A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant June/July 2020

Like many people all over the world the beginning of June saw a rude awakening back into the world of work.

After months of suspended animation, when the biggest land management decision I had to make was whether to dead head the garden roses, I suddenly had a large 4×4 outside my house and a full list of surveys to undertake to see what had been happening to waders on the farms I work with in North Kent during my absence.

When I had left the farms in February the situation had never looked more promising. Super wet fields following the winter’s heavy rain fall and pairs of lapwing already vying for the choice spots. However, the spring, saw virtually no rain in the South East of England and, consequently, the essential wet, splashy fields and muddy margins had dried up.

wader footprints

The waders had been here but where were they now?

It may be that the optimum conditions of the early spring allowed birds to breed and fledge chick early on. Sadly we will never know. The lockdown suspended all farm visits. What was certain was that, by June, some of the farms that have previously recorded bumper crops of wader chicks were ominously quiet.

All was not lost. One of my smallest landowners had record numbers of fledged lapwing on his land, enjoying the magic recipe of old, insect rich grass and wet flushes and another farm near Conyer recorded it’s first confirmed breeding of redshank for many years.

redshank walking through long grass

However, what this year has taught us is the vital importance of holding winter rainfall on wet grassland into the spring months. Currently many farms look text book perfect in February but lose all their water by April just when wading birds need it.

Therefore I am delighted that two of the farmers I work with are currently applying for consent from Natural England to restore old wetland features like scrapes and rills on their land and create earth bunds that would stop rain water draining away into the ditch network. This is effectively reversing years of land drainage on the marshes and the fact that the farmers are willing to pay for the work themselves shows the new enthusiasm for environmentally friendly farming practices and the commitment of landowners to reverse the fortunes of wetland species.

July began by taking part in a feature on BBC South East News about the pointless destruction of Conyer Brickworks to make way for 24 luxury houses. The brickworks are one of the best places in Kent to hear nightingales and turtle doves (among our fastest declining species). It is unbelievable that destruction of a wildlife oasis could be allowed for such an ostentatious and wasteful project but our planning system is in a sad state with inappropriate developments blossoming like warts all over the place and local authorities powerless to stand in the way of the governments desire to build new houses instead of capping prices in inner cities and making use of empty properties.

mares tail and crassual near housing

mares tail and crassula are taking centre stage in this channel. 

Also this month we began work with the Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board. With 8 years experience of designing and delivering surveys for the Stour IDB and planning and delivering river restoration projects we were ideally placed to conduct some ditch surveys and advise on a interesting restoration project on a channel which had become clogged with mares tale and suffered from an infestation of the non native invasive species Crassula Helmsii or Australian Stonecrop.

Hopefully this will be the start of a new partnership with the IDB but, for now, it was great to have the opportunity to revive old skills and visit new land.

Returning to the world – A day in the life of an environmental consultant – June 2020

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photo copyright MLP

It is June the 1st, the blue tits have fledged, the first painted lady butterfly has passed my window and from tomorrow I am heading back out into the world to find out what has been happening during my absence.

 
For the last two months all survey work was stopped as we all locked down due to Coronavirus. At first, I admit, stopping my work seemed like madness. After all, it is hard to find a more isolated way to spend your day that in the middle of a field at the crack of dawn with only lapwing for company but then the virus wreaked havoc in my own life and all thought of work went out of my head.

 
For the last few months I have experienced my own personal tragedy due to coronavirus and, although surveys and spreadsheets were not on my mind, then nature continued to be the greatest solace in my life.

 
The bluebell woods were a place to escape to when the stress of dealing with my worst fears became almost too much to bare. The endless waves rolling in on the shoreline were a symbol of life endlessly renewing itself and the antics of the sparrows in my garden were the only thing that could raise a smile in the weeks afterwards.

 
Life has been very tough for so many people over the last few months but we have all been lucky to go through this at a time when new life and hope were evident on every walk. Let’s hope we have all seen the great benefit nature gives to us and how much we need it for our sanity and happiness.

 
I am pleased to report the farmers that I work with all sound healthy and chipper and keen to welcome me back out onto the land to grab the tail end of spring.

 
As my beloved father would say, “onwards and upwards.”

Talking Telescopes – A day in the life of an environmental consultant – January 2020

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photo courtesy of MLP

I love the work I do with farmers in the South East but sometimes it’s nice to mix it up, try something new or refresh my skills in other areas. I began working in conservation 25 years ago and found a way into the profession by using my Journalism and publicity skills before moving on to community projects.

