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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
September and the weed cutting season for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board is well under way.
The banks and weed are cut every summer as part of the general maintenance programme and one of my key jobs is advising on the best cut to maintain the wildlife interest of the channel and work with the contractors Rhino Plant to advise on particular areas of importance such as management for white clawed crayfish.
This month I worked with the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership volunteers to tackle an invasive plant, Parrot’s feather, which has colonised ditches on Chislet marshes.
A small amount of this pond plant found its way into a roadside ditch and has spread quickly. Removing the plant needs to be sensitively managed so as not to cause disturbance or damage to other wildlife. Therefore spraying and vigorous weed cutting is not an option as both these methods would leave ditch edges bare of cover for other species.
Instead the River Stour IDB has approved a programme of mechanical weedcutting followed up by hand pulling of parrot’s feather from the margins. KSCP volunteers have already spent two days wading in the channel or paddling in boats as dragonflies buzz overhead.
An eagle eye is needed to spot the tiniest fragment of plant and a boom net has been installed to catch plants floating downstream. Despite their best attempts all involved know it will take many years of work to combat this plant.
Towards the middle of the month I attended an excellent course in wet grassland management run by the RSPB at their Otmoor reserve. Over two days I learnt about the precise needs of different waders and came away with lots of ideas to take out to farmers this autumn.
Simple changes such as rotovating foot drains can make a big difference and hopefully, by implementing these measures, we can continue to improve the fortunes of birds such as lapwings on the north Kent marshes.
Now all we need is a wet winter to top up the ditches and flood the grassland fields ready for the following spring.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 month 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.
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.
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.
The dry conditions over the spring meant that it was not expected to be a bumper year for lapwing figures on the North Kent Marshes
but I am delighted to say that numbers of fledged birds have doubled on the farms I survey.
While not every farm saw success, then those that managed to hold water on the land into late May and June and have kept the vegetation short have seen a turnaround in their figures. The results show, that following the correct management regime, coupled with predator control can really make a difference.
Highlights for me were finding 13 fledged chicks, a flock of black tailed godwit and a spoonbill on one site early in the morning and having to return for an unheard of 5th visit to another site as more birds still seem to be born there every day.
Also this month I have worked on behalf of Natural England who are undertaking survey work as part of the preparations for the England Coastal Path. While I am in favour of raising awareness of the beauty and importance of our countryside I have concerns about increased access in sites where previously wildlife has been undisturbed.
So far it seems that the path is set to avoid particularly sensitive bird nesting areas in North Kent and I have been delighted to be undertaking marsh harrier surveys on Sheppey. Sitting on a hill for hours watching marsh harriers drift across the landscape and interact is so therapeutic it should be offered on the NHS as a remedy for stress.
The surveys, which are looking to identify nesting sites, will help inform the route of the path around this section of coastline.
At the end of the month I joined Natural England staff again for a training session on ditch surveys and wetland plant i.d. I have been undertaking ditch surveys for the River Stour IDB for 7 years so it was interesting to see how another organisation carries out the work and a useful refresher on plant i.d. before I go out to survey ditches next month.
Many people want a job in wildlife conservation but not all will work to protect what they love.
Like many people when I am angry about something which I care passionately about my views can become polarised. My opinions can be black and white about ‘them’ and ‘us.’ So when I see the continuous destruction of our countryside in the current rush of development there are only two types of Environmental Consultant, those on the light side and those on the dark. Those whose love and knowledge of wildlife is used to protect species and enhance the natural world and those who use their knowledge to aid companies who wish to cover our planet in concrete. I have often spoken of people who work for consultancies whose main work involves aiding development companies to remove wildlife and destroy habitat as soulless.
This spring, however, I have a man volunteering with me who works for one of the consultancy firms I see as being on the dark side. This man has a love of wildlife, he is a better birdwatcher than me and spends much of his free time surveying wildlife for free, should I really condemn him because he wants to work full time with wildlife and there aren’t enough jobs on the light side to go round? Like so many issues it is harder to shoot down the ‘enemy’ when you meet them and talk to them.
The problem is too many people are coming out of countryside management courses and off apprentice schemes and find that the only job available is ‘dark side’ consultancy work. Maybe some of these people begin thinking that what they are doing is ok. I myself have translocated species but only when the project will have an overall benefit for wildlife. Much of the work done by consultancies has no benefit for wildlife and is ill thought out and not followed through.
If development companies were forced to provide adequate compensatory habitat for that destroyed and pay for it’s long term management then maybe I would be more in favour of translocation. Maybe if developers were made to do this then they would be more willing to renovate some of our existing empty buildings and former industrial sites instead of building new ones on wildlife rich habitat. Instead companies move species to inappropriate locations already packed to the rafters with other translocated creatures and do no follow up monitoring to understand whether their work has been a success.
But could I personally do more to help people like my volunteer by taking on staff of my own? I potentially could if there didn’t seem to be so many barriers in the way of doing so. If the Government didn’t penalise small business’s wishing to offer people paid experience by making the whole business of taking someone on such a nightmare of legal constraints, tax issues and insurances. Giving people the sort of work a small business can manage seems to be frankly illegal and way, way too complicated to bother with.
My volunteer wishes to move on from doing work for developers. He wants to work for one of the good guys and I could give him the experience he needs to do so but, while the laws regarding small business’s are so top heavy and restrictive, he will have to continue to do so in his spare time for free and, like many others, will be tempted to stay in the dark.