A Day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – June/July 2018

bw stilts 2

Black winged stilt adult and chick. Photo Frank Cacket

The hot weather in June and July coupled with the late spring could have been the reason that this years breeding wader season was longer than every.

Young chicks were still being spotted on farmland well into the month. The weather however also meant that vegetation began to grow rapidly and grass and rush soon were smothering the edges of wetland scrapes. While this didn’t seem to cause problems for birds like redshank it did mean that it was doubly hard to accurately count chicks.

 
Spotting cryptically coloured balls of fluff programmed to lay still at a warning call from the adults is hard enough at the best of the times and when these chicks have long have long grass to hide in  the result is that it is almost impossible to accurately count sites.

Even with this difficulty I can report that numbers of fledged lapwing chicks from North Kent Farms were up again with redshank and yellow wagtail also doing better.

a pair of bw stilts

black winged stilt chicks. Photo Frank Cacket

One pair of chicks in particular caught everyone’s attention. This year a pair of black winged stilts successfully raised two chicks on one of the farms I work on. This is the first time a pair of chicks has fledged outside of a reserve in Britain.

 
For now we intend to keep the name of the farm and farmers a secret as there is a high chance that the birds will return again and there is a need to keep the site (which is on private land) undisturbed. This lack of disturbance throughout the breeding season was well managed by the farmers and, along with the creation of excellent wetland habitat, was the reason these birds did so well.

 
The pair of stilts were tireless in their attempts to drive off potential threats, throwing themselves at buzzards, gulls and the RSPB Senior Conservation Advisor who came to see them. Even with this effort I knew the odds off them successfully fledging both young were slim but as each visit went by and the chicks grew I rooted for the birds to succeed and almost began to feel sick at the thought of them loosing them after watching them work so hard.

 
Finally on the 4th July the birds vanished from the site and the next day adults and chicks were spotted at Oare Marshes. This success is the cherry on the cake of a great breeding season and is a testimony to the excellent work the farmers in North Kent are doing for our waders.

Norfolk Hawker
Also in July I took Martin Thomas of Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership out for a days training in wetland survey work. Martin is now all set to do this years round of surveys for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. The day revealed both good and bad news.

 
I was saddened to find that one of the most botanically important channels in the drainage district was suffering from phosphate pollution for the first time. This input could cause rapid growth in some species of waterweed to the detriment of others and put some of our rarest wetland plants at risk.

Better news was the Norfolk Hawker dragonfly spotted at Elmstone Stream. This proved to be the first record for this species in this area.getation to hide in the result is that it is almost impossible to accurately count sites.

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

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

cows and avocetWhat a month. We are now in full swing with the breeding season and I am out almost every day at the crack of dawn on the marshes undertaking breeding wader surveys.

However, at the beginning of the month, I took a morning’s walk across the Hoo Peninsula with Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer who contacted me after reading my Guardian article about the marshes close to Higham village which are soon to be damaged to make way for the Lower Thames Crossing.

 
Aware of my work with farmers in North Kent, the Baroness, who chairs the All Party Group on Agroecology, wanted to discuss the upcoming Agricultural Bill and find out what I think is needed in order to engage farmers in managing the countryside for the benefit of wildlife. Simpler Stewardship agreements, coupled with one to one advisory sessions would be top of my list.

Sue and I took a beautiful morning’s walk taking in Lodge Hill SSSI which Medway Council wish to sacrifice to property developers. The highlight for us both was definitely hearing a nightingale in the woods at the RSPB’s Northward Hill Reserve.

 
We have now completed two rounds of surveys on 13 farms across North Kent and numbers of pairs of lapwing are up from 58 pairs in 2017 to 72.5 pairs in 2018. Almost all the farms I work on have seen a rise in numbers and it looks a much better year for redshank, oystercatcher and yellow wagtail as well.

oyster catcher eggs phil barling

oystercatcher eggs. photo taken by farmer.

