Spoonbills in North Kent.

What’s not to love in these punk haired, tropical beauties which are enjoying the ambience of spring on the North Kent Marshes.

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – May 2018

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – May 2018

cows and avocetWhat a month. We are now in full swing with the breeding season and I am out almost every day at the crack of dawn on the marshes undertaking breeding wader surveys.

However, at the beginning of the month, I took a morning’s walk across the Hoo Peninsula with Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer who contacted me after reading my Guardian article about the marshes close to Higham village which are soon to be damaged to make way for the Lower Thames Crossing.

Aware of my work with farmers in North Kent, the Baroness, who chairs the All Party Group on Agroecology, wanted to discuss the upcoming Agricultural Bill and find out what I think is needed in order to engage farmers in managing the countryside for the benefit of wildlife. Simpler Stewardship agreements, coupled with one to one advisory sessions would be top of my list.

Sue and I took a beautiful morning’s walk taking in Lodge Hill SSSI which Medway Council wish to sacrifice to property developers. The highlight for us both was definitely hearing a nightingale in the woods at the RSPB’s Northward Hill Reserve.

We have now completed two rounds of surveys on 13 farms across North Kent and numbers of pairs of lapwing are up from 58 pairs in 2017 to 72.5 pairs in 2018. Almost all the farms I work on have seen a rise in numbers and it looks a much better year for redshank, oystercatcher and yellow wagtail as well.

oyster catcher eggs phil barling

oystercatcher eggs. photo taken by farmer.

The methodology we use to undertake the survey is the O’Brian and Smith Lowland Farmland Breeding Wader Monitoring Protocol which is used on all the RSPB reserves. This involves walking into the fields which can cause a temporary disturbance. Alan Johnson RSPB South East Conservation Manager says the following:

“Managing wet grassland for breeding waders requires good hydrological, grazing and predator management. To be successful, all of these aspects of management need to be done to a high standard and tweaks often need to be made from season to season. Breeding waders are highly responsive to management changes and big population increases can be the result if you get it right. Surveying breeding waders in spring helps land managers to understand what changes need to be made and also how successful those changes are in future years. In the past, survey data has been critical to understanding the issues on the RSPB’s reserves in North Kent, where management changes resulted in high quality wet grassland with high densities of highly productive lapwing and redshank. Now we are using data to inform changes in the wider farmed landscape. These benefits are balanced against the risk of disturbing birds at a sensitive time of year by carrying out the surveys, which involve surveyors walking through fields. The survey methodology tries to minimise these risks, but ultimately the cost/benefit analysis strongly favours the continuation of surveys on wet grassland”.

Without this survey data it would be difficult to show farmers the benefits improved management is having to bird numbers. Hard for Natural England to judge where it’s money is best spent and hard for us to know how numbers of wading birds are faring in North Kent overall.

As well as increased numbers of target species, the work the farmers are doing has also resulted in an increase in avocet and ringed plover as well as visits from some exotic guests such as these two beautiful spoonbill which turned up on Sheppey on a sunny evening in late May. spoonbill at Attwoods June 2018

This is the second year these birds have arrived on the same site and, although not a breeding pair, it is an indication of how our wildlife is naturally changing as new species colonise from the continent. I, for one, intend to have the farmland of North Kent ready to welcome them.

A foggy dawn

spiders webs with dewA foggy dawn.

5am alarm.

It will be ok, I can still see…just.

Onto the marshes.

Skylark song amplified in the damp air,

enclosing us both in the stillness.

Traffic on the main road a world away.

Here I am locked in a shrouded room with just me and the bird song and a barn owl, floating white on white over the tump.

Almost done.

A wet patch of mud.

The hire truck sinks to its axles.

Turn left, turn right, reverse, diff lock on, lock off…. Stuck.

Good and stuck.

Wanting to cry. Suck it up and try to think.

Sedge stuffed under the tyres proves useless.

Admit defeat.

A long walk back to the road.

Trousers sodden in the damp grass and boots squelching.

A building site, plead my case. Lots of laughter.

What are you doing? A bird survey? What? At this hour? In this weather? On your Own?

Rescued by Dave in a tricked up Land Rover.

A jolly 4×4 hero.

Winched out of the mud, cheers all round.

Dawn, wet, dew, spiders webs, lapwing in the murk, redshank alarming, hot coffee and bananas and all this before 9am.



Ladies and flys

Ladies and flys

lady orchid cover woodA rainy afternoon took me orchid hunting to Covert Wood near Barham in Kent.

There is something secretive in orchid hunting, passed down by generations who protected the plants from people intent on digging them up for their beauty and the supposed aphrodisiac properties of their roots.

Good orchid territory always seems passed on by word of mouth and it would be easy to miss the steep slope that climbs from a little used road that spirals steeply down through Covert Wood. Here the beech woods roll down the slope on a sea of foamy dogs mercury and wild ransoms. Lady orchids grow under the shaded canopy. Some are the traditional flowers which more resemble men in spotty pyjamas than ladies in crinolines. Some are hybrids of pale lavender and white. detail of lady orchid

Easily missed are the fly orchids, my favourites. There is something a little sinister in them, like they might contain some deadly chemical with which to make a sleeping draft. fly orchid cover wood

The twayblades are not so spectacular although they grown up to a foot high and each flower looks like a little man wearing a baseball cap and giant headphones. The men dance around a central maypole above two giant flat leaves which give the plant its name.

One orchids was more elusive than the rest. I searched and searched for the birds nest orchids which lack chlorophyll and feed on the roots of trees but, if they were there, I couldn’t find them. But that’s the pleasure in orchid hunting, it’s not easy, they do appear one year and then vanish, it takes you to little known parts of woods and hills to find them. It is the mystery and rarity of orchids that make the hunt worthwhile.