Simple ideas are sometimes the best when it comes to making ordinary people care about issues.

Brook Bond Tea bag cards

Recently I have been reading about the growth of the environmental movement after the 2nd World War and how ordinary British people began to care.

What struck me was how much public and government bodies were on board and played a part in winning hearts and minds and how much more these same organisations could be doing now to raise awareness about the climate crisis and other ills threatening life on earth.

 
Back in the fifties and sixties the Post Office produced stamps about animals in danger. Government Bodies ran educational programmes in schools and commercial companies ran promotions which raised people’s awareness of the natural world. Even local vicars got in on the craze, running a series of Wildlife Sundays where they delivered sermons on environmental issues.

 
Why doesn’t this happen now? True the BBC still champions nature as it has always done but surely more could be done by other organisations to imbed concern about the climate emergency and what ordinary people can do to limit the damage. Stamps on wildlife being extinguished in the fires in Australia. Stamps on recycling your litter and buying less plastic. Those little Brook Bond Tea bag cards I so loved to collect as a child could be revitalised and collected. McDonalds could stop giving kids plastic junk and give them booklets which they could get stamped each time they did something positive for the environment and collect a reusable lunch box at the end.

 
I know we are in the world of Social Media but on social media you have to search for these issues and you only do that if you care in the first place. Why can’t we put them right under people’s noses?

 
Why isn’t the government putting climate change at the top of every curriculum? Why does the media so often portray environmental campaigners as cranks and weirdos? The message that things need to change has to be at the heart of everything we do. Not in a, “we’re all doomed, give up now,” way but in a, “support the marchers and say no to plastic kind of way.”

 
Not everyone wants to glue themselves to the top of a tube train and sometimes this action can alienate ordinary people who are just trying to get to work but there is a place for less radical environmentalists to work with the establishment to get the message out there to every breakfast table in Britain.

Drones, Are they a menace to our wildlife?

512px-Drone-pro-dji-inspire-2

Elmekkaoui abdelghani [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Yesterday I had words with a drone user. They were polite words but I felt they needed to be said. It was a cold day with a colder night to come and the tide was rising. We were standing on the edge of the Medway estuary and 1000’s of ducks, geese and waders were feeding on the mudflats. The man had already flushed about 50 birds by wandering across the marsh to the edge of the river and was now preparing to launch a drone.

I asked him to think twice before doing it. The drone was noisy and flying it across the estuary would no doubt disturb the birds and interfere with them feeding during the crucial few hours they have to do so. Disturbing birds feeding on the estuary during the winter months is linked to a drop in numbers of birds surviving the winter on the Medway. Dogs off leads are one of the main causes but drones can go where no dog would dare to.

There is no doubting that drones can get great images of our rivers and could provide a useful tool for research. Indeed I have asked several experts at the RSPB whether it would be advisable to use them myself for bird survey work so I could spy from the air into places I cant get to on the ground. The answer seems to be that, while the RSPB do use drones for some survey work, this tends to be for large species that are not easily flushed and not for flighty ducks and waders.  The chances of disturbance are just too great. Especially for Oystercatchers, one of the main species present on the estuary at this time of year. These birds immediately react to the presence of the drone.

I explained to the drone operator that, to the birds, the drone is just like a peregrine swooping in to kill them, so immediately gets a response, but, where as peregrines are doing what they do to survive, then he might be better flying his drone elsewhere. The man agreed that the birds do respond and admitted he’d had gulls attack the drone on several occasions. “I’ll be careful.” he said and off it went, the little mechanical helicopter, sent out across the mud to scatter the birds during the crucial few hours before high tide.

More needs to be done, I feel, to stop drones being used in sites of high sensitivity to wildlife.

Farming Advice expanding to new areas. A Day in the life of an environmental consultant. December 2019

carlton marshes

Carlton Marshes – Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Happy New Year everyone.
This coming year looks set to be exciting as I expand my work with the farming community in North Kent and travel further afield to give advice to similar projects on the best approach to farming advisory work.
Back in November I visited a fabulous piece of land at Cooling Marshes on the Hoo Peninsula and enjoyed an exhilarating 4×4 trip with one of the owners of the land. We were there to look at potential plans to restore the marshes to create a fabulous wetland for some of our beleaguered wading birds.

The area,  is in a prime location on the Thames and could be a key part in the jigsaw to make the whole of the Hoo Peninsula work to benefit wildlife.

