Talking Telescopes – A day in the life of an environmental consultant – January 2020

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photo courtesy of MLP

I love the work I do with farmers in the South East but sometimes it’s nice to mix it up, try something new or refresh my skills in other areas. I began working in conservation 25 years ago and found a way into the profession by using my Journalism and publicity skills before moving on to community projects.

 
It has been really interesting in January to work with Medway Council on their Talking Telescopes Project. This Heritage Lottery Funded project worked with visitors to the Strand, an enduringly popular Lido and Leisure facility which had originally been created on the River Medway in 1896.

 
The site encapsulates the history of British Lido’s, beginning with changing rooms converted from railway carriages and growing, during the 1930’s, to incorporate boating pools, putting greens, bandstands, and a miniature railway. As such, The Strand tells the story of British leisure time from the late 19th to the early 21st century and is the only surviving example of an outdoor saltwater swimming pool in Britain.

 
The Talking Telescopes team consisting of Medway Council, Medway Plus (a local charity) and Mid Kent College worked with students to capture memories from the areas heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s and made them accessible to today’s visitors through the medium of three Talking Telescopes.

 
talking telescope (2)The sturdy telescopes can be used to spy on the Medway Estuaries internationally important wildlife while providing an audio commentary of stories from the past. Two interpretation panels were also created and a well loved mural restored.

 
The role of assistant Matt Hawkins and myself was to evaluate the project. Online and face to face interviews were conducted. The HLF application was reviewed and visitors to the Strand were interviewed on site.

 
I’m pleased to say that the response to the new interpretation was overwhelmingly positive with one respondent calling it a “fitting tribute to ordinary people’s memories.” and another saying, “Before this project I looked at the Strand and felt it was dated, now I feel differently about it and see that the architecture is typical of the era and feel more positive and proud of the area. I imagine all the people who have used it in the past and feel I am part of this. It makes me more aware of the history of my local area and my role in it.”

 
It appears that this is a great example of Heritage Lottery Fund money being used to give people a real sense of pride in their local area.

Drones, Are they a menace to our wildlife?

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Elmekkaoui abdelghani [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Yesterday I had words with a drone user. They were polite words but I felt they needed to be said. It was a cold day with a colder night to come and the tide was rising. We were standing on the edge of the Medway estuary and 1000’s of ducks, geese and waders were feeding on the mudflats. The man had already flushed about 50 birds by wandering across the marsh to the edge of the river and was now preparing to launch a drone.

I asked him to think twice before doing it. The drone was noisy and flying it across the estuary would no doubt disturb the birds and interfere with them feeding during the crucial few hours they have to do so. Disturbing birds feeding on the estuary during the winter months is linked to a drop in numbers of birds surviving the winter on the Medway. Dogs off leads are one of the main causes but drones can go where no dog would dare to.

There is no doubting that drones can get great images of our rivers and could provide a useful tool for research. Indeed I have asked several experts at the RSPB whether it would be advisable to use them myself for bird survey work so I could spy from the air into places I cant get to on the ground. The answer seems to be that, while the RSPB do use drones for some survey work, this tends to be for large species that are not easily flushed and not for flighty ducks and waders.  The chances of disturbance are just too great. Especially for Oystercatchers, one of the main species present on the estuary at this time of year. These birds immediately react to the presence of the drone.

I explained to the drone operator that, to the birds, the drone is just like a peregrine swooping in to kill them, so immediately gets a response, but, where as peregrines are doing what they do to survive, then he might be better flying his drone elsewhere. The man agreed that the birds do respond and admitted he’d had gulls attack the drone on several occasions. “I’ll be careful.” he said and off it went, the little mechanical helicopter, sent out across the mud to scatter the birds during the crucial few hours before high tide.

More needs to be done, I feel, to stop drones being used in sites of high sensitivity to wildlife.

Return to the Estuary

Kingsnorth 1Headed down to my beloved Estuary yesterday to relive a day 11 years ago when I sat on a pillbox and received a phone call which took my life in a new direction. We never know which way the change is coming, what’s blowing down the river. I was back to make some notes to use for my new book, which has the working title of, The Volunteers.

Medway – January

The spartina spewed out across the mud like a spray of golden lacquer on a Japanese enamel box, brightly burnished under the iron sky. My bladder burnt, hot and urgent but I ignored it. The blasted pier stretched a finger out towards the island, the three cranes on the end looked out in different directions, guarding all approaches.

Dog walkers occasionally appeared, trudging along in impractical trainers through the mud. We didn’t greet each other. They were head down and determined into the wind and I, a muddy marvel, perched in tattered and splattered layers on the pillbox. Clearly not normal. Once again, odd, cast out, fringe dwelling.

Always another fight.

Always another fight.

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Burntwick Island, a great place to land a sea plane……Not!

I feel these days there is a never ending stream of battles to fight. No sooner do you breathe a small sigh of relief at the squashing of one scheme poised to damage the places you love then another comes along. It wears you down, but I guess that’s the point.

On Thursday by accident I hear of a proposal to begin a sea plane business in the Medway Estuary. The guy shows me the map of where the planes are planning to land, between the breeding tern colony on Burntwick Island and the RSPB reserve of Normarsh. This area is a RAMSAR site rightly protected as one of the most important places for breeding and overwintering waders and wildfowl in the country.  Peel Ports are running a consultation I am told but I am amazed that the proposals have even reached this stage.

I call my friends, Medway Swale Estuary Partnership, the RSPB, Countryside professionals in Medway Council. None of them have heard of these plans. So just who is being consulted?

Having raised the alarm things swing into action. The conservation bodies who protect this area begin to add their voices to the consultation.

“Well done you, for making people aware of this,” my friend says before going on to tell me that a development company have just won their appeal to build on the site at the end of my road.

Bakersfield is a scrubby brownfield site chocha block with songbirds, including nightingales, orchids and reptiles. McCulloch Homes’ original planning application had been thrown out by Medway Council as the site is just too valuable for wildlife but now the developers have won on appeal because the council isn’t meeting the government’s demands for housing at a quick enough pace.

I had protested against these plans, breathed a sigh of relief when they were dropped and now I have to swing into action to protest again. I do so, writing to Buglife, to the council, to my MP but it is exhausting, it is time consuming, it is never ending. It is designed to grind you down and make you stop saying ‘No.’ But saying No is still our right, it is the most important thing we can do. While I still live in some semblance of a democracy I will keep going. Raise awareness, protest, say no. giving in is not an option.

To contribute to the consultation for sea planes landing in the Medway Estuary contact james.goodfellow@peelports.com

To protest against the planned development at Bakersfield contact planning.representation@medway.gov.uk