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.

The great big, beautiful wet. A day in the life of an environmental consultant. February 2020

Winter survey outfit

Extra layers were needed for survey work in February

Can you remember a wetter winter?

I certainly can’t and that seems to be the general consensus among the farmers I work with in North Kent.

At times it seems to have rained continuously since the autumn with crop sowing affected and some crops rotting in the fields. February was officially the wettest on record.

 
Last month I seemed to spend every day battling through high winds across exposed marshes and wading knee deep through mud as I tried to navigate my way through farm gates. At times this job feels like an army assault course but, at other times, I stand in a field in the middle of nowhere and watch flocks of starlings pierce the sky or skeins of geese descend and the only sound is the skylarks and the curlews. Then I know how lucky I am.

picturesque sheep and wet field 3 feb 2020
Out on the marshes the fields are sodden and surface water is everywhere. This is exactly the conditions loved by waders who have already begun pairing up and establishing territories on some of the sites I work on.

 
It has been a great month to get out and see where water naturally lies on the land to help inform the wetland restoration plans on many farms but unfortunately much of this water will be lost by mid Spring, just as the chicks are born and the birds need it most.

 
In the long term there are plans for installing better water control on farms but, at the moment, the way to ensure lapwing and redshank chicks survive to fledging is to keep the land wet by pumping water into scrapes and hollows during the spring.

 
Many farmers are happy to do this and have to keep the land wet to comply with their Stewardship Agreements, however, they are increasingly angry at being penalised for trying to do the right thing.

 
Until recently farmers pumping water on their land for the benefit of wetland species were exempt from having an Abstraction Licence issued by the Environment Agency, then, for no apparent reason, this exemption was removed. Many farmers were angry at having to pay out more money for doing something they were obliged to do and received no direct financial benefit for doing.

feb 2020 field behind field 4

 
Why couldn’t things stay as they were? It seems that Government organisations love to tinker. One minute farmers were exempt, then they weren’t. Next minute I am told by one Government department to urgently let all farmers know that, if their land is within a designated site, a RAMSAR or SPA they are now exempt. Then I am told by another department that this is not the case. They may be exempt but no one seems quite sure. It is a crazy system, where the legislation has got so weighty that no one can get to the bottom of it.

 
It is a system that is eroding the good will of farmers, sending me round in circles and worst of all having disastrous consequences for wildlife as some farmers are now saying that they won’t pump water on the land at all this year as they fear being fined for doing so.

 
I can envisage that this will be the shape of things for the next few years as the Government attempts, through the Agricultural Bill, to work out just what it wants our farming community to do.

 
Meanwhile, this year, the birds may have a little respite as sodden fields take time to dry out and conditions on many farms look good for the breeding season ahead.

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 – 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.

lapwing and chick at phil barlings 1

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 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 – 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 – November 2018

A Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – November 2018

A visit to the estuary brings the opportunity to enjoy fabulous wildlife but what impact does our presence have on the creatures that live there?

Kent Ornithological Societies AGM was held at the beginning of November and I was invited to speak about my work with farmers in North Kent.

My talk seemed well received and I certainly enjoyed hearing about the other speakers hard work and some of the innovative solutions being used to protect and enhance land for wildlife. Mark Avery gave the Key Note speech on driven grouse shooting and hen harriers and rolled his sleeves up to do battle with hecklers during the Q&A.

The rest of the month has been full of meetings as I gave my annual report to Natural England and discussed issues around Brexit which could potentially impact on meat prices which may have a knock on effect on wetland grassland. If farmers pull out of cattle then there may be less animals around to graze which will result in grassland becoming too long to attract lapwings to breed.

Cattle are an important component in managing land for breeding waders.

The role of conservationists is not to despair at the problems, I feel, but to find a way around the problems. There is always a way but we might have to spend the next few years working out new and possibly better ways of getting the job done.

Mid month I also attended a meeting of the new North Kent Marshes Internal Drainage Board to discuss water level management. The meeting was well attended by local landowners and provided an opportunity to talk to new farmers about the potential to undertake breeding wader surveys and advice on their land. Hopefully this will result in increasing my work with farmers next year.

Towards the end of the month I also met up with the RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust to discuss closer collaboration on farming advice so we don’t double up on advice and can share expertise.

The result of all these meetings is that I now have a busy few months ahead as I work with farmers to design wetland restoration schemes and get all the necessary permissions in place before seeking outside funding to deliver the work.

Away from all of this I have continued to research the impact of personal watercraft on birds and marine mammals by reading research from around the world. It is interesting to see how coastal development is impacting on wildlife and prudent to learn how other countries have researched and dealt with the issue. This research has helped in drafting a two stage plan of survey and practical action which I will present to the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership forum next month.

Seals can be easily disturbed if water craft get too close.