A day in the life of a environmental consultant – August 2017

A day in the life of a environmental consultant – August 2017

August was a busy month with river surveys for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board.

The Board manages a huge variety of channels from small natural wooded streams, to wide drainage channels across former marshland to urban rivers.

Some of the channels offer ample opportunity for enhancements such as at Buxford Dyke in Ashford, a channel which traditionally supported white clawed crayfish. Fencing cattle from streams, removing weirs and installing cobbles in the channel could all help manage silt and provide hiding spots for crayfish.

4 cattle crossing leading to nitrate problems (2)

cattle can cause issues with silt downstream

Sometimes the easy part is knowing what could be done to benefit the river. The harder task is persuading authorities and landowners that the work will be beneficial and not increase flood risk.

Traditional management practices sometimes involved drastic measure such as setting fire to channel banks and widening channels by dredging. These practices often were disastrous for wildlife and stored up issues for the future as widening narrow streams allows more silt to drop out in the centre of the channel creating a fertile ground for weed growth which blocks channels and may lead to flooding. More work needs to be done to show river managers and landowners that natural management techniques, such as allowing woody debris to remain in the channel can be beneficial.
Urban channels have different issues and Pumping Station Dyke, also in Ashford, suffers from fly tipping, invasive species and terrible bankside management by local businesses. Surveying a channel such as this it is easy to despair at the disregard many people show to their local areas and the low status of rivers in towns. With a channel such as this joined up thinking is needed for local bodies to work together to tackle issues such as fly tipping and misconnected sewers.litter in pumping station dyke

The month ended with a visit to Bourne Dyke, a beautiful channel set amid wet woodland with some fantastic old pollarded trees. Here the landowner has shown an interest in making improvements for wildlife and it is easy to get enthusiastic at the opportunity this could provide for restoring the natural wetland areas of this valley.

 

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A year in the life of an environmental consultant – August 2016

August 2016 – Messing about with our rivers

surveying

The sun shone throughout August as we continued with our work to re-survey rivers and drainage channels for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. Repeating a survey we originally done six years ago shows the changes in land use and how this impacts on our waterways.

The loss of many grazing meadows is particularly a cause for concern as grazing allows a rich diversity of plant life to flourish and creates a tangled fringe of vegetation which provides a microclimate for insects. cattle grazing ditch

We have found that some of the meadows which were originally grazed by cattle have now become unused. Development companies have bought up land on the edge of towns and villages and leave these fields ungrazed while they attempt to get planning permission.

With the cessation of grazing, plants such as tubular water dropwort have become outcompeted by more rigorous species such as common reed and banks become dominated by thistles. In other fields a change from grazing to arable has resulted in more fertiliser use, which has caused nitrate levels to rise in ditches leading to an acceleration in weed growth.

Throughout the coming months we hope to work with landowners to look at ways of reducing run off and improving rivers for wildlife.

Cutting a river channel by hand

Cutting a river channel by hand

This month we have also been working with Rhino Plant, the River Stour Internal Drainage Board’s contractor as they begin the annual weed cutting of channels. Where access for machines is too difficult the rivers are cut by hand with scythes. The guys involved in this work have to have plenty of strength and stamina to undertake the physical demands of cutting and hauling the weed onto the banks.

Our work involves advising on Biosecurity to avoid the spread of crayfish plague which can be transferred from introduced signal crayfish to our native white clawed crayfish with devastating affect. We encourage contractors to check clean and dry their equipment and spray with a iodine solution to prevent disease spread.

white clawed crayfish

white clawed crayfish

We also look at ways of using the weedcut to create meanders and improve the flow of rivers, creating diversity in the channel which allows aquatic insects to thrive and fish to spawn.

Restoring the health and vitality of our rivers will prevent flooding and provide clean water as well as allowing people in towns to enjoy a therapeutic slice of the natural world.

 

A Year in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – May

Josh bird watching on Stoke Marshes

Josh Bartel surveys Stoke Marshes near the Isle of Grain.

The peak of the breeding season saw us visiting farms across North Kent to monitor breeding waders. Along with monitoring numbers of lapwing, redshank, oystercatchers, snipe and yellow wagtails, we also recorded the fledgling productivity of lapwing chicks. Detailed notes were made on the sward condition, grazing regime and the amount of water laying on the fields. This information is used to better understand the ideal management for waders on both grassland and arable sites and to inform advice given to landowners to ensure that farms receiving stewardship payments attract breeding birds and that chicks have the best chance of successfully fledging.

