Natural England on its knees

untitled (7)

copyright MLP

Natural England, English Nature and it’s many predecessors was once a organisation you would feel proud to work for. I remember feeling that only those at the top of their game would be likely to get work with them.

Then things changed, whispers within the conservation sector grew that Natural England were increasingly employing people who did not have the character to really make a stand for nature. I attended meetings with Natural England staff where people proposed terrible developments to wildlife rich areas and wondered why I was the only one making a fuss. Now I know. It was the beginning of the end for what was once a highly respected organisation that were the last line of defence against all of those who would seek to destroy our countryside.

In the last few years everyone has known that Natural England is on its knees. It still employs a few people of excellence but they are increasingly demoralised. It’s local offices are a ghost town, it’s work is more often than not farmed out to others.

An article in today’s Guardian sounds the last bell. Natural England’s budget is to be cut, it’s staff reduced further, it’s resolve to take people to court weakened, it willingness to be paid for by developers increased. Now we have an organisation  who is happy to turn a blind eye to outrageous contraventions of European law such as the peat bog burning at Walshaw Moor in which they dropped out of a case after the landowner spoke to a government minister. Now we have what the government wants, no one to stand in their way while they plough, burn and build over our SSSI’s and National Parks.

Who is there to stand up for nature now?

Read The Guardian article here.

 

A Year in the life of an Environmental Consultant – April

April 2016 – Up with the lark.

dawn on a farm on Sheppey

April marked the start of this years breeding wader surveys on farms across North Kent.  The survey has now been extended to 12 farms stretching from the Hoo Peninsula, across the Isle of Sheppey to Conyer near Faversham. Throughout the next few months we will walk all the sites  twice, concentrating on areas with potential for birds such as lapwings, redshank, oystercatchers and yellow wagtails and follow up with a survey conducted by vehicle in June in order to look for chicks. A further survey may be carried out in July.  The survey follows on from advisory sessions carried out during the autumn and spring to discuss how to get the best out of each site. Advisory sessions concentrate on getting the grazing and water management right and tackling predation.

This work is part of a long term collaboration between Natural England, The RSPB, Carol J Donaldson Associates and the farmers but, after one season of advisory work  we are beginning to see some results. Overall the land is in better condition for breeding waders and, although there is still lots of room for improvement then we have been delighted by the good will and effort which some farmers have gone to improve things.

The cold weather which began the spring will not have done early breeding birds any favours but we are hopeful that numbers of fledged chicks will be up on last years results.

Dawn starts and long walks dominated this month but we did take time out to work with the Bredhurst Woods Action Group to install barriers to prevent illegal trespass off the byway which runs through the woods. It was a welcome change to spend time in this beautiful bluebell woodland after the exposure of the marshes and the baked potatoes for lunch were very welcome.very neat fire at Bredhurst Wood

volunteers at Bredhurst Woods

A Year in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – Update

It has a been a busy few months. So busy in fact that I have only now found the time to write updates on my work as an environmental consultant. For more information please visit my website http://www.caroljdonaldson.co.uk

December 2015 – The weather’s all wrong but the work carries on.

Water vole surveys do not normally take place in December but, with the weather in Kent staying in double figures, water voles were active all month.

This allowed us to survey a section of Bells Drain for the Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board to see if water vole were present and look at options for displacing them when work takes place next year to widen this section of channel.

Ecological assistant, Matt Mordaunt braves the chill on Sheppey marshes

Ecological assistant, Matt Mordaunt braves the chill on Sheppey marshes

Despite the unseasonably mild weather, wading in a channel on marshland close to the Swale Estuary, still proved bitterly cold as Matt Mordaunt, ecological assistant discovered. Raw winds battered across the grassland restoration site and we were grateful for the hospitality of the RSPB warden who provided hot cups of tea.

searching for water vole sign

searching for water vole sign

Water vole were evident in low numbers along the channel and plans will now be drawn up to apply for a Natural England licence to move them, hopefully to a vacant channel on Sheppey.

The rest of this month was busy with visits to farmers across the North Kent Marshes. Working for Natural England, we are sharing the results of this years breeding wader surveys with farmers receiving Higher Level Stewardship options and discussing the best ways to manage their land to encourage more lapwing and redshank to breed.

