A day in the life of an environmental consultant – June 2019

chick at Keith Studds spring 2019Just what is going on this year with our waders?

As I write this, it is the beginning of July. I should be reflecting on the end of another season of wader surveys on the North Kent Marshes. Yet out in the fields things are a long way from over. Day old chicks wander around, many weeks from being safely fledged and birds appear to still be on eggs.

 

surveying on pevensey levels taking a break

I contemplate what’s happening with our waders while taking a coffee break on the Pevensey Levels.

Pevensey Levels at the start of the month. My third visit found 18 fledged young on Horse Eye and Down, a very good level of productivity. This shows what can be achieved in this area if more fields held water in shallow scrapes throughout the breeding season. I am looking forward to going back to Pevensey this autumn to talk to farmers about the results and how we can replicate this in other parts of the levels.

So why are things so late in North Kent? This is a question I put to Dr Jen Smart, Principal Conservation Scientist for the RSPB, when she came to visit along with the RSPB’s Coastal and Wetlands ecology team. It appears that the chicks we are seeing now, are probably second broods, with first broods succumbing to the lack of insect food in wet mud caused by the dry spring or possibly from predation.

Strangely I never saw any signs of early chicks so potentially broods could have been lost at the egg stage. Dr Smart told me that second broods are often weaker and have less chance to survive, so I am keeping my fingers crossed and continuing to survey the sites for signs of fledged birds throughout July.

The Coastal and Wetland team were visiting to find out the recipe for success for farming advice, as it appears, North Kent is one of the few places that waders are increasing outside of reserves. I was happy to give them my ideas on what works and what doesn’t along with Sheppey farmer Keith Studd.

more enlightenment from Graham white

Graham White, RSPB Head of Reserves Ecology learns my secret recipe for successful farming advice.

Keith and I both highlighted recent loss of good will from farmers towards countryside stewardship schemes. Hardly surprising as some farmers are waiting years for late payments and are being penalised by the Rural Payment Agency for doing the very things that their agreements encourage them to do. Lack of communication, faceless officials, mind boggling paperwork and at times shear arrogance is creating a situation where some farmers feel inclined to cut their losses and drop out of environmental schemes altogether.

The future for our wildlife cannot lie in reserves but in cohesive landscapes where conservation bodies and farmers are working together. We need a well funded, farmer friendly scheme which encourages a good take up and gives people targeted face to face advice.

RSPB ecology field trip at North Quarry

The RSPB Coastal and Wetland team discuss plans for a quarry near Cliffe. 

With this is mind it was fantastic to see the exciting plans for landscape scale conservation on the Hoo Peninsula and Isle of Sheppey. Here there is the potential for great swatches of countryside to being managed for the benefit of wildlife. There are some great opportunities to work with farmers, aggregate companies, the RSPB and the drainage board to create a cohesive network of dynamic wetlands. As part of this we visited a number of quarries and heard about the plans to create reedbeds and lagoons for wonderful species such as black necked grebe.

Exciting times hopefully lie ahead.

 

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A day in the life of an environmental consultant – The video.

Instead of an update, this month you can join me for a day out on the marshes searching for lapwing chick as part of the North Kent Breeding Wader project

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – April (and a bit of May) 2019.

surveying in pevensey

Heading out for a morning survey

As we near the end of the second round of breeding wader surveys, I can finally grab a moment to reflect on a non stop five weeks of spring.

The survey protocol requires everyone undertaking these surveys to do so within the same window of time, roughly 14 days for the first round and 21 for the second. With 14 sites to survey this year, including 3 large new sites in Sussex, this called for some very tight scheduling.

Thankfully the weather has played ball and the surveys have been conducted in mainly early morning sunshine.

As always the results are a mixed bag with some farms punching well above their weight and producing skies full of birds while others could do so much more to secure a future for our wildlife.

After 5 years of working with North Kent farmers I realise that you can’t win them all and persuading some people to make changes is a very long game indeed.

This is something I impress on Martin Hole, who is heading a facilitation fund for the Pevensey Levels. “You can’t win in year one,” I tell him over lunch at his farmhouse. “bide your time and it will get better.”

