Gwaith Powdwr

Southern hawker dragonfly (male)

I was struck by how many of the sites I’ve visited during this trip have been reclaimed from industry. Of course most Wildlife Trust nature reserves are habitats that have taken hundreds of years to establish and are now saved for the future, but something the Trusts are very good at is bringing wildlife back to areas that have been used for quite different purposes.

Balistic Pendulum, Gwaith Powdwr
The Pendlum Shed houses a huge ballistic pendulum, used to grade the quality of the explosives produced on site. A canon, set with a charge of explosive was pushed into the hole in the pendulum and fired. The distance it swung would be used to calibrate the strength of the explosive. The heath around this area is now the main nesting site for nightjars.

Gwaith Powdwr, at Penrhyndeudraeth, is one such site. In the 1970s it was the most sophisticated nitroglycerin manufacturing plant of its kind in the world. Production stopped in 1995, and it was decontaminated before being donated by ICI to North Wales Wildlife Trust, Ymddiriedolaeth Natur Gogledd Cymru,  in 1998.

Heathland at the top of the site, overlooking the Dwyryd estuary
Heathland at the top of the site, overlooking the Dwyryd estuary

Due to the security requirements of the site, nature survived undisturbed in parts of the site, the heathland in particular has remained mostly ungrazed and is a haven for species such as adder and nightjar.

Lesser horseshoe bat (image Janice Whittington)
Lesser horseshoe bat (image © Janice Whittington)

Wildlife started to reclaim the rest of the site once the factory was closed, bats moved into the buildings and structures and the site is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its importance for bats, especially the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

 

 

North Wales Wildlife Trust volunteers and site manager at Gwaith Powdwr nature reserve
The volunteers meet regularly on Wednesdays to help manage the site. Today they were clearing paths, making space for visitors and making bat boxes in preparation for Party Penrhyn.

At the end of July, we joined Rob Booth, Living Landscapes Officer at NWWT, and his volunteers for their lunch break. They were busy getting ready for Party Penrhyn, an annual event at the site. Rob told us about the wildlife on the reserve and the work that is being done to encourage more wildlife.

Female slow worm
Female slow worm

The reserve provides ideal conditions for four kinds of reptiles. We saw lizards basking on old wood and bare patches of ground amongst the heather, and were given permission to peak under some reptile monitoring sheets, where bronze-sheened slow worms glinted in the sun before slipping further into the thatch of grass and old bracken. Adders are also to be found in the heathy parts of the site, but sadly not by us, although we searched carefully. In the midday heat they are far too quick for mere humans and would have been off as soon as they heard us coming. (Although snakes don’t appear to have ears, they can in fact hear, by sensing vibrations, including sound waves, which are passed through their jaw to an inner ear.)

Blast wall and building at Gwaith Powdwr
This storage shed has been re-roofed for bats. Many of the buildings are protected by blast walls. One of the volunteers had been researching the history of the site and told us about two serious explosions that had happened in the previous century.

As the reserve is so important for bats, much of the management is aimed at improving conditions for them. Lesser horseshoe bats use the tunnels and there are up to 30 hibernating on site but they don’t seem to breed there. The Trust managed to get a grant to re-roof one of the explosive storage sheds, and are hoping it will become a maternity roost. Since the work was done, brown long-eared bats have bred in there and Rob said that lesser horseshoe bats are already checking it out. The Trust is also working to make the bunkers more homely for bats, putting new doors on to prevent disturbance, reduce light levels and draughts and make them safer from predators.

The woodland on the reserve is particularly good for moths, the Trust  found 130 species in just one night. Where a stream runs through the woodland, the damp, shady conditions are ideal for ferns and mosses.

Ponds were part of the industrial legacy, providing water to help keep the explosives cool (and therefore stable) and also allowing contaminants to settle out of the water. These settling ponds are now a wildlife haven, we saw lots of tiny toadlets setting off on their journey into the big world of dry land, stragglers from the great toadlet exodus that happens during July. The grass snakes that have been seen around the ponds proved elusive, which is probably fortunate for the toadlets. Dragonflies and damselflies darted across the water, rarely settling long enough to have their photographs taken, except by the most patient of photographers. Fortunately I had one with me.

We had such a brilliant time exploring Gwaith Powdwr, everywhere we looked there was interesting wildlife. It is a fantastic example of how a site can be restored after such intense industrial use.

Brandon Marsh

One of the most precious books in my collection is a battered, brown hardback edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, published in 1966 and bought by my father not long afterward. A checklist at the front tells a hidden story, bringing back memories of childhood holidays and shared moments, as well as being Dad’s lifelong bird list.