 
It has been really interesting in January to work with Medway Council on their Talking Telescopes Project. This Heritage Lottery Funded project worked with visitors to the Strand, an enduringly popular Lido and Leisure facility which had originally been created on the River Medway in 1896.

 
The site encapsulates the history of British Lido’s, beginning with changing rooms converted from railway carriages and growing, during the 1930’s, to incorporate boating pools, putting greens, bandstands, and a miniature railway. As such, The Strand tells the story of British leisure time from the late 19th to the early 21st century and is the only surviving example of an outdoor saltwater swimming pool in Britain.

 
The Talking Telescopes team consisting of Medway Council, Medway Plus (a local charity) and Mid Kent College worked with students to capture memories from the areas heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s and made them accessible to today’s visitors through the medium of three Talking Telescopes.

 
talking telescope (2)The sturdy telescopes can be used to spy on the Medway Estuaries internationally important wildlife while providing an audio commentary of stories from the past. Two interpretation panels were also created and a well loved mural restored.

 
The role of assistant Matt Hawkins and myself was to evaluate the project. Online and face to face interviews were conducted. The HLF application was reviewed and visitors to the Strand were interviewed on site.

 
I’m pleased to say that the response to the new interpretation was overwhelmingly positive with one respondent calling it a “fitting tribute to ordinary people’s memories.” and another saying, “Before this project I looked at the Strand and felt it was dated, now I feel differently about it and see that the architecture is typical of the era and feel more positive and proud of the area. I imagine all the people who have used it in the past and feel I am part of this. It makes me more aware of the history of my local area and my role in it.”

 
It appears that this is a great example of Heritage Lottery Fund money being used to give people a real sense of pride in their local area.

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2019

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2019

very good redshank shotAutumn is well and truly upon us. Dark nights, high winds and waders arriving on our shores from further north, filling our estuaries with haunting calls.

I spent October feeding back the results of this spring’s breeding wader survey to farmers. Overall pair numbers were slightly up on 2018. Fledged chick numbers were down, although this probably doesn’t reflect the true situation on the ground, as the late arrival of chicks this year meant that it was very hard to accurately count them in the increasingly long vegetation.

Working with farmers is very much a two way process and I spend as much time listening to the farmer’s experience and their concerns as hopefully they spend listening to my advice about land management.

Along with them, I feel increasingly frustrated at the flaws in our current system of farming subsidies.

There are two types of subsidy that affect the farmers in my scheme. The Basic Payment Scheme, which pays farmers to actively use the land for agriculture and the various Countryside Stewardship Schemes, which pay farmers to manage the land for the benefit of wildlife.

But these two schemes often conflict, creating a minefield of unwieldy rules and a system where the government gives money for wildlife management with one hand but takes it away by penalising farmers for doing just that with the other.

This month I am trying to encourage farmers to manage the rills and scrapes on their land. Features which are a traditional part of wet grassland and vital for our breeding waders, in that they hold water for a couple of months of the year, allowing wader chicks to find food in the soft ground.

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Lapwing chicks need areas of wet soft mud in which to feed. 

Many of the rills on farmland were filled in during the past or have become too shallow to hold water during the spring months. Deepening them a little would allow them to hold water during the time when waders need them most.

The farmers have been great. Happy to agree to this work, partly because keeping the land wet in the spring is a vital part of their Countryside Stewardship Agreements. If they fail to do this they could be slapped with a hefty fine by the Rural Payments Agency, who oversees the grant system.

footdrain

More wet rills in spring mean more waders breeding but farmers are being penalised for creating them.

However, the same agency are penalising farmers for undertaking the very management that is expected of them. Farmers are being told that holding water in rills during the spring makes those areas of land ineligible for the Basic Payment Scheme and therefore they will receive less money.

The whole system is dogged by a lack of clarity. The RPA’s own rules claim that, “Flooded agricultural land is still eligible for BPS if the flooding is temporary and the land would otherwise still be available for agricultural activity.”

How then can they justify removing payment from farmers who have temporarily wet features on their land that are available for grazing for the majority of the year?

This lack of clarity, coupled with late payments and a lack of a human face to the organisation is directly resulting in less farmers signing up to Countryside Stewardship Schemes at a time when we really need farmers to get behind wildlife friendly management.