We have been delighted with the positive and flexible attitude of all the landowners involved in this scheme and will continue to work with them throughout the coming year to get the mix of water and grass just right for these birds.

Wet splashes such as this will be perfect for lapwings in the spring

Wet splashes such as this will be perfect for lapwings in the spring

Working with landowners is of vital importance if we are not to become a country where wildlife only survives on reserves. Much of our wildlife needs large spaces and interconnected habitats in order to maintain viable populations.

Farmers get a poor press when it comes to wildlife and there is still plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to chemical use, but many landowners are discretely doing some wonderful work for wildlife and take genuine joy in seeing creatures return to their land that they remember being abundant in their youth.

November 2015  – Always more to learn

participants in Medway Swale Estuary Partnership Soil and Water workshop.

participants in Medway Swale Estuary Partnership’s Soil and Water workshop.

November began with attending a Soil and Water workshop organised by Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership. Working in ecology involves continuous learning as land use and farming practices change and this workshop gave startling figures on the costs to the farming industry of the loss of soil and chemicals into our waterways.

This new knowledge was put to good use a few days later when we presented a review of six years of survey work to the River Stour (Kent) Internal Drainage Board Annual General Meeting. Members and staff praised the review which included suggestions for ways to continue the excellent commitment the board has shown to improving biodiversity into the future.

peeling off the work area in layers.

peeling off the work area in layers.

More work took place at Whitewall Drain a channel leading off of the River Medway. following the removal of vegetation and potential hibernacula for reptiles and a search for water vole, the site was stripped of vegetation in layers overseen by an ecologist. A dam was put in place to isolate the work site from the rest of the channel and fencing was erected to protect water vole burrows.

Ovendens could then begin the work of installing new penstock structures, which will help control flooding. Investigations are also under way to fix a broken tidal flap, which is allowing tidal water to enter the freshwater channel. finished headwall

Infrastructure projects such as this always look raw to begin with but, once vegetated the structure will soon blend into the channel. During a follow up visit it appeared that the wildlife had already got used to the changes, as grey wagtails and kingfisher were spotted using the structure to hunt from.

 

 

 

Dawn on the marshes

20150416-0003I did not jump out of bed with joy as my alarm clock rang at 5.30am. It is not the best time of the morning for me. I bumbled around the kitchen, knocking things over and shouting, “shut up,” at the alarm clock when it decided to ring all over again. But the moment I left the house I knew I was pleased I had made the effort.

It was pre-dawn, so few people see this time of the morning, less and less people I suspect, now that milkmen, early morning post, and paperboys are a thing of the past. I have signed up to one of the few jobs that require an early start, breeding bird surveys. All round the country at this time of year, other people are crawling out of bed, making flasks of coffee and dragging out clipboards filled with obscure maps of fields which they need to navigate their way through.

Possibly due to the early start the navigating proved a little tricky. Having received specific instructions from a helpful farmer I still took a wrong turn and drove my intrepid Nissan Micra down a sheep track onto the marshes. Just as I was struggling into my wellies, a vision appeared through the mist. A rather handsome, open shirted man on a tractor who turned to be the farmers son. Considering the hour and that I was clearly in the wrong place, he was very charming and directed me back out of his sheep fields and to the right spot. 20150416-0002

By the time I reached the first field, the sun was just rising above the trees and a thick mist lay across the meadow. Avocets took to the air, twenty beautiful, delicate birds with neatly held pointed toes, piping overhead. Lapwings could be seen, whooping and descending across the scrapes, plummeting earthwards calling their liquid fluting song. Redshank strutted between tussocks of grass, oystercatchers stared out across mirror calm pools in companionable silence.20150416-0005

 

 

I have been commissioned to conduct surveys on farmland across the North Kent Marshes all summer. I had been told that I wasn’t expected to find much. I had been warned that the early starts were painful, that the farmers might be wary, but I also knew that here was an incentive to get out to see beautiful sunrises in places I would never normally get permission to go. I have done many boring and difficult jobs in my time. I know when I am lucky.

By 8am my days work was over and I was back home cooking up a big batch of pancakes and looking forward to tomorrows early start.