Fabulous morning on Sheppey watching lapwing chicks, hunting hobby, a great white egret and this stunning spoonbill
Fabulous morning on Sheppey watching lapwing chicks, hunting hobby, a great white egret and this stunning spoonbill
Never been more grateful to have one of the most isolated jobs in Britain.
A couple of weeks ago I joined the Medway Swale Estuary Partnership on a trip up the Medway River looking for litter hotspots and revisiting some of the places that inspired me to write my book On the Marshes.
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 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.
Put on some headphones and take a walk along the banks of the Thames from Tower Bridge to Maplan sands enjoying the sounds of the river from the lifting of the bridge to the sounds of redshank on the Allhallows marshes. This recording from BBC sounds really transported me to the marshes in summer and I almost ducked as the bee flew overhead.
Instead of an update, this month you can join me for a day out on the marshes searching for lapwing chick as part of the North Kent Breeding Wader project
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.
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.
Join me on a stroll towards Higham Marshes close to the location of the proposed Lower Thames Crossing to see the fantastic flocks of wintering waders and enjoy this landscape before it is damaged.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.