A day in the life of an environmental consultant – June 2019

chick at Keith Studds spring 2019Just what is going on this year with our waders?

As I write this, it is the beginning of July. I should be reflecting on the end of another season of wader surveys on the North Kent Marshes. Yet out in the fields things are a long way from over. Day old chicks wander around, many weeks from being safely fledged and birds appear to still be on eggs.

 

surveying on pevensey levels taking a break

I contemplate what’s happening with our waders while taking a coffee break on the Pevensey Levels.

Pevensey Levels at the start of the month. My third visit found 18 fledged young on Horse Eye and Down, a very good level of productivity. This shows what can be achieved in this area if more fields held water in shallow scrapes throughout the breeding season. I am looking forward to going back to Pevensey this autumn to talk to farmers about the results and how we can replicate this in other parts of the levels.

So why are things so late in North Kent? This is a question I put to Dr Jen Smart, Principal Conservation Scientist for the RSPB, when she came to visit along with the RSPB’s Coastal and Wetlands ecology team. It appears that the chicks we are seeing now, are probably second broods, with first broods succumbing to the lack of insect food in wet mud caused by the dry spring or possibly from predation.

Strangely I never saw any signs of early chicks so potentially broods could have been lost at the egg stage. Dr Smart told me that second broods are often weaker and have less chance to survive, so I am keeping my fingers crossed and continuing to survey the sites for signs of fledged birds throughout July.

The Coastal and Wetland team were visiting to find out the recipe for success for farming advice, as it appears, North Kent is one of the few places that waders are increasing outside of reserves. I was happy to give them my ideas on what works and what doesn’t along with Sheppey farmer Keith Studd.

more enlightenment from Graham white

Graham White, RSPB Head of Reserves Ecology learns my secret recipe for successful farming advice.

Keith and I both highlighted recent loss of good will from farmers towards countryside stewardship schemes. Hardly surprising as some farmers are waiting years for late payments and are being penalised by the Rural Payment Agency for doing the very things that their agreements encourage them to do. Lack of communication, faceless officials, mind boggling paperwork and at times shear arrogance is creating a situation where some farmers feel inclined to cut their losses and drop out of environmental schemes altogether.

The future for our wildlife cannot lie in reserves but in cohesive landscapes where conservation bodies and farmers are working together. We need a well funded, farmer friendly scheme which encourages a good take up and gives people targeted face to face advice.

RSPB ecology field trip at North Quarry

The RSPB Coastal and Wetland team discuss plans for a quarry near Cliffe. 

With this is mind it was fantastic to see the exciting plans for landscape scale conservation on the Hoo Peninsula and Isle of Sheppey. Here there is the potential for great swatches of countryside to being managed for the benefit of wildlife. There are some great opportunities to work with farmers, aggregate companies, the RSPB and the drainage board to create a cohesive network of dynamic wetlands. As part of this we visited a number of quarries and heard about the plans to create reedbeds and lagoons for wonderful species such as black necked grebe.

Exciting times hopefully lie ahead.

 

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – April (and a bit of May) 2019.

surveying in pevensey

Heading out for a morning survey

As we near the end of the second round of breeding wader surveys, I can finally grab a moment to reflect on a non stop five weeks of spring.

The survey protocol requires everyone undertaking these surveys to do so within the same window of time, roughly 14 days for the first round and 21 for the second. With 14 sites to survey this year, including 3 large new sites in Sussex, this called for some very tight scheduling.

Thankfully the weather has played ball and the surveys have been conducted in mainly early morning sunshine.

As always the results are a mixed bag with some farms punching well above their weight and producing skies full of birds while others could do so much more to secure a future for our wildlife.

After 5 years of working with North Kent farmers I realise that you can’t win them all and persuading some people to make changes is a very long game indeed.

This is something I impress on Martin Hole, who is heading a facilitation fund for the Pevensey Levels. “You can’t win in year one,” I tell him over lunch at his farmhouse. “bide your time and it will get better.”

Having got to know the land at Pevensey over two surveys I believe this is true. The sites have a fantastic open aspect and the birds are coming to investigate. The problem is the fields do not hold water for long enough. Not something that is instantaneously solvable in the increasingly dry South East but not unachievable.

dry scrape

We need to turn this.

wet scrape

into this.

