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

untitled (17)

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.

 

 

A Year in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – Update

It has a been a busy few months. So busy in fact that I have only now found the time to write updates on my work as an environmental consultant. For more information please visit my website http://www.caroljdonaldson.co.uk

December 2015 – The weather’s all wrong but the work carries on.

Water vole surveys do not normally take place in December but, with the weather in Kent staying in double figures, water voles were active all month.

This allowed us to survey a section of Bells Drain for the Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board to see if water vole were present and look at options for displacing them when work takes place next year to widen this section of channel.

Ecological assistant, Matt Mordaunt braves the chill on Sheppey marshes

Ecological assistant, Matt Mordaunt braves the chill on Sheppey marshes

Despite the unseasonably mild weather, wading in a channel on marshland close to the Swale Estuary, still proved bitterly cold as Matt Mordaunt, ecological assistant discovered. Raw winds battered across the grassland restoration site and we were grateful for the hospitality of the RSPB warden who provided hot cups of tea.

searching for water vole sign

searching for water vole sign

Water vole were evident in low numbers along the channel and plans will now be drawn up to apply for a Natural England licence to move them, hopefully to a vacant channel on Sheppey.

The rest of this month was busy with visits to farmers across the North Kent Marshes. Working for Natural England, we are sharing the results of this years breeding wader surveys with farmers receiving Higher Level Stewardship options and discussing the best ways to manage their land to encourage more lapwing and redshank to breed.

We have been delighted with the positive and flexible attitude of all the landowners involved in this scheme and will continue to work with them throughout the coming year to get the mix of water and grass just right for these birds.

Wet splashes such as this will be perfect for lapwings in the spring

Wet splashes such as this will be perfect for lapwings in the spring

Working with landowners is of vital importance if we are not to become a country where wildlife only survives on reserves. Much of our wildlife needs large spaces and interconnected habitats in order to maintain viable populations.

Farmers get a poor press when it comes to wildlife and there is still plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to chemical use, but many landowners are discretely doing some wonderful work for wildlife and take genuine joy in seeing creatures return to their land that they remember being abundant in their youth.

November 2015  – Always more to learn

participants in Medway Swale Estuary Partnership Soil and Water workshop.

participants in Medway Swale Estuary Partnership’s Soil and Water workshop.

November began with attending a Soil and Water workshop organised by Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership. Working in ecology involves continuous learning as land use and farming practices change and this workshop gave startling figures on the costs to the farming industry of the loss of soil and chemicals into our waterways.

This new knowledge was put to good use a few days later when we presented a review of six years of survey work to the River Stour (Kent) Internal Drainage Board Annual General Meeting. Members and staff praised the review which included suggestions for ways to continue the excellent commitment the board has shown to improving biodiversity into the future.

peeling off the work area in layers.

peeling off the work area in layers.

More work took place at Whitewall Drain a channel leading off of the River Medway. following the removal of vegetation and potential hibernacula for reptiles and a search for water vole, the site was stripped of vegetation in layers overseen by an ecologist. A dam was put in place to isolate the work site from the rest of the channel and fencing was erected to protect water vole burrows.

Ovendens could then begin the work of installing new penstock structures, which will help control flooding. Investigations are also under way to fix a broken tidal flap, which is allowing tidal water to enter the freshwater channel. finished headwall

Infrastructure projects such as this always look raw to begin with but, once vegetated the structure will soon blend into the channel. During a follow up visit it appeared that the wildlife had already got used to the changes, as grey wagtails and kingfisher were spotted using the structure to hunt from.

 

 

 

Happiness is……..a buzzard flying over my house.

buzzard Walter Baxter

buzzard
Walter Baxter

Just had a buzzard fly over my house, in the middle of urban Medway. It circled above on a rising thermal, hunting for what, I do not know.

I wanted to shout out across the gardens.

“Look, a buzzard, the wild is back in town.”

but restrained myself knowing that the neighbours already find my antics strange enough.

