A Good Read – The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks

It seems these days that you can’t turn on the TV without encountering a programme about farming. Charismatic families with large broods of cherubic children learn about the hard realities of life and death on Northern hillsides. wealthy Londoners trying their hand at organic vegetable growing. Celebrity chefs getting up close and personal to their food. It makes for perfect armchair viewing as most people grow ever more remote from the food on their plate and the countryside which produced it. We want to know this world still exists out there, somewhere. An idyllic, rosy cheeked vision of Old England.

As someone who deals with farming and farmers day in/day out I don’t feel the need to watch these programmes. Too much of a Busman’s holiday but I did feel drawn to pick up James Rebanks book. In his author photo he looked like the kind of farmer I recognised, one who smells of sheep, whose 4×4 is battered and always has a dog in the back and shotgun cartridges on the floor. The book didn’t disappoint. Yes, James does farm in the idyllic Lake District. He has bonny faced children and a endlessly supportive wife but this is no hobby farm. James farms flocks of Herdwick Sheep in the uplands and the book is a seemingly simple account of his growing up as a farmers son, the rhythm of the shepherd’s year and his love of landscape and the animals he breeds, shows and sells for meat.

The thing that stood out to me about this book was its authenticity. Unless you are born or marry into a farming family this is a world you will never truly be part of but I see enough of it from my role working with North Kent’s farmers to recognise that James is opening the door a crack into a secret club. He talks about the pleasure in fathers and grandfathers handing over their life’s works to their sons (and sometimes now their daughters) The connection to the land and the livestock that comes from suffering the elements. The sense of purpose and self knowledge that comes from working a physical job until you’re dead on your feet and then working some more.

I recognised the farmers who wish to answer to no one. Who are King of their world and resent urban city dwellers that wish to ensnare them with rules and paperwork. I know that farmers value horse sense and integrity. You are an idiot until proven otherwise and, if you have been an idiot and know it, you better stand up and take what’s coming. I know that your surname is important. It is a mark of your bloodline.

The book reveals a life that many wish to have but few could cope with. A simple life of complete satisfaction and rootedness in a place. If you really want to peek inside a farmers life then you could do worse than reading this book.

A day in the life of an environmental consultant – July 2022

Philip Barling and I

Here in Kent we had a month of extremes as we experienced both record temperatures and the driest July since records began.

Many wetland landscapes had dried out earlier in the year leaving behind rock hard ground, no good for lapwings and other wetland wildlife who rely on wet muddy pools and the insect numbers these attract in order to survive. Despite this, farms in North Kent recorded a rise in both pairs and numbers of fledged chicks. 53 pairs of lapwing fledged 26 chicks this year. We are still a long way from where we need to be as fledged chicks are distributed across too few farms. Lack of water control, difficulties with accessing suitable grazing animals at the times of year when they are needed and predation are still limiting numbers of pairs and chick survival rates.

There was good news for redshank and yellow wagtails though as both birds tripled the number of fledged chicks from a low point in 2021.

I am now working alongside Natural England and the RSPB to undertake wetland restoration work across a number of farms in North Kent this autumn.

Redshank Nest

I was very sad, toward the middle of the month, to hear of the death of Philip Barling, a farmer I had worked with for many years. Mr Barling was a real marshland character, strong minded and opinionated with a real love of nature. Mr Barling had a closeness to the land that is harder to come by in these days of big farms and big machinery. He could find me a redshank nest in long grass, a skill that far surpassed mine. We bonded over arguing about lapwing management and wrestling wet sheep out of ditches. I will miss seeing him at the breakfast table after the morning survey.

As the breeding wader season came to a close I swapped my head into river restoration mode as I set about surveying rivers for the Upper Medway Internal Drainage Board. The survey involves walking 30km of IDB managed channel, taking water samples to look at levels of nitrate and phosphate, looking for fish, aquatic insects, water voles and determining floristic diversity of bank and marginal plants. This information helps determine the health of the river and how it should be managed to improve it’s biodiversity. I also suggest ideas to enhance both the river channels themselves and the surrounding land.

Many rivers are suffering from drought this year.

Some of the rivers I am looking at this year are in urban areas which have seen years of flash flooding. It is hard to visualise how this is possible when I am looking at a tiny trickle of water or a dry channel set between high banks but residents were eager to show me pictures of water gushing along their streets and sandbags piled against their doors.

Natural flood management can help alleviate these flood extremes by tree planting, creating wet woodlands, restoring meanders, creating ponds and water storage areas and slowing the flow of water in channels by installing woody damns which release water slowly downstream.

However, Much of the problem is due to hard surfaces and building on flood plains. It is hard to understand the short term thinking that is allowing even more housing, industrial estates and car parks to be built in the flood plain, further exacerbating the situation.

Working with the drainage board is a fabulous opportunity though to help alleviate many of the other problems our rivers face such as pollution, low flows and invasive species. I am thoroughly enjoying the chance to explore our waterways and help to design a more beautiful future for them.

All the pretty streams.

Most days I feel excited and motivated by my job. full of dreams of plummeting lapwing and wetland meadows. I am optimistic that positive change is possible and motivation is growing to make it happen. Yesterday was not one of those days.