Bird book and Brandon Marsh Brandon Marsh starts to appear alongside the ticked list in the 90’s and was a favourite haunt of Dad’s, who moved to Coventry at that time. He always planned to take me there, but somehow we never got round to it. Whilst I was rummaging through a box of his books recently, a leaflet for Brandon Marsh dropped out from between the pages of a book on wetland birds. So it seems fitting that my first stop on a tour of Wildlife Trust reserves should be the favourite site of a person who nurtured my own passion for nature.

Karl Curtis, the Reserves and Community Engagement Manager at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, showed me round the reserve in a timely break between downpours on Wednesday afternoon. As we made our way around the lakes and pools which make up a large part of the reserve, Karl explained how the site had originally been farmland, but subsidence due to coal mining locally had created a large lake, known as Brandon floods, linked to the River Avon which flows to the south of the reserve. Sand and gravel extraction created more lakes and pools and the resulting wetland habitats attracted a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. A group of local enthusiasts came together to look after those parts of the site, and the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Group was formed. Warwickshire Wildlife Trust took on the site in 1989 and works with the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Team to look after the site.

There is something about an expanse of shining water that instills a great feeling of calmness. As we sat in one of the many bird hides looking across a lake, the stresses of work, packing and travelling melted away.

East Marsh Pool at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve
Looking out over East Marsh Pool.

From one of the reserve’s eight hides, we watched lapwings strutting, smart in their metallic green-sheened plumage and single, show-off curl of a crest. Oyster catchers, black and white with striking orange beaks, peep-peeped as they swept round before landing. Elegant common terns flew gracefully down, one of the many species nesting or feeding on the shores of the islands in the East Marsh Pool.

kingfisher pole at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve
Look carefully to see the kingfisher pole which allows the birds to pose obligingly for photographers, although the reserve’s kingfishers were far too busy to pose for me that day.
Newlands Reedbed at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve
Newlands Reedbed at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve

An exiting ongoing project at Brandon Marsh is the creation of the Newlands Reedbed. This summer, 20,000 plugs of reed will be planted to extend the habitat. It is hoped that providing this huge area of reedbed, open water and marshy grassland will encourage bitterns and marsh harriers, which visit the reserve from time to time, to stay and breed here, as well as attracting other rare wetland species. The work has taken place over many years, and funding has now been secured to complete the final phase, fulfilling the long-held ambition of Alban Wincott, one of the volunteers instrumental in setting up the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Team and leading the work of the team. Sadly, Alban is no longer here to see the work completed, but Karl told me of plans to name this area of reedbed in his memory.

As we looked across the developing seedbed, a hobby swooped back and forth before settling on a branch. I was thrilled, as this was my first really good look at this beautiful bird.

Like many of my colleagues working in the Wildlife Trusts, Karl grew up somewhere where he could always be out exploring – up a tree, down a hole, and these experiences started his love of nature. He seems to be passing this enthusiasm on to the next generation; after being promised a snake hunt, his children were excited to find three grass snakes under corrugated iron refugia and a sloughed snake skin to take into school. I bet not many children get to report a snake hunt at show-and-tell on Monday morning!

 

Karl Curtis, Reserves and Community Engagement Manager at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust
Karl Curtis, Reserves and Community Engagement Manager at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust

 

Never one to turn down a snake hunt, I also got a peek at the grass snakes – a perfect end to my tour of the site. Thank you Karl for taking the  time to show me round and explain how Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and the team of volunteers are looking after this fabulous reserve.

 

 

Spring survey

Bluebells at Thornden wood in the Blean

I really should have known better – I had managed to plan a visit to Blean woods during the first hot and sunny week of the year, and was looking forward to a gentle wander through the woodland, dappled sunlight playing across carpets of spring flowers. How I actually spent the morning was scrambling through bushes, old bracken and bramble and falling down the occasional hole. Still thoroughly enjoyed it though!

Surveying dense scrub regrowth at Blean Woods
Can’t see the surveyors for the trees – Paul and Pica are in there somewhere. In a couple of years this will be even denser – perfect for nesting nightingales.

Paul had allowed me to gate crash one of his surveys, which turned out to be in an area of conifer plantation that was being restored to native woodland. Of course the thing about woodland restoration is that it takes time, and three years in, the area was thick with small birch trees, last year’s bracken and bramble, all growing fast now that the deep shade from the conifer trees has gone. It will be a while before the tree canopy lifts and the plants at ground level become more varied, but we found a fair bit of heather, which is an important part of the mixture of plants we hope to eventually see in this part of the woodland.