Having got to know the land at Pevensey over two surveys I believe this is true. The sites have a fantastic open aspect and the birds are coming to investigate. The problem is the fields do not hold water for long enough. Not something that is instantaneously solvable in the increasingly dry South East but not unachievable.

dry scrape

We need to turn this.

wet scrape

into this.

Pevensey is at the very start of a road that we have taken a few steps along in North Kent. Sometimes that road is longer that you would like but when you’ve turned a corner you know it.

This year I have been blessed with sunny mornings, fabulous wildlife sightings and the excitement of seeing new sites with bags of potential but my spring highlight came on the 1st May when I visited three farms outside of Conyer village.

For 5 years me and the farmers have worked at trying to improve the condition of the land for waders; a bit wetter here, a bit shorter there and…nothing. The birds refused to come. I had begun to think there was something fundamentally wrong with the site that I just couldn’t see.

Then, on a windswept day I was literally bought to my knees with joy as lapwings exploded from the grass and plummeted over the fields. A sky full of wader calls was something I thought I might never see at Conyer and now they are back.

A moment like that makes every 5am alarm call worthwhile.

A day in the life of an environmental consultant – March 2019

 

geograph-82968-by-Janet-Richardson

The Pevensey Levels, where farmers are working together to manage the land for wildlife.

Spring is upon us and I am getting ready to launch myself into a survey season which is likely to be busier than ever as I expand my work into Sussex.

In March I travelled down to the Pevensey Levels to meet with Martin Hole, a former winner of the RSPB’s Lapwing award. Martin is the lead farmer in a cluster which includes almost 50 farmers who have banded together to manage the land for wetland wildlife.

Martin-Hole-180x225Through my work in North Kent I see how difficult it is for a farmer to make a difference alone. They might be doing all the right things on their own land but, if they are isolated from other suitably managed land, then, try as they might, the birds may never come.

Along with Martin, I feel that farmers working together to provide landscape scale conservation is the only way we can create a countryside that is resilient to change and able to support wildlife in the long term.

Cluster groups can draw on a facilitation fund provided by Natural England and can organise workshops and surveys to provide the information farmers need to make decisions about land management. My role this spring is to provide surveys for three main areas of the Pevensey Levels which still support lapwing.

Martin is an enthusiastic advocate for the benefits of farmers joining cluster groups, believing working together is the best way forward for the industry and for wildlife. Certainly the land we viewed looked in excellent condition but I was surprised to hear that, despite good management, some species were become locally extinct in the region.

RedshankRedshank numbers for instance had plummeted in contrast to North Kent where they had a bumper season last year. Worryingly Martin felt that the boom in numbers of wetland birds in North Kent could be a result of birds contracting to core areas. That, no matter how well the Pevensey Levels are now managed, the damage has already been done. That an historical input of chemicals has left soils poisoned and insect numbers plummeting.

My experience in North Kent is that given the right advice and management then it is possible to turn the fortunes of farmland wildlife around but the experience in Sussex could be the beginning of a worrying trend.

Are the Pevensey Levels the canary in the coalmine which shows how bad things have become for our wildlife?

Still, I do not feel that despair is helpful when it comes to conservation. Despair over the state of our countryside leads to helplessness and I believe there is never a better time than now to start turning things around. The increasingly positive attitude from farmers like Martin to working to manage the land for wildlife is a cause for celebration and, besides, it is spring and I cannot be downhearted at the thought of another spring amid lapwing on the marshes.

 

 

A Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – November 2018

A Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – November 2018

A visit to the estuary brings the opportunity to enjoy fabulous wildlife but what impact does our presence have on the creatures that live there?

Kent Ornithological Societies AGM was held at the beginning of November and I was invited to speak about my work with farmers in North Kent.

My talk seemed well received and I certainly enjoyed hearing about the other speakers hard work and some of the innovative solutions being used to protect and enhance land for wildlife. Mark Avery gave the Key Note speech on driven grouse shooting and hen harriers and rolled his sleeves up to do battle with hecklers during the Q&A.

