September and the weed cutting season for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board is well under way.
The banks and weed are cut every summer as part of the general maintenance programme and one of my key jobs is advising on the best cut to maintain the wildlife interest of the channel and work with the contractors Rhino Plant to advise on particular areas of importance such as management for white clawed crayfish.
This month I worked with the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership volunteers to tackle an invasive plant, Parrot’s feather, which has colonised ditches on Chislet marshes.
A small amount of this pond plant found its way into a roadside ditch and has spread quickly. Removing the plant needs to be sensitively managed so as not to cause disturbance or damage to other wildlife. Therefore spraying and vigorous weed cutting is not an option as both these methods would leave ditch edges bare of cover for other species.
Instead the River Stour IDB has approved a programme of mechanical weedcutting followed up by hand pulling of parrot’s feather from the margins. KSCP volunteers have already spent two days wading in the channel or paddling in boats as dragonflies buzz overhead.
An eagle eye is needed to spot the tiniest fragment of plant and a boom net has been installed to catch plants floating downstream. Despite their best attempts all involved know it will take many years of work to combat this plant.
Towards the middle of the month I attended an excellent course in wet grassland management run by the RSPB at their Otmoor reserve. Over two days I learnt about the precise needs of different waders and came away with lots of ideas to take out to farmers this autumn.
Simple changes such as rotovating foot drains can make a big difference and hopefully, by implementing these measures, we can continue to improve the fortunes of birds such as lapwings on the north Kent marshes.
Now all we need is a wet winter to top up the ditches and flood the grassland fields ready for the following spring.
August was a busy month with river surveys for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board.
The Board manages a huge variety of channels from small natural wooded streams, to wide drainage channels across former marshland to urban rivers.
Some of the channels offer ample opportunity for enhancements such as at Buxford Dyke in Ashford, a channel which traditionally supported white clawed crayfish. Fencing cattle from streams, removing weirs and installing cobbles in the channel could all help manage silt and provide hiding spots for crayfish.
cattle can cause issues with silt downstream
Sometimes the easy part is knowing what could be done to benefit the river. The harder task is persuading authorities and landowners that the work will be beneficial and not increase flood risk.
Traditional management practices sometimes involved drastic measure such as setting fire to channel banks and widening channels by dredging. These practices often were disastrous for wildlife and stored up issues for the future as widening narrow streams allows more silt to drop out in the centre of the channel creating a fertile ground for weed growth which blocks channels and may lead to flooding. More work needs to be done to show river managers and landowners that natural management techniques, such as allowing woody debris to remain in the channel can be beneficial.
Urban channels have different issues and Pumping Station Dyke, also in Ashford, suffers from fly tipping, invasive species and terrible bankside management by local businesses. Surveying a channel such as this it is easy to despair at the disregard many people show to their local areas and the low status of rivers in towns. With a channel such as this joined up thinking is needed for local bodies to work together to tackle issues such as fly tipping and misconnected sewers.
The month ended with a visit to Bourne Dyke, a beautiful channel set amid wet woodland with some fantastic old pollarded trees. Here the landowner has shown an interest in making improvements for wildlife and it is easy to get enthusiastic at the opportunity this could provide for restoring the natural wetland areas of this valley.
Another crackingly busy month kicked off with surveying a ditch called Butterfly Cottage Dyke for the Internal Drainage Board.
A blisteringly hot day saw me putting the previous month’s Natural England training to
Tubular Water Dropwort
good use by identifying the many species of rushes and sedges that grown along this botanically rich channel. The waterway supports rare plants such as Tubular Water Dropwort and Hairlike Pondweed. My work involves advising the Drainage Board on how to manage the channel to benefit these and other species and look at ways of improving its value for wildlife.
Unfortunately many of our waterways suffer from Nitrate and Phosphate pollution often caused by historically overloading the land with fertilisers. Agrochemicals are big business and firms have lobbied farmers for fifty years to buy them in order to achieve higher yields and cut down on ‘pest’ species. Often land is overburdened with chemicals and much ends up seeping through the soil and fertilising rivers and drainage ditches which then sprout lush growths of plants such as watercress which can impede flow and cause flooding.
Excessive weed growth caused by chemical enrichment.
Over 8 years of surveying for the board I have also seen a change in land use with formerly grazed fields becoming fallow or cut for silage and more maize being grown. These changes are not good news for wildlife. Ditches alongside grazing marsh are often botanically rich as the action of animals grazing the channel opens up niches for wildlife while maize crops are often bad news next to rivers as after harvesting, the field is left with bare earth which can be washed into rivers in winter storms creating siltation issues which can lead to flooding.
