the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Trust.

Accommodation came with the job, although the bungalow which was to become Barry’s home did not have as much living space as it has today, since one of the three bedrooms was empty and unfurnished, and another was designated (though never used) as a Trust Members’ rest room. Barry’s predecessor had lived in what is now the Annexe. The job was a demanding one and Barry threw all his energies into it. He was assisted at weekends in the summer by Redvers Clubley who acted as ‘gateman’ taking the car money. Redvers was given a small commission according to the number of cars for which he had issued tickets, and Barry recalls that he (Redvers) was inclined to turn a blind eye to dogs travelling in cars to make sure that his commission at the end of the day was as high as possible. When Redvers retired in 1974, Barry had to manage alone for a couple of summers until in August 1976, the first of the summer assistant wardens, Sue Ferens (a relation of Alderman Ferens who founded Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery and Hull University), was appointed.

Life in a remote place is greatly facilitated by car ownership, but until 1972 Barry travelled everywhere either by motorscooter (a Vespa) or by bicycle. In that year however he took his driving test, passed, and became a car driver, which must have been a great advantage in bad weather or when needing to transport bulky goods, as well as in the general execution of his duties. For Barry, the job of Warden was a way of life so that the concepts of work and leisure as separate entities did not exist and the idea of working set hours from nine to five was totally foreign to him. In the early days until he was married, he worked seven days a week from breakfast time until dusk. Indeed the job was very much what Barry made of it, since he had been given no formal job description other than the simple stylized sheet sent out to all applicants when the job was advertised. Spurn being a somewhat remote outpost among the Trust’s several reserves, he was given a free hand, and particularly after the demise of the Spurn Management Committee on the resignation of George De Boer, he rarely saw any representative of the YNT. When he once mildly complained about this to one of the Trust’s executive officers, the reply was that he should take it as a compliment since he was obviously managing the reserve to their complete satisfaction!

The job was (and is) a complex one since it is not confined simply to the general management in the interests of wildlife and visitors of a straightforward nature reserve. Spurn is the location of the only full-time lifeboat station in Britain, the shore base of the Humber Pilots, and in addition, when Barry first became Warden, it boasted a coastguard station and a fully functioning lighthouse. The Yorkshire Naturalists’ Trust was the landlord of all these communities and the Warden as the Trust’s representative on the spot was expected to be responsive to their needs and handle the day-to-day problems and any emergencies which might occur on Spurn. The geographical nature of the reserve has meant that his period of tenure has been punctuated by various crises occurring when high tides have washed away sections of the road, requiring prompt action to evacuate the peninsula and close it to the public in the interests of safety. The job has been a varied one, calling for a wide spectrum of management and other skills. In recent years since the introduction of grazing sheep on the peninsula the Warden has even had to double up as a shepherd; no doubt Barry’s experience of working on farms stood him in good stead here! One skill which he would never have expected that he would need to cultivate is that of communicating and dealing with the Media! Yet from about the mid-1970s, when the pace of erosion accelerated and it began to seem that Spurn would be dramatically breached, the Media began to take an increasing interest in Spurn. Over the last couple of decades Barry has had to deal with television crews, radio commentators and a whole host of newspaper and magazine reporters. He has featured in television programmes with Bill Oddie and Michael Clegg and has been interviewed by television presenters, Judith Chalmers and Richard Whitely as well as feature writers from The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, and many other equally prestigious organs. No doubt he was relieved when some of the pressure was taken off him by the arrival in 1989 of Tim Collins as the first Heritage Coast officer and a keen Media communicator.

As a ringer, Barry played a major part in the annual ringing courses conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology, and it was at the very first of these in 1968 that he met his future wife, Christine. They were married on May 10th 1969. Christine had previously worked in conservation and helped Barry to manage the shop and run the information centre. The couple had two children, a son, Tim, born in January 1970 and a daughter, Julie, born in November 1971. Ironically, Barry was offered the job of Warden at Fair Isle, which could only be taken by a married man, at the very time when his son was a very young toddler and his daughter was just about to be born, so that it was out of the question for him, even if he had wanted to take it. Sadly, Barry’s marriage came to an end in 1979, and Barry was left with the no doubt daunting task of bringing up, as a lone parent with a full-time job in a place far removed from access to the usual urban facilities, two young children under 10 years. It was a task that he evidently fulfilled with his usual competence as anyone will testify who has met his (now grown-up) children.

