Alone on the Marshes – A day in the life of an environmental consultant – March 2020

land check studd feb 2020

Enjoying the solitude while surveying on the marshes.

At the beginning of March few of us could foresee how rapidly life would change for us all.

Indeed for much of the month my work carried on as normal. Visiting sites, talking about land management and anticipating a great spring of wader surveys with the land looking wetter than ever.

At times this month I have thanked my lucky stars at having a job where social isolation is the norm. In fact I have often felt that in order to do much of my job you have to be someone very good at dealing with your own company as I spend long days on my own on the marshes with only the sheep to talk to.

As the month progressed and the impact of the virus on everyone’s life became apparent I still felt that, in my working world at least, I was immune. Right up until the lock down I was spending days wandering fields with skylarks singing overhead and the waves crashing on the shore of the Thames.

Out there, in the fields, life felt normal and panic buying and worries over the health of loved ones seemed many miles away. I have been extremely grateful for every moment out on site this month.

checking for water voles at keith studdI have also been very grateful to keep working. Throughout March I have been working with Natural England on a fabulous project undertaking assessments on designated sites across North Kent. Most of the sites have RAMSAR, SPA and SSSI status and my role was to visit sites and update the assessment.

This involved looking at the general condition of the land for wintering and breeding wildfowl and waders, undertaking a search for water vole signs and testing water quality for nitrates and phosphates.

Most of the sites were well known to me through my work on the North Kent Marshes Breeding Wader project but I also had the opportunity to visit one or two totally new sites which was a real treat and gave me an insight into how many areas would be suitable for breeding waders given the right advice and management.

Luckily all the site visits were completed before the lockdown and the last two weeks have been spent indoors busily typing up the results.
snipe on cooling marshNormally being stuck indoors on a laptop as spring progresses outside would drive me mad but, with travel restricted, even this has given me the opportunity to walk the marshes, if only in my mind. At times the sad news of rising death tolls has been forgotten as in my head I spotted snipe in the rushes or warily eyed the cattle in the next field.

With the opportunity for undertaking my normal survey work currently looking remote I will remember those moments this spring and look forward to a time when I can get back out into the fields again

The great big, beautiful wet. A day in the life of an environmental consultant. February 2020

Winter survey outfit

Extra layers were needed for survey work in February

Can you remember a wetter winter?

I certainly can’t and that seems to be the general consensus among the farmers I work with in North Kent.

At times it seems to have rained continuously since the autumn with crop sowing affected and some crops rotting in the fields. February was officially the wettest on record.

Last month I seemed to spend every day battling through high winds across exposed marshes and wading knee deep through mud as I tried to navigate my way through farm gates. At times this job feels like an army assault course but, at other times, I stand in a field in the middle of nowhere and watch flocks of starlings pierce the sky or skeins of geese descend and the only sound is the skylarks and the curlews. Then I know how lucky I am.

picturesque sheep and wet field 3 feb 2020
Out on the marshes the fields are sodden and surface water is everywhere. This is exactly the conditions loved by waders who have already begun pairing up and establishing territories on some of the sites I work on.

It has been a great month to get out and see where water naturally lies on the land to help inform the wetland restoration plans on many farms but unfortunately much of this water will be lost by mid Spring, just as the chicks are born and the birds need it most.

In the long term there are plans for installing better water control on farms but, at the moment, the way to ensure lapwing and redshank chicks survive to fledging is to keep the land wet by pumping water into scrapes and hollows during the spring.

Many farmers are happy to do this and have to keep the land wet to comply with their Stewardship Agreements, however, they are increasingly angry at being penalised for trying to do the right thing.

Until recently farmers pumping water on their land for the benefit of wetland species were exempt from having an Abstraction Licence issued by the Environment Agency, then, for no apparent reason, this exemption was removed. Many farmers were angry at having to pay out more money for doing something they were obliged to do and received no direct financial benefit for doing.

feb 2020 field behind field 4

Why couldn’t things stay as they were? It seems that Government organisations love to tinker. One minute farmers were exempt, then they weren’t. Next minute I am told by one Government department to urgently let all farmers know that, if their land is within a designated site, a RAMSAR or SPA they are now exempt. Then I am told by another department that this is not the case. They may be exempt but no one seems quite sure. It is a crazy system, where the legislation has got so weighty that no one can get to the bottom of it.

