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.

A year in the life of an environmental consultant – February 2016

water and grazing machines. The key ingredients in encouraging lapwing.

water and grazing machines. The key ingredients in encouraging lapwing

February Fill Dyke is written into farming law. If your ditches are not full of water in February, so the saying goes, then it’s unlikely they will be. Full dykes, wet fields, short grass, that was what we were looking for as we returned to the farms receiving stewardship funding to manage the land for the benefit of breeding waders.

After a winter of meeting landowners and working with  Natural England and the RSPB it was heartening to see how good the majority of sites were looking. Wet splashes and tussocky grass lead to insect rich pasture which should attract and support more breeding birds this spring.

It is six weeks until the survey season starts but, due to the positive attitude of the farmers and the flexibility of Natural England and the RSPB, who are supporting this project, then things are looking hopeful.

February is also a traditional time of year to do hedgelaying. A weekend training course run by Alan Sage of AJS Crafts gave all those taking part an appreciation of the sheer physicality and skill needed to create a well laid hedge. Although mainly now used for decoration, hedge laying produces a stock proof barrier and can be cost affective as, once laid, the hedge can be left unmanaged for 15 years. They are also an asset to the countryside which is more than can be said for the ugly, split, flailed hedges that line our country roads at this time of year.

carol hedgelaying

freshly pleached hedge. Cutting the hedge in this way allows new shoots to grow.

hillers binding

The hedge is staked and woven with long flexible rods known as binders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The month finished by working with Oxney Land Services on Iwade Stream. Funded by the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership we undertook some selective tree removal on an overly shaded section of the channel. Removal of ivy clad trees and low branches should allow more sunlight to reach the water and encourage the growth of marginal plants. Water vole and water rail live in this section of channel so more bankside cover should benefit these species.

oxney at work on Iwade streamoxney in action

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – Update

It has a been a busy few months. So busy in fact that I have only now found the time to write updates on my work as an environmental consultant. For more information please visit my website http://www.caroljdonaldson.co.uk

December 2015 – The weather’s all wrong but the work carries on.

Water vole surveys do not normally take place in December but, with the weather in Kent staying in double figures, water voles were active all month.

This allowed us to survey a section of Bells Drain for the Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board to see if water vole were present and look at options for displacing them when work takes place next year to widen this section of channel.

Ecological assistant, Matt Mordaunt braves the chill on Sheppey marshes

Ecological assistant, Matt Mordaunt braves the chill on Sheppey marshes

Despite the unseasonably mild weather, wading in a channel on marshland close to the Swale Estuary, still proved bitterly cold as Matt Mordaunt, ecological assistant discovered. Raw winds battered across the grassland restoration site and we were grateful for the hospitality of the RSPB warden who provided hot cups of tea.

searching for water vole sign

searching for water vole sign

Water vole were evident in low numbers along the channel and plans will now be drawn up to apply for a Natural England licence to move them, hopefully to a vacant channel on Sheppey.

The rest of this month was busy with visits to farmers across the North Kent Marshes. Working for Natural England, we are sharing the results of this years breeding wader surveys with farmers receiving Higher Level Stewardship options and discussing the best ways to manage their land to encourage more lapwing and redshank to breed.

We have been delighted with the positive and flexible attitude of all the landowners involved in this scheme and will continue to work with them throughout the coming year to get the mix of water and grass just right for these birds.

Wet splashes such as this will be perfect for lapwings in the spring

Wet splashes such as this will be perfect for lapwings in the spring

Working with landowners is of vital importance if we are not to become a country where wildlife only survives on reserves. Much of our wildlife needs large spaces and interconnected habitats in order to maintain viable populations.

Farmers get a poor press when it comes to wildlife and there is still plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to chemical use, but many landowners are discretely doing some wonderful work for wildlife and take genuine joy in seeing creatures return to their land that they remember being abundant in their youth.

November 2015  – Always more to learn

participants in Medway Swale Estuary Partnership Soil and Water workshop.

participants in Medway Swale Estuary Partnership’s Soil and Water workshop.

November began with attending a Soil and Water workshop organised by Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership. Working in ecology involves continuous learning as land use and farming practices change and this workshop gave startling figures on the costs to the farming industry of the loss of soil and chemicals into our waterways.

