The 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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Went into sensory overdrive this evening down at the rook roost at RSPB Northward Hill reserve, one of the locations for BBC’s Winterwatch.
After several days when we all seem to withdraw indoors I revelled in the march across the darkening marshes. In the great rasping sleepy hush of the birds, a single silver star and a tawny calling in late winter hopefulness. The loss of the light, a rosy sunset. A winter wildness far from the overheated fug of living rooms.
See the country’s largest rook roost below
April 2016 – Up with the lark.
April marked the start of this years breeding wader surveys on farms across North Kent. The survey has now been extended to 12 farms stretching from the Hoo Peninsula, across the Isle of Sheppey to Conyer near Faversham. Throughout the next few months we will walk all the sites twice, concentrating on areas with potential for birds such as lapwings, redshank, oystercatchers and yellow wagtails and follow up with a survey conducted by vehicle in June in order to look for chicks. A further survey may be carried out in July. The survey follows on from advisory sessions carried out during the autumn and spring to discuss how to get the best out of each site. Advisory sessions concentrate on getting the grazing and water management right and tackling predation.
This work is part of a long term collaboration between Natural England, The RSPB, Carol J Donaldson Associates and the farmers but, after one season of advisory work we are beginning to see some results. Overall the land is in better condition for breeding waders and, although there is still lots of room for improvement then we have been delighted by the good will and effort which some farmers have gone to improve things.
The cold weather which began the spring will not have done early breeding birds any favours but we are hopeful that numbers of fledged chicks will be up on last years results.
Dawn starts and long walks dominated this month but we did take time out to work with the Bredhurst Woods Action Group to install barriers to prevent illegal trespass off the byway which runs through the woods. It was a welcome change to spend time in this beautiful bluebell woodland after the exposure of the marshes and the baked potatoes for lunch were very welcome.
Scrub removed at Bakersfield – May 2016
Yesterday was a dark day for me. I tried. Anyone who’s ever known me will know that I tried to stop the destruction of the wildlife rich site at the top of my road.
As McCulloch Homes and Bioscan continued to celebrate spring by ripping up scrub from Bakersfield a site filled with breeding birds. I contacted the RSPB and Wildlife Crime Officer. I prowled the site taking photos and video of the destruction and confronted black hearted people claiming to be ecologists.
Mark Thomas, Head of Investigations at the RSPB thought we had a good case. Nightingales and cuckoos, both red listed birds suffering severe declines in this country, were breeding on site, scrub was being pulled up and because birds go to great lengths to hide their nests it was impossible for any ecologists to find them all prior to the digger ripping into them, especially ones from a firm that had concluded that hearing nightingales singing on site in May was not evidence that they were breeding there.
However, we hadn’t factored in the attitude of the police. I was phoned by a wildlife crime officer from Kent police who informed me that Bioscan were a thoroughly respectable firm full of very decent chaps and maybe I should talk to the man overseeing this work and attempt to understand it from his point of view . That, unless I could actually find a nest of massacred blue tits, he was not prepared to act.
In my mind there are two types of ecologists. Those in the light and those in the dark. Bioscan and their ilk are in the dark. They learn their ecology, they go on their training courses to get their licences and then they sell their souls for developers money. I do not converse with the dark side.
And so no one will be prosecuted for destroying Bakersfield. I cannot produce that nest of decapitated baby birds. I cannot prove their actions were illegal but even if these firms can persuade others that their actions are legal that doesn’t make it moral, that doesn’t make it right.
water and grazing machines. The key ingredients in encouraging lapwing
February Fill Dyke is written into farming law. If your ditches are not full of water in February, so the saying goes, then it’s unlikely they will be. Full dykes, wet fields, short grass, that was what we were looking for as we returned to the farms receiving stewardship funding to manage the land for the benefit of breeding waders.
After a winter of meeting landowners and working with Natural England and the RSPB it was heartening to see how good the majority of sites were looking. Wet splashes and tussocky grass lead to insect rich pasture which should attract and support more breeding birds this spring.
It is six weeks until the survey season starts but, due to the positive attitude of the farmers and the flexibility of Natural England and the RSPB, who are supporting this project, then things are looking hopeful.
February is also a traditional time of year to do hedgelaying. A weekend training course run by Alan Sage of AJS Crafts gave all those taking part an appreciation of the sheer physicality and skill needed to create a well laid hedge. Although mainly now used for decoration, hedge laying produces a stock proof barrier and can be cost affective as, once laid, the hedge can be left unmanaged for 15 years. They are also an asset to the countryside which is more than can be said for the ugly, split, flailed hedges that line our country roads at this time of year.
freshly pleached hedge. Cutting the hedge in this way allows new shoots to grow.
The hedge is staked and woven with long flexible rods known as binders.
The month finished by working with Oxney Land Services on Iwade Stream. Funded by the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership we undertook some selective tree removal on an overly shaded section of the channel. Removal of ivy clad trees and low branches should allow more sunlight to reach the water and encourage the growth of marginal plants. Water vole and water rail live in this section of channel so more bankside cover should benefit these species.