20 December 2013

It’s not just Santa working hard over Christmas!

Seafront workers on watch for Christmas day swimmers who get into trouble, homeless hostel workers making sure rough sleepers have a meal and bed for the night and ‘urban shepherds’ herding sheep – these are just some of the services run by Brighton & Hove City Council over Christmas.

While families across Brighton & Hove tuck into Christmas lunch, scores of council workers and registered volunteers will be on hand providing a range of services.

Seafront officers will be on duty on the big day itself since the Brighton Christmas Day dip has ballooned from just 50 swimmers and onlookers 10 years ago to the thousands that take part and enjoy the spectacle now.

But because of the range of participants, young and old and sometimes with a little too much bravado and alcohol, this has led to real concerns with a man being moments from drowning two years ago when the South Coast experienced a ‘perfect storm’ of high tide and winds.

“We spotted that a man was in trouble and in danger of being swept violently into the groyne where he could have been severely concussed and close to being pulled under the pier itself,” says Viki Miller, Seafront Operations Manager.

“Thankfully he was spotted and saved but he had already swallowed a lot of water and was taken into hospital suffering from severe hypothermia. The danger is that people underestimate the strength of the sea and the effects of cold water on the body.”

The seafront team usually conduct a ‘sweep’ of the beach, which includes checking safety equipment such as life rings and for any signs of vandalism to structures including beach huts, and then are first responders to any beach or sea incidents. They give first aid and liaise with the coast guard and emergency services to keep the coast safe.

“Nine out of 10 times the on call manager has to be called due to the Christmas Day swim because it’s now so big it has to be carefully managed.

Meanwhile in the city itself, workers from the rough sleeper team strive to engage with those in doorways and on the streets to check they have an offer of somewhere warm to go where they can get advice, food and if needed a bed for the night.

In St James’s Street six workers will ensure the 24 homeless residents of one of three council-run hostels New Steine Mews enjoy some festive spirit. Brighton & Hove City Council staff have donated more than 100 presents which means many homeless residents will have two or three presents each.

“For some who have been living on the street with no contact with their families for years these are the only presents they will receive this Christmas,” says New Steine Mews hostel manager Karen Leenders.  

The residents will have a full Christmas dinner on the day and then a quiz before presents are handed out.

“This makes a real difference to their lives at what is a really difficult time because it means someone has through of them and that’s important. Part of what we do is getting people ready to get back on their feet and move back into society.”

Out on the fringes of the city, 62 year old Vivien will be one of the 8 Urban Shepherds who will be out checking the sheep grazing the city’s ancient pastures on Christmas Day

Under a council scheme residents are trained as ‘Lookerers’ to keep a close eye on the sheep. They quickly deal with any that might have got into trouble, for example getting caught in brambles or call the shepherd should any of the sheep need urgent attention. The sheep play a vital role in protecting the last remnants of this hugely important habitat for wildlife.

“I love being an urban shepherd in Brighton & Hove. It’s a lovely way to get out into the countryside and I have knitted jumpers from the leftover wool that has been shorn and then spun for me.”

These remaining fragments of the old downland sheep pasture are one of Europe’s most important areas for a variety or rare plants and animals and sheep grazing not only provide a cost effective management solution but is the best way to look after the old pastures. Since the manly European Union funded scheme has been introduced, rare butterflies have returned which is further evidence that the unique local habitat is benefiting.

“It’s my birthday on Christmas day so I will be out bright and early with my flock with my husband because it’s a wonderful way to get the day started!”

Brighton & Hove City Council Leader Jason Kitcat said:

“Christmas is a time for family and celebration so its heart warming to hear about Brighton & Hove City Council workers and others that take time out to make sure residents and visitors to the city are happy and safe.

“Whether it’s making sure homeless people have food, a warm place and even presents at Christmas, people on the beach are as safe as possible or that sheep can continue to graze and maintain the unique local ecology, this is important work that still goes on.

“Whether they are paid or not, I think its testament to their dedication to the city and all its people and they deserve the city’s thanks.”