How can we ask farmers to do more for wildlife when they will lose money by doing so? Good will between conservationists and farmers is a fragile thing and has taken years to build up but our Government Agencies are threatening to destroy all the hard work that has been put in.

Our farm payment system is a mess, lacking clarity and common sense and until it is fixed then our wildlife will continue to suffer.

A day in the life on an environmental consultant – March 2018

1017883I’m sure that everyone in Britain is feeling that, this year, winter has gone on too long.

After the snow has come an endless series of cold, wet, grey days.

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. Attwood wader sign

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.

A day in the life of an environmental consultant – February 2018

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Graveney Marshes ideal for wintering wildfowl and waders

As I write the country is hit by icy temperatures.

Not quite down to the -40 degrees I experienced while working in the Arctic in 2013 but still enough to send us all scurrying to turn the heating on.

This surge in energy usage is threatening the countries supply of gas and will possibly lead to cries to allow increased fracking with all its attendant potential to damage our water supplies.

Alternative energy sources are, of course, part of the solution but like all developments they need to be appropriately sited.

At Langenhoe in Essex, the solar farm is situated on flat fields near the River Colne and Mersea Island. Each month I visit the site and conduct wetland bird surveys (Webs counts) on behalf of Brooks Ecological Services. The survey area is unexceptional and it is not possible for me to judge whether it was more valuable for wildlife before the solar farm was developed. Certainly the arable fields surrounding the site support huge flocks of wintering lapwing and golden plover and lots more could be done to improve the survey area for the benefit of these birds but, in this instance, my job is simply to record what is now there.

solar farm

No one doubts that solar energy plays a vital role in the fight against climate change. Equally no one can really argue that solar farms are ugly intrusions on the landscape. However, until now, the majority of solar farm developments have not attracted too much controversy.

Unfortunately that has now changed. In 2015 the Government withdrew it’s support for green energy and cut subsidies for solar farm developers. This meant that small solar farms were no longer financially viable and developers have reacted by putting in planning applications for mega farms.

Developers Hive Energy and Wirsol Energy are now proposing covering 900acres of Graveney Marshes outside Faversham in Kent with panels which would make it the biggest development in the country and five times bigger than any other solar farm to date.

skylark @neil smith at Flickr

skylarks are of high conservation concern. photo Neil Smith @ Flickr

The land, currently used by grazing wildfowl, is adjacent to Kent Wildlife Trust’s South Swale Reserve and the Trust fear that it would cause habitats to become fragmented, marooning wildlife in pockets of pristine habitat from which they couldn’t expand. There are also fears of the direct impact on wildlife from the change of land use. The fields are currently used by brent geese and widgeon in winter and skylarks and meadow pipits in summer, all birds of conservation concern which would lose out if these proposals were to go ahead.

It seems bizarre, at this time of unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change and mass housing development, that the Government is not creating legislation to force housing developers to install solar panels on new build roofs and insist supermarkets install them on warehouses, thereby making us all much more self sufficient in energy while at the same time make it easier for us to reduce our energy consumption by helping people properly insulate their homes.

clive tackles PF

volunteer removes parrot’s feather from channel

Away from working on solar farms I revisited Wademarsh channel on Chislet marshes where volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership had spent the autumn clearing around 500m of channel infested with parrot’s feather.

It was heartening to see the positive impact of their work with only small amounts of the plant remaining. The work is only just beginning though as most of the 6km channel is still infested. Monitoring will now take place throughout the summer and the volunteers will continue their good work this autumn.

field 4 rotovating around wet splashLastly, work has begun again with farmers in North Kent as part of the Breeding Wader project. After the winter rains lots of the land is holding water better than in previous years and improvements to rills and scrapes carried out using money from the North Kent Capital Grant Scheme has created bare earth ideal for lapwings.

Just before the snow hit I witnessed my first pair of lapwing displaying on the wind blasted shores of the Thames. Let’s hope the current icy blast doesn’t effect our wildlife too badly and there will be plenty of birds to breed this spring.

I for one am keeping bird feeders topped up and the bird bath unfrozen

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.

 

This is Brownfield

Bakersfield, the brownfield site at the end of my road which was home to hedgehogs, little owls, nightingales, lizards, snakes and turtle doves have been destroyed. I tried to stop it, I couldn’t, but the fact that I tried, helps. Please watch this video and write to McCulloch Homes and Bioscan to condemn their actions.