A Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – November 2018

A Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – November 2018

A visit to the estuary brings the opportunity to enjoy fabulous wildlife but what impact does our presence have on the creatures that live there?

Kent Ornithological Societies AGM was held at the beginning of November and I was invited to speak about my work with farmers in North Kent.

My talk seemed well received and I certainly enjoyed hearing about the other speakers hard work and some of the innovative solutions being used to protect and enhance land for wildlife. Mark Avery gave the Key Note speech on driven grouse shooting and hen harriers and rolled his sleeves up to do battle with hecklers during the Q&A.

The rest of the month has been full of meetings as I gave my annual report to Natural England and discussed issues around Brexit which could potentially impact on meat prices which may have a knock on effect on wetland grassland. If farmers pull out of cattle then there may be less animals around to graze which will result in grassland becoming too long to attract lapwings to breed.

Cattle are an important component in managing land for breeding waders.

The role of conservationists is not to despair at the problems, I feel, but to find a way around the problems. There is always a way but we might have to spend the next few years working out new and possibly better ways of getting the job done.

Mid month I also attended a meeting of the new North Kent Marshes Internal Drainage Board to discuss water level management. The meeting was well attended by local landowners and provided an opportunity to talk to new farmers about the potential to undertake breeding wader surveys and advice on their land. Hopefully this will result in increasing my work with farmers next year.

Towards the end of the month I also met up with the RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust to discuss closer collaboration on farming advice so we don’t double up on advice and can share expertise.

The result of all these meetings is that I now have a busy few months ahead as I work with farmers to design wetland restoration schemes and get all the necessary permissions in place before seeking outside funding to deliver the work.

Away from all of this I have continued to research the impact of personal watercraft on birds and marine mammals by reading research from around the world. It is interesting to see how coastal development is impacting on wildlife and prudent to learn how other countries have researched and dealt with the issue. This research has helped in drafting a two stage plan of survey and practical action which I will present to the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership forum next month.

Seals can be easily disturbed if water craft get too close.

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A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2018

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2018

Redshank

Redshank will only survive on farmland if we get our agricultural subsidy system right. 

At the beginning of October responsibility for Countryside Stewardship payments was transferred from Natural England to the Rural Payments Agency, in a move which sadly further undermines Natural England’s viability.

The recent ‘People’s Manifesto for Wildlife’ branded Natural England, ‘unfit for purpose,’ a sad indictment of an organisation, which was once seen within the industry, as a bastion of expertise and good judgment.

 
Many of the remaining staff still have that expertise but much of their power and any independent thought has been stripped away. The loss of Countryside Stewardship administration is seen as punishment for late payments to farmers but as Natural England have been subject to funding and staff cuts then it’s hardly surprising that mistakes and delays have occurred. Natural England are unfortunately being used as a political football in the debate about the future of our agriculture subsidies.

 
The Agricultural Bill, making its way through parliament, is central to decisions over where our public money goes. What should we pay farmers to do? Should we subsidise them to grow food or should the market pay for this? Should supermarkets be forced to pay a fair price to farmers and, if so, are we prepared to pay higher prices for our food? Should we reward farmers for providing ‘public goods,’ the things which benefit us all; good soils, clean air and water, biodiversity and countryside access?

 
Away from Westminster and out on the fields it is a time of frustration and confusion. No one knows at this moment quite who’s in charge and where the money’s coming from. Farmers and, for that matter, self employed consultants, tend to be self sufficient and flexible types and therefore we will look for ways around these problems. Many farmers in North Kent are more than willing to make changes to their land to benefit wildlife and I aim to harness this enthusiasm by planning a programme of rill and scrape restoration on farms across the area.

re-profiling rill 2017

Funding is needed to restore our wetlands.

Creating new wetland areas is the next step which will allow more birds to successfully breed on our farmland and ultimately mean that the money we currently pay farmers to manage their land for wildlife is not wasted. Without this extra work then many of our farms, currently receiving breeding wader stewardship payments, will never reach their potential. If grants are currently not available from the government then we will just have to look for outside sources of funding.

