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 – July/August 2019

A day in the life of an environmental consultant – July/August 2019

wader footprints

More waders than ever before bred on North Kent Farms this year.

July and August are quieter times for much of our wildlife in Britain. The frenzy of the breeding season is over and many birds hide away in order to moult while others, such as the cuckoo, leave our shores for another year.

For me, the breeding season finally ended mid July, later than ever before. It was a long season but while there are still unfledged birds then I will continue to go out and survey in order to get a result that adequately portrays the situation on each individual farm.

Sometimes, I will freely admit, that accuracy is difficult. By July, vegetation, such as rush, has grown long and trying to spot cryptically coloured balls of fluff requires patience, knowledge and more than a dash of good fortune.

Still, finally the 4×4 (minus an aerial and a number place, both casualties of rough off road driving) was returned, the results were analysed and the maps of breeding pairs delivered to the RSPB.

why I need off road tyres

The 4×4 suffered a little this spring

With one eye on the plans for wetland restoration work, I then turned my attention to water vole surveys. On a blistering hot day I donned my neoprene waders and assistant, Matthew Hawkins and I, headed to the Isle of Grain to survey a rill on behalf of Kent Wildfowlers Association, Wild spaces project.

Matt surveying channel

Matt Hawkins surveys a channel on a blistering hot day.

Water voles and their burrows are protected by law. While it is possible to displace water vole under particular circumstances it is often better for the animal and cheaper for the client to find an alternative solution.

Signs indicated that water vole were using the rill and that a healthy population existed in nearby burrow systems. Therefore it was decided to leave the banks of this particular feature untouched and instead focus restoration works on other parts of the site. Hopefully a win win situation for water voles and birds on the reserve.

July also saw me undertaking voluntary swift surveys for the UK Swift Inventory. This RSPB initiative aims to record the locations of breeding swifts in order to help planning officers protect their nests if the sites is developed.

Next month my attentions will turn back to the farmland as I begin my autumn visits to discuss how our waders did this summer with the farmers.

To enable me to visit more farms, the RSPB have launched a fundraising campaign which will directly fund the North Kent Marshes Breeding Wader Project which I have run for 5 years. Farming advice works. I know it. Six times as many lapwing chicks now survive to fledge on farmland in North Kent than when I started. You can’t argue with that.

I don’t want to tread water with this project I want to do more and I can only do that if there is funding to send me out to more land and more farms. I really believe that this work can make a fundamental difference for our birds.

If you would like to donate to the project then please contact Bonnie Metherell at the RSPB Bonnie.Metherell@rspb.org.uk or call 01273 763626

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.