It is a system that is eroding the good will of farmers, sending me round in circles and worst of all having disastrous consequences for wildlife as some farmers are now saying that they won’t pump water on the land at all this year as they fear being fined for doing so.

I can envisage that this will be the shape of things for the next few years as the Government attempts, through the Agricultural Bill, to work out just what it wants our farming community to do.

Meanwhile, this year, the birds may have a little respite as sodden fields take time to dry out and conditions on many farms look good for the breeding season ahead.

Museum of the Moon

magical moonIf you’re are anywhere near Rochester in Kent this month taking time to visit the Museum of the Moon at Rochester Cathedral. This artwork by Luke Jerram has toured the world and now rises above the nave of the cathedral surrounded by lunar inspired

Moon in Roc catherdral black and white with busy people

people are loving the moon

music and a programme of events. The moon is amazing in itself but it also provides some of the best people watching to be had as all ages interact with the giant globe. I am definitely going to take advantage and go to one of the evening viewings.

moon craters twoThe Moon is on view until the 4th March. For more information visit the cathedral website.

Happiness is..A wet day on a hill with the volunteers.

debbie in the field

The lovely Debbie enjoying a wet day with the gang. 

I love being out with the volunteers. Even on a day when the heavens open and it rains solidly. I walk across the site in muddy trousers and the rain is lashing down and still I’m happy. Why is that?

I think because this is life. Out here, in the elements, being rained on, with every other living creature. Not separate but part of it, the earth, and the woods and the season.

Life is here, slipping in the mud, using your muscles to chop and haul and climb, laughing with your mates as you hole up in the back of the Land rover for lunch with soup and sandwiches and hot cups of tea passed through the windows to you.

This is life, this doing and being and loving the moment. The thing we all did for millennia before urban life and technology separated us from the world, the moment and each other.

Something in this, something essential in this, feels like the very thing you were put on this earth to do.

Talking Telescopes – A day in the life of an environmental consultant – January 2020


photo courtesy of MLP

I love the work I do with farmers in the South East but sometimes it’s nice to mix it up, try something new or refresh my skills in other areas. I began working in conservation 25 years ago and found a way into the profession by using my Journalism and publicity skills before moving on to community projects.

It has been really interesting in January to work with Medway Council on their Talking Telescopes Project. This Heritage Lottery Funded project worked with visitors to the Strand, an enduringly popular Lido and Leisure facility which had originally been created on the River Medway in 1896.

The site encapsulates the history of British Lido’s, beginning with changing rooms converted from railway carriages and growing, during the 1930’s, to incorporate boating pools, putting greens, bandstands, and a miniature railway. As such, The Strand tells the story of British leisure time from the late 19th to the early 21st century and is the only surviving example of an outdoor saltwater swimming pool in Britain.

The Talking Telescopes team consisting of Medway Council, Medway Plus (a local charity) and Mid Kent College worked with students to capture memories from the areas heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s and made them accessible to today’s visitors through the medium of three Talking Telescopes.

talking telescope (2)The sturdy telescopes can be used to spy on the Medway Estuaries internationally important wildlife while providing an audio commentary of stories from the past. Two interpretation panels were also created and a well loved mural restored.

The role of assistant Matt Hawkins and myself was to evaluate the project. Online and face to face interviews were conducted. The HLF application was reviewed and visitors to the Strand were interviewed on site.

I’m pleased to say that the response to the new interpretation was overwhelmingly positive with one respondent calling it a “fitting tribute to ordinary people’s memories.” and another saying, “Before this project I looked at the Strand and felt it was dated, now I feel differently about it and see that the architecture is typical of the era and feel more positive and proud of the area. I imagine all the people who have used it in the past and feel I am part of this. It makes me more aware of the history of my local area and my role in it.”

It appears that this is a great example of Heritage Lottery Fund money being used to give people a real sense of pride in their local area.