A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2019

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2019

very good redshank shotAutumn is well and truly upon us. Dark nights, high winds and waders arriving on our shores from further north, filling our estuaries with haunting calls.

I spent October feeding back the results of this spring’s breeding wader survey to farmers. Overall pair numbers were slightly up on 2018. Fledged chick numbers were down, although this probably doesn’t reflect the true situation on the ground, as the late arrival of chicks this year meant that it was very hard to accurately count them in the increasingly long vegetation.

Working with farmers is very much a two way process and I spend as much time listening to the farmer’s experience and their concerns as hopefully they spend listening to my advice about land management.

Along with them, I feel increasingly frustrated at the flaws in our current system of farming subsidies.

There are two types of subsidy that affect the farmers in my scheme. The Basic Payment Scheme, which pays farmers to actively use the land for agriculture and the various Countryside Stewardship Schemes, which pay farmers to manage the land for the benefit of wildlife.

But these two schemes often conflict, creating a minefield of unwieldy rules and a system where the government gives money for wildlife management with one hand but takes it away by penalising farmers for doing just that with the other.

This month I am trying to encourage farmers to manage the rills and scrapes on their land. Features which are a traditional part of wet grassland and vital for our breeding waders, in that they hold water for a couple of months of the year, allowing wader chicks to find food in the soft ground.

lapwing and chick at phil barlings 1

Lapwing chicks need areas of wet soft mud in which to feed. 

Many of the rills on farmland were filled in during the past or have become too shallow to hold water during the spring months. Deepening them a little would allow them to hold water during the time when waders need them most.

The farmers have been great. Happy to agree to this work, partly because keeping the land wet in the spring is a vital part of their Countryside Stewardship Agreements. If they fail to do this they could be slapped with a hefty fine by the Rural Payments Agency, who oversees the grant system.


More wet rills in spring mean more waders breeding but farmers are being penalised for creating them.

However, the same agency are penalising farmers for undertaking the very management that is expected of them. Farmers are being told that holding water in rills during the spring makes those areas of land ineligible for the Basic Payment Scheme and therefore they will receive less money.

The whole system is dogged by a lack of clarity. The RPA’s own rules claim that, “Flooded agricultural land is still eligible for BPS if the flooding is temporary and the land would otherwise still be available for agricultural activity.”

How then can they justify removing payment from farmers who have temporarily wet features on their land that are available for grazing for the majority of the year?

This lack of clarity, coupled with late payments and a lack of a human face to the organisation is directly resulting in less farmers signing up to Countryside Stewardship Schemes at a time when we really need farmers to get behind wildlife friendly management.

How can we ask farmers to do more for wildlife when they will lose money by doing so? Good will between conservationists and farmers is a fragile thing and has taken years to build up but our Government Agencies are threatening to destroy all the hard work that has been put in.

Our farm payment system is a mess, lacking clarity and common sense and until it is fixed then our wildlife will continue to suffer.

A wet day, a new book, a big question.

digging holes for waymarkers

find happiness in the woods

So, It’s a wet, wet day and I am holed up in my kitchen doing some research for my new book, which I have been slowly working on for the last year. I am writing the story of my time with the wildlife conservation group I ran for six years, an experience which had a profound effect on me as it did on everyone who found their way to us.

Sometimes I think is it just a bit old fashioned to write a book about a wildlife conservation group when young people are camping on the streets of London and pressurising governments about the climate crisis. Wouldn’t I be better off spending my time joining them?

But what I am discovering from my research is that I am also part of the solution. For governments to take action they need to think that enough ordinary people care and people care about nature if they feel the need for it.

Some people feel the point is to save the earth for the sake of humanity. After all we cannot survive without a planet and we cannot survive without nature’s ‘ecosystem services’ of carbon capture, fresh water and healthy soil that can grow food. Personally I find myself more interested in saving the planet simply because it exists and is beautiful and other creatures have as much right to life as us. But it is the truth that, while nature will survive just find without us, we cannot survive without it.

Nature is essential for our physical survival But what I am learning through my research is that we also need it on a more subtle level too. Studies show that our brains have become wired through lack of contact with it.

Urban environments and technology are literally sending us crazy. Constant noise, proximity to other people and attention grabbing websites are sending our amygdala into overload and leading, not only to rises in depression and anxiety, but even to illness’s like schizophrenia. Nature resets our brain and makes us calm down, become less prone to rumination and more able to concentrate.

So we need nature for our physical health, for our mental health and also for our soul. Whether you believe in the existence of it or not, you probably know that indefinable something that soars in the presence of nature’s grandeur. At least I really hope you do.  Nature links us with the unknown, with something larger than ourselves that we cannot pin down. We need this. We need that heart stopping sunset or rush of bird wing overhead, we need that moment of silence in deep woodland broken by one insect buzz. God how we need that.

It makes me feel justified, this research. What I am trying to write about is not just a story of a group of people who went to the woods but why being part of a group that went to the woods made us all feel so damn happy. It is a book about connection with nature and how it heals us in a world gone a little mad. It is a story about how we need nature far more than it needs us.

In writing this story I not only hope to tell people about the power of nature to heal but encourage them to get out and see for themselves how much difference it can make to all our lives and why we should all be supporting those people camping on the streets of the capital that are fighting for it’s future.

Costa Coffee. What planet are you on?

pexels-photoCosta Coffee is way behind the times when it comes to the war on plastic. Tonight a friend bought me a hot chocolate to take away from one of their shops. I asked the member of staff to leave the plastic top off as I didn’t want the waste. He told me that I didn’t have the choice. I had to have the plastic top even if I took it off as soon as he handed it to me. It was health and safety policy.

Surely if Costa were serious about reducing public waste they wouldn’t be insisting on giving out plastic to customers who don’t want it. Wouldn’t it be simple to produce a form I could sign absolving them of any legal responsibility for selling me a hot drink? The planet I am on cannot tolerate such wastefulness in the name of petty bureaucracy.

Spiced, Pickled, pears

pearsGolden pears are ripening on my little tree, given to me as a leaving present from my last job. Here is a recipe to make the most of this autumnal bounty.

3lbs of cooking pears

slightly salted cold water

1 pint of distilled white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon of ground mixed spice

!/2 teaspoon of nutmeg (I used mace)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

11b granulated sugar

peel of 1/2 lemon

lemon spices vinegar sugarpeel, quarter and core the pears and place in the pan of salted water to prevent them going brown

mix the spices with a little of the vinegar

put the rest of the vinegar the lemon peel and the sugar in another pan, heat gently until the sugar is dissolved then add the spice mixture

rinse the pears and add them to the pan, simmer gently until the pears go clear. This may take longer than you imagine.

take the pears out of the mixture with a slotted spoon, pack into warmed, clean, glass jars

boil the vinegar until it becomes a syrup and pour over the pears until it covers them.

seal the jars.

This recipe was a way of keeping pears through the winter months. The pears can be served with cold meets or cheese and are super tasty.



Raising the Hare – A film by Bevis Bowden

Raising The Hare by Bevis Bowden, follows an encounter between a farmer, his livestock and a hare. Something I am lucky to witness often with my work on the farmland of North Kent.

The film features two Welsh voices of the landscape – the musician John Cale (founding member of the Velvet Underground) who reads Seamus Heaney’s translation of ‘The Names of the Hare’ and the artist Paul Emmanuel (Welsh Artist of the Year) who describes an encounter he had with a hare from horseback.

The film will be shown in York on the 2nd November as part of the Nature Matters festival