Farming Advice expanding to new areas. A Day in the life of an environmental consultant. December 2019

carlton marshes

Carlton Marshes – Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Happy New Year everyone.
This coming year looks set to be exciting as I expand my work with the farming community in North Kent and travel further afield to give advice to similar projects on the best approach to farming advisory work.
Back in November I visited a fabulous piece of land at Cooling Marshes on the Hoo Peninsula and enjoyed an exhilarating 4×4 trip with one of the owners of the land. We were there to look at potential plans to restore the marshes to create a fabulous wetland for some of our beleaguered wading birds.

The area,  is in a prime location on the Thames and could be a key part in the jigsaw to make the whole of the Hoo Peninsula work to benefit wildlife.

Expanding my work with farmers is something I am really keen to do. As I told a recent conference “In my opinion there is not a shortage of farmers willing to manage their land to benefit wildlife. There is only a shortage of money to pay for my time to offer them advice.”

This is potentially something that can be changed in the future with the coming of the new Agriculture Bill, which seeks to redress the subsidy system and pay farmers based on what ‘public goods’ they offer. These ‘goods’ are things like clean air and water, healthy soils and benefits for wildlife. The farmers I work with seem broadly positive about this but also want to be producing food and hope that the market will pay them a fair price for the food they produce and they won’t be undercut by cheap, badly produced food coming in from other parts of the world.

One thing I know for sure is that, if any subsidy system is going to work, then it needs to include money for advisors to encourage and support farmers and make sure they are managing the land in the best way to get the results the subsidies are paying for. It is no use just giving a farmer a long list of things they ‘must’ do and expecting them to get on with it. The right kind of support offered by the right kind of people can make all the difference.

This is what I travelled to Lowestoft to tell the
Suffolk Wader StrategySuffolk Wader Strategy group  at the end of November. I was also there to learn about the plans for Suffolk Wildlife Trust site of Carlton Marshes. Staff from the RSPB, IDB and Suffolk Wildlife Trust listened as I told them my recipe for success when it comes to advising farmers on habitat management.
As an independent consultant I was very flattered to be asked to give my advice to a room full of experts and wanted to deliver a talk which was of practical use. One of the most important things, I told the group, is to approach farmers in the right way. Being down to earth and straight talking is important as is the ability to hold your ground when necessary. As one of the my farmers recently told me “Success with farmers in North Kent is all down to the personnel.” Getting the right people in these roles and giving them the time to build relationships makes all the difference when asking farmers to change management practices.
The visit to Suffolk was also a great chance for me to hear about wader work outside of Kent and network with others involved in exciting projects such as Carlton Marshes. Sharing experiences is all important for learning what works and what doesn’t and hearing about new approaches.
We need our farming community on board if we are ever to reverse the declines in wildlife in our country and if my advice can help others to work positively with farmers then I will always be willing to help.

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2019

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2019

very good redshank shotAutumn is well and truly upon us. Dark nights, high winds and waders arriving on our shores from further north, filling our estuaries with haunting calls.

I spent October feeding back the results of this spring’s breeding wader survey to farmers. Overall pair numbers were slightly up on 2018. Fledged chick numbers were down, although this probably doesn’t reflect the true situation on the ground, as the late arrival of chicks this year meant that it was very hard to accurately count them in the increasingly long vegetation.

Working with farmers is very much a two way process and I spend as much time listening to the farmer’s experience and their concerns as hopefully they spend listening to my advice about land management.

Along with them, I feel increasingly frustrated at the flaws in our current system of farming subsidies.

There are two types of subsidy that affect the farmers in my scheme. The Basic Payment Scheme, which pays farmers to actively use the land for agriculture and the various Countryside Stewardship Schemes, which pay farmers to manage the land for the benefit of wildlife.

But these two schemes often conflict, creating a minefield of unwieldy rules and a system where the government gives money for wildlife management with one hand but takes it away by penalising farmers for doing just that with the other.

This month I am trying to encourage farmers to manage the rills and scrapes on their land. Features which are a traditional part of wet grassland and vital for our breeding waders, in that they hold water for a couple of months of the year, allowing wader chicks to find food in the soft ground.

lapwing and chick at phil barlings 1

Lapwing chicks need areas of wet soft mud in which to feed. 

