Alone on the Marshes – A day in the life of an environmental consultant – March 2020

land check studd feb 2020

Enjoying the solitude while surveying on the marshes.

At the beginning of March few of us could foresee how rapidly life would change for us all.

Indeed for much of the month my work carried on as normal. Visiting sites, talking about land management and anticipating a great spring of wader surveys with the land looking wetter than ever.

At times this month I have thanked my lucky stars at having a job where social isolation is the norm. In fact I have often felt that in order to do much of my job you have to be someone very good at dealing with your own company as I spend long days on my own on the marshes with only the sheep to talk to.

 
As the month progressed and the impact of the virus on everyone’s life became apparent I still felt that, in my working world at least, I was immune. Right up until the lock down I was spending days wandering fields with skylarks singing overhead and the waves crashing on the shore of the Thames.

 
Out there, in the fields, life felt normal and panic buying and worries over the health of loved ones seemed many miles away. I have been extremely grateful for every moment out on site this month.

checking for water voles at keith studdI have also been very grateful to keep working. Throughout March I have been working with Natural England on a fabulous project undertaking assessments on designated sites across North Kent. Most of the sites have RAMSAR, SPA and SSSI status and my role was to visit sites and update the assessment.

 
This involved looking at the general condition of the land for wintering and breeding wildfowl and waders, undertaking a search for water vole signs and testing water quality for nitrates and phosphates.

 
Most of the sites were well known to me through my work on the North Kent Marshes Breeding Wader project but I also had the opportunity to visit one or two totally new sites which was a real treat and gave me an insight into how many areas would be suitable for breeding waders given the right advice and management.

 
Luckily all the site visits were completed before the lockdown and the last two weeks have been spent indoors busily typing up the results.
snipe on cooling marshNormally being stuck indoors on a laptop as spring progresses outside would drive me mad but, with travel restricted, even this has given me the opportunity to walk the marshes, if only in my mind. At times the sad news of rising death tolls has been forgotten as in my head I spotted snipe in the rushes or warily eyed the cattle in the next field.

 
With the opportunity for undertaking my normal survey work currently looking remote I will remember those moments this spring and look forward to a time when I can get back out into the fields again

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 – May 2017

Carol instructing on frappingMay 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.

a tree with high potential as a bat roost

A tree with high potential as a bat roost

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 plantJW and Jamie removing parrot's feather 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.
Peter and clive with bermLastly 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.

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.

 

 

A Year in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – May

Josh bird watching on Stoke Marshes

Josh Bartel surveys Stoke Marshes near the Isle of Grain.

The peak of the breeding season saw us visiting farms across North Kent to monitor breeding waders. Along with monitoring numbers of lapwing, redshank, oystercatchers, snipe and yellow wagtails, we also recorded the fledgling productivity of lapwing chicks. Detailed notes were made on the sward condition, grazing regime and the amount of water laying on the fields. This information is used to better understand the ideal management for waders on both grassland and arable sites and to inform advice given to landowners to ensure that farms receiving stewardship payments attract breeding birds and that chicks have the best chance of successfully fledging.

The project is a follow on from the work started through the Nature Improvement Area (NIA), and is a partnership between NE and the RSPB.

This month we also worked with the Environment Agency and the River Stour Internal Drainage Board to advise on management of a small river called the Sarre Penn, which runs close to the village of Chislet outside of Canterbury.

Sarre Penn © Copyright Marathon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Sarre Penn © Copyright Marathon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The channel experiences high winter flows and we discussed possible ways of managing this alongside enhancing the channel for wildlife. Options included reconnecting the channel with the floodplain and creating a two tier channel using woody debris to create pools and riffles which will create more diversity and opportunities for aquatic invertebrates.

The next stage is discussing the options with the landowner and undertaking a water vole survey, only then can we make decisions on the best way forward.

Lastly we undertook a bird survey for the Medway Swale Estuary Partnership at Hillyfields Community Park in the centre of Gillingham. We discovered that this remnant of old orchard and open fields is home to 16 species of birds, including coal tit and mistle thrush along with abundant blackcap, chiffchaff and wren.

Hillyfields Orchard © Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Hillyfields Orchard © Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This shows how important our small urban green spaces are for wildlife. Unfortunately many of these sites are currently under threat by developers looking to exploit the current relaxation of planning laws. Our towns and cities will be poorer places if these wildlife rich sites are deemed to be unimportant and swept away.

A Year in the life of an Environmental Consultant – March update.

March 2016 – A World of Water Voles

barry

The month of March has been choca block full of water vole. Work to improve a pump house on a watercourse managed by the Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board involved widening a drainage ditch which survey work had revealed held a small population of water vole. Due to the length of the channel trapping was the only option.

Working with Derek Gow Consultancy, traps were set along the channel and checked morning and evening for 15 days. After 5 days with no water vole signs the site was declared clear and the ditch banks were scraped of vegetation using a destructive bank technique overseen by ecologists.

Josh Bartel check a trap

Josh Bartel sets a trap

setting water vole traps on steep banks involves good balance!

setting water vole traps on steep banks involves good balance!

Legislation involving water voles has recently been reviewed. Where only small sections of bank are to be effected by works then displacement is sometime a better option than trapping. This involves strimming banks to bare earth in order to encourage voles to move to new territories. Until recently their was much uncertainty about the success of this technique and it was used widely and at varying times of years as a cheaper and less invasive option to trapping. Under Natural England’s new guidelines it will be necessary to hold a displacement licence to carry out this technique and work will only be able to take place during the early spring.

The new guidelines provide welcome clarification for a practice which was previously open to interpretation and the emphasis on an overall conservation benefit from the work should hopefully make it harder for developers to destroy quality habitats and replace it with inadequate and overstocked translocation sites. More work needs to be done with follow up monitoring to ensure translocation does not result in a net loss of protected species.

To ensure we are up to date with procedure we finished the month with staff training in water vole handling techniques at Wildwood in Kent.