Lodge Hill – If we don’t stop development here then where does it end?

The road to the woods

The road to the woods

There it was again in my inbox, another request to protest about the plans to build a housing development over one of the most important nightingale sites in the country.

Lodge Hill an area of scrubland next to Chattenden Woods has one of the largest nightingale colonies in the South East. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The woods are lovely; paths lined with the drooping heads of pendulous sedge lead to coppice clearings which ring with woodpeckers drumming in the spring, early purple orchids and silver washed fritillary butterflies can be found along the shady rides but none of this makes it safe.

A Military Of Defence company with the scary Americanised title of ‘Land Securities.’ are proposing the development of 5000 homes on the site as part of the drive to achieve the government’s endless cry for more house building. The development would see most of the SSSI destroyed. Medway Council claim the land is ‘brownfield’ because of its former use as the barracks for The Royal School for Military Engineering but aerial photographs showed a green oasis of scrub, wild flowers and meadows, just the sort of land nightingales love.

Of course the development company claim that all will be well. They can compensate for the loss of the nightingales breeding sites by creating new habitat elsewhere.  Anyone who knows anything about either nightingales or mitigation knows that this sort of easily thrown around green wash just doesn’t work. You cannot plant foot high hawthorn in tree tubes and hope the nightingales will find it to their liking.

I protested about this development when I first heard about it many years ago. In the last few years I have protested against it again and again as each new minute change in the planning application appears to mean that all previous protests are thrown out and I need to start afresh. Excuse me for being cynical but do they hope that people will just get tired and go away? How often does one need to say no before they understand that, they can tweak the development all they like, I’m still not going to agree?

Thankfully in the last few weeks there has been a glimmer of hope. The government has decided to ‘call in’ the application, affectively meaning a public inquiry will have to take place before the development can go ahead. Only 1% of planning applications get called in and this one only has because of the huge number of people, like me, who have written and e-mailed again and again to say that all important, no.

Lodge Hill, is not only about Kent it is about all the sites we love and care for. If development were to go ahead here it would be one of the largest losses of a SSSI ever. Please add your voice to the protests over Lodge Hill  because if this goes ahead where does it end?

My ex boss, Alan Johnson, RSPB area manager for Kent said it best.

“If development at Lodge Hill goes ahead then we are quite prepared to chain ourselves to the gates to stop it. Because if protection for a place like that goes then it will all fall off a cliff.”

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A day out with the volunteers at Milton Creek Country Park

Ethan and Madison planting trees at Milton Creek Country Park

Ethan and Madison planting trees at Milton Creek Country Park

When I am not writing about the countryside, I am running my own environmental consultancy; undertaking wildlife surveys, managing river restoration projects and running practical days for volunteers. Read about my day out with the volunteers at the local country park below.



Pancake Breakfast

early morning primroseEarly morning walk to the woods to breakfast on pancakes.

Frost pockets in the shadows,

shear light, transparent in its gauzy vestments,

dropping the veil as the sun’s strength grows.

The grass like strands of icing on cheesecakes bought from Barton’s Tea Shopfrosty leaves

and eaten on formica tables under the orange domes of light.

Fighting my way up hill in the crisp morning.

Putting up a woodcock which bumbles off sleepily into the trees.

Little owl yowling on the marsh below.

One lone primrose backlit by morning sun.

Up through the woods to eat breakfast,

pancakes, coffee and an orange with a view of the Thamespancake breakfast

To hear the morning chatter of 4000 crows, woodpeckers laughing, the rasping grunt and pop and crack of herons at the nest.

And that’s it.

And that’s all I’ve come for

breakfast amongst the trees in the company of herons,

unseen, undisturbed.

A visit to the crow roost

Night time at RSPB Northward Hill

Night time at RSPB Northward Hill

Among the February pipings of great tits arose a terridactal chorus, a primal Saturday afternoon football crowd yell of life, it was this blood roar that had drawn me to the rook roost as darkness fell.

It is worth going at least once every winter to see a big corvid roost. It is a sensory assault, not birds in singular but birds on mass.

It had been a day with a tinge of warmth, the first of the year, but now the sun was leaving and the cold of a clear night to follow was rising. You could see it rising, the warm air meeting the cold in a thin blue layer on the horizon.

The pop, bang, whistle of bird scarers ricocheted off the trees as I reached the roost. ‘Too late,’ I thought. ‘They are already in.’

Birds hung from the trees like black bunting,  a macabre tree dressing of rooks, crows and jackdaws in their thousands. They rose  in Mexican waves, funeral confetti tossed into the air, the birds calling, a sleepy purr that spread out across the marshes in ripples. 20150209-0004

I hung to the tree line so as not to be seen. Herons floated overhead like giant fruit bats, taking a circular look at the empire before bed. They landed in a ditch, I could hear them among the reeds talking to each other with piggling grunts. It was the time of day when nature muttered secret words to itself, not alarm calls, not territory calls but private chatterings to near neighbours. It was the time of day I loved on the marshes, when I wasn’t expected, when the wildlife sang a private sonnet, not meant for human ears.

This was what bought me out to the marshes, near dark. There was always something new, something not witnessed to be found, if you took the trouble to head out your door.


A Close Encounter

This is how I normally see barn owls. photo - Ralph Connolly

This is how I normally see barn owls.
photo – Ralph Connolly

Tonight I walked across the RSPB Northward Hill Reserve, where I lived for several years. Enjoying the somehow illicit pleasure of a night time visit. I had come to see the crow roost, to experience the thrill of 4000 birds spiralling over head, but the secret ways I had once known to the roost had long since become a tangle of bramble.

Still the main reserve was open. I walked across the secretive, after dark world, spotting a silhouette of a roosting pheasant, a bulky, long-tailed blob doing a poor job of hiding in a tree. The marshes opened out below me, a watery fenland of flooded fields.

The hide was pitch black but I found the bench and the window catch and poured a hot drink from my flask. Widgeon piped, the full moon stippled the water, shining it’s torch beam onto the wrinkled skin of the surface. I took a sip of hot chocolate, the darkness edged in across the marshes.

A barn owl appeared. For a moment in hovered in front of the hide window, maybe mistaking it for a barn or a box where it could spend the night. Angel winged, black eyed, it seemed suspended in the air only a foot from my face.

A chill of fear ran through me, that moment in the dark when you are brought back to the primeval root of things and realise that you are too close to a fellow predator.

I knew barn owls. I spent the summer plucking them from boxes so they could be ringed. I knew the strength of those clawed feet, the damage they could inflict. For a moment I thought it would land, on the ledge, inches from my face. For a moment it thought the same. It was a second of indecision as it tried to make out what creature those two eyes, sandwiched between hat and scarf, gazing out of the dark box, belonged to.

It realised it’s mistake in time and wheeled away to land on a fence post. We both paused to recover from our shock and then it was gone, across the flood, searching for voles to get it through the cold night ahead.