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
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
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.
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.
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.
Through 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.
Redshank 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.