Pevensey is at the very start of a road that we have taken a few steps along in North Kent. Sometimes that road is longer that you would like but when you’ve turned a corner you know it.

This year I have been blessed with sunny mornings, fabulous wildlife sightings and the excitement of seeing new sites with bags of potential but my spring highlight came on the 1st May when I visited three farms outside of Conyer village.

For 5 years me and the farmers have worked at trying to improve the condition of the land for waders; a bit wetter here, a bit shorter there and…nothing. The birds refused to come. I had begun to think there was something fundamentally wrong with the site that I just couldn’t see.

Then, on a windswept day I was literally bought to my knees with joy as lapwings exploded from the grass and plummeted over the fields. A sky full of wader calls was something I thought I might never see at Conyer and now they are back.

A moment like that makes every 5am alarm call worthwhile.

A day in the life of an environmental consultant – March 2019

 

geograph-82968-by-Janet-Richardson

The Pevensey Levels, where farmers are working together to manage the land for wildlife.

Spring is upon us and I am getting ready to launch myself into a survey season which is likely to be busier than ever as I expand my work into Sussex.

In March I travelled down to the Pevensey Levels to meet with Martin Hole, a former winner of the RSPB’s Lapwing award. Martin is the lead farmer in a cluster which includes almost 50 farmers who have banded together to manage the land for wetland wildlife.

Martin-Hole-180x225Through my work in North Kent I see how difficult it is for a farmer to make a difference alone. They might be doing all the right things on their own land but, if they are isolated from other suitably managed land, then, try as they might, the birds may never come.

Along with Martin, I feel that farmers working together to provide landscape scale conservation is the only way we can create a countryside that is resilient to change and able to support wildlife in the long term.

Cluster groups can draw on a facilitation fund provided by Natural England and can organise workshops and surveys to provide the information farmers need to make decisions about land management. My role this spring is to provide surveys for three main areas of the Pevensey Levels which still support lapwing.

Martin is an enthusiastic advocate for the benefits of farmers joining cluster groups, believing working together is the best way forward for the industry and for wildlife. Certainly the land we viewed looked in excellent condition but I was surprised to hear that, despite good management, some species were become locally extinct in the region.

RedshankRedshank numbers for instance had plummeted in contrast to North Kent where they had a bumper season last year. Worryingly Martin felt that the boom in numbers of wetland birds in North Kent could be a result of birds contracting to core areas. That, no matter how well the Pevensey Levels are now managed, the damage has already been done. That an historical input of chemicals has left soils poisoned and insect numbers plummeting.

My experience in North Kent is that given the right advice and management then it is possible to turn the fortunes of farmland wildlife around but the experience in Sussex could be the beginning of a worrying trend.

Are the Pevensey Levels the canary in the coalmine which shows how bad things have become for our wildlife?

Still, I do not feel that despair is helpful when it comes to conservation. Despair over the state of our countryside leads to helplessness and I believe there is never a better time than now to start turning things around. The increasingly positive attitude from farmers like Martin to working to manage the land for wildlife is a cause for celebration and, besides, it is spring and I cannot be downhearted at the thought of another spring amid lapwing on the marshes.

 

 

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2018

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2018

Redshank

Redshank will only survive on farmland if we get our agricultural subsidy system right. 

At the beginning of October responsibility for Countryside Stewardship payments was transferred from Natural England to the Rural Payments Agency, in a move which sadly further undermines Natural England’s viability.

The recent ‘People’s Manifesto for Wildlife’ branded Natural England, ‘unfit for purpose,’ a sad indictment of an organisation, which was once seen within the industry, as a bastion of expertise and good judgment.

 
Many of the remaining staff still have that expertise but much of their power and any independent thought has been stripped away. The loss of Countryside Stewardship administration is seen as punishment for late payments to farmers but as Natural England have been subject to funding and staff cuts then it’s hardly surprising that mistakes and delays have occurred. Natural England are unfortunately being used as a political football in the debate about the future of our agriculture subsidies.

 
The Agricultural Bill, making its way through parliament, is central to decisions over where our public money goes. What should we pay farmers to do? Should we subsidise them to grow food or should the market pay for this? Should supermarkets be forced to pay a fair price to farmers and, if so, are we prepared to pay higher prices for our food? Should we reward farmers for providing ‘public goods,’ the things which benefit us all; good soils, clean air and water, biodiversity and countryside access?

