Still finding lots of these little fellas out on my farms. Well done to all the farmers in North Kent who are managing the land better than every before for these birds.
It is the last day of April and the country is being deluged with rain. Six weeks worth is due to fall in one day, the Met office tells me.
However, we have also seen some beautiful spring weather this month. The season seems to have accelerated with blossom and bluebells coming all at once.
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.
Another day, another bird survey but this morning it felt different. Yesterday, while undertaking a survey on a remote site with no public access, I had been watched through a telescope by a local birder. He took photos of me with a long lens and posted them on Twitter in the misguided belief I was doing my job incorrectly.
Of course I was upset by his attempt to discredit me but more than that I felt invaded. It made me feel vulnerable in a way that the isolation and the herds of cows and the occasional meeting with a shepherd or a gamekeeper never does.
People often ask me if I feel scared being in the countryside early in the morning on my own and I say truthfully that I never do. It is because to me the solitude is sanctuary and the occasional lone man I meet stops to have a friendly chat.
Now I feel watched, spied upon by a man with angry thoughts running through his head. I worry about the photos he took knowing that, a few minutes before he took the photo he had posted on twitter, I had pulled down my trousers and had a wee in the long grass. Did he take a photo of that too?
I sympathise with the desire to collect evidence to right some perceived wrong. I once took photos of an ecologist collecting dead lizards from a site after the bulldozers had been on but I took the photos openly and presented them to the local wildlife crime officer not posted them on social media for the person to be publicly tried without jury.
This morning out on another site at 6am I felt different. I wondered where he was, this man with his camera. Hiding behind a bush? Papping me from the windows of the Sheerness train? Watching me from a parked car? I crossed my legs when nature called and walked on, my solitude and privacy gone.
September and the weed cutting season for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board is well under way.
The banks and weed are cut every summer as part of the general maintenance programme and one of my key jobs is advising on the best cut to maintain the wildlife interest of the channel and work with the contractors Rhino Plant to advise on particular areas of importance such as management for white clawed crayfish.
This month I worked with the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership volunteers to tackle an invasive plant, Parrot’s feather, which has colonised ditches on Chislet marshes.
A small amount of this pond plant found its way into a roadside ditch and has spread quickly. Removing the plant needs to be sensitively managed so as not to cause disturbance or damage to other wildlife. Therefore spraying and vigorous weed cutting is not an option as both these methods would leave ditch edges bare of cover for other species.
Instead the River Stour IDB has approved a programme of mechanical weedcutting followed up by hand pulling of parrot’s feather from the margins. KSCP volunteers have already spent two days wading in the channel or paddling in boats as dragonflies buzz overhead.
An eagle eye is needed to spot the tiniest fragment of plant and a boom net has been installed to catch plants floating downstream. Despite their best attempts all involved know it will take many years of work to combat this plant.
Towards the middle of the month I attended an excellent course in wet grassland management run by the RSPB at their Otmoor reserve. Over two days I learnt about the precise needs of different waders and came away with lots of ideas to take out to farmers this autumn.
Simple changes such as rotovating foot drains can make a big difference and hopefully, by implementing these measures, we can continue to improve the fortunes of birds such as lapwings on the north Kent marshes.
Now all we need is a wet winter to top up the ditches and flood the grassland fields ready for the following spring.
The dry conditions over the spring meant that it was not expected to be a bumper year for lapwing figures on the North Kent Marshes
but I am delighted to say that numbers of fledged birds have doubled on the farms I survey.
While not every farm saw success, then those that managed to hold water on the land into late May and June and have kept the vegetation short have seen a turnaround in their figures. The results show, that following the correct management regime, coupled with predator control can really make a difference.
Highlights for me were finding 13 fledged chicks, a flock of black tailed godwit and a spoonbill on one site early in the morning and having to return for an unheard of 5th visit to another site as more birds still seem to be born there every day.
Also this month I have worked on behalf of Natural England who are undertaking survey work as part of the preparations for the England Coastal Path. While I am in favour of raising awareness of the beauty and importance of our countryside I have concerns about increased access in sites where previously wildlife has been undisturbed.
So far it seems that the path is set to avoid particularly sensitive bird nesting areas in North Kent and I have been delighted to be undertaking marsh harrier surveys on Sheppey. Sitting on a hill for hours watching marsh harriers drift across the landscape and interact is so therapeutic it should be offered on the NHS as a remedy for stress.
The surveys, which are looking to identify nesting sites, will help inform the route of the path around this section of coastline.
At the end of the month I joined Natural England staff again for a training session on ditch surveys and wetland plant i.d. I have been undertaking ditch surveys for the River Stour IDB for 7 years so it was interesting to see how another organisation carries out the work and a useful refresher on plant i.d. before I go out to survey ditches next month.