Happiness is…. a wooden scrubbing brush!

bamboo scrubbing brushYes, sometimes happiness can be found in unlikely places. My recent litter pick on a Thames beach has made me all the more certain I want to purchase less plastic products. So I was delighted, on a cold, wet day, to find this wooden handled scrubbing brush in the aisle of B&M at £1.99. Hurrah, a cheap shop, offering a green choice. Yes, the bristles are still plastic but at least they are recycled. Now the hunt is on for a wooden floor mop.

What lies beneath.

Thames litter pick 1 pickersYesterday I joined other volunteers on the shore of the Thames by the RSPB Cliffe Pools reserve for a litter pick run by MSEP’s Guardians of The Deep.Project Officer and David Saunders a volunteer with the RSPB. When I worked for the RSPB I ran these litter picks myself so I am no stranger to picking up other people’s rubbish and feeling angered about it but, still I was shocked. It was a crystalline day, the Thames a looking glass, seals were hauled out on the far shore and starlings clattered in the scrub sprouting from the remains of the old explosive works. It was too beautiful to be faced with ugliness.

As I climbed over the sea wall I was greeted by hundreds and hundreds of plastic bottles, caught in eddies and carried to this remote bay on the tide. We all know it’s there. This plastic, floating around our waterways and despoiling the planet but to be suddenly faced with it is a different matter.

Thames litter pick 2 bottles

bottles litter the shore of the Thames

Further up river, crowds of people searched for the Beluga Whale which has been fishing in the Thames.  Some of these beluga people have become devotees, they are sleeping rough in parks, they prowl the river day and night for a glimpse. Humans are so kind to one animal out of place that they will cancel their firework parties for it and not appear to mind. We ARE a kind species. I will not be swayed from this, so how then can we, this kind species, be the same species that throws plastic bottles into the river?

it was all there, the detritus of human existence, toothbrushes, shampoos, flip flops, children’s toys. The source of this has to be river traffic on the Thames, Thrown overboard by sailors on container ships or dropped from private boats.

The volunteers worked hard picking this up, no matter how disgusting, they bagged it and ferried it away. Although our litter is never quite away. Much of this plastic cannot be recycled as it is considered contaminated, therefore it is buried or burnt. Neither option is desirable.

One solution is of course stopping it at source. Reversing our dependence on plastic, going back to paper and wood and things that will not be sitting on a beach in a hundred years time. Why are cotton buds now made of plastic? I remember a time when it wasn’t so. We will never be entirely free of plastic of course, not now, it is a wonder drug and we are all addicted but does it have to be like this? If it can be made to disintegrate then lets make it that way, Now, today.

Thames litter pick 2 micro plastic

micro plastic on the shore of the Thames

Worse even than the plastic bottles was the micro plastic, impossible to sift the tiny fragments from the natural flotsam and jetsam  of the shoreline. Among this debris were millions of nurdles, the basic component which our goods are made from.  These had been washed out of a factory from God knows where. This is the stuff that is being swallowed by fish, which in turn is being swallowed by the beluga which eventually ends up in our own bodies. They lay all over the beach tiny blue and white droplets. I longed for a giant Dyson Vacuum to suck it all up. Come on Mr Dyson, invent it please.

I will not despair, I will not. Among the litter pickers was Tyler, 14 years old. He had more enthusiasm for litter picking than anyone else. He invented a wooden shovel to scoop up the micro beads and bag them. He regaled me with plastic facts. He had downloaded a video of a storm petral with plastic in it’s gut, he told me and shows it to his friends at school.

He is hope and I will be hopeful, still.

Guardians of the Deep will be running litter picks throughout the autumn and winter. Find out more here.


A Good Read – Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain.

The Living Mountain
When I was 22 I went to the Cairngorms in the company of a fell runner. Thank the Lord I was only 22, as he took me up the mountain at a fair lick and declared I looked much healthier when I arrived puffing and red faced on the summit. Now I want to go again thanks to reading The Living Mountain.
Nan Shepherd knew these mountains with an intimacy normally reserved for indigenous tribesmen. She describes every element of the mountain with exquisite attention to detail, the taste of the air, the feel of heather under bare feet, the forming of ice in a mountain stream.
Do not think though that this makes the book dry and fact ridden, anything but. Her love affair with the mountain and it’s people comes through in every line. There is such delicacy of prose here that you stop and re read a line for the shear beauty of it.


