Lamb is off the menu

Lamb is off the menu

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.

A Year in the life of an environmental consultant – March 2017, Getting ready for spring.

glowing gang with litter

Volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership glow with pride at their morning’s work.

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.

parrots feather in wademarsh autumn 2016

invasive parrot’s feather growing on Chislet Marshes

 

“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.

 

volunteers cleaning litter March 2017

volunteers removing litter from the channel.

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.

 

Update on North Kent Breeding Wader project.

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.

By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.Wood rill April 2016

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.

A Year in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – June 2016

June 2016 – And the rain just kept on falling

surveying birds on Stoke Marshes during a break in the weather

surveying birds on Stoke Marshes during a break in the weather

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.

Rills such as this one near Conyer provide good habitat for breeding waders

Rills such as this one near Conyer provide good habitat for breeding waders

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.

water vole surveys are best conducted from within the channel.

water vole surveys are best conducted from within the channel.

 

 

Spring is over

rainbow and sheep

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.

A Year in the life of an Environmental Consultant – April

April 2016 – Up with the lark.

dawn on a farm on Sheppey

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.very neat fire at Bredhurst Wood

volunteers at Bredhurst Woods

A walk to Yantlet Creek

yantlet 6 creek

Yantlet Creek looking towards the London Stone and the Thames

Just finished the first round of dawn bird surveys. Even at 6am on a barren grassland with an Arctic wind flying along the Thames then I know that this job is a privilege. I see isolated bays and sunrises, the sharp light of dawn, hunting marsh harriers and a world with only me and the skylarks awake.

Tuesday I walked the sea wall at Yantlet Creek on the Thames Estuary. The bay at the creek mouth was deserted apart from me and a big dog fox who bounded off in puppy leaps but was overcome with curiosity every few steps, stopping to turn back and judge me. Deciding I was harmless, he stopped to shake himself sending a shower of droplets into the air, an eiderdown on dew sent skywards.

I walked down to the memorial stone marking the entrance to the bay. When I came here many years ago there had been a plaque commemorating the death of a young boy who had drowned in the bay, now all that was left was a green stain where the copper plaque had been lifted by thieves, for its scrap value no doubt.

yantlet 1  memorial stone

memorial stone

 

I sat down for second breakfast, coffee and muller rice and watched the moon fade and an egret fishing the shallows. The trails of water reaching the creek wriggled their way across the mud like blood vessels across the brain. There were birds in the bay, redshank, oystercatchers, godwit, a whole flock of knot peppering the water with their wing beats but none on the land I had come here to survey.

That is where my real work begins, not on these dawn walks to count birds, that part is easy, the real work is in enthusing a farmer to make the changes that are needed to create land suitable for these birds to breed.

An easy jet plane flew over the gas container storage depot out on the Isle of Grain and I felt myself slip through a wormhole in time. The marshes, the bays do not seem of this century and, in them, I become not of this century. Slipping into a world of Bawley boats and labour on the land and gentleman naturalists heading out with butterfly nets.

Despite its fragility the world I occupy seems more solid. If the industry and the aeroplane vanish, as one day they will, the bays will remain and part of me will remain in them as having attempted to create an alchemy of land and water and wildlife, the bones of life, onto which the 21st century’s imposition seems tinny and temporary.

yantlet 2 sea pursulane in flower

Yantlet Creek looking towards the London Stone and the Thames

 

Second breakfast finished I continued on my way past the saltmarsh towards the head of the creek where two black backed gulls guarded an ancient dock demanding tolls from all who dared to pass.