The project is a follow on from the work started through the Nature Improvement Area (NIA), and is a partnership between NE and the RSPB.

This month we also worked with the Environment Agency and the River Stour Internal Drainage Board to advise on management of a small river called the Sarre Penn, which runs close to the village of Chislet outside of Canterbury.

Sarre Penn © Copyright Marathon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Sarre Penn © Copyright Marathon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The channel experiences high winter flows and we discussed possible ways of managing this alongside enhancing the channel for wildlife. Options included reconnecting the channel with the floodplain and creating a two tier channel using woody debris to create pools and riffles which will create more diversity and opportunities for aquatic invertebrates.

The next stage is discussing the options with the landowner and undertaking a water vole survey, only then can we make decisions on the best way forward.

Lastly we undertook a bird survey for the Medway Swale Estuary Partnership at Hillyfields Community Park in the centre of Gillingham. We discovered that this remnant of old orchard and open fields is home to 16 species of birds, including coal tit and mistle thrush along with abundant blackcap, chiffchaff and wren.

Hillyfields Orchard © Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Hillyfields Orchard © Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This shows how important our small urban green spaces are for wildlife. Unfortunately many of these sites are currently under threat by developers looking to exploit the current relaxation of planning laws. Our towns and cities will be poorer places if these wildlife rich sites are deemed to be unimportant and swept away.

A Good Read – Silt Road, The Story of a Lost River – Charles Rangeley-Wilson

untitled (5)I read this book in superfast time, drawn on by its underlying melancholy. A sadness of the author both for the buried and brutalised river whose history he charts and a personal sadness, hinted at but, with admirable constraint, never quite revealed.

As someone who has worked on many river restoration projects and known the teeth grinding frustration of coming up against official inertia, short sightedness and profit margins, as if these were something I personally was supposed to care about, then I fully understood Rangeley-Wilson’s anger at the tiny, self interested decisions made by councillors with hands in developers pockets. Decisions which then go on to suck the life out of a town and its inhabitants for a long time to come.

The story of the River Wye in High Wycombe, that this book uncovers, could be the story of so many of our rivers. Essential to the towns that grew up around them, bound up in our history, once beautiful and then lost under concrete. It could well have been the story of my own local river, The Beam which flows into Romford in Essex. Once an essential part of the towns brewery industry, it too now is buried under concrete with plans for its resurrection shelved in favour of a car park and shopping centre. It is a sign of the times, where we once worshipped river Gods, now our Gods are shopping and cars.

Silt Road is not an uplifting read but the universality of its subject allows us all to recognise, think about and understand the rivers which flow in and around our towns better. Towards the end of this book you begin to will the author on, hoping for a happy ending, wanting Charles Rangeley-Wilson to save his river, unearth it from its tomb and give it back to the town but it is not to be.

The book does end, however, with a little glimmer of hope. As the author sits in a café and watches the people of the town drawn to the one water feature they have left. Reaching out in order to touch and connect with this element and, in doing so, maybe connect with an inner part of themselves which, like the river, is buried deep underground.

 

Our broken river

Kingfisher by Peter Trimmings

Kingfisher by Peter Trimmings

I took a paddle upriver last week, along one of the most beautiful parts of the River Stour outside of Canterbury.

My volunteer group were busy on the bank pulling Himalayan Balsam, an exotic plant, which, if allowed, would cover the banks and shade out all the native plants. I paddled ahead to look for more exotic plants, Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, garden escapes which had run amok.

I paddled in a kayak we had found dumped some months previously, the holes patched with gaffa tape with a woodworm riddled paddle found at the back of the workshop. But the kayak was water tight and the river beautiful. Rafts of water crowfoot flowered mid channel, the river clear and gravel bottomed, banded demoiselles, tiny blue and green jewels flitting mid channel, little groups of sapphire males fighting over resting places, favoured leaves and pebbles.

I paddled past banks lined with water forget-me-not and woundwort, trees with creeping roots clambering over and under and through broken walls of Victorian bricks built by shirt sleeved and braces men of long ago. Willow overhung the channel, forcing me to duck and dive through swampy undergrowth, a kingfisher vanished in a flash of brilliance up ahead.

