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

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

It is the last day of April and the country is being deluged with rain. Six weeks worth is due to fall in one day, the Met office tells me.

However, we have also seen some beautiful spring weather this month. The season seems to have accelerated with blossom and bluebells coming all at once.

At the beginning of April I spent two days with volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership overseeing the creation of new berms at Port Rill, a drainage channel managed by the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. The weather could not have been more of a contrast, the first day we spent in hot sunshine, the second in icy winds but whatever the temperature the volunteers did an excellent job at installing woody debris.

channel renaturalisingThe work done by the volunteers last spring is beginning to show results with parts of the channel re-naturalising, creating meanders and fast flowing sections. Years of silt are being scoured away to reveal underlying gravels. New wetland plants have established themselves on the berms and there were plenty of frogs enjoying the re-energised channel when we visited.

The second half of the month was crammed with breeding wader surveys and I saw many beautiful sunrises over the marshes.

Over the autumn, North Kent farmers have been busy creating new scrapes and rills and altering drainage systems. The winter rains have filled these new features and the result is more waders than ever before breeding on North Kent farms.

As figures stand at the moment we have an extra 15 pairs of lapwing breeding on the farms than this time last year. That is surely something to celebrate and pulls me out of bed each morning when that 5am alarm goes off.

These great results are a real testimony to the benefits of giving tailored advice and building long term relationships with landowners. The farmers I work with really want to see more birds on the land but have to make a decent living at the same time.

Good subsidies for creating wildlife rich landscapes backed up by strong legal powers for those that damage the environment are all important if we are to create healthy farmland and river systems which benefit both wildlife and people.

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A day in the life of an environmental consultant – February 2018

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Graveney Marshes ideal for wintering wildfowl and waders

As I write the country is hit by icy temperatures.

Not quite down to the -40 degrees I experienced while working in the Arctic in 2013 but still enough to send us all scurrying to turn the heating on.

This surge in energy usage is threatening the countries supply of gas and will possibly lead to cries to allow increased fracking with all its attendant potential to damage our water supplies.

Alternative energy sources are, of course, part of the solution but like all developments they need to be appropriately sited.

At Langenhoe in Essex, the solar farm is situated on flat fields near the River Colne and Mersea Island. Each month I visit the site and conduct wetland bird surveys (Webs counts) on behalf of Brooks Ecological Services. The survey area is unexceptional and it is not possible for me to judge whether it was more valuable for wildlife before the solar farm was developed. Certainly the arable fields surrounding the site support huge flocks of wintering lapwing and golden plover and lots more could be done to improve the survey area for the benefit of these birds but, in this instance, my job is simply to record what is now there.

solar farm

No one doubts that solar energy plays a vital role in the fight against climate change. Equally no one can really argue that solar farms are ugly intrusions on the landscape. However, until now, the majority of solar farm developments have not attracted too much controversy.

Unfortunately that has now changed. In 2015 the Government withdrew it’s support for green energy and cut subsidies for solar farm developers. This meant that small solar farms were no longer financially viable and developers have reacted by putting in planning applications for mega farms.

Developers Hive Energy and Wirsol Energy are now proposing covering 900acres of Graveney Marshes outside Faversham in Kent with panels which would make it the biggest development in the country and five times bigger than any other solar farm to date.

skylark @neil smith at Flickr

skylarks are of high conservation concern. photo Neil Smith @ Flickr

The land, currently used by grazing wildfowl, is adjacent to Kent Wildlife Trust’s South Swale Reserve and the Trust fear that it would cause habitats to become fragmented, marooning wildlife in pockets of pristine habitat from which they couldn’t expand. There are also fears of the direct impact on wildlife from the change of land use. The fields are currently used by brent geese and widgeon in winter and skylarks and meadow pipits in summer, all birds of conservation concern which would lose out if these proposals were to go ahead.

It seems bizarre, at this time of unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change and mass housing development, that the Government is not creating legislation to force housing developers to install solar panels on new build roofs and insist supermarkets install them on warehouses, thereby making us all much more self sufficient in energy while at the same time make it easier for us to reduce our energy consumption by helping people properly insulate their homes.

clive tackles PF

volunteer removes parrot’s feather from channel

Away from working on solar farms I revisited Wademarsh channel on Chislet marshes where volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership had spent the autumn clearing around 500m of channel infested with parrot’s feather.

