A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2019

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant – October 2019

very good redshank shotAutumn is well and truly upon us. Dark nights, high winds and waders arriving on our shores from further north, filling our estuaries with haunting calls.

I spent October feeding back the results of this spring’s breeding wader survey to farmers. Overall pair numbers were slightly up on 2018. Fledged chick numbers were down, although this probably doesn’t reflect the true situation on the ground, as the late arrival of chicks this year meant that it was very hard to accurately count them in the increasingly long vegetation.

Working with farmers is very much a two way process and I spend as much time listening to the farmer’s experience and their concerns as hopefully they spend listening to my advice about land management.

Along with them, I feel increasingly frustrated at the flaws in our current system of farming subsidies.

There are two types of subsidy that affect the farmers in my scheme. The Basic Payment Scheme, which pays farmers to actively use the land for agriculture and the various Countryside Stewardship Schemes, which pay farmers to manage the land for the benefit of wildlife.

But these two schemes often conflict, creating a minefield of unwieldy rules and a system where the government gives money for wildlife management with one hand but takes it away by penalising farmers for doing just that with the other.

This month I am trying to encourage farmers to manage the rills and scrapes on their land. Features which are a traditional part of wet grassland and vital for our breeding waders, in that they hold water for a couple of months of the year, allowing wader chicks to find food in the soft ground.

lapwing and chick at phil barlings 1

Lapwing chicks need areas of wet soft mud in which to feed. 

Many of the rills on farmland were filled in during the past or have become too shallow to hold water during the spring months. Deepening them a little would allow them to hold water during the time when waders need them most.

The farmers have been great. Happy to agree to this work, partly because keeping the land wet in the spring is a vital part of their Countryside Stewardship Agreements. If they fail to do this they could be slapped with a hefty fine by the Rural Payments Agency, who oversees the grant system.

footdrain

More wet rills in spring mean more waders breeding but farmers are being penalised for creating them.

However, the same agency are penalising farmers for undertaking the very management that is expected of them. Farmers are being told that holding water in rills during the spring makes those areas of land ineligible for the Basic Payment Scheme and therefore they will receive less money.

The whole system is dogged by a lack of clarity. The RPA’s own rules claim that, “Flooded agricultural land is still eligible for BPS if the flooding is temporary and the land would otherwise still be available for agricultural activity.”

How then can they justify removing payment from farmers who have temporarily wet features on their land that are available for grazing for the majority of the year?

This lack of clarity, coupled with late payments and a lack of a human face to the organisation is directly resulting in less farmers signing up to Countryside Stewardship Schemes at a time when we really need farmers to get behind wildlife friendly management.

How can we ask farmers to do more for wildlife when they will lose money by doing so? Good will between conservationists and farmers is a fragile thing and has taken years to build up but our Government Agencies are threatening to destroy all the hard work that has been put in.

Our farm payment system is a mess, lacking clarity and common sense and until it is fixed then our wildlife will continue to suffer.

Good Morning to the bird surveyors.

dawn Bedlam's bottom

Good Morning to the Bird Surveyors
Us crack of dawners
Stumbling from under the duvet with the alarm
Trying not to wake the wife, the lover, the kids, the neighbours.
Bumble headed along country lanes
Flasks of coffee and second breakfast tucked away.

Ours is a society of the solitary
Lone wanderers across the fields.
United by a jumble of survey forms and binocular straps.

Ours is the world of the dawn
Sunrise and curlew calls
Night time predators startled by our arrival.

Ours is the world of the spring
Speeding along so fast we struggle to keep up.
A headlong rush of pairing and production.

Ours is a morning of bird song
Tricky bird song,
Yellow wags and lesser whitethroat. Corn buntings jangling on gate posts.

Ours is a love, more than a love, a vocation.
That drives us from the warmth of slumber
To walk the soggy fields in the early hours while others zoom on motorways to spend the day locked in high rise boxes.

Ours is a mission.
To record it while we can
To witness is while it’s there
To mourn those who won’t arrive this year.

Ours is the morning, Ours is the Sunlight, Ours is the dawning
Good morning to the Bird Surveyors
Spring is waiting for you.

A Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant- February 2019

A Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant- February 2019

Making the wetlands wetter.

May 2007 aerial photo

Images like this from Google Earth help identify where to create new scrapes for wetland birds.

Despite, or more likely because of, a lack of rain over this winter and the beautiful but crazy heatwave at the end of February I am focussing my attention this year on plans to make the wet grassland of North Kent much wetter.

The Southeast struggles for sufficient rainfall and following the super dry summer of 2018 there is even more pressure on our rivers and wetlands as more water is abstracted from the natural environment for food production and the needs of the every increasing number of households.

Therefore we need to be able to preserve as much rainfall as we can on the marshes so they are wet enough in the spring to encourage waders to breed.

With this in mind I have spent the last month creating a series of wetland restoration plans alongside the farmers I work with. Google Earth has proved invaluable giving me a spy in the sky ability to whizz backwards in time across the land and see low lying spots where water naturally sits. By creating new rills and scrapes in these spots we can ensure that the fields stay wetter for longer into the spring and provide the conditions that lapwing and redshank need in order to successfully rear chicks.

Once farmers have approved the plans then the next step will be to get all the legal agreements in place to create a ‘ready to go’ project to present to outside funders.

It is a lot of work but is vital if we are to return waders to our marshes. To help I have taken on a student from Hadlow College. Matthew is in the first year of a Countryside Management degree with hopes of being an ecologist. I am delighted to welcome him to the team and help with his studies.

I am also delighted that the RSPB is looking to extend the work in North Kent for another 6 years and offer advice to even more farms. The Greater Thames Estuary is one of the priority areas in the RSPB’s Futurescapes project. Only by restoring large areas of land can we ensure a future for the UK’s wilWith this in mind I have begun reaching out to new landowners and was delighted to visit Kent Wildfowlers Cooling Marsh Reserve a few weeks ago.

This area is ideal for breeding waders as it lies adjacent to a large bay on the Thames which was created by managed realignment. The site is extremely open and flat but, like many other sites, struggles to hold water.

wet rills on area of marsh not shot Feb 2019

More wet rills are needed in places like Cooling Marsh

After walking the land with John Nottage and Ray Lucas from Kent Wildfowlers we sat around a pot bellied stove with dogs at our feet in a little hand built club house by the river and discussed ways we could help retain water on the marshes and improve the land for waders.

Many of the farmers I work with shoot and I don’t find this conflicts with managing the land for wading birds at all. I am very much hoping to get out to visit more Wildfowlers reserves and meet with more landowners next month.

 

 

 

Lapwings at Catcott

 

To start the new year I thought you would enjoy this beautiful film of lapwings at Catcott filmed by Bevis Bowden which will be screened later this year at Nature Matters

I am publishing this film for all the lapwing of the North Kent Marshes in the hope that I will be lucky enough to expand my work with the farmers and help to create conditions where these beautiful birds can thrive.