Many of the rills on farmland were filled in during the past or have become too shallow to hold water during the spring months. Deepening them a little would allow them to hold water during the time when waders need them most.

The farmers have been great. Happy to agree to this work, partly because keeping the land wet in the spring is a vital part of their Countryside Stewardship Agreements. If they fail to do this they could be slapped with a hefty fine by the Rural Payments Agency, who oversees the grant system.

footdrain

More wet rills in spring mean more waders breeding but farmers are being penalised for creating them.

However, the same agency are penalising farmers for undertaking the very management that is expected of them. Farmers are being told that holding water in rills during the spring makes those areas of land ineligible for the Basic Payment Scheme and therefore they will receive less money.

The whole system is dogged by a lack of clarity. The RPA’s own rules claim that, “Flooded agricultural land is still eligible for BPS if the flooding is temporary and the land would otherwise still be available for agricultural activity.”

How then can they justify removing payment from farmers who have temporarily wet features on their land that are available for grazing for the majority of the year?

This lack of clarity, coupled with late payments and a lack of a human face to the organisation is directly resulting in less farmers signing up to Countryside Stewardship Schemes at a time when we really need farmers to get behind wildlife friendly management.

How can we ask farmers to do more for wildlife when they will lose money by doing so? Good will between conservationists and farmers is a fragile thing and has taken years to build up but our Government Agencies are threatening to destroy all the hard work that has been put in.

Our farm payment system is a mess, lacking clarity and common sense and until it is fixed then our wildlife will continue to suffer.

A day in the life of an environmental consultant – July/August 2019

A day in the life of an environmental consultant – July/August 2019

wader footprints

More waders than ever before bred on North Kent Farms this year.

July and August are quieter times for much of our wildlife in Britain. The frenzy of the breeding season is over and many birds hide away in order to moult while others, such as the cuckoo, leave our shores for another year.

For me, the breeding season finally ended mid July, later than ever before. It was a long season but while there are still unfledged birds then I will continue to go out and survey in order to get a result that adequately portrays the situation on each individual farm.

Sometimes, I will freely admit, that accuracy is difficult. By July, vegetation, such as rush, has grown long and trying to spot cryptically coloured balls of fluff requires patience, knowledge and more than a dash of good fortune.

Still, finally the 4×4 (minus an aerial and a number place, both casualties of rough off road driving) was returned, the results were analysed and the maps of breeding pairs delivered to the RSPB.

why I need off road tyres

The 4×4 suffered a little this spring

With one eye on the plans for wetland restoration work, I then turned my attention to water vole surveys. On a blistering hot day I donned my neoprene waders and assistant, Matthew Hawkins and I, headed to the Isle of Grain to survey a rill on behalf of Kent Wildfowlers Association, Wild spaces project.

Matt surveying channel

Matt Hawkins surveys a channel on a blistering hot day.

Water voles and their burrows are protected by law. While it is possible to displace water vole under particular circumstances it is often better for the animal and cheaper for the client to find an alternative solution.

Signs indicated that water vole were using the rill and that a healthy population existed in nearby burrow systems. Therefore it was decided to leave the banks of this particular feature untouched and instead focus restoration works on other parts of the site. Hopefully a win win situation for water voles and birds on the reserve.

July also saw me undertaking voluntary swift surveys for the UK Swift Inventory. This RSPB initiative aims to record the locations of breeding swifts in order to help planning officers protect their nests if the sites is developed.

Next month my attentions will turn back to the farmland as I begin my autumn visits to discuss how our waders did this summer with the farmers.

To enable me to visit more farms, the RSPB have launched a fundraising campaign which will directly fund the North Kent Marshes Breeding Wader Project which I have run for 5 years. Farming advice works. I know it. Six times as many lapwing chicks now survive to fledge on farmland in North Kent than when I started. You can’t argue with that.

I don’t want to tread water with this project I want to do more and I can only do that if there is funding to send me out to more land and more farms. I really believe that this work can make a fundamental difference for our birds.

If you would like to donate to the project then please contact Bonnie Metherell at the RSPB Bonnie.Metherell@rspb.org.uk or call 01273 763626

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.

 

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.