It was heartening to see the positive impact of their work with only small amounts of the plant remaining. The work is only just beginning though as most of the 6km channel is still infested. Monitoring will now take place throughout the summer and the volunteers will continue their good work this autumn.

field 4 rotovating around wet splashLastly, work has begun again with farmers in North Kent as part of the Breeding Wader project. After the winter rains lots of the land is holding water better than in previous years and improvements to rills and scrapes carried out using money from the North Kent Capital Grant Scheme has created bare earth ideal for lapwings.

Just before the snow hit I witnessed my first pair of lapwing displaying on the wind blasted shores of the Thames. Let’s hope the current icy blast doesn’t effect our wildlife too badly and there will be plenty of birds to breed this spring.

I for one am keeping bird feeders topped up and the bird bath unfrozen

Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – December 2017

Day in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – December 2017

birdwatching on solar farm

Counting birds on the Essex coast

Winter marks the beginning of the tree management programme for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board.

The majority of the trees are trimmed back or removed to allow access to machines which de-silt the river. De-silting generally takes place every 10 years and is done so that drainage ditches maintain their capacity to hold a certain volume of water and cope with winter rainfall.
Nowadays ditches are partially de-silted with the central channel cleared and banks left untouched. This is a much gentler approach than in the past where banks were scraped destroying water vole burrows and removing native flora.

Carl inspecting Air Ministry Dyke willow

Trees such as this have high potential for bat roosts

Trees may also be removed if they are deemed to be a safety hazard. One particular tree that caused an issue this year was a black poplar which had a dead limb directly above a sluice structure. The IDB felt this could present a hazard to staff checking the structure and wished to remove the limb but inspections revealed several features which could potentially contain bat roosts.

Josh, our resident aboriculturalist, did not feel the tree was safe to climb so investigating with an endoscope was not possible and therefore we could not give the go ahead for the IDB to undertake the limb removal.
Further investigations are now being undertaken by the IDB to rule the tree out as a bat roost before they proceed with the removal of the limb.
Towards the end of the year our work took us to Langenhoe on the Essex Coast to undertake a WeBs count on behalf of Brooks Ecological Limited. WeBs stands for Wetland Bird Survey and the counts. which take place either side of high tide monitor non breeding water birds and are used to identify trends and distribution of waterfowl and waders. We are hoping to take more trips out to the RAMSAR protected Essex coastline in the coming months.
Lastly, this month, Carol Donaldson has been busy writing about wildlife for various publications including The Clearing and The Guardian. Read her article on the North Kent Marshes here.

Day in the Life of an environmental consultant – November 2017

Day in the Life of an environmental consultant – November 2017

November began with a meeting between staff from the Stour Internal Drainage Board and their contractors Rhino Plant to review the cutting of Shalmsford Street Dyke.

The dyke once supported white clawed crayfish and was a nursery ground for trout but has become degraded with silt covering gravels and an excess growth of watercress across the channel.
shalmsford street 2016

excess watercress in stream

These problems are exacerbated by high nitrate levels and poaching of channel banks by livestock. Sheep stand in the channel to graze the watercress causing further poaching and nutrient enrichment.

Fencing would be one solution but landowners often don’t want the expense. Fencing can also cause problems for rivers if the fence line is too close to the channel edge and prevents bankside management. When this happens river banks can begin to scrub up creating dark channels which are impossible to manage.

During the meeting we looked at ways the cutting of the channel could help alleviate the situation. Narrow channels are often faster flowing with better oxygen levels and less silt drop out but this needs to be balanced against flood risk.

We decided that parts of Shalmsford Street will be cut manually which creates less disturbance to the channel bed and can give a more sinuous cut working with the natural processes of the river while other parts will be machine cut in order to create more open conditions to allow for winter water levels.

A further meeting took place with the IDB and EA in the middle of the month to talk about improvements to Buxford Dyke, near Ashford. Again poaching by livestock is causing issues here, pushing banks and silt into the river where it can cover gravels. Other sections of this channel are prone to drying out and there is potential to create off line ponds which could provide refuge for macro invertebrates during drought periods. Further discussions are needed with landowners before work can take place.4 cattle crossing leading to nitrate problems (2)

November also saw the annual IDB AGM where I gave a presentation to the board on the work we have completed in the last year and some of the challenges we face including managing invasive species on Chislet marshes and deciding which IDB channels to reduce maintenance on as we take on management of main river channels as part of the Environment Agency Rationalisation programme.

The Rationalisation Project looks at changing the status of some of our main rivers downgrading some of the smaller channels to Ordinary Watercourses. This would allow the Environment Agency to reduce the cost of its maintenance programme.

