6am Sheppey. No bird survey today in this pea souper. Heading back to bed.
6am Sheppey. No bird survey today in this pea souper. Heading back to bed.
For all of you not getting up at 5am to do dawn bird surveys here is a photo to show you what you’re missing.
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.
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.
I’m not saying it’s always good. When, for instance, you’re standing in the rain on a ratty bit of grassland, surrounded by industry and it is 6am and this is the 6th, 6am start of the week and you’re trying to spot lapwing through the drizzle. Then it’s not so good.
Sometimes though it catches you. The incredible, unlikely, luck of it all. That of all the people in the world going to work this morning you have somehow managed to score this job.
A job in which you fly across the Sheppey bridge and the Swale is laid out like glass and all the mist is rising from the fields and relishing in the growing warmth of the morning. Puffs of dandelion heads are backlit by the sun and your job, YOUR JOB, is to walk five miles across farmland watching nature go about it’s business.
Watching linnets gather on fence lines, swallow buzz the grass for insects, a yellow wagtail throw itself at a short eared owl and yell, ‘clear off.’
Your job is to hear cuckoos and watch hares calmly lollop towards you eyeing you with a yellow eye. Then, on morning’s such as this, it feels like the world is yellow. And the yellow rape, the yellow reed, the yellow sun and the yellow eye are all through your lucky yellow life.
This morning, Sunday morning, I stood on the marshes and became a vegetarian. I had given up meat for Lent as I give up something every year. One year I gave up conflict, another alcohol, another unrequited lust and this year it was meat, but Lent was over and I could go back on the bacon sarnies if I chose.
It was 7am. I had already been up for two hours doing a bird survey, a bacon sarnie seemed like a good idea but then I watched a group of ten sheep playing, not lambs mind you, but adult sheep. Up and down the salt mounds they went, bucking and head butting, having fun amidst the peace of a Sunday morning beneath the skylarks. They were a gang, mates, friends and soon, I feared, they would be herded into a truck with their mates, driven along a motorway, corralled into a yard full of fear and shot in the head.
I am not a sentimentalist. Working out in the country you see distressing scenes all the time. Things suffer, things die, things get eaten, nature is hard. But I am a thinking animal. I know friendship and fun and larks when I see it and I knew on this Sunday morning that lamb was off the menu.
It’s been an incredibly busy month as we prepare for the start of the survey season. The month began with a survey of channels on Chislet marshes for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. We spent a day plotting the extent of the invasive species parrot’s feather which has unfortunately found its way into the ditch system. If left untreated the plant will shade out our native flora, clog structures and block sunlight from the water which will de-oxygenate it and lead to a loss in aquatic invertebrates.
“This is a particularly difficult situation,” said Carol. “The plant has spread rapidly and colonised a large area of the marshes. It is entwined with marginal vegetation along ditches which are a water vole stronghold. The challenge is to find a way of removing the plant while acting sensitively towards other species.”
To deal with this challenge Carol has sought advice from the Environment Agency and Andrea Griffiths, Senior Partnership Officer at Medway Valley Countryside Partnership, who has extensive experience at dealing with invasive species.
“Partnership working is really useful for issues such as this as we can all draw on each other’s experience to achieve a good result.”
The plant was quite possibly unintentionally introduced to the waterways by a member of the public, who may have been tipping excess frog spawn from a garden pond. Unfortunately this has resulted in years of expensive work for others.
On a brighter note we are delighted with the progress of many of the farms we visited this month as part of our advisory work on breeding waders.
Farmers have really taken on board the advice given in the autumn and have performed miracles in making grassland wet in what has been a very dry year. Topping and improved grazing regimes has resulted in much better sward conditions and many farmers have signed up to the funding available from the North Kent Capital Grant Scheme, administered by Kent Wildlife Trust.
Now we are all keeping our fingers crossed for good weather conditions this spring so the hard work can produce tangible results in the form of more wader chicks successfully fledged in North Kent.
Lastly we were delighted to work once again with volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership in order to improve a small, urban stream in Canterbury, managed by the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. This rather sad little channel was full of litter, carelessly thrown by passing motorists and had become dark and shady in some sections and overly managed by neighbouring business’s in others.
Over two days the volunteers cleared around forty bags of litter from the channel, cut back overhanging trees and planted 100 colourful wetland plants outside the Mercedes Garage on Sturry Road. Many thanks to Mercedes for providing drinks and sweets. Serco for removing the litter but mostly to the excellent volunteers who it is always a joy to work with.
Find out about one of the many exciting projects I am working on in my role as an environmental consultant for Carol J Donaldson Associates.
At the end of our second year of work on breeding waders for Natural England and the RSPB in North Kent it is time to reflect on what has been achieved so far.
In 2015 we completed a baseline survey of seven farms across North Kent and began the initial process of meeting farmers and finding out how the land under breeding wader stewardship options was managed.
In 2016 we added a further six farms to our survey work and visited all thirteen farms three times in the breeding season to count pairs and fledged chicks. Numbers of pairs rose from 67 to 73 and, most importantly, productivity was up from 0.13 to 0.19. It is definitely a step in the right direction but a long way short of where we want to be with lapwing numbers in North Kent.
Overall, most of the farmland was in much better condition for waders this year, with far improved levels of standing water on the fields. Grass, however, continued to get too long, preventing the all round visibility needed. A warm winter, coupled with supply issues with graziers and a need to increase stocking densities meant that many sites were overly long again by May.
