The great big, beautiful wet. A day in the life of an environmental consultant. February 2020

Winter survey outfit

Extra layers were needed for survey work in February

Can you remember a wetter winter?

I certainly can’t and that seems to be the general consensus among the farmers I work with in North Kent.

At times it seems to have rained continuously since the autumn with crop sowing affected and some crops rotting in the fields. February was officially the wettest on record.

 
Last month I seemed to spend every day battling through high winds across exposed marshes and wading knee deep through mud as I tried to navigate my way through farm gates. At times this job feels like an army assault course but, at other times, I stand in a field in the middle of nowhere and watch flocks of starlings pierce the sky or skeins of geese descend and the only sound is the skylarks and the curlews. Then I know how lucky I am.

picturesque sheep and wet field 3 feb 2020
Out on the marshes the fields are sodden and surface water is everywhere. This is exactly the conditions loved by waders who have already begun pairing up and establishing territories on some of the sites I work on.

 
It has been a great month to get out and see where water naturally lies on the land to help inform the wetland restoration plans on many farms but unfortunately much of this water will be lost by mid Spring, just as the chicks are born and the birds need it most.

 
In the long term there are plans for installing better water control on farms but, at the moment, the way to ensure lapwing and redshank chicks survive to fledging is to keep the land wet by pumping water into scrapes and hollows during the spring.

 
Many farmers are happy to do this and have to keep the land wet to comply with their Stewardship Agreements, however, they are increasingly angry at being penalised for trying to do the right thing.

 
Until recently farmers pumping water on their land for the benefit of wetland species were exempt from having an Abstraction Licence issued by the Environment Agency, then, for no apparent reason, this exemption was removed. Many farmers were angry at having to pay out more money for doing something they were obliged to do and received no direct financial benefit for doing.

feb 2020 field behind field 4

 
Why couldn’t things stay as they were? It seems that Government organisations love to tinker. One minute farmers were exempt, then they weren’t. Next minute I am told by one Government department to urgently let all farmers know that, if their land is within a designated site, a RAMSAR or SPA they are now exempt. Then I am told by another department that this is not the case. They may be exempt but no one seems quite sure. It is a crazy system, where the legislation has got so weighty that no one can get to the bottom of it.

 
It is a system that is eroding the good will of farmers, sending me round in circles and worst of all having disastrous consequences for wildlife as some farmers are now saying that they won’t pump water on the land at all this year as they fear being fined for doing so.

 
I can envisage that this will be the shape of things for the next few years as the Government attempts, through the Agricultural Bill, to work out just what it wants our farming community to do.

 
Meanwhile, this year, the birds may have a little respite as sodden fields take time to dry out and conditions on many farms look good for the breeding season ahead.

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 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.

The times they are a changing, but I, it seems, am not.

girl on swingWhen I was a little girl I sat on the swing in my parents garden and composed a letter to Margaret Thatcher. In it I laid out my solutions to end the Falklands War and stop unemployment.

I had worked out that these were the major issues of the day from watching the 6 O’clock News, which was almost a religious ritual in my parents house as we were forced to maintain absolute silence during it. In return for my advice, I wished Mrs Thatcher to give me the British Isles, which I would then turn into a nature reserve.

I don’t think I had worked out the finer details of my scheme or where the population would go but I was sure these things could be cleared up over a debate or two. I wrote my letter and my dad suggested I post it to Chequers, as it was the summer holidays and he thought that was where she would be. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Thatcher never replied.

Today, thirty something years later, I am at it again. Writing to a member of the House of Lords who I met earlier in the year to ask for a meeting with Michael Gove so I can discuss reform of Environmental Stewardship and the Agricultural Bill.

This time I have formulated my ideas based on years of working with farmers and stewardship in North Kent and am not asking to be given the country in return…. or maybe I am. Agricultural land makes up about 77% of the British Isles and if that 77% worked not only to grow food but to contribute to clean water, healthy soils, public access and increased biodiversity then maybe I could get the countrywide nature reserve I desired all those years ago.

Still, I am laughing at myself, as I send it, at my belief that I have the answer and those in power should listen. I am still, in many ways, that little girl on the swing and I still stand back and cheer her on.

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.