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 – April

April 2016 – Up with the lark.

dawn on a farm on Sheppey

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.very neat fire at Bredhurst Wood

volunteers at Bredhurst Woods

A walk to Yantlet Creek

yantlet 6 creek

Yantlet Creek looking towards the London Stone and the Thames

Just finished the first round of dawn bird surveys. Even at 6am on a barren grassland with an Arctic wind flying along the Thames then I know that this job is a privilege. I see isolated bays and sunrises, the sharp light of dawn, hunting marsh harriers and a world with only me and the skylarks awake.

Tuesday I walked the sea wall at Yantlet Creek on the Thames Estuary. The bay at the creek mouth was deserted apart from me and a big dog fox who bounded off in puppy leaps but was overcome with curiosity every few steps, stopping to turn back and judge me. Deciding I was harmless, he stopped to shake himself sending a shower of droplets into the air, an eiderdown on dew sent skywards.

I walked down to the memorial stone marking the entrance to the bay. When I came here many years ago there had been a plaque commemorating the death of a young boy who had drowned in the bay, now all that was left was a green stain where the copper plaque had been lifted by thieves, for its scrap value no doubt.

yantlet 1  memorial stone

memorial stone

 

I sat down for second breakfast, coffee and muller rice and watched the moon fade and an egret fishing the shallows. The trails of water reaching the creek wriggled their way across the mud like blood vessels across the brain. There were birds in the bay, redshank, oystercatchers, godwit, a whole flock of knot peppering the water with their wing beats but none on the land I had come here to survey.

That is where my real work begins, not on these dawn walks to count birds, that part is easy, the real work is in enthusing a farmer to make the changes that are needed to create land suitable for these birds to breed.

An easy jet plane flew over the gas container storage depot out on the Isle of Grain and I felt myself slip through a wormhole in time. The marshes, the bays do not seem of this century and, in them, I become not of this century. Slipping into a world of Bawley boats and labour on the land and gentleman naturalists heading out with butterfly nets.

Despite its fragility the world I occupy seems more solid. If the industry and the aeroplane vanish, as one day they will, the bays will remain and part of me will remain in them as having attempted to create an alchemy of land and water and wildlife, the bones of life, onto which the 21st century’s imposition seems tinny and temporary.

yantlet 2 sea pursulane in flower

Yantlet Creek looking towards the London Stone and the Thames

 

Second breakfast finished I continued on my way past the saltmarsh towards the head of the creek where two black backed gulls guarded an ancient dock demanding tolls from all who dared to pass.

 

Dawn on the Isle of Sheep

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In the midst of six days of 4.30am wake up calls as I head out for the first round of breeding wader surveys on the marshes of Sheppey, the isle of sheep. The early start means I am like a bear with a sore head by midday but, believe me, I never for one moment doubt how lucky I am that this is my day job. Marsh harriers, plummeting lapwing, beautiful sunrises and on Monday my first swallow of the year, flying across Capel Fleet.

A Year in the life of an Environmental Consultant – March update.

March 2016 – A World of Water Voles

barry

The month of March has been choca block full of water vole. Work to improve a pump house on a watercourse managed by the Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board involved widening a drainage ditch which survey work had revealed held a small population of water vole. Due to the length of the channel trapping was the only option.

Working with Derek Gow Consultancy, traps were set along the channel and checked morning and evening for 15 days. After 5 days with no water vole signs the site was declared clear and the ditch banks were scraped of vegetation using a destructive bank technique overseen by ecologists.

Josh Bartel check a trap

Josh Bartel sets a trap

setting water vole traps on steep banks involves good balance!

setting water vole traps on steep banks involves good balance!

Legislation involving water voles has recently been reviewed. Where only small sections of bank are to be effected by works then displacement is sometime a better option than trapping. This involves strimming banks to bare earth in order to encourage voles to move to new territories. Until recently their was much uncertainty about the success of this technique and it was used widely and at varying times of years as a cheaper and less invasive option to trapping. Under Natural England’s new guidelines it will be necessary to hold a displacement licence to carry out this technique and work will only be able to take place during the early spring.