Thornden Woods in springArriving late, I had missed the chance for a lift from the car park to the section of Thornden Wood that Paul and his ecology group volunteers were heading for. Luckily, that meant a chance to walk along the track, flanked on either side with trees just erupting into that vibrant but ephemeral spring green. There were plenty of flowers along the woodland edge to satisfy my desire for spring colour; bluebells, wood anemones, bugle and the occasional lime green of a patch of wood spurge, almost fluorescent in the sunlight.

Wood spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides
Wood spurge
Wood anemone, bugle and bluebell
Wood anemone, bugle and bluebell

After a lovely walk down the track, resisting the temptation to explore the Wild Art trail, I found Paul and Mark (the Canterbury Area Warden) with Alex and Paul, two ecology group volunteers, forging through the undergrowth in pursuit of science.

Mark is experimenting with different management techniques, to see which is most effective in restoring the woodland. In the three areas we were surveying, one had been clear-felled (all the conifers removed)  and left to regenerate, another had also been clear-felled  and was being grazed from time to time. In the third, some conifers had been taken out to thin the canopy and let more light in. At this stage, there was a relatively small variety of species to be found, but it can still be quite tricky to identify young plants that are not in flower – fortunately Alex is an experienced botanist and able to help with any unfamiliar species. I can’t report any unusual species in the bits we surveyed, but the presence of native birch, willow, oak and hornbeam shows that the restoration to native woodland is clearly underway.

————–

Edited 10th June 2016 because I got Paul’s name wrong. Unforgivable, because as well as being an ecology group volunteer he is a regular volunteer at Blean Woods and highly appreciated by the wardens. So sorry, Paul.

Thinking ahead

swans on wetland at Ash Levels

Last week saw Chloe, Paul and me studying a table-length spreadsheet that is Chloe’s to-do list for the rest of the year. She is leading some very exciting wetland work this year, in various parts of Kent.

digging a drainage channel
Digging a drainage channel for a scrape (a shallow wet area) to create new habitat for wetland birds

There is a huge amount to do and it will need to be carefully timetabled – we have to have everything ready to go in a that short space of time when wildlife is least active but the ground is not so wet that we sink any diggers we might be using.

shallow wetland pool
The scrape will look like this in winter
Bike with shopping basket decorated with crochet flowers
Lots of people cycle to work but no-one’s bike is as cool as Ruth’s

This has been a week of working on plans and strategies. The action plan for our One Planet Living work is nearly finished – we want to make sure that Kent Wildlife Trust is sustainable in all regards, not just for all the fab work we do for wildlife. We seem to be doing that faster than I can write the plan, it’s getting harder to come up with actions we are not already doing.

I have also been updating our Advocacy Plan – this helps us to keep the discussion focussed when we meet people who are able to influence what happens on a broad scale to the natural environment.

Tompot blenny in Dover to Folkstone Marine Conservation Zone
Tompot blenny in Dover to Folkstone Marine Conservation Zone

For example the three things we want to talk to politicians about at the moment are the Marine Protected Areas (we need more of them!), the fact that wildlife is still in trouble and needs help and that we have a plan for that, and just how important the natural environment is for people and society.

 

Meanwhile, our mantelpiece reef is growing! A prize for the first person to identify the crocheted creation with the green fringe, in the foreground.

more crochet coral reef

 

Looking over shoulders

It’s about time I introduced everyone in the Conservation team properly. Starting with the planning team, which just involves a short walk across the yard to the farmhouse offices, we can look over some shoulders and see what people are up to.

We put a lot of time and effort into trying to prevent habitats being damaged and wildlife lost through building development. Perhaps surprisingly, this is more often about advising on how housing, roads and other built development schemes can be designed and implemented in a way that avoids damage, and sometimes even benefits wildlife, than about trying to prevent development schemes. Keith, Vanessa and Greg all have slightly different roles within the team, providing advice on whether wildlife is likely to be harmed by development schemes and how this could be prevented. Here is how we do it…

Looking for habitat information to assess the impact of planning proposal
Keith has been alerted to unauthorised motorcycle scrambling on a Local Wildlife Site by a KWT member, who has sent photographs showing how the site is being damaged. He is checking which habitats and species are found on the site so that he can let the local district council know which are protected by law and lobby them to take action to stop any illegal activity.
Not that the Trust is against motor cycle scrambling – we want people to enjoy the countryside in all sorts of ways, but there are places where this can happen without damaging wildlife that is already seriously declining.