 
In the meantime work continues to move ahead with plans to work with hovercraft and jet ski users to reduce disturbance to breeding and wintering birds on the Medway and Swale estuary. The project has received support from Birdwise North Kent and the RSPB and we are now firming up a project proposal prior to seeking funding.

 

Thames litter pick 1 pickers
Finally this month I also joined Belinda Lamb, Medway Swale Estuary Partnership Guardians of the Deep officer and RSPB volunteer, David Saunders on a litter pick on the Thames foreshore. The amount of plastic bottles on the beach was particularly shocking and a deposit return scheme can’t come soon enough. However the ultimate solution lies in using less plastic products in the first place.

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – September 2018

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – September 2018

September is the traditional month to gather the harvest and prepare for the winter. Farmers throughout Kent are busy picking apples and preparing livestock for market. They have also taken the time to discuss the other crop produced on their land this year, a bumper crop of lapwing chicks.

lapwing chick at phil barlingsThis year, numbers of fledged lapwing chicks rose from 39 in 2017 to 55. This figure is actually an under estimate as the wet spring caused a flush of grass in June which made it fiendishly hard to spot chicks and thereby get an accurate count. Pairs of lapwing are easier to accurately record and this year rose from 59 in 2017 to 155 and, for the first time, almost every single farm in the North Kent Breeding wader scheme recorded some lapwing activity.

 
Other species also benefit with redshank having an excellent year and 27 fledged yellow wagtail chicks recorded, 10 on one farm alone! Along with our two fledged black winged stilt chicks, the first ever to fledge off of a reserve in Britain, it shows that we are heading in the right direction and that stewardship payments coupled with tailored advice is the best recipe to reverse the decline in farmland wildlife.

 
After 4 years of working with the farming community I firmly believe that we cannot just hand over stewardship money and expect farmers to know how to do the work, some will, many won’t. We need people back on the ground who get to know the land in all seasons and build relationships with farmers so they can tailor advice to individual circumstances. We need people who can enthuse others to do the work and find solutions to obstacles preventing the land reaching its potential. We also need a stewardship system that is flexible and based in reality.

 
This season, for instance, our main problem is an invasion of sea club rush which is beginning to cover scrapes reducing the amount of bare earth and short vegetation which in turn will impact on breeding pairs and chick success.

farmers need help to manage rush around scrapes

Rush issues on a farm in North Kent.

Stewardship agreements tell farmers they need to manage the rush every year but many farms lack the equipment needed to manage it mechanically or chemically. Endless red tape also makes the situation worse, putting farmers in a difficult position where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. While regulation is a good thing to prevent damage to species and habitats it needs to be flexible to support landowners who are trying to do the right thing and manage their land for the benefit of wildlife.

 
What is needed is a separate fund of money to pay for yearly work on farmland, a pool of equipment such as weed wipers and rotary ditchers that can be lent out to farmers and a common sense approach to legislation.

 
In my experience farmers are more than willing to do the work but we need to give the right kind of practical support to enable them to do it.

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – August 2018.

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – August 2018.

 

 

Carl demonstrates getting over the humpThe seasons are a changing. The light is more golden, more intense, the dew is wet on the grass in the mornings, cobwebs shimmer on the marshes and lapwing flocks are gathering.

Autumn always signifies a time for new beginnings. The ‘Back to School’ feeling that haunted my summers settles upon me and I feel it is a time of new pencil cases, new exercise books, new projects.

Last month we began planning a new project to look at disturbance to wildlife on the Medway and Swale Estuary caused by personal watercraft, namely hovercrafts and jet skis. At the invitation of Carl Cristina, from the Hovercraft Guild of Great Britain, I took a trip out on the Swale to see the issue of disturbance first hand and understand the perspective of the hovercraft users. Only by talking to the people involved is it possible to begin planning ways of reducing the problem.