The new guidelines provide welcome clarification for a practice which was previously open to interpretation and the emphasis on an overall conservation benefit from the work should hopefully make it harder for developers to destroy quality habitats and replace it with inadequate and overstocked translocation sites. More work needs to be done with follow up monitoring to ensure translocation does not result in a net loss of protected species.

To ensure we are up to date with procedure we finished the month with staff training in water vole handling techniques at Wildwood in Kent.

Barry, the water vole.

Megan and Barry

Meet Barry, the water vole, being held by Megan Philpot of the Derek Gow Consultancy. Barry was caught yesterday out at Great Bells on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent where I am spending plenty of time working for Medway Internal Drainage Board on a scheme to widen a drainage channel. Unfortunately this means that the water voles need to be temporarily evicted so as not to be hurt by the machines. Barry is currently spending his days in a warm container fattening up on Golden Delicious apples before being released later this year.

Barry the water volebarry

Always another fight.

Always another fight.

how many meds

Burntwick Island, a great place to land a sea plane……Not!

I feel these days there is a never ending stream of battles to fight. No sooner do you breathe a small sigh of relief at the squashing of one scheme poised to damage the places you love then another comes along. It wears you down, but I guess that’s the point.

On Thursday by accident I hear of a proposal to begin a sea plane business in the Medway Estuary. The guy shows me the map of where the planes are planning to land, between the breeding tern colony on Burntwick Island and the RSPB reserve of Normarsh. This area is a RAMSAR site rightly protected as one of the most important places for breeding and overwintering waders and wildfowl in the country.  Peel Ports are running a consultation I am told but I am amazed that the proposals have even reached this stage.

I call my friends, Medway Swale Estuary Partnership, the RSPB, Countryside professionals in Medway Council. None of them have heard of these plans. So just who is being consulted?

Having raised the alarm things swing into action. The conservation bodies who protect this area begin to add their voices to the consultation.

“Well done you, for making people aware of this,” my friend says before going on to tell me that a development company have just won their appeal to build on the site at the end of my road.

Bakersfield is a scrubby brownfield site chocha block with songbirds, including nightingales, orchids and reptiles. McCulloch Homes’ original planning application had been thrown out by Medway Council as the site is just too valuable for wildlife but now the developers have won on appeal because the council isn’t meeting the government’s demands for housing at a quick enough pace.

I had protested against these plans, breathed a sigh of relief when they were dropped and now I have to swing into action to protest again. I do so, writing to Buglife, to the council, to my MP but it is exhausting, it is time consuming, it is never ending. It is designed to grind you down and make you stop saying ‘No.’ But saying No is still our right, it is the most important thing we can do. While I still live in some semblance of a democracy I will keep going. Raise awareness, protest, say no. giving in is not an option.

To contribute to the consultation for sea planes landing in the Medway Estuary contact james.goodfellow@peelports.com

To protest against the planned development at Bakersfield contact planning.representation@medway.gov.uk

 

The grass is always greener

Travel broadens the mind, so they say, and having returned from a week staying with friends in Hamburg I have come back with a sense of sadness at what we in Britain have lost and continue to lose at an ever increasing pace.

I was staying in Rahlstedt, a suburb of the city and each morning of my stay I would take a walk along a stream which ran near my apartment. It was -6 and snow was on the ground by wildlife was everywhere.  Trees reverberated with drumming woodpeckers, blue and coal tits called from every garden, red squirrels chased each other through the trees. It made me realise how impoverished our own wildlife in Britain has become, how concreted over our towns.

The difference was that here wildlife was allowed to live alongside people. gardens were allowed to run wild not turned into football pitches or car parks, mature trees were not removed as potential health and safety hazards and how delightful was it to walk past a field with horses grazing or a patch of scrub and not have to feel that constant anxiety that it would soon be gone for housing.

A roe deer watched me from a field edge, bullfinches flew between the trees in line with the balconies of flats and then, in a small woodland, I watched a goshawk fall from a tree and crash land on its prey feet from me, mantling it’s feathers over the creature before flying off to a nearby branch and watching me, seemingly unconcerned by my presence.

