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.

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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.

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.

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

geograph-3312613-by-N-Chadwick

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