 
Away from Westminster and out on the fields it is a time of frustration and confusion. No one knows at this moment quite who’s in charge and where the money’s coming from. Farmers and, for that matter, self employed consultants, tend to be self sufficient and flexible types and therefore we will look for ways around these problems. Many farmers in North Kent are more than willing to make changes to their land to benefit wildlife and I aim to harness this enthusiasm by planning a programme of rill and scrape restoration on farms across the area.

re-profiling rill 2017

Funding is needed to restore our wetlands.

Creating new wetland areas is the next step which will allow more birds to successfully breed on our farmland and ultimately mean that the money we currently pay farmers to manage their land for wildlife is not wasted. Without this extra work then many of our farms, currently receiving breeding wader stewardship payments, will never reach their potential. If grants are currently not available from the government then we will just have to look for outside sources of funding.

 
In the meantime work continues to move ahead with plans to work with hovercraft and jet ski users to reduce disturbance to breeding and wintering birds on the Medway and Swale estuary. The project has received support from Birdwise North Kent and the RSPB and we are now firming up a project proposal prior to seeking funding.

 

Thames litter pick 1 pickers
Finally this month I also joined Belinda Lamb, Medway Swale Estuary Partnership Guardians of the Deep officer and RSPB volunteer, David Saunders on a litter pick on the Thames foreshore. The amount of plastic bottles on the beach was particularly shocking and a deposit return scheme can’t come soon enough. However the ultimate solution lies in using less plastic products in the first place.

A Day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – June/July 2018

bw stilts 2

Black winged stilt adult and chick. Photo Frank Cacket

The hot weather in June and July coupled with the late spring could have been the reason that this years breeding wader season was longer than every.

Young chicks were still being spotted on farmland well into the month. The weather however also meant that vegetation began to grow rapidly and grass and rush soon were smothering the edges of wetland scrapes. While this didn’t seem to cause problems for birds like redshank it did mean that it was doubly hard to accurately count chicks.

 
Spotting cryptically coloured balls of fluff programmed to lay still at a warning call from the adults is hard enough at the best of the times and when these chicks have long have long grass to hide in  the result is that it is almost impossible to accurately count sites.

Even with this difficulty I can report that numbers of fledged lapwing chicks from North Kent Farms were up again with redshank and yellow wagtail also doing better.

a pair of bw stilts

black winged stilt chicks. Photo Frank Cacket

One pair of chicks in particular caught everyone’s attention. This year a pair of black winged stilts successfully raised two chicks on one of the farms I work on. This is the first time a pair of chicks has fledged outside of a reserve in Britain.

 
For now we intend to keep the name of the farm and farmers a secret as there is a high chance that the birds will return again and there is a need to keep the site (which is on private land) undisturbed. This lack of disturbance throughout the breeding season was well managed by the farmers and, along with the creation of excellent wetland habitat, was the reason these birds did so well.

 
The pair of stilts were tireless in their attempts to drive off potential threats, throwing themselves at buzzards, gulls and the RSPB Senior Conservation Advisor who came to see them. Even with this effort I knew the odds off them successfully fledging both young were slim but as each visit went by and the chicks grew I rooted for the birds to succeed and almost began to feel sick at the thought of them loosing them after watching them work so hard.

 
Finally on the 4th July the birds vanished from the site and the next day adults and chicks were spotted at Oare Marshes. This success is the cherry on the cake of a great breeding season and is a testimony to the excellent work the farmers in North Kent are doing for our waders.

Norfolk Hawker
Also in July I took Martin Thomas of Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership out for a days training in wetland survey work. Martin is now all set to do this years round of surveys for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. The day revealed both good and bad news.

 
I was saddened to find that one of the most botanically important channels in the drainage district was suffering from phosphate pollution for the first time. This input could cause rapid growth in some species of waterweed to the detriment of others and put some of our rarest wetland plants at risk.

Better news was the Norfolk Hawker dragonfly spotted at Elmstone Stream. This proved to be the first record for this species in this area.getation to hide in the result is that it is almost impossible to accurately count sites.

Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – December 2017

Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – December 2017

birdwatching on solar farm

Counting birds on the Essex coast

Winter marks the beginning of the tree management programme for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board.

The majority of the trees are trimmed back or removed to allow access to machines which de-silt the river. De-silting generally takes place every 10 years and is done so that drainage ditches maintain their capacity to hold a certain volume of water and cope with winter rainfall.
Nowadays ditches are partially de-silted with the central channel cleared and banks left untouched. This is a much gentler approach than in the past where banks were scraped destroying water vole burrows and removing native flora.

Carl inspecting Air Ministry Dyke willow

Trees such as this have high potential for bat roosts

Trees may also be removed if they are deemed to be a safety hazard. One particular tree that caused an issue this year was a black poplar which had a dead limb directly above a sluice structure. The IDB felt this could present a hazard to staff checking the structure and wished to remove the limb but inspections revealed several features which could potentially contain bat roosts.

Josh, our resident aboriculturalist, did not feel the tree was safe to climb so investigating with an endoscope was not possible and therefore we could not give the go ahead for the IDB to undertake the limb removal.
Further investigations are now being undertaken by the IDB to rule the tree out as a bat roost before they proceed with the removal of the limb.
Towards the end of the year our work took us to Langenhoe on the Essex Coast to undertake a WeBs count on behalf of Brooks Ecological Limited. WeBs stands for Wetland Bird Survey and the counts. which take place either side of high tide monitor non breeding water birds and are used to identify trends and distribution of waterfowl and waders. We are hoping to take more trips out to the RAMSAR protected Essex coastline in the coming months.
Lastly, this month, Carol Donaldson has been busy writing about wildlife for various publications including The Clearing and The Guardian. Read her article on the North Kent Marshes here.

Day in the life of an environmental consultant – October 2017

Day in the life of an environmental consultant – October 2017

October has been a busy month, working with farmers across Kent to improve marshland and rivers for wildlife.

The North Kent Breeding Wader project is gaining pace helped by a grant scheme administered by Kent Wildlife Trust. This funding scheme gives grants to landowners to undertake work on their land for the benefit of wetland wildlife. Almost all the farmers I worked with applied for the grant and, while the land is still dry, they have been busy creating scrapes, restoring rills, fixing pumps and improving water control.

Mid month I joined farmer Mr Wood and contractors Taylor Bros near Conyer to scrape back rush from an overgrown rill in order to create bare earth ideal for lapwings to feed on.

re-profiling rill 2017

Surveys carried out by KWT had shown there were no water vole present and so we could use the opportunity to create a shallow sloping edge. Good visibility is important for ground nesting birds so they can see and drive off predators. Crouching down at the water’s edge, I tried to look at the world from a lapwings point of view in order to get the correct bank profile.

This month also saw the completion of the first round of parrots feather removal from Chislet Marshes near Birchington on Sea. The River Stour Internal Drainage Board worked with Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership volunteers to remove every fragment of the plant from 500m stretches of the upstream reaches of three channels which the plant has colonised.

third task on Brooksend

Volunteers from KSCP search for Parrot’s feather on Chislet Marshes

In future years we hope to work slowly downstream pulling out the plant from the margins as it is hopefully eradicated from the upper reaches. This approach has been chosen so that we can remove the invasive without damaging other marginal flora .

White clawed crayfish enhancment visit pig stream

Officers from the EA and IDB discuss improvements for white clawed crayfish.

Lastly this month I met with white clawed crayfish experts from the Environment Agency to talk about management of channels which are proving strongholds for these endangered creatures. Working with the landowners and the IDB we hope to cut the weed from the channels in a way which will help maintain connectivity between isolated populations and add cobbles to the channel to give the crayfish places to shelter under.

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant- September

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant- September

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.weedcutter and parrots feather

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.

installing net at Wademarsh

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.

 

A day in the life of a environmental consultant – August 2017

A day in the life of a environmental consultant – August 2017

August was a busy month with river surveys for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board.

The Board manages a huge variety of channels from small natural wooded streams, to wide drainage channels across former marshland to urban rivers.

Some of the channels offer ample opportunity for enhancements such as at Buxford Dyke in Ashford, a channel which traditionally supported white clawed crayfish. Fencing cattle from streams, removing weirs and installing cobbles in the channel could all help manage silt and provide hiding spots for crayfish.