I find it hard to imagine a man writing this book. That is not to say that men cannot be great nature writers, just that I feel they would see the mountain differently, walk it differently, as a summit to climb, as a thing to be conquered. They maybe would not take the time to see and feel as she did about each flower and change of light.
The more I read this book the more I began to think that, if Nan Shepherd were alive today, I would be encouraging her to take other women out into the mountains. There is something hugely liberating about reading about a women who walks alone in the wilderness and doesn’t once feel afraid. If this was somehow easier to do in the 1940’s when she wrote this book, than it is now, then we have gone backwards as a society.
As a women who also walks alone in the countryside and doesn’t feel afraid then maybe it is for me to take up that mantel and lead other women into the hills and say, ‘look, this is for you too.’
The historical nature of this book is also part of the fascination. Shepherd writes of a world of downed fighter planes in lonely gullies, of old women living in bothies, of the felling of the Caledonian forest. This book more than any I have possibly ever read transports you into it’s landscape. You can read this on a packed underground train and miss your stop as you walk the summits and skinny dip in the lochs and sit by a peat fire in a lonely mountain hut.
I would rate The Living Mountain alongside The Peregrine as the best that nature writing can be. This is a book to keep and savour again and again and underline the passages and visit them when you are down and the world has gone dark and you are in bed alone and need to be up among the mountains with Nan.

Inspirational Words from the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

dawn Bedlam's bottom

It’s not over til it’s over. Get out there and do something to change things

We desperately need more conservationists who are independent thinkers. Who ‘do’ rather than witlessly ‘discuss’. Those individuals, who find ways around obstacles with a devilish glee, set examples of lives which are truly worthwhile. Lives for and on behalf of nature’

Half way through reading the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, something I recommend that everyone who cares about nature and the countryside here or abroad does. I  have found my new mantra for living in these words by Derek Gow an ecologist who I have had the pleasure of working with. Well said Derek.



The times they are a changing, but I, it seems, am not.

girl on swingWhen I was a little girl I sat on the swing in my parents garden and composed a letter to Margaret Thatcher. In it I laid out my solutions to end the Falklands War and stop unemployment.

I had worked out that these were the major issues of the day from watching the 6 O’clock News, which was almost a religious ritual in my parents house as we were forced to maintain absolute silence during it. In return for my advice, I wished Mrs Thatcher to give me the British Isles, which I would then turn into a nature reserve.

I don’t think I had worked out the finer details of my scheme or where the population would go but I was sure these things could be cleared up over a debate or two. I wrote my letter and my dad suggested I post it to Chequers, as it was the summer holidays and he thought that was where she would be. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Thatcher never replied.

Today, thirty something years later, I am at it again. Writing to a member of the House of Lords who I met earlier in the year to ask for a meeting with Michael Gove so I can discuss reform of Environmental Stewardship and the Agricultural Bill.

This time I have formulated my ideas based on years of working with farmers and stewardship in North Kent and am not asking to be given the country in return…. or maybe I am. Agricultural land makes up about 77% of the British Isles and if that 77% worked not only to grow food but to contribute to clean water, healthy soils, public access and increased biodiversity then maybe I could get the countrywide nature reserve I desired all those years ago.

Still, I am laughing at myself, as I send it, at my belief that I have the answer and those in power should listen. I am still, in many ways, that little girl on the swing and I still stand back and cheer her on.

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

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

September is the traditional month to gather the harvest and prepare for the winter. Farmers throughout Kent are busy picking apples and preparing livestock for market. They have also taken the time to discuss the other crop produced on their land this year, a bumper crop of lapwing chicks.

lapwing chick at phil barlingsThis year, numbers of fledged lapwing chicks rose from 39 in 2017 to 55. This figure is actually an under estimate as the wet spring caused a flush of grass in June which made it fiendishly hard to spot chicks and thereby get an accurate count. Pairs of lapwing are easier to accurately record and this year rose from 59 in 2017 to 155 and, for the first time, almost every single farm in the North Kent Breeding wader scheme recorded some lapwing activity.

Other species also benefit with redshank having an excellent year and 27 fledged yellow wagtail chicks recorded, 10 on one farm alone! Along with our two fledged black winged stilt chicks, the first ever to fledge off of a reserve in Britain, it shows that we are heading in the right direction and that stewardship payments coupled with tailored advice is the best recipe to reverse the decline in farmland wildlife.

After 4 years of working with the farming community I firmly believe that we cannot just hand over stewardship money and expect farmers to know how to do the work, some will, many won’t. We need people back on the ground who get to know the land in all seasons and build relationships with farmers so they can tailor advice to individual circumstances. We need people who can enthuse others to do the work and find solutions to obstacles preventing the land reaching its potential. We also need a stewardship system that is flexible and based in reality.

This season, for instance, our main problem is an invasion of sea club rush which is beginning to cover scrapes reducing the amount of bare earth and short vegetation which in turn will impact on breeding pairs and chick success.

farmers need help to manage rush around scrapes

Rush issues on a farm in North Kent.

Stewardship agreements tell farmers they need to manage the rush every year but many farms lack the equipment needed to manage it mechanically or chemically. Endless red tape also makes the situation worse, putting farmers in a difficult position where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. While regulation is a good thing to prevent damage to species and habitats it needs to be flexible to support landowners who are trying to do the right thing and manage their land for the benefit of wildlife.

What is needed is a separate fund of money to pay for yearly work on farmland, a pool of equipment such as weed wipers and rotary ditchers that can be lent out to farmers and a common sense approach to legislation.

In my experience farmers are more than willing to do the work but we need to give the right kind of practical support to enable them to do it.