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Lampen Stream is a channel which could be transferred to IDB management

It is proposed that the downgraded rivers are managed by the Internal Drainage Boards, whose costs are met by landowners who pay drainage rates for the channels to be managed. Several areas have been chosen to trial the project and the River Stour board is potentially one of the pilot areas, chosen partially because of its good environmental track record.

As the River Stour Board takes on the maintenance of more kilometres of river then they need to reduce maintenance on channels they currently manage. One of my main areas of work at the moment is deciding which channels would most benefit from reduced maintenance.

This project offers great potential to improve habitat for species such as Shining Ramshorn snails who like rivers with more in-channel weed and I have been liaising with Kent Wildlife Trust to choose which ditches in areas like the Ash Levels would benefit the most. Other species prefer more open water habitat and here I have been talking to the County Plant Recorder to make sure that channels with species such as hair like pondweed continue to be managed on an annual basis.

tub wat drop close up

tubular water dropwort may benefit from reduced maintenance

This will create one of the biggest changes in the drainage district for many years but one which provides exciting opportunities for wildlife.

Day in the life of an environmental consultant – October 2017

Day in the life of an environmental consultant – October 2017

October has been a busy month, working with farmers across Kent to improve marshland and rivers for wildlife.

The North Kent Breeding Wader project is gaining pace helped by a grant scheme administered by Kent Wildlife Trust. This funding scheme gives grants to landowners to undertake work on their land for the benefit of wetland wildlife. Almost all the farmers I worked with applied for the grant and, while the land is still dry, they have been busy creating scrapes, restoring rills, fixing pumps and improving water control.

Mid month I joined farmer Mr Wood and contractors Taylor Bros near Conyer to scrape back rush from an overgrown rill in order to create bare earth ideal for lapwings to feed on.

re-profiling rill 2017

Surveys carried out by KWT had shown there were no water vole present and so we could use the opportunity to create a shallow sloping edge. Good visibility is important for ground nesting birds so they can see and drive off predators. Crouching down at the water’s edge, I tried to look at the world from a lapwings point of view in order to get the correct bank profile.

This month also saw the completion of the first round of parrots feather removal from Chislet Marshes near Birchington on Sea. The River Stour Internal Drainage Board worked with Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership volunteers to remove every fragment of the plant from 500m stretches of the upstream reaches of three channels which the plant has colonised.

third task on Brooksend

Volunteers from KSCP search for Parrot’s feather on Chislet Marshes

In future years we hope to work slowly downstream pulling out the plant from the margins as it is hopefully eradicated from the upper reaches. This approach has been chosen so that we can remove the invasive without damaging other marginal flora .

White clawed crayfish enhancment visit pig stream

Officers from the EA and IDB discuss improvements for white clawed crayfish.

Lastly this month I met with white clawed crayfish experts from the Environment Agency to talk about management of channels which are proving strongholds for these endangered creatures. Working with the landowners and the IDB we hope to cut the weed from the channels in a way which will help maintain connectivity between isolated populations and add cobbles to the channel to give the crayfish places to shelter under.

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant- September

A day in the life of an Environmental Consultant- September

September and the weed cutting season for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board is well under way.

The banks and weed are cut every summer as part of the general maintenance programme and one of my key jobs is advising on the best cut to maintain the wildlife interest of the channel and work with the contractors Rhino Plant to advise on particular areas of importance such as management for white clawed crayfish.weedcutter and parrots feather

This month I worked with the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership volunteers to tackle an invasive plant, Parrot’s feather, which has colonised ditches on Chislet marshes.

A small amount of this pond plant found its way into a roadside ditch and has spread quickly. Removing the plant needs to be sensitively managed so as not to cause disturbance or damage to other wildlife. Therefore spraying and vigorous weed cutting is not an option as both these methods would leave ditch edges bare of cover for other species.

Instead the River Stour IDB has approved a programme of mechanical weedcutting followed up by hand pulling of parrot’s feather from the margins. KSCP volunteers have already spent two days wading in the channel or paddling in boats as dragonflies buzz overhead.

An eagle eye is needed to spot the tiniest fragment of plant and a boom net has been installed to catch plants floating downstream. Despite their best attempts all involved know it will take many years of work to combat this plant.

installing net at Wademarsh

Towards the middle of the month I attended an excellent course in wet grassland management run by the RSPB at their Otmoor reserve. Over two days I learnt about the precise needs of different waders and came away with lots of ideas to take out to farmers this autumn.

Simple changes such as rotovating foot drains can make a big difference and hopefully, by implementing these measures, we can continue to improve the fortunes of birds such as lapwings on the north Kent marshes.
Now all we need is a wet winter to top up the ditches and flood the grassland fields ready for the following spring.

 

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.