Personal watercraft, along with dogs off of leads, are having an impact on the 300,000 birds using the estuary every year. Flushing birds from feeding and breeding areas, if only for a few minutes, lessens the chances of survival. Talking to hovercraft users however revealed a number of practical measures we could take to better inform users and provide training to help people avoid sensitive zones as well as raising awareness of the importance of the estuary for wildlife.

We have now submitted a project proposal to Medway Swale Estuary Partnership and spoken to Medway Council with the intention of seeking funding to implement these changes.
Last month we also met with wildlife photographer Robert Canis to discuss a potential article for BBC Wildlife Magazine about the work of the farmers of North Kent to improve the fortune of lapwings.

Nicole Khan looking at Mr Oylers

Nicole Khan of the RSPB inspect farmland.

Lapwings were also very much on the agenda at a meeting with Nicole Khan of the RSPB when we discussed the increase in breeding pairs on farmland in North Kent and talked about plans for more practical projects which we plan to discuss when we begin our yearly round of farm visits next month.

A Day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – June/July 2018

bw stilts 2

Black winged stilt adult and chick. Photo Frank Cacket

The hot weather in June and July coupled with the late spring could have been the reason that this years breeding wader season was longer than every.

Young chicks were still being spotted on farmland well into the month. The weather however also meant that vegetation began to grow rapidly and grass and rush soon were smothering the edges of wetland scrapes. While this didn’t seem to cause problems for birds like redshank it did mean that it was doubly hard to accurately count chicks.

 
Spotting cryptically coloured balls of fluff programmed to lay still at a warning call from the adults is hard enough at the best of the times and when these chicks have long have long grass to hide in  the result is that it is almost impossible to accurately count sites.

Even with this difficulty I can report that numbers of fledged lapwing chicks from North Kent Farms were up again with redshank and yellow wagtail also doing better.

a pair of bw stilts

black winged stilt chicks. Photo Frank Cacket

One pair of chicks in particular caught everyone’s attention. This year a pair of black winged stilts successfully raised two chicks on one of the farms I work on. This is the first time a pair of chicks has fledged outside of a reserve in Britain.

 
For now we intend to keep the name of the farm and farmers a secret as there is a high chance that the birds will return again and there is a need to keep the site (which is on private land) undisturbed. This lack of disturbance throughout the breeding season was well managed by the farmers and, along with the creation of excellent wetland habitat, was the reason these birds did so well.

 
The pair of stilts were tireless in their attempts to drive off potential threats, throwing themselves at buzzards, gulls and the RSPB Senior Conservation Advisor who came to see them. Even with this effort I knew the odds off them successfully fledging both young were slim but as each visit went by and the chicks grew I rooted for the birds to succeed and almost began to feel sick at the thought of them loosing them after watching them work so hard.

 
Finally on the 4th July the birds vanished from the site and the next day adults and chicks were spotted at Oare Marshes. This success is the cherry on the cake of a great breeding season and is a testimony to the excellent work the farmers in North Kent are doing for our waders.

Norfolk Hawker
Also in July I took Martin Thomas of Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership out for a days training in wetland survey work. Martin is now all set to do this years round of surveys for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. The day revealed both good and bad news.

 
I was saddened to find that one of the most botanically important channels in the drainage district was suffering from phosphate pollution for the first time. This input could cause rapid growth in some species of waterweed to the detriment of others and put some of our rarest wetland plants at risk.

Better news was the Norfolk Hawker dragonfly spotted at Elmstone Stream. This proved to be the first record for this species in this area.getation to hide in the result is that it is almost impossible to accurately count sites.

A better countryside is possible

fledged lapwing chick barksore

The bottom line. More fledged waders from farmland.

Head over to the RSPB website to read my guest blog on my work with farmers in North Kent. The site describes me as a RSPB volunteer farm advisor which isn’t quite true as I work independently of the RSPB as a paid consultant but the support and advise I receive from the RSPB is fundamental in making the project a success.

Read the blog here

http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/getinvolved/b/south-east/archive/2018/07/05/a-better-countryside-is-possible-but-a-strong-watchdog-is-needed-to-protect-it.aspx