The methodology we use to undertake the survey is the O’Brian and Smith Lowland Farmland Breeding Wader Monitoring Protocol which is used on all the RSPB reserves. This involves walking into the fields which can cause a temporary disturbance. Alan Johnson RSPB South East Conservation Manager says the following:

 
“Managing wet grassland for breeding waders requires good hydrological, grazing and predator management. To be successful, all of these aspects of management need to be done to a high standard and tweaks often need to be made from season to season. Breeding waders are highly responsive to management changes and big population increases can be the result if you get it right. Surveying breeding waders in spring helps land managers to understand what changes need to be made and also how successful those changes are in future years. In the past, survey data has been critical to understanding the issues on the RSPB’s reserves in North Kent, where management changes resulted in high quality wet grassland with high densities of highly productive lapwing and redshank. Now we are using data to inform changes in the wider farmed landscape. These benefits are balanced against the risk of disturbing birds at a sensitive time of year by carrying out the surveys, which involve surveyors walking through fields. The survey methodology tries to minimise these risks, but ultimately the cost/benefit analysis strongly favours the continuation of surveys on wet grassland”.

 
Without this survey data it would be difficult to show farmers the benefits improved management is having to bird numbers. Hard for Natural England to judge where it’s money is best spent and hard for us to know how numbers of wading birds are faring in North Kent overall.

 
As well as increased numbers of target species, the work the farmers are doing has also resulted in an increase in avocet and ringed plover as well as visits from some exotic guests such as these two beautiful spoonbill which turned up on Sheppey on a sunny evening in late May. spoonbill at Attwoods June 2018

This is the second year these birds have arrived on the same site and, although not a breeding pair, it is an indication of how our wildlife is naturally changing as new species colonise from the continent. I, for one, intend to have the farmland of North Kent ready to welcome them.

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

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

It is the last day of April and the country is being deluged with rain. Six weeks worth is due to fall in one day, the Met office tells me.

However, we have also seen some beautiful spring weather this month. The season seems to have accelerated with blossom and bluebells coming all at once.

At the beginning of April I spent two days with volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership overseeing the creation of new berms at Port Rill, a drainage channel managed by the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. The weather could not have been more of a contrast, the first day we spent in hot sunshine, the second in icy winds but whatever the temperature the volunteers did an excellent job at installing woody debris.

channel renaturalisingThe work done by the volunteers last spring is beginning to show results with parts of the channel re-naturalising, creating meanders and fast flowing sections. Years of silt are being scoured away to reveal underlying gravels. New wetland plants have established themselves on the berms and there were plenty of frogs enjoying the re-energised channel when we visited.

The second half of the month was crammed with breeding wader surveys and I saw many beautiful sunrises over the marshes.

Over the autumn, North Kent farmers have been busy creating new scrapes and rills and altering drainage systems. The winter rains have filled these new features and the result is more waders than ever before breeding on North Kent farms.

As figures stand at the moment we have an extra 15 pairs of lapwing breeding on the farms than this time last year. That is surely something to celebrate and pulls me out of bed each morning when that 5am alarm goes off.

These great results are a real testimony to the benefits of giving tailored advice and building long term relationships with landowners. The farmers I work with really want to see more birds on the land but have to make a decent living at the same time.

Good subsidies for creating wildlife rich landscapes backed up by strong legal powers for those that damage the environment are all important if we are to create healthy farmland and river systems which benefit both wildlife and people.

A day in the life on an environmental consultant – March 2018

1017883I’m sure that everyone in Britain is feeling that, this year, winter has gone on too long.

After the snow has come an endless series of cold, wet, grey days.

Last year I prayed for a rain as wet fields are generally good news for our breeding waders, providing soft mud into which the birds can probe for insects. Now, along with everyone else, I wish for spring, full bodied, bloody, roaring spring to arrive.

In March I visited more farms as part of my pre survey season checks for the North Kent Breeding Wader Project. Visiting the farms early in the spring gives an indication of how well the land is likely to do for breeding birds and provides an opportunity to give the farmers any last minute advice to tweak the management before the birds settle down.

Despite the cold wind, lapwings and redshank are already setting up territories on the best sites and overall farmland managed for waders in North Kent is looking in better condition than it has in years with plenty of standing water on the fields and new scrapes and rills. Even farmers who I thought were immune to change have been in with the diggers and reversed drainage schemes in order to create wet areas in their grassland fields. While others are clearly proud of having the birds on their land and don’t want to see them disturbed. Attwood wader sign

March also saw the completion of our work for Brooks Ecological Services at Langenhoe solar farm. Throughout the winter months we have been undertaking Webs counts but on our last visit wintering waders and wildfowl were no where to be seen. Instead the site was heady with the sound of skylarks singing and hares raced towards the field edge at my approach.