I was surveying a little stream on the edge of a town in Kent but it could have been any river, in any town in many parts of the world. Old maps show this stream running through fields, probably sedge lined and fish filled now it runs alongside housing estates and industrial parks and is subject to every abuse humanity can throw at it.

The stream had become a dumping ground for rubbish. Old sofas, tyres, furniture and bit of builders rubble had been tossed over garden fences, creating pollution and flood risk. Further downstream tarmac had been thrown into the channel creating a hump which was preventing the water from flowing. Beyond the channel was dry for many metres. Behind an industrial estate, drains fed, who knows what pollution, into its depths, which, mixed with the run off from roads, was causing a toxic soup effectively creating a biological dead zone in which only mosquito larva could survive.

If that wasn’t enough we had then buried the channel in a culvert under a pointless car park when a few less metres would have allowed it to breath. Before long I spotted massive clumps of invasive non-native Japanese knotweed dumped in garden litter. Along the way residents told me of the huge flood problems they had experienced and couldn’t understand why thousands more houses were being built in the flood plain.

At 5pm I finished the survey. I was only half way along but I could take no more for one day. Walking along the channel and taking samples of the water had made me feel dirty and depressed. I was ashamed to be human if this was how we treated nature, if this is how little we cared for something so essential and precious as water. I will try, I will try to do some good for this little stream but my chances of preventing more housing or stopping pollution or freeing the channel from its culveted tomb are slim. As I walked away I wanted to wrap the stream in a blanket and take it with me to a better world.

Residency at Prospect Cottage

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness. Photo taken 2004 by Lancevortex. {{GFDL

Filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman moved to Prospect Cottage in the 1980’s and it soon became a hub of creativity amid the shingle of Dungeness. Creative Folkestone became the custodians of the cottage in 2020 after a successful fundraising campaign to save it for the nation. Now, in the spirit of Derek Jarman, they are opening the cottage up for people to enjoy either short visits or month long residencies. If you are a writer, artist, filmmaker, gardener or creative in any way you can apply for a Research and Development visit or a paid residency. This is a wonderful opportunity to focus on your art amid the pared down landscape where nature and human activity collide.


Homes of Desire – Part 10. An abandoned oast house

One of the things I love best about my work as an ecologist is the chance to get off the beaten track and discover things that few people see. Last week I stumbled across this fabulous old oast house, far from any road.

It was easy to imagine the farm workers who would have picked hops in the nearby fields and bought them here to dry. Who was it that pinned the horseshoe over the door?

For one moment I dreamt of putting in an offer to buy it and have it as my retreat from the world but I imagine the resident barn owl would have something to say about such schemes.

A Day in the life of an Environmental Consultant May June 2022

This pair of oystercatcher sadly had their eggs crushed by sheep

Next week the survey season once again comes to a close, the hired 4×4 is returned, the alarm ceases to ring at 5.00am and my social life returns. The end of another survey season is always bitter sweet, it is a turning of the year, spring is over, summer is upon us and I will miss the sharp light of early dawn and the secret insight that comes with being up and about while other humans remain slumbering.

This year there has been an improvement in the numbers of both lapwing and chicks fledged on Kent farms. Something I am told is bucking the trend as, despite occasional heavy downpours, the spring has been stubbornly dry. As usual there have been highs and lows. High’s include the 15 fledged redshank and 16 fledged yellow wagtail chicks discovered on one golden morning on a Sheppey farm, or the one lapwing chick and two oystercatcher chicks successfully raised amid the fetid water of a slurry pit. Lows are farms with good numbers of pairs failing to raise a single chick due to predation or watching the distress of a pair of oystercatchers after their eggs were crushed by sheep.

Yellow wagtails were one of the winners of this years breeding season.

Still onwards and upwards as my Pa would have said. This month I met with a new team of staff from Natural England who I hope to have a closer working relationship with in the future. The team hope to provide after care for people signing new stewardship agreements and smooth the way of the, currently torturous, process of getting consent from Government Agencies for positive wetland restoration work to take place. I also accompanied Natural England staff to advise on new stewardship schemes as more farmers are keen to manage their land to benefit wildlife.

narrowing channels with woody debris is one way to improve river habitat.

As the month drew to a close I set out on a new adventure, exploring waterways managed by the Upper Medway Internal Drainage Board. I spent a fabulous day discovering the beautiful Tudeley Brook near Paddock Wood. It is great to get my river thinking cap on again and come up with ideas to improve this stream for wildlife while helping alleviate flooding issues in nearby towns.

The Next Gen

There is hope for the future of lapwing on the North Kent Marshes as new chicks emerge from the grassland on marshland farms.

On another farm two oystercatchers tenderly care for their precious eggs, carefully moving blades of grass out of the way.

It is still slow going raising the numbers of wader chicks surviving to fledging but, 7 years ago when the North Kent Marshes Breeding Wader project began, there were hardly any chicks on the farms I work with, now I expect to find chicks on almost every one.

Lapwing and Redshank numbers increase on North Kent Farms

A vigilant lapwing on a farm in North Kent this morning

Despite the dry conditions of early spring then numbers of lapwing and redshank have increased across 6 farms in North Kent. Compared to last year pairs of lapwing have increased from 44.5 pairs to 53 pairs and redshank numbers have jumped from 39 pairs to 52 pairs. This shows how farming advice can make a real difference and is testimony to the hard work of the farmers in very trying conditions.