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.
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.
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.