Spring has felt a long time coming but now it is well and truly here.

A day in the life of an environmental consultant – February 2018

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Graveney Marshes ideal for wintering wildfowl and waders

As I write the country is hit by icy temperatures.

Not quite down to the -40 degrees I experienced while working in the Arctic in 2013 but still enough to send us all scurrying to turn the heating on.

This surge in energy usage is threatening the countries supply of gas and will possibly lead to cries to allow increased fracking with all its attendant potential to damage our water supplies.

Alternative energy sources are, of course, part of the solution but like all developments they need to be appropriately sited.

At Langenhoe in Essex, the solar farm is situated on flat fields near the River Colne and Mersea Island. Each month I visit the site and conduct wetland bird surveys (Webs counts) on behalf of Brooks Ecological Services. The survey area is unexceptional and it is not possible for me to judge whether it was more valuable for wildlife before the solar farm was developed. Certainly the arable fields surrounding the site support huge flocks of wintering lapwing and golden plover and lots more could be done to improve the survey area for the benefit of these birds but, in this instance, my job is simply to record what is now there.

solar farm

No one doubts that solar energy plays a vital role in the fight against climate change. Equally no one can really argue that solar farms are ugly intrusions on the landscape. However, until now, the majority of solar farm developments have not attracted too much controversy.

Unfortunately that has now changed. In 2015 the Government withdrew it’s support for green energy and cut subsidies for solar farm developers. This meant that small solar farms were no longer financially viable and developers have reacted by putting in planning applications for mega farms.

Developers Hive Energy and Wirsol Energy are now proposing covering 900acres of Graveney Marshes outside Faversham in Kent with panels which would make it the biggest development in the country and five times bigger than any other solar farm to date.

skylark @neil smith at Flickr

skylarks are of high conservation concern. photo Neil Smith @ Flickr

The land, currently used by grazing wildfowl, is adjacent to Kent Wildlife Trust’s South Swale Reserve and the Trust fear that it would cause habitats to become fragmented, marooning wildlife in pockets of pristine habitat from which they couldn’t expand. There are also fears of the direct impact on wildlife from the change of land use. The fields are currently used by brent geese and widgeon in winter and skylarks and meadow pipits in summer, all birds of conservation concern which would lose out if these proposals were to go ahead.

It seems bizarre, at this time of unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change and mass housing development, that the Government is not creating legislation to force housing developers to install solar panels on new build roofs and insist supermarkets install them on warehouses, thereby making us all much more self sufficient in energy while at the same time make it easier for us to reduce our energy consumption by helping people properly insulate their homes.

clive tackles PF

volunteer removes parrot’s feather from channel

Away from working on solar farms I revisited Wademarsh channel on Chislet marshes where volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership had spent the autumn clearing around 500m of channel infested with parrot’s feather.

It was heartening to see the positive impact of their work with only small amounts of the plant remaining. The work is only just beginning though as most of the 6km channel is still infested. Monitoring will now take place throughout the summer and the volunteers will continue their good work this autumn.

field 4 rotovating around wet splashLastly, work has begun again with farmers in North Kent as part of the Breeding Wader project. After the winter rains lots of the land is holding water better than in previous years and improvements to rills and scrapes carried out using money from the North Kent Capital Grant Scheme has created bare earth ideal for lapwings.

Just before the snow hit I witnessed my first pair of lapwing displaying on the wind blasted shores of the Thames. Let’s hope the current icy blast doesn’t effect our wildlife too badly and there will be plenty of birds to breed this spring.

I for one am keeping bird feeders topped up and the bird bath unfrozen

Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – December 2017

Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – December 2017

birdwatching on solar farm

Counting birds on the Essex coast

Winter marks the beginning of the tree management programme for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board.

The majority of the trees are trimmed back or removed to allow access to machines which de-silt the river. De-silting generally takes place every 10 years and is done so that drainage ditches maintain their capacity to hold a certain volume of water and cope with winter rainfall.
Nowadays ditches are partially de-silted with the central channel cleared and banks left untouched. This is a much gentler approach than in the past where banks were scraped destroying water vole burrows and removing native flora.