Expanding my work with farmers is something I am really keen to do. As I told a recent conference “In my opinion there is not a shortage of farmers willing to manage their land to benefit wildlife. There is only a shortage of money to pay for my time to offer them advice.”

This is potentially something that can be changed in the future with the coming of the new Agriculture Bill, which seeks to redress the subsidy system and pay farmers based on what ‘public goods’ they offer. These ‘goods’ are things like clean air and water, healthy soils and benefits for wildlife. The farmers I work with seem broadly positive about this but also want to be producing food and hope that the market will pay them a fair price for the food they produce and they won’t be undercut by cheap, badly produced food coming in from other parts of the world.

One thing I know for sure is that, if any subsidy system is going to work, then it needs to include money for advisors to encourage and support farmers and make sure they are managing the land in the best way to get the results the subsidies are paying for. It is no use just giving a farmer a long list of things they ‘must’ do and expecting them to get on with it. The right kind of support offered by the right kind of people can make all the difference.

This is what I travelled to Lowestoft to tell the
Suffolk Wader StrategySuffolk Wader Strategy group  at the end of November. I was also there to learn about the plans for Suffolk Wildlife Trust site of Carlton Marshes. Staff from the RSPB, IDB and Suffolk Wildlife Trust listened as I told them my recipe for success when it comes to advising farmers on habitat management.
As an independent consultant I was very flattered to be asked to give my advice to a room full of experts and wanted to deliver a talk which was of practical use. One of the most important things, I told the group, is to approach farmers in the right way. Being down to earth and straight talking is important as is the ability to hold your ground when necessary. As one of the my farmers recently told me “Success with farmers in North Kent is all down to the personnel.” Getting the right people in these roles and giving them the time to build relationships makes all the difference when asking farmers to change management practices.
The visit to Suffolk was also a great chance for me to hear about wader work outside of Kent and network with others involved in exciting projects such as Carlton Marshes. Sharing experiences is all important for learning what works and what doesn’t and hearing about new approaches.
We need our farming community on board if we are ever to reverse the declines in wildlife in our country and if my advice can help others to work positively with farmers then I will always be willing to help.

I walk alone.

old apple tree and footpath No MansAnother research trip for my book took me to No Man’s Orchard outside Chartham Hatch at dusk on a January evening where my presence seemed to concern others.

No Man’s Orchard – January

I walked away from the village down the narrow cut leading to the orchard, the wood sorrel lemoning the bankside verges. The tops of the pines burnished in sunlight. Emerging from the woods into the orchard , the light dazzled you. Wood smoke gathered in the deep dish of the valley. The blackbirds were chinking and sighing out the day.

I stopped at the noticeboard leading to the orchard. Three dogs came careering down the path, surrounding me, barking,  followed by a couple striding out in wellies.

“You look suspicious,” the women said accusingly, gathering in her dogs with irritation.

“Do I?” I say, wondering just how.

“Well, you’re on your own. Without a dog.”

“In that case, I’m often looking suspicious.” I told her.

I could see she was unimpressed. What are you doing? She wanted to ask. What can you possibly be doing, out here, at dusk, on your own?

But, it seems someone forgot to send me the memo telling me that women are not supposed to do this. Just walk in the countryside, dogless, after the allotted hour of curfew.

I walked on, Under the arms of the grandmother trees, 150 Bramley’s, fleckle barked, Fieldfare chucking and the warm rot of apples still scenting the air. Wrens fizz by into the bramble.

enhanced moon rise BigburyI’m heading for Bigbury, where the ancestors lived. Up on the hill they traded and worshipped and enslaved their neighbours before being discovered by Julius Cesar and his invading army.

It’s growing dark, in the woods, it is all mud and rot, my iris’s darken to let in the light. My senses become alive to twig crack and footfall. I am not immune to fear. I don’t walk alone in the woods with no sense of it.

Charles Foster in his book, Being a Beast says, that hunting ‘gave me back my senses. A man with a gun sees, hears, smells and intuits much more than the same man with a bird book and a pair of binoculars,’  Maybe so, but the same man will never know the sharpening of the senses a women who walks alone in the countryside at dusk knows . He knows only what it is like to be the predator not what it is like to be the prey.