The rest of the month has been full of meetings as I gave my annual report to Natural England and discussed issues around Brexit which could potentially impact on meat prices which may have a knock on effect on wetland grassland. If farmers pull out of cattle then there may be less animals around to graze which will result in grassland becoming too long to attract lapwings to breed.

Cattle are an important component in managing land for breeding waders.

The role of conservationists is not to despair at the problems, I feel, but to find a way around the problems. There is always a way but we might have to spend the next few years working out new and possibly better ways of getting the job done.

Mid month I also attended a meeting of the new North Kent Marshes Internal Drainage Board to discuss water level management. The meeting was well attended by local landowners and provided an opportunity to talk to new farmers about the potential to undertake breeding wader surveys and advice on their land. Hopefully this will result in increasing my work with farmers next year.

Towards the end of the month I also met up with the RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust to discuss closer collaboration on farming advice so we don’t double up on advice and can share expertise.

The result of all these meetings is that I now have a busy few months ahead as I work with farmers to design wetland restoration schemes and get all the necessary permissions in place before seeking outside funding to deliver the work.

Away from all of this I have continued to research the impact of personal watercraft on birds and marine mammals by reading research from around the world. It is interesting to see how coastal development is impacting on wildlife and prudent to learn how other countries have researched and dealt with the issue. This research has helped in drafting a two stage plan of survey and practical action which I will present to the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership forum next month.

Seals can be easily disturbed if water craft get too close.

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

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

Redshank

Redshank will only survive on farmland if we get our agricultural subsidy system right. 

At the beginning of October responsibility for Countryside Stewardship payments was transferred from Natural England to the Rural Payments Agency, in a move which sadly further undermines Natural England’s viability.

The recent ‘People’s Manifesto for Wildlife’ branded Natural England, ‘unfit for purpose,’ a sad indictment of an organisation, which was once seen within the industry, as a bastion of expertise and good judgment.

 
Many of the remaining staff still have that expertise but much of their power and any independent thought has been stripped away. The loss of Countryside Stewardship administration is seen as punishment for late payments to farmers but as Natural England have been subject to funding and staff cuts then it’s hardly surprising that mistakes and delays have occurred. Natural England are unfortunately being used as a political football in the debate about the future of our agriculture subsidies.

 
The Agricultural Bill, making its way through parliament, is central to decisions over where our public money goes. What should we pay farmers to do? Should we subsidise them to grow food or should the market pay for this? Should supermarkets be forced to pay a fair price to farmers and, if so, are we prepared to pay higher prices for our food? Should we reward farmers for providing ‘public goods,’ the things which benefit us all; good soils, clean air and water, biodiversity and countryside access?

 
Away from Westminster and out on the fields it is a time of frustration and confusion. No one knows at this moment quite who’s in charge and where the money’s coming from. Farmers and, for that matter, self employed consultants, tend to be self sufficient and flexible types and therefore we will look for ways around these problems. Many farmers in North Kent are more than willing to make changes to their land to benefit wildlife and I aim to harness this enthusiasm by planning a programme of rill and scrape restoration on farms across the area.

re-profiling rill 2017

Funding is needed to restore our wetlands.

Creating new wetland areas is the next step which will allow more birds to successfully breed on our farmland and ultimately mean that the money we currently pay farmers to manage their land for wildlife is not wasted. Without this extra work then many of our farms, currently receiving breeding wader stewardship payments, will never reach their potential. If grants are currently not available from the government then we will just have to look for outside sources of funding.

 
In the meantime work continues to move ahead with plans to work with hovercraft and jet ski users to reduce disturbance to breeding and wintering birds on the Medway and Swale estuary. The project has received support from Birdwise North Kent and the RSPB and we are now firming up a project proposal prior to seeking funding.

 

Thames litter pick 1 pickers
Finally this month I also joined Belinda Lamb, Medway Swale Estuary Partnership Guardians of the Deep officer and RSPB volunteer, David Saunders on a litter pick on the Thames foreshore. The amount of plastic bottles on the beach was particularly shocking and a deposit return scheme can’t come soon enough. However the ultimate solution lies in using less plastic products in the first place.

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.