This new knowledge was put to good use a few days later when we presented a review of six years of survey work to the River Stour (Kent) Internal Drainage Board Annual General Meeting. Members and staff praised the review which included suggestions for ways to continue the excellent commitment the board has shown to improving biodiversity into the future.

peeling off the work area in layers.

peeling off the work area in layers.

More work took place at Whitewall Drain a channel leading off of the River Medway. following the removal of vegetation and potential hibernacula for reptiles and a search for water vole, the site was stripped of vegetation in layers overseen by an ecologist. A dam was put in place to isolate the work site from the rest of the channel and fencing was erected to protect water vole burrows.

Ovendens could then begin the work of installing new penstock structures, which will help control flooding. Investigations are also under way to fix a broken tidal flap, which is allowing tidal water to enter the freshwater channel. finished headwall

Infrastructure projects such as this always look raw to begin with but, once vegetated the structure will soon blend into the channel. During a follow up visit it appeared that the wildlife had already got used to the changes, as grey wagtails and kingfisher were spotted using the structure to hunt from.

 

 

 

A year in the life of an envrionmental consultant

P1010173

Just what does an environmental consultant do all year? Before I set up my own business I wasn’t so sure but, twelve very busy months later and I think I can tell you. We have run community work parties, written river restoration reports and catchment plans, spent many dawn mornings on the marshes surveying waders, searched for water voles, advised on wetland management and completed a major review for the Internal Drainage Board. We now have a few weeks to take a deep breath and prepare for the year ahead.

So, if you ever fancied setting up as a consultant then follow my year ahead and see just how it is done.

September 2015

September is the end of the survey season, time to consolidate all those records and prepare for the autumn ahead.

September has been our busiest month so far. It began by meeting Natural England to talk over plans for farming advisory visits, which we are set to undertake over the next few months. We had spent the spring counting lapwings and redshanks at farms across the North Kent Marshes. In April the fields were full of plummeting and wheeling birds but as spring turned to summer and the grass grew, the numbers of waders fell and the birds failed to breed.

lapwing ruffling feathersBreeding waders need two things, water and short grass, get this equation right and numbers will grow. Following years of catastrophic decline for lapwings and redshanks we need to turn things around and, on the grazing marshes of North Kent, we have a real chance to do that. Over the next few months we will be visiting landowners, walking the fields and coming up with management plans to ensure that, next year, these birds arrive, and stay and successfully breed.

As the month moved on we turned out attention to creating work sheets for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. These sheets are based on the extensive survey of watercourses we undertook in the summer and tell Rhino Plant, the boards main contractor, how we would like them to cut the ditches. It also highlights where there are opportunities to enhance the channels for wildlife and where there are potential problems in the form of invasive species and high nitrate and phosphate pollution. 20150520-0002

This year marks the end of six years of survey work and we were commissioned by Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership to undertake a review of the River Stour Internal Drainage Board Biodiversity Action Plan. Things have changed significantly since the creation of the original BAP in 2010. Changes in Government policy have swept away national targets for important species which makes commitment to local plans all the more necessary.

Thankfully the Stour IDB is committed to improving biodiversity across the drainage district and we have created a programme of work to be considered by the board which will ensure the continuing health of drainage channels, which form a lifeline for wildlife across the region.

If this work didn’t keep us busy enough we also abseiled into a drainage channel on behalf of Medway Council to search for water vole signs and deconstructed a potential reptile hibernaculum to ensure no common lizards were injured when flood prevention work begins on the channel this autumn. It should be noted that translocating wildlife is work we only undertake if the scheme will have overall benefit for wildlife or improve habitat quality.

clearing vegetation at Whitewall Drain

clearing vegetation at Whitewall Drain

search for water vole signs

search for water vole signs

Clearing a habitat pile.

Clearing a habitat pile.

With so much intensive work taking place we needed to take time out of the office and reconnect with wildlife. Andrew Wilkinson of Kent Wildlife Trust kindly arranged an evening tour of Ham Fen reserve in search of beavers. We enjoyed a beautiful evening on the reserve but sadly the beavers failed to make an appearance. Still it gives us an excuse to return next year.

They were there......somewhere! Beaver chewed log at Ham Fen

They were there……somewhere! Beaver chewed log at Ham Fen.

Want to see more monthly updates and find out about my consultancy? Then visit the website www.caroljdonaldson.co.uk