The full moon rises, the first of the year and the owls begin to call. I walk softly back up the darkening cut. I can’t escape the fear, it is hardwired into me. It makes me that bit more alive to the darkening woods. I can only refuse to be driven indoors by it.

 

 

A Good Read – The Signalman, Charles Dickens

The SignalmanA perfect Ghost story for a dark winter’s night, The Signalman perfectly conjures up the atmosphere of Higham Station on the Hoo Peninsula, the gateway to the marshes.

Even today the little station has a feeling of being lost in a different age, with it’s ornate metal footbridge, friendly staff and addition of a quirky book swap and art gallery. It is still an outpost and a place where I have collected many a confused Londoner to take them for a walk across the North Kent Marshes.

Dickens would have known the station well as he travelled between his London residence and Gad’s Hill Place, his country retreat, where he wrote many of his later books in the Swiss chalet in the garden.

For Dickens the railways were both a huge convenience and a source of fear, hardly surprising, after he survived a fatal train crash at Staplehurst where he was one of the first on the scene to help the wounded and dying passengers. It is little wonder that this story is full of the dangers of train travel.

The story starts with the narrator calling down into the steep cutting to the Signalman below, who diligently carries out his duties from a little wooden hut beside a long dark tunnel leading beneath the cliff face.

Dickens takes us into his world and we shelter with them in the hut from the mists of the damp railway siding and watch as the signalman checks his dials and charts and waves flags to signal to the passing trains.

The signalman is on edge and we soon learn that he is haunted by a ghost at the tunnel entrance who has twice prophesised disaster on the railway and has now come again.

Dickens, as always, does a marvellous job of creating atmosphere and painting a picture of the world of the signalman in rich detail and we are treated to some lovely florid Victorian imagery of young women dying in railway carriages for no apparent reason. At times the formality of language, which is a feature of the times, makes things a little clunky and, I was left a bit confused by the twist in the tale but Dickens paints such a fantastic picture that I won’t ever visit Higham Station again without looking for the ghost standing under the red light by the tunnel.

Fake, plastic, trees

lollipop treeDevelopers are destroying any chance for children to engage with the natural world by their insistence on ripping up our native, wild trees and planting fake lollipop trees in their place.

Beaulieu Park, in Rainham, Kent is the latest in a long line of ugly housing developments by McCulloch homes. Once this land was alive with goldfinches and nightingales nesting in the hedgerows now it is a sea of mud with some tired, twisted trees at the entrance.

Nature has been squashed, nature is not wanted in such places. Nature is only acceptable when controlled.

George Monbiot, in his book Feral, laments the Nature Deficit Disorder inflicting our children. “Children confined to their homes become estranged from each other and nature. Obesity, rickets, asthma, myopia, the decline in heart and lung function all appear to be associated with sedentary indoor life.”

He goes on to hope that “Every new housing development include some self-willed land in which children can play.”

Fat chance, when developers, such as McCulloch, are intent on destroying every inch of the natural world on the land they purchase.

If McCulloch homes had left just a little of the botanical richness that this site once contained they could have provided a window into the natural world for the children that came to live there.

A fringe of hawthorn trees, a small meadow of the orchids which once bloomed here, a patch of teasel for the goldfinches to feed on. Instead they chose to rip every living thing out of this site and replace it with their vision of nature. Pathetic, hot housed, subject to the will of man.

Like so many developments blotting our country, these buildings say nothing about their locality, give no nod to a sense of place. They impose their will over nature and trap our children in their homes unable to even imagine the wild that once bloomed here.

 

Return to the Estuary

Kingsnorth 1Headed down to my beloved Estuary yesterday to relive a day 11 years ago when I sat on a pillbox and received a phone call which took my life in a new direction. We never know which way the change is coming, what’s blowing down the river. I was back to make some notes to use for my new book, which has the working title of, The Volunteers.

Medway – January

The spartina spewed out across the mud like a spray of golden lacquer on a Japanese enamel box, brightly burnished under the iron sky. My bladder burnt, hot and urgent but I ignored it. The blasted pier stretched a finger out towards the island, the three cranes on the end looked out in different directions, guarding all approaches.

Dog walkers occasionally appeared, trudging along in impractical trainers through the mud. We didn’t greet each other. They were head down and determined into the wind and I, a muddy marvel, perched in tattered and splattered layers on the pillbox. Clearly not normal. Once again, odd, cast out, fringe dwelling.