We have no aims.

all creatures great and small. No targets to protect them at all.

all creatures great and small. No targets to protect them at all. Image – Carol J Donaldson

Did you know that the UK no longer has a Biodiversity Action Plan? Forgive my ignorance here but I didn’t. Despite the fact that I have worked in conservation for at least 15 years and spend day in day out at the coal face trying to protect our habitats and species then I didn’t know that all the aims and targets for the things I most care about had been swept away.

Nor, it seems, did most of my colleagues. Maybe this is our problem, our noses are to the ground, trying frantically to protect what’s left and we don’t look up and see that we are living under a government determined to undermine our work.

bee on green winged orchid

image – Carol J Donaldson

The United Kingdom was the first county in the world to produce a Biodiversity Action Plan following the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. This is something to be proud of. The BAP provided detailed targets of how we were going to halt the loss of biodiversity and action plans which could be used to protect the most precious and threatened species and habitats. We failed to do this. No British Government cared enough to stop the loss of biodiversity but at least we still knew what we were aiming for and roughly what we should do to get there.

Now it seems, quietly, without fanfare, we have lost our direction. In 2011 the new Tory led government scrapped the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, closed the website, along with a whole host of websites belonging to its environment and nature conservation agencies and sent letters out to say that all the habitat and species plans and targets so carefully worked out by experts were no longer relevant. What was put in their place? seemingly nothing.

The UK Bap was replaced by the snappily titled, Post 2010 Biodiversity Framework and a document was produced which had lots of nice waffle about how marvellous we were all doing but had no meat on the bones to say how we planned to make things better.

It is easy to lose your way under the governments new plans for biodiversity. Image MLP

It is easy to lose your way under the governments new plans for biodiversity.
Image MLP

Wading through the website of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, who advise the government on nature conservation, is like walking through a forest of birch trees on a very foggy day. Shapes loom out at you but, before you can determine what they might mean, they are lost. Am I just being cynical when I begin to feel that this opaqueness might just be on purpose? You are not meant to find the information you are looking for because it doesn’t actually exist.

JNCC staff seem equally confused. When you ask them what has replaced the plans which once laid out how we were going to protect everything from the brown hare to an obscure pea mussel they seem unsure and take your e-mail address with promises to get back to you. Finally you might be directed to a web page  which nowadays only gives you a list of important species, tells you the many reasons they are struggling to survive but gives you no idea what we are doing to stop their loss.

On a local level, things are different. Professional and amateur naturalists, county recorders and wildlife interest groups work frantically to protect their local patch but most of these people are voluntary or woefully underfunded and increasingly they are also portrayed in Government rhetoric as the enemies of the country. These are the people who stand in the way of progress, growth, development. These are the people who put a spanner in the works of housing estates being developed on green spaces and rich men getting richer.

every tiny thing matters

Every tiny thing matters. Image – Carol J Donaldson

Conservation, wildlife, biodiversity and those who seek to save it have become, it seems, the enemy of the Government and the Government has picked away at the strings and science and laws that once protected it. There is no UK plan, no joined up thinking and maybe this was the plan after all. Un-united they hope we might just fall.

First day out in the world

baby with mouth openMy blue tit babies are out! They were in the box at 6.30am this morning but by the time I came out of the shower they were fluttering around my garden like bits of coloured cotton wool blown by the wind. I feel as nervous as a parent watching a child head off for their first day of school. I want to watch over them and chase away the neighbourhood cat who has taken an unhealthy interest in proceedings, waiting with endless patience until I spot him and go haring down the garden in my dressing gown.blue tit on box

The first few days out of the nest must be the most dangerous time and I curse that I have to go out today and can’t help out these parents who have worked so hard for success. Their industry has inspired me. Round the clock they have flashed in and out of the box like winged jewels drawn, drawn, drawn by the endless begging calls. Now life gets even harder for them. They dash around after the babies, who tumble between tree and box and window pane on wings which seem to short to support them.