Much of Barry’s life has revolved around birds, and it is for his unrivalled knowledge of birds and expertise as a ringer that he will always be renowned. Unlike many birders, Barry does not have his ‘life list’ total on the tip of his tongue, nor even his ‘Spurn list’, though the latter must be unrivalled. Among the many memorable birds that he has seen or ringed, the Radde’s Warbler, which he discovered at Blakeney Point on 3rd October 1961 and which was only the second record for Britain at that time, must rank among the most memorable. It certainly ranked highly in the estimation of H. G. Alexander, an eminent ornithologist of the day, who confessed when it was shown to him, that he had seen every Phylloscopus warbler in the world except Radde’s Warbler! Another memorable bird for Barry was the first Desert Warbler, which although it was found by others was first correctly identified by him. The list of rarities seen and often ringed by Barry is impressive. If he has any regrets, it is for those rarities—for example, the Mottled Swift in 1988—which he has seen and reported but which have not been accepted by the Rarities Committee, even though he has been absolutely certain of their identity. Other birders must know the feeling!! As a warden and birder, Barry has always stuck rigidly to one guiding principle—that the welfare of the bird must be paramount over all other considerations. It has not always made him popular with fellow birders—for example in the case of the Tengmalm’s Owl—but few could quarrel with his principle, and anyone who has had to take difficult decisions from a position of authority and responsibility will sympathize with the awkward positions into which his job must have at times placed him. But a lifetime spent birding is not wholly concerned with rarities. As the Warden of Spurn, Barry has been equally concerned with recording the occurrence and movements of the more common species. His diligence and insistence on accurate recording has become a byword: a loose report of “a few” Goldcrests, say, or “many” Goldcrests, is immediately countered by “How many is a ‘few’?” or “How many is ‘many’?” Over his years at Spurn, Barry has noted a significant decline in the numbers of many species. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, for example, the numbers of birds recorded and ringed were far higher in most cases than they are today, even though the actual number of species has not significantly declined.

Unlike many birders, Barry has always been an all-round naturalist in the best tradition. His interest in and knowledge of plants, for example, and particularly the plants on Spurn, approaches that of many more specialized amateur botanists. However it is as an amateur Lepidopterist that he is especially and rightly renowned. He has operated and run a Mercury Vapour light trap on Spurn since 1970 and a Rothamsted Insect Survey light trap since 1969. There can be few Yorkshire Lepidopterists with his experience of more than 30 years of regular light trapping. It is perhaps not surprising that numerous regular visitors to Spurn and those staying at the Observatory have become interested in moths and mothing as a result of Barry’s example, and not a few amateur Lepidopterists owe him a considerable debt for his assistance and encouragement in their progress towards learning how to identify moths. The number of species recorded at Spurn, most of them by Barry, make it one of the most important sites for Lepidoptera in Yorkshire, and each year the list of new species for the site grows, as does the list of new species for the county and vice-county recorded there. Only last year, shortly after Barry’s retirement, he recorded a species not only new to Spurn and Yorkshire, but new also for Great Britain—the Eastern Nycteoline (Nycteola asiatica). In 1991 Barry published The Moths and Butterflies of Spurn, an account of the species recorded at Spurn until that date. It is greatly to be hoped that he will take the opportunity afforded by retirement to bring this work up to date!

Shortly before Barry Spence retired from his job as Warden at Spurn, after 38½ years in post, the occasion was marked by two ceremonies, firstly a presentation from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust of a camera and Life Membership of the YWT as a mark of gratitude to its longest serving representative and officer, and secondly a presentation of a pair of binoculars by Spurn Bird Observatory and a book  on butterflies by the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union at a barbecue held at Kew Villa on 6th July, 2002 and attended by about 80 people. In addition he received a Certificate of Distinction in the annual East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s chairman awards. Fortunately, after retirement Barry decided not to sever himself from his beloved Spurn but elected to stay on in his bungalow. Since retiring he has been enjoying the freedom to stroll around Spurn at leisure and concentrate on some serious birding—something that he never had time to enjoy properly when he was constrained by the rigorous demands of his job as Warden of Spurn. We wish him a long and happy retirement.