As a previous Director of Planning at Tonbridge and Malling District Council, Keith has helped the Trust develop a very professional approach to our planning work. He works with us two days a week, spending much of the rest of the time advising on planning policy in other parts of the country. Keith focuses on checking planning proposals which might affect Local Wildlife Sites, as well as other important areas for wildlife, but Kent Wildlife Trust is particularly concerned to look out for Local Wildlife Sites because there is no-one else to do it.

 

 

Vanessa working at her desk at Kent Wildlife Trust, reviewing the ecological information from a planning application
Major planning applications are accompanied by hundreds of pages of additional information. A few years ago, Vanessa would have been surrounded by thick folders of environmental information as she checked to see what impact this 500 home development would have on the environment. Now it is all online, she just has to do a lot of scrolling.

Vanessa also has a professional planning background, she worked for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council before coming to work with us nearly two years ago. She reviews the new Local Plans that the local councils have to produce to show where new housing and other development can be built and where land will be allocated to other uses, including green spaces and nature reserves. The plans have policies in them covering all eventualities; Vanessa’s task is to check that they have strong enough policies to protect wildlife and the natural environment.

Greg working at Kent Wildlife Trust, emailing people about Lodge Hill Public Inquiry
There is still a lot of uncertainty about the timing of the Lodge Hill Public Inquiry, which makes it a bit tricky for us to plan ahead. Greg is working on the background evidence for the case we will present at the Inquiry, but the timetable is yet to be agreed and it looks as if it is is going to be further delayed. On the noticeboard is one of Greg’s beautiful tree photos. He is a really good photographer of many subjects, but his tree theme collection is particularly gorgeous. Maybe he will let me head this post with one!

Greg is the Trust’s Thames Gateway Officer, although the Thames Gateway as a concept seems to be quietly going away. That doesn’t mean that the development activity in North Kent is slowing down though. With long term schemes like the Ebbsfleet Garden City still going through the planning process, North Kent is still one of the busiest areas for us in terms of planning work. This week, Greg has been replying to the Thames Lower Crossing consultation – the proposed tunnel will damage ancient woodland Local Wildlife Sites and SSSI (you can have your say  here), meeting people about the Ebbsfleet Garden City and pressing on with the Lodge Hill Public Inquiry work.

 

Good news and bad news

I have been on a roller-coaster of hope and despair for the natural environment over the past few days.

At the Westminster Briefing on Biodiversity in London last week, we heard that 40% of global GDP (a measure of the goods and services that a country produces, which governments typically use to measure their success) depends on nature. It seems bizarre then, that the message from Defra is that they will not be spending money on environmental work. I lost count of the number of times that the speakers from the public sector said “there is no money” for the natural environment.

We were told that the England Biodiversity Strategy, Biodiversity 2020, is an initiative from the last government, and that the new initiative, a 25 year strategy, will only partly be about biodiversity, it will expand to include farming and food. Meanwhile, progress on improving the condition of threatened habitats and sites has slowed, and there are 361 species that experts believe are at risk of becoming extinct in England by 2020.

Depressing news, but I’m not ready to give up. Fortunately, I had just returned from the World Forum on Natural Capital, where it is clear that other governments, and businesses, are waking up to the fact that nature is essential to business and to the economy. The things that we get from nature appear to be provided for us free of charge, but this is an illusion. If the environment becomes so degraded that some of these things stop working, we suddenly become aware of the cost, and it is huge. Flooding that is made worse by artificial landscapes that no longer soak up the water is on everyone’s minds at the moment, but there were many more examples showing how important it is to invest in looking after this vital resource.

Nat cap conference 1
At the World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh

Natural capital is a way of viewing the natural environment as an asset that can be valued, and if it has a monetary value then it can be factored in to political and economic decisions. One of the most inspirational speakers of the conference was John D. Liu, a film maker and environmentalist, who believes that change is possible and it is starting to happen. He showed a film of a devastated landscape restored to health in China, showing what can be achieved with sufficient vision and support.

Throughout the conference here were many inspiring examples of nature being valued and then enhanced, although sadly very few from the UK; the challenge is to work out how we can get this happening here. I have a notebook full of ideas, just need the time and resources to put them into practice!

It was good to end the week on a positive note – this is just one of the maps that we covered at a Kent Nature Partnership meeting with notes of projects happening right now to restore and create new habitats for wildlife.
It was good to end the week on a positive note – this is just one of the maps that we covered at a Kent Nature Partnership meeting with notes of projects happening right now to restore and create new habitats for wildlife.

 

 

 

Oare Marshes