Despite years of environmental subsidy schemes for farmers it seems that more needs to be done to tailor advise to farmers and put a healthy and wildlife rich countryside at the centre of farming policy not just tinker at the edges of farms and ignore the real issues.
However, the Internal Drainage Board are working to improve watercourses and this month I returned to Port Rill with volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership to finish installing woody debris in the channel. Fallen dead branches were pinned into place by the volunteers and should help create shallow marginal shelves along the edges of the channel while creating faster flow in the centre, cleaning gravels and creating oxygen rich water. This month we saw fish in this channel for the first time, a real testament to the volunteer’s efforts.
A month of river work finished with a survey of Pig Brook, another IDB managed channel which holds one of the last populations of White Clawed Crayfish. This native species is suffering through the spread of Crayfish plague spread from imported signal crayfish as well as pollution and silt covered gravels.
Earlier in the month I had given a talk to the drainage board’s contractors Rhino Plant on the importance of biosecurity and the need to check clean and dry equipment and spray with a specialised Iodine based spray when working on crayfish channels.
Pig Brook is an attractive channel set in parkland but more could be done to improve the stream for crayfish and connect it with the surrounding floodplain. Next month I hope to work on plans to enhance the river and allow the crayfish to thrive.
The dry conditions over the spring meant that it was not expected to be a bumper year for lapwing figures on the North Kent Marshes
but I am delighted to say that numbers of fledged birds have doubled on the farms I survey.
While not every farm saw success, then those that managed to hold water on the land into late May and June and have kept the vegetation short have seen a turnaround in their figures. The results show, that following the correct management regime, coupled with predator control can really make a difference.
Highlights for me were finding 13 fledged chicks, a flock of black tailed godwit and a spoonbill on one site early in the morning and having to return for an unheard of 5th visit to another site as more birds still seem to be born there every day.
Also this month I have worked on behalf of Natural England who are undertaking survey work as part of the preparations for the England Coastal Path. While I am in favour of raising awareness of the beauty and importance of our countryside I have concerns about increased access in sites where previously wildlife has been undisturbed.
So far it seems that the path is set to avoid particularly sensitive bird nesting areas in North Kent and I have been delighted to be undertaking marsh harrier surveys on Sheppey. Sitting on a hill for hours watching marsh harriers drift across the landscape and interact is so therapeutic it should be offered on the NHS as a remedy for stress.
The surveys, which are looking to identify nesting sites, will help inform the route of the path around this section of coastline.
At the end of the month I joined Natural England staff again for a training session on ditch surveys and wetland plant i.d. I have been undertaking ditch surveys for the River Stour IDB for 7 years so it was interesting to see how another organisation carries out the work and a useful refresher on plant i.d. before I go out to survey ditches next month.
May continued to be packed with breeding wader surveys on 13 farms across North Kent.
This year it seems that some of the farmers had really cracked it when it comes to water and grass management.
In what has been an exceptionally dry spring some farmers have managed to hold water onto their land and this, along with grazing meant that we saw birds breeding on sites where they hadn’t been in twenty years. Even sites which are located amid industry and powerlines can produce results if the management is right and the site of lapwings swooping amid a backdrop of supermarkets and car plants on Sheppey filled me with joy.
A tree with high potential as a bat roost
Josh and I also attended an excellent course on Bats and Aboriculture run by the Bats Conservation Trust in Richmond Park . Over two days we learnt about the law regarding tree work and bat roosts, how to identify bat signs and use an endoscope. Josh, a qualified aboriculturalist, and I hope to use this work Autumn to identify potential bat roosts and advise land owners on correct management.
In the middle of the month I spent a day out on Chislet Marshes with Rhino plant controlling parrot’s feather on behalf of the River Stour IDB. This invasive plant has colonised an extensive area of ditch on the marshes and will take many years to control. Due to the extensive water vole population management it is important to not remove too much marginal vegetation and, following extensive survey work and advice, it was felt that the best approach was a strong weed cut in the autumn with booms placed in the channel to prevent fragments floating downstream followed up with hand weed pulling on the margins throughout the spring and autumn.
A bird survey of the channel identified areas where it was safe for the guys to work and John Waller and team worked hard to remove each small fragment of the plant. Later this year I will be working with the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership volunteers to continue this work.
Lastly the KSCP volunteers did some excellent work at Port Rill where the IDB have undertaken enhancement work installing woody debris in the channel. This work was completed in the winter and the improvements have been excellent. A previously sluggish and silty channel has begun to assume a more natural profile with meanders and riffles forming and the wide berms are becoming colonised by a diverse range of plants. The volunteer team worked to install faggots and smaller woody debris to the existing berms to create more micro habitats of benefit to fish and aquatic invertebrates.