Spring has officially sprung, on the day of a much hyped but largely concealed eclipse. The days are getting longer, and if the weather doesn’t seem to know that it should be getting warmer, that hasn’t stopped the wildlife from getting ready for the great burst of life that this time of year heralds.
Sadly, my only contact with nature during the week is often just what I see from the car window. Even then, it’s great to see the white blossom start to appear along the motorway verges as the blackthorn springs into life. This month, however, I’ve come out of hibernation and managed to squeeze three site visits into the same week.
The first was out on the edge of town, to look at what is happening on a somewhat neglected site, and how it might be managed in the future. It certainly needs a bit of TLC – like many urban sites it has its share of fly-tipping and other problems – but it is a very good site for wildlife and has some interesting habitats which already support a lot of threatened species and have the potential to be even better. It could also be a great place to explore – but I suspect at the moment it is one of those places that people who live nearby don’t even know they could visit. The wildlife highlight of the day was seeing some gadwall flying by. They are not rare birds (although they are amber status, which means they are not doing too well) but you need to be out and about to see them – on lakes or gravel pits or coastal wetlands.
Having visited a site with an uncertain but positive future, the next day took me to a site under threat. Lodge Hill has even hit the national news, as it is (thankfully) unusual for a site that is so important for wildlife to be proposed for development. It’s a slightly convoluted story; for many years environmental experts (including Greg, a Conservation Officer at Kent Wildlife Trust) warned developers and the local council that Lodge Hill had a very high value natural environment, and that before they made any plans they needed to survey it properly and find out what was there, because that might affect their plans. Unfortunately, the actual value of the site in wildlife terms wasn’t fully assessed until after plans for up to 5000 houses were submitted.
Lodge Hill, it was discovered, was the home of over 1% of the national nightingale population. Another amber list bird, they have been declining since the ‘60s, and this decline has been even worse in recent years – between 1995 and 2009 we lost over half of the remaining population. This means that Lodge Hill is important enough for it to be designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and therefore protected from damage, unless there is an overriding public need. The Secretary of State has therefore questioned the council’s decision to allow it to be built on, and has asked for the decision to be examined through a Public Inquiry.
A decision on this will set a national precedent, so we will work with The Wildlife Trusts’ national office to make sure we make the best case for protecting the wildlife of this important site. Stephen Trotter, Director of The Wildlife Trusts in England, came to see the site, hear about the background and discuss how we can draw on national expertise.
It was too early to see (or hear) any nightingales, which spend the winter in West Africa and don’t start to arrive until April, so my wildlife highlight for the day was seeing lesser celandines along the roadside, like little golden stars sprinkled liberally along the bottom of the hedgerows.
One Planet Living
In between visits, I have been preparing a workshop session for our staff day, on One Planet Living. This is the approach we want to take to making sure we are working in the best way possible for the health of the planet. We know we are getting the positive impacts right, but we also need to make sure that we limit and reduce any negative impacts. People had lots of ideas of how we could do this better, so we will be sharing this on our website soon.
A feature of our staff days is a visit to one of our reserves to see some of our work at first hand, which is especially interesting for those of us who are mainly office based. I confess to frequently bailing out on these, citing pressure of work, but it seemed crazy not to go for the hat-trick of three visits in one week, especially on such a glorious spring day.
Steve Weeks has been working for Kent Wildlife Trust for 15 years, managing a group of sites along the North Downs from Bluebell Hill down to the River Medway. He took us up a steep path from Burham village, into the woodland that covers most of the site. The woodland is fairly recent, grown up on the chalky grassland once it was no longer economical for farmers to graze sheep on it. If left to its own devices, most of this area would, in time, revert to woodland and in some places that would be a good thing.
The ancient woodland that once cloaked much of the South East only exists in fragments now, reconnecting these fragments would help some of the remaining woodland wildlife. But the grazing animals that used to inhabit the ancient woodland , keeping grassy clearings open and sunny glades open, no longer exist, and without them the woodland habitat is far less varied. A lot of conservation management is aimed at achieving the mosaic of habitats that nature once managed without our help. There is very little chalk grassland in the world – and a surprisingly large amount of it is found in South East England, on the North and South Downs. It is special because of the mixture of flowering plants and grass you find there, which in turn support lots of other wildlife, some of it found nowhere else. Some people call it the European equivalent to the rainforest because so many different species can be found in a single square metre. At Burham Down, Steve and his volunteers have cleared some of the scrub and trees from the chalk grassland areas, and already the chalk grassland plants are reappearing. We saw violets carpeting on the steep slopes, and the leaf whorls of orchids that will flower in May and June.
Sheep and goats are much better at keeping the scrub in check once it has been cut back than people, so Steve has a mixed flock grazing the cleared slopes. The woodland also gets managed – the aim is to create a varied mixture of habitats within the woodland, with open sunny patches, open woodland and densely vegetated woodland, to suit the needs of the many species found here. This includes nightingale, I’m determined to come back in a month or so and see if I can hear them.