Carl inspecting Air Ministry Dyke willow

Trees such as this have high potential for bat roosts

Trees may also be removed if they are deemed to be a safety hazard. One particular tree that caused an issue this year was a black poplar which had a dead limb directly above a sluice structure. The IDB felt this could present a hazard to staff checking the structure and wished to remove the limb but inspections revealed several features which could potentially contain bat roosts.

Josh, our resident aboriculturalist, did not feel the tree was safe to climb so investigating with an endoscope was not possible and therefore we could not give the go ahead for the IDB to undertake the limb removal.
Further investigations are now being undertaken by the IDB to rule the tree out as a bat roost before they proceed with the removal of the limb.
Towards the end of the year our work took us to Langenhoe on the Essex Coast to undertake a WeBs count on behalf of Brooks Ecological Limited. WeBs stands for Wetland Bird Survey and the counts. which take place either side of high tide monitor non breeding water birds and are used to identify trends and distribution of waterfowl and waders. We are hoping to take more trips out to the RAMSAR protected Essex coastline in the coming months.
Lastly, this month, Carol Donaldson has been busy writing about wildlife for various publications including The Clearing and The Guardian. Read her article on the North Kent Marshes here.

Day in the Life of an environmental consultant – November 2017

Day in the Life of an environmental consultant – November 2017

November began with a meeting between staff from the Stour Internal Drainage Board and their contractors Rhino Plant to review the cutting of Shalmsford Street Dyke.

The dyke once supported white clawed crayfish and was a nursery ground for trout but has become degraded with silt covering gravels and an excess growth of watercress across the channel.
shalmsford street 2016

excess watercress in stream

These problems are exacerbated by high nitrate levels and poaching of channel banks by livestock. Sheep stand in the channel to graze the watercress causing further poaching and nutrient enrichment.

Fencing would be one solution but landowners often don’t want the expense. Fencing can also cause problems for rivers if the fence line is too close to the channel edge and prevents bankside management. When this happens river banks can begin to scrub up creating dark channels which are impossible to manage.

During the meeting we looked at ways the cutting of the channel could help alleviate the situation. Narrow channels are often faster flowing with better oxygen levels and less silt drop out but this needs to be balanced against flood risk.

We decided that parts of Shalmsford Street will be cut manually which creates less disturbance to the channel bed and can give a more sinuous cut working with the natural processes of the river while other parts will be machine cut in order to create more open conditions to allow for winter water levels.

A further meeting took place with the IDB and EA in the middle of the month to talk about improvements to Buxford Dyke, near Ashford. Again poaching by livestock is causing issues here, pushing banks and silt into the river where it can cover gravels. Other sections of this channel are prone to drying out and there is potential to create off line ponds which could provide refuge for macro invertebrates during drought periods. Further discussions are needed with landowners before work can take place.4 cattle crossing leading to nitrate problems (2)

November also saw the annual IDB AGM where I gave a presentation to the board on the work we have completed in the last year and some of the challenges we face including managing invasive species on Chislet marshes and deciding which IDB channels to reduce maintenance on as we take on management of main river channels as part of the Environment Agency Rationalisation programme.

The Rationalisation Project looks at changing the status of some of our main rivers downgrading some of the smaller channels to Ordinary Watercourses. This would allow the Environment Agency to reduce the cost of its maintenance programme.

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Lampen Stream is a channel which could be transferred to IDB management

It is proposed that the downgraded rivers are managed by the Internal Drainage Boards, whose costs are met by landowners who pay drainage rates for the channels to be managed. Several areas have been chosen to trial the project and the River Stour board is potentially one of the pilot areas, chosen partially because of its good environmental track record.

As the River Stour Board takes on the maintenance of more kilometres of river then they need to reduce maintenance on channels they currently manage. One of my main areas of work at the moment is deciding which channels would most benefit from reduced maintenance.

This project offers great potential to improve habitat for species such as Shining Ramshorn snails who like rivers with more in-channel weed and I have been liaising with Kent Wildlife Trust to choose which ditches in areas like the Ash Levels would benefit the most. Other species prefer more open water habitat and here I have been talking to the County Plant Recorder to make sure that channels with species such as hair like pondweed continue to be managed on an annual basis.

tub wat drop close up

tubular water dropwort may benefit from reduced maintenance

This will create one of the biggest changes in the drainage district for many years but one which provides exciting opportunities for wildlife.