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 Chatham 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.

Take a walk along the Thames with BBC Sounds

Dartford Crossing from Rainham MarshesPut on some headphones and take a walk along the banks of the Thames from Tower Bridge to Maplan sands enjoying the sounds of the river from the lifting of the bridge to the sounds of redshank on the Allhallows marshes. This recording from BBC sounds really transported me to the marshes in summer and I almost ducked as the bee flew overhead.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000c9yg

Society of Authors Award

my writing space

It’s back to my writing space in the cellar for me as I set to work on a new book

I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded an Foundation Grant by the Society of Authors to help fund research into my new book, which currently has the working title of, The Volunteers.

For six years I ran a volunteer group for a small conservation organisation. This experience had a profound effect on me, as it did on everyone who found their way to us. Now I want to write about those years in the woods and tell the stories of the people that came.

In particular I want to write about the young people, many of whom were in a bad place in their life at the time, either through mental health problems, drugs, a brush with the law, or simply because they had lost their way and needed something good to happen. Each one of those people took a brave step out of their door the day they joined us. Their stories are bound up with my own walk back from a dark place following redundancy and a breakup.

Behind this story is my theory, which is that, for hundreds of years we worked with our hands, on the land, alongside our neighbours and then suddenly the world changed. The volunteer group restored people, if only for a little while, to the way we are meant to be.

Nature is hardwired into our genes but increasingly we are alienated from it. We spend our days in high rise boxes cut off from such life-giving essentials as fresh air and sunlight. We are lost amid noise and concrete, our every move watched and followed by gadgets that we welcome into our lives. Small wonder that we are in meltdown. Loneliness, depression and drug use are all on the rise and, even those of us who can’t put a label on things, feel stretched thin.
For the volunteers the woods offered a respite, a chance to return to the world of bird song and dirt beneath the fingernails. To regain a sense of community and of ourselves.

I have been beavering away at this story for the last two years, visiting locations to relive the years I spent running the group and planning my research of everything from how working outdoors affects our mental health to traditional woodland management techniques.

This story of the volunteers and what that time meant to me is a tale I have long wanted to tell but find it hard to put in the time needed to write when writing just doesn’t pay the bills. Now, I feel like I have been given a breathing space, an opportunity to create something which I hope will be worthy as a follow up to my 2017 book On the Marshes.

Watch this space. A new journey begins.