Mr Brooks and the bally Barn owls

Mr Brooks and the bally Barn owls

Mr Brooks finally gets his barn owlI first met Mr Brooks on the second day of my new job with the Kentish Stour Partnership way back in 2009. He instructed me as I teetered on top of a ladder in his cattle barn trying to put a number disk on the side of his barn owl box which would allow us to monitor it’s progress.

“Do you know one end of a drill from another?” he called in his upper class voice. “Next time bring a man.”  I felt suitably slighted.


Mr Brooks and I strike a deal.

A few weeks later he wanted a second box put up. I agreed this was a good idea but there would be a charge for installing the box. Mr Brooks was aghast. “I don’t deal in money,” he said “We barter.” Ah, now he was talking my language.  A box, I told him, would cost him either a bottle of whisky, a goose for Christmas or a brace of trout from his trout pond. Once I got off the phone I was told off by my boss who suggested that, as we sat next to Trading Standards, this was not the way we should be doing business.




I  returned to his land with a box and three men but went up the ladder myself to install it. Mr Brooks, true to his word, appeared in full fly fishing gear and tried for those trout but with no luck.

Years passed, the barn owls refused to take up residence. Instead stock doves moved in,

no I won't ring it's bally neck

A beautiful stock dove.

filling the box with their twiggy nests. Me and the professional ringers would extract the birds. “Don’t ring their bally legs, ring their bally necks.” Mr Brooks called in the background. We refused.

Then, yesterday, I returned. We climbed the ladder expecting to find the twiggy nests once again but, no. Instead we found a barn owl and three fair sized chicks. Mr Brooks, now in his eighties, has his barn owls at last and I, for one, couldn’t be happier for him.  I am still waiting for the trout.  Mr brooks investigates his bird


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 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium [CC BY 2.0 (, 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.

You reap what you sow




Reaper Binder Restoration Team

Spent this last weekend at my beloved College Lake near Tring in Hertfordshire where I was lucky enough to work under the inspirational warden Graham Atkins.


Graham was a lorry driver for a local aggregate firm who saw a hole in the ground and had the vision to imagine it as a nature reserve. It became so much more than that, a haven for wildlife but also for people who found a place where they were always valued and their work was always appreciated. view-from-the-new-bothy

Along the way Graham impregnated the place with individuality, quirkiness and sense of humour. Models of pigs sunbathed around ponds, chickens strutted beneath the plum trees, a Land Girl gazed in wonder at her  Ferguson tractor.

College Lake is now run by Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, you can still visit it but the quirkiness and humour have been replaced by ‘sensible’ interpretation and the faceless branding that has become the hallmark of conservation bodies marketing departments. Our landfill girl has been hidden in a shed in case she frightens small children and someone sues.

Still, I don’t go to College Lake for the Wildlife Trust, I go for Graham and I find him there still. In the old farm machinery he lovingly collected, in the plethora of hides and winding paths he planned and in those original volunteers who remember it as it was and struggle to keep Graham’s vision alive there.

kent-restoring-reaper-binderSo this weekend I painted a reaper binder with long term volunteer Ken Thompson. A reaper binder is the most marvellous piece of kit. To see one working is to appreciate how marvellously clever human ingenuity is. Hundreds of years of thought and improvements went into making this fantastic world of levers and springs and cogs that can cut a wheat field, order each blade, wrap them in string and spit them out the other end as a neatly bundled stook.

Painting this machine you get to appreciate every inch of it and feel the watching presence of the men that made and designed and worked with it. But the real magic comes when you see it working.









One of the happiest days of my life was cutting the wheat fields at College Lake with the reaper binder along with a gang of volunteers. To sit on top of this machine and see it work was a wonder. Afterwards we stacked the stooks onto a hay cart and, I seem to remember, ate fish and chips from the paper as the sun went down over the lake.

Ken on the reaper binder 001

Ken on the reaper binder

The reaper binder will probably never again cut the fields of College Lake. The Wildlife Trust does not have the appetite for such things and would no doubt swamp the whole enterprise in health and safety legislation. But Ken is a clever man and plans to rig the thing up so it can operate at a touch of a button and show a video from a far off time when the machine, the chickens and the volunteers were all allowed to roam free range across the fields.