4 cattle crossing leading to nitrate problems (2)

cattle can cause issues with silt downstream

Sometimes the easy part is knowing what could be done to benefit the river. The harder task is persuading authorities and landowners that the work will be beneficial and not increase flood risk.

Traditional management practices sometimes involved drastic measure such as setting fire to channel banks and widening channels by dredging. These practices often were disastrous for wildlife and stored up issues for the future as widening narrow streams allows more silt to drop out in the centre of the channel creating a fertile ground for weed growth which blocks channels and may lead to flooding. More work needs to be done to show river managers and landowners that natural management techniques, such as allowing woody debris to remain in the channel can be beneficial.
Urban channels have different issues and Pumping Station Dyke, also in Ashford, suffers from fly tipping, invasive species and terrible bankside management by local businesses. Surveying a channel such as this it is easy to despair at the disregard many people show to their local areas and the low status of rivers in towns. With a channel such as this joined up thinking is needed for local bodies to work together to tackle issues such as fly tipping and misconnected sewers.litter in pumping station dyke

The month ended with a visit to Bourne Dyke, a beautiful channel set amid wet woodland with some fantastic old pollarded trees. Here the landowner has shown an interest in making improvements for wildlife and it is easy to get enthusiastic at the opportunity this could provide for restoring the natural wetland areas of this valley.

 

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – July 2017

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – July 2017

Another crackingly busy month kicked off with surveying a ditch called Butterfly Cottage Dyke for the Internal Drainage Board.

A blisteringly hot day saw me putting the previous month’s Natural England training to

tubular water dropwort

Tubular Water Dropwort

good use by identifying the many species of rushes and sedges that grown along this botanically rich channel. The waterway supports rare plants such as Tubular Water Dropwort and Hairlike Pondweed. My work involves advising the Drainage Board on how to manage the channel to benefit these and other species and look at ways of improving its value for wildlife.

 
Unfortunately many of our waterways suffer from Nitrate and Phosphate pollution often caused by historically overloading the land with fertilisers. Agrochemicals are big business and firms have lobbied farmers for fifty years to buy them in order to achieve higher yields and cut down on ‘pest’ species. Often land is overburdened with chemicals and much ends up seeping through the soil and fertilising rivers and drainage ditches which then sprout lush growths of plants such as watercress which can impede flow and cause flooding.

the result of high levels of nitrate and phosphate

Excessive weed growth caused by chemical enrichment.

 
Over 8 years of surveying for the board I have also seen a change in land use with formerly grazed fields becoming fallow or cut for silage and more maize being grown. These changes are not good news for wildlife. Ditches alongside grazing marsh are often botanically rich as the action of animals grazing the channel opens up niches for wildlife while maize crops are often bad news next to rivers as after harvesting, the field is left with bare earth which can be washed into rivers in winter storms creating siltation issues which can lead to flooding.

 
Despite years of environmental subsidy schemes for farmers it seems that more needs to be done to tailor advise to farmers and put a healthy and wildlife rich countryside at the centre of farming policy not just tinker at the edges of farms and ignore the real issues.

 
However, the Internal Drainage Board are working to improve watercourses and this Ros and Hillers installing faggotsmonth I returned to Port Rill with volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership to finish installing woody debris in the channel. Fallen dead branches were pinned into place by the volunteers and should help create shallow marginal shelves along the edges of the channel while creating faster flow in the centre, cleaning gravels and creating oxygen rich water. This month we saw fish in this channel for the first time, a real testament to the volunteer’s efforts.

 
A month of river work finished with a survey of Pig Brook, another IDB managed channel which holds one of the last populations of White Clawed Crayfish. This native species is suffering through the spread of Crayfish plague spread from imported signal crayfish as well as pollution and silt covered gravels.

white clawed crayfish
Earlier in the month I had given a talk to the drainage board’s contractors Rhino Plant on the importance of biosecurity and the need to check clean and dry equipment and spray with a specialised Iodine based spray when working on crayfish channels. presentation for Rhino plant
Pig Brook is an attractive channel set in parkland but more could be done to improve the stream for crayfish and connect it with the surrounding floodplain. Next month I hope to work on plans to enhance the river and allow the crayfish to thrive.