Friday, 15 December 2006

The sound of the countryside

For me, being out and about in the countryside is not just about what you see. It is also about what you hear, feel, smell and taste. The churring of a nightjar in the still of the forest, the rough texture of bark or the scent of fungi on a damp autumn morning. You should be able to engage with nature and immerse yourself in the world around you through all of your senses. But what if you are unable to use one or more of your senses; does this diminish your experience of nature? For most of us the answer is unknown, although we may experience some degree of loss as we age and our eyesight and hearing begin to fail. It has been calculated that roughly one in every seven people suffers from some form of hearing loss and many older birdwatchers comment on how they can no longer hear the high pitched calls of goldcrests or the echolocation of feeding bats. As I age, I wonder if I too will reach a point where I can no longer hear (and enjoy) these subtle sounds.

In an attempt to help hearing-impaired visitors engage more fully with wildlife, Norfolk Wildlife Trust has recently added a ground breaking new hearing support system to one of the hides at its Cley Marshes reserve on the North Norfolk coast. Two microphones positioned on the reserve pick up the sounds of the waders and wildfowl that use the many pools. These sounds are then fed back to the hide, where they can either be heard on headphones or via a hearing loop. Although similar systems have been employed elsewhere, the one at Cley is unique in that it is powered entirely by a combination of solar and wind power; a suitably green solution.

The system was developed by Dennis Furnell, who was himself partially deafened as a result of a car accident. Thanks to a grant from The Heritage Lottery Fund, plus equipment donations, Dennis has been able to install the system as part of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s “Access for All” project. This also involves the production of large print leaflets for all their major reserves and an audio trail around Cley Marshes itself. Such developments are a welcome addition to what is already one of the country’s premier places to engage with a diversity of wildlife. Wildfowl and waders can be noisy birds, particularly when present in flocks several hundred strong. More people will now be able to enjoy the sights and sounds of this part of the Norfolk coast and, hopefully, feel that they have truly engaged with the birds and other wildlife that make the countryside such a special experience. 

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