This Autumn our work to improve management was given a boost through the North Kent Capital Grant Scheme. This funding, administered by Kent Wildlife Trust, comes from the building of the Sittingbourne Relief Road and can be used to enhance the habitat of the North Kent Marshes.
Farmers enthusiastically took up this opportunity and applied for funding to create scrapes, improve water control and manage ditches. If their bids are successful it will have a really positive impact on the land for wading birds and this should reflect in the figures of next years survey.
Throughout the Autumn and Winter we have been busy visiting all the farmers under the HLS scheme, offering tailored advice to each plot of land and feeding back issues to Natural England.
I sense that this personal approach has resulted in a new positivity and determination from many farmers to improve their results. Many farmers genuinely want to manage the land to benefit wildlife as long as it does not conflict with making a living from farming and food production. These two aims can work in harmony.
I very much hope that 2017 will be a breakthrough year for many of the farmers we work with and look forward to being out in the fields again in the spring.
June 2016 – And the rain just kept on falling
In June it felt as if the rain would never stop as we battled to complete this year’s breeding wader survey, dodging showers and driving vehicles across sodden marshland fields.
The weather has hampered efforts to create ideal conditions for birds such as lapwing. A warm winter saw grass continue to grow and landowners struggle to create the short sward with tussocks that encourages birds to breed, This coupled with a cold early spring and rain late in the breeding season has meant that it has been a difficult year for wet grassland birds. Despite all of this, numbers of fledged birds were up on last year and it was fantastic to see that many farmers with breeding wader environmental stewardship options had taken on board the advice given during the autumn and that overall land was in better condition.
A new North Kent Marshes Capital Grants Scheme, administered by Kent Wildlife Trust, is a welcome investment and should help farmers have better control of water and the opportunity to create new scrapes and rills which will encourage more birds to breed. The RSPB, who oversee this work in partnership with Natural England, are pleased with the progress that has been made so far and we all look forward to seeing numbers of fledged chicks increase next season.
In June we were delighted to receive the news that the River Stour (Kent) Internal Drainage Board had voted to continued to work with Carol J Donaldson Associates and implement a plan of future work which we proposed to the board last year. This expanded programme will see us continue to survey drainage ditches across the catchment and advise on management but additionally will allow us to work with farmers to tackle problems such as diffuse pollution and soil run off as well as work alongside IDB staff to create a programme of enhancements to channels which will improve their value for wildlife and reduce flood risk.
We will also be working closely with the Environment Agency on joint initiatives to manage and enhance main river channels. To begin this work we undertook a water vole survey on the Sarre Penn, a small channel near Chislet outside of Canterbury. Following new guidelines issued by Natural England for water vole displacement we will return to this channel later in the year to conduct a second survey before deciding on appropriate enhancements.
It started with a sunrise and it ended with a rainbow. After approximately 30 dawn starts I finished this seasons breeding wader survey today.
As I crawled out of bed at 4.30am this morning I admit I thought, ‘Thank God, last time.’ The sky was loaded with rain, the early morning drivers aggressive and insane, it started raining the moment I entered the site and I was faced with the task of weaving my way across 22 fields intersected with a maze of dykes and populated by overly confident cows.
I stood waist high in the grass in the rain and still I was happy to be out. To see spring unfurl, to spot burnet moths sheltering in the grass and the carmine flowers of grass vetchling. To hear the curlews calling out on the mudflats of the Thames, to marvel at the glow of an egret against a sky so low and leaden you could feel the weight above .
This evening I visited my last site, a series of meadows down by Capel Fleet on the isle of Sheppey, the rain returned but so did the sun and a rainbow appeared above the sheep. These damp and insect rich fields were a joy of bobbing banana coloured yellow wagtails. Oystercatchers fluted my arrival, marsh harriers twirled in mid air dropping their yellow legs to snatch at unwary birds. A rush of young starlings overhead signalled the change of season.
Spring is over, the wading birds I watch have, for the main, either succeeded or failed in the yearly quest to raise young. The lapwings have fledged and tomorrow I can sleep in.
April 2016 – Up with the lark.
April marked the start of this years breeding wader surveys on farms across North Kent. The survey has now been extended to 12 farms stretching from the Hoo Peninsula, across the Isle of Sheppey to Conyer near Faversham. Throughout the next few months we will walk all the sites twice, concentrating on areas with potential for birds such as lapwings, redshank, oystercatchers and yellow wagtails and follow up with a survey conducted by vehicle in June in order to look for chicks. A further survey may be carried out in July. The survey follows on from advisory sessions carried out during the autumn and spring to discuss how to get the best out of each site. Advisory sessions concentrate on getting the grazing and water management right and tackling predation.
This work is part of a long term collaboration between Natural England, The RSPB, Carol J Donaldson Associates and the farmers but, after one season of advisory work we are beginning to see some results. Overall the land is in better condition for breeding waders and, although there is still lots of room for improvement then we have been delighted by the good will and effort which some farmers have gone to improve things.
The cold weather which began the spring will not have done early breeding birds any favours but we are hopeful that numbers of fledged chicks will be up on last years results.
Dawn starts and long walks dominated this month but we did take time out to work with the Bredhurst Woods Action Group to install barriers to prevent illegal trespass off the byway which runs through the woods. It was a welcome change to spend time in this beautiful bluebell woodland after the exposure of the marshes and the baked potatoes for lunch were very welcome.