This part of the Stour is all that’s left, miles of river either side of Canterbury have been destroyed by riverside developments. Once quiet backwaters, opened up to public gaze, trees cut back, wildlife disturbed all in the name of public access as if we had a right, a right to every tiny inch of the countryside, as if we can’t be happy to leave some places untouched and unknown, some places for the wildlife alone.

But is any part of our countryside now undamaged? Among the rafts of water crowfoot were plastic bottles and crisp packets. Shopping trolleys, carried by currents from supermarkets in town, lay along the banks, fishing wire hung from trees, waiting to ensnare birds wings and legs. The river smelt of phosphate, misconnected drains and sewers leaching poison into the river, a dead fish lay in front of one outlet, and further upstream crept the ever reaching tendrils of housing development. A new town of riverside flats was being created on the bank, the spoil and plastic pipes tumbling down the embankment, smothering the vegetation, cascading soil and silt into the river to cover the gravely beds downstream.

Sometimes, I am ashamed to be human, part of the same race that would arrogantly and blindly wreak such havoc on other living creatures. I would shut down this part of the river, remove the footpaths, so no to riverside access and, yes, even ban me and my kayak. I would say no more. There is enough access to the river, we have a right to no more. I would leave this part, this small little section alone, leave it to the fish and the water vole and the kingfisher, allow it to be a secret place once more and visit it only in my mind.

Sold down the river

photo by MLP

photo by MLP

This week I sat in a meeting with the Environment Agency. We were there to discuss my plans to restore the River Stour through Canterbury. I was polite as I listened to plans to install concrete walls where I would like to create soft banks with wetland plants. I said that I understood it was hard to give the go ahead to plans which would increase the wildlife of the river when people were on the phone screaming at you because their riverside garden was flooded and their garden gnomes were floating out to sea. I was courteous to all those at the table, after all these were not the rule setters just the people forced to abide by them but the truth of it is I don’t believe what they believe. I don’t believe that protecting every property against a 1 in 100 year flood is correct. 1 in 100 year floods are massive and very rare. Why are we allowing the wildlife and health of our rivers to suffer for 99 years just to protect the interest of a very small number of water front properties?

Millions of pounds of public money are sucked up to protect the interests of a small minority while instead it could be used to give life back to our rivers so they could not only benefit wildlife but the many more people who enjoy our beautiful rivers for recreation. When are we going to accept that we have built too many properties in the flood plain and some of them are just going to be too expensive to protect?

I appreciate that my property is far enough from a river that it is only likely to flood in a 1 in 1000 year event but if you knocked a 0 off of this, I’d take it. I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t protect people or their properties from flooding at all. Protecting properties from regularly flooding is correct, maybe accepting that your living room is going to float out to sea every 10 years is too much to expect of anyone. But personally if I owned a property that backed onto a river I would accept that a soggy garden and yes, maybe even a soggy cellar was part of the bargain. Fair payment for the day in day out enjoyment of enjoying a healthy river system which benefits everyone.

Poor defenceless creatures!!

Carol and a water vole square up to each other

Carol and a water vole square up to each other

Spent the last week wrestling with water voles down in Devon on a course run by Derek Gow Consultancy to learn the right way to trap and handle these feisty rodents, which have seen there numbers plummet across Britain, mainly as a consequence of loss of wetland habitat and the ditches and riverbanks they inhabit, but also due to the introduction of American Mink who were released from fur farms and, unlike our native wildlife, could follow water voles into their burrows and through the water.

Still, as I learnt, water voles are not without their defences which included weeing in my eye as I tried to sex them and turning somersaults in order to bite me as I attempted to stuff them head first down a pringles tube (the man made equivalent of a water vole burrow it seems)

Nowadays, water voles in Britain are protected by a myriad of laws which prevent their burrows being destroyed. This protection is a blessing but can sometimes cause problems when work needs to be done to improve rivers and ditches for other wildlife by narrowing channels, installing trees or creating new ponds. The solution is to temporarily catch the water voles while the work is taking place and then release them at a later date into a, hopefully, improved wetland.

After a few days of mucking out water vole pens and learning the ins and outs of the law then Derek Gow proclaimed I had earnt my stripes and could be considered competent enough to go out and tackle the beasties in the field.

water vole held by tail