In the bleak midwinter.

winter sunset and bonfireIt hasn’t been the best of weeks. I managed to cut my head open by dropping a vacuum cleaner on top of me on Monday which resulted in blood pouring down my face in a scene reminiscent of the film Carrie.

On Tuesday I found out that my plans for expanding my farming advice to encompass the whole of North Kent had been stopped  in their tracks due to lack of funds and on Wednesday I found myself in the unlikely position of cheering on a Tory prime minister as some seriously nasty wolves circled her.

However, today, once again, the world and all it’s worries was put in its proper place as I headed out to the woods with my gang for a day of coppicing hazel trees, creating a bonfire and having a winter feast. It sets the world right, it puts all fears in their place, it reminds you of what is true and real in the chaos.

It is the alchemy of the woods and the work, a bonfire and the company of people who make you feel you belong that takes a bleak midwinter day and makes it shine golden.

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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.

The joys of Spring

fireside chatter simon houstoun

The gang stop for tea; photo Simon Houstoun

I’ve spent the last month in the sub tropics of Florida and have returned to England to find that Arctic temperatures are the order of the day. On a day of icy winds and multiple layers I was back out with my lovely volunteer gang, enjoying the watery light across the downs, the woolly tails of catkins on the hazel trees and the great tits sing songing in the hedgerows.

I have been out in all weathers with this gang of scrub cutters and hazel coppicers and a day out with friends in the countryside is a sure way of sloughing away any late winter despond.

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.

 

Happiness is….a little brightness on a dull day.

 

angie-and-pete-enjoy-some-orange-peel-fungus-2

The marvellously named Yellow Brain fungus and some equally marvellous volunteers.

While trying, unsuccessfully, to take a picture of a beautiful fungus growing on the hillside of Jumping Down in Barham, I captured instead the lovely volunteers of the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership, hard at work, restoring the grassland. It was a bleak day to be on the hillside but both the spark of colour and the joy of being out working with friends was enough to brighten my day.

 

Touching Base

20150815-0007Do you have a place where you belong? A place where you feel most yourself? A place which brings out the best in you? For me this place will always be College Lake, a nature reserve near Tring in Hertfordshire.

If you visit College Lake nowadays you may wonder why this place grounds me. The local wildlife trust landed on site a few years ago and nowadays there is a giant car park and shiny visitor centre selling posh mugs and bird seed, the place, at times, seems full of yummy mummies with noisy children but behind all this is the College Lake I know and love deeply, so deeply, I carry it around with me at all times and open a box inside myself to look at it from time to time to remind myself of what’s important.

So, I spent the weekend touching base. Working in the sun, restoring my beloved Shepherd’s Hut, a project I began eleven years ago when I was a summer warden working for the inspirational founder of the reserve Graham Atkins. It was a project I had suggested to Graham one morning over the normal cup of tea and chat. “needs doing,” Graham said and so I began “doing.”

20150815-0004This weekend, while DIY projects mounted up around my own home, I spent the weekend attempting to strip peeling paint from the woodwork and sloshing on undercoat while goldfinches twittered in the bushes, plums ripened on the trees and the Virgin Pendolino train raced past unseen in the cutting. I painted and drunk tea with Ken Thompson, a long term volunteer, a man who builds computer programmes and also comes here at weekends to restore farm machinery.

Ken on the reaper binder

Ken on the reaper binder

Why did we do it. I can’t speak for Ken but for me it’s two fold. One is for Graham, who died last year but who I sense everywhere at College Lake. The Shepherd’s hut and the old farm machinery were his pet projects and I want to keep them in good order but also I come here for me.

College Lake restores me, now as then, I feel confident, relaxed, centred, accepted, practical. I care not a jot what I look like, I know my own worth, I am my best self here. College Lake weaves a magic within me. I come away surer or who I am and what I want.

How can painting a shepherd’s hut in the sun do that? I don’t know, maybe because working outdoors, doing something of practical use, is what we are all originally built for, maybe because it is a world away from the challenges my real life throws at me. Whatever it is, it works for me.

We all need this, to touch base, in our increasingly busy and hectic lives it is easy to lose site of who we really are. Find your base, go visit it. Once you have, you will wonder why you left it so long.

The finished Shepherd's Hut

The finished Shepherd’s Hut

A day out with the volunteers at Milton Creek Country Park

Ethan and Madison planting trees at Milton Creek Country Park

Ethan and Madison planting trees at Milton Creek Country Park

When I am not writing about the countryside, I am running my own environmental consultancy; undertaking wildlife surveys, managing river restoration projects and running practical days for volunteers. Read about my day out with the volunteers at the local country park below.

 

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