Red squirrels, bullfinches, goshawks, when was the last time a person living in Britain saw any one of these creatures? Most people in Britain have never seen them and yet we had them once, they are not scarce because they shouldn’t be here but because we pushed them out onto the edge of things.

In the city of Hamburg wildlife is part of everyday life, it surrounds peoples lives. Why then in Britain’s suburbs is wildlife increasingly portrayed as the enemy, an annoyance which stands in the way of progress and growth, and needs to be moved somewhere more convenient.

We have much to learn from other countries, not least, how to make our cities liveable for all, people and wildlife alike.

 

 

 

The edgelanders

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by MLP

 

Yesterday I crashed around in the damp leaves, in a quarry with a women called Vanessa. It was not a time for ‘normal’ people to be out. A wet Sunday afternoon in a quarry on the edge of town. The only people here were the teenagers, smoking in a sodden pack, perched on a rotten tree stump, and the ‘wierdos.’ I was the latter. The teenagers greeted us like fellow edgelanders, people who skulk on the scrubby edges of society.

We were here to do a meditation nature walk and had dressed in a bundle of odd layers, mine, moth bitten with burn holes from bonfires, Vanessa’s, so peculiar her teenage daughter had urged her not to leave the house.

We found a quiet spot, springy with raked up piles of beech leaves, we meditated, we walked around in the leaves, feeling the earth, our muscles, smelling the loam.

The birds alarm called, travelling flocks of tits and goldcrests, but then settled down, sensing we were ok, not likely to do human things like shout or call in dogs. We quietened down too, became centred, absorbed the outdoor world into our pores and let it be. Our muscles relaxed, our faces relaxed, we became part of the earth, not balanced upon it.

The rain stopped. The ‘adults’ emerged, dog walkers. They eyed us warily, they called their dogs away from us, the wierdos. I didn’t care. I felt my otherness and liked it. This stepping off the ledge of modern, normal, acceptable, life. Not shopping, not playing with a gadget, not exercising, me or a hound, just being.

I felt a woodlander in vaguely human form, a shapeshifter. It was the same feeling I used to get when camping rough in the woods. I would walk into a village in the morning and sense that my life and the life of the people I passed were on parallel tracks. I was walking just off to one side of the present, living an older, more natural, more animal existence, letting go, not caring about fitting in.

As the dog walkers scurried away I fell backwards into the pile of leaves and, laughing, looked up at the roof of skeletal winter twigs. The eiderdown of the woodland floor sucked me in

Back to Work

Barksore marsh ditch JanToday I walked Barksore Marshes, a private area of land on the edge of the Swale in North Kent. I was there to do a survey, to look at grass length and water in preparation for the coming breeding season, when I hoped the land would be full of lapwing.

My head had been full of New Year decorating plans and the sky became a Dulux colour chart of cool greys with twee names like ‘moonshadow’ and ‘pearl dawn’.

I stopped on a bridge over a fleet for a coffee. It was silent, a marshland silence, an enveloping cotton wool cloud of hush, broken occasionally by a crow cawing or a pheasant clucking or knot wing flashing out on the bay with a sound like a wave breaking on shingle.

A snipe flew from the rush. It was silent enough to hear the drip of water from its toes, creating rings, growing and softening across the surface of the fleet.

Skylarks began singing as the sun warmed the land.

“Too early,” I told them. “Wait, wait. It feels like spring but it could still turn.”

I hoped so. I hoped that winter would still come and change the country back into one of four seasons instead of a country with a climate that seemed to remain, warm, wet and grey year round.

Talking aloud, talking to birds and insects and sheep. It was the curse of the self employed. I was so often alone on the marshes I forgot what was normal. The aloneness could drive you crazy but not today. Today other people felt the back to work gloom descend. crowded on trains or stuffed into overheated offices but not me.

Today I thanked my ex boss who had trusted me with this gig.   I thanked God for this morning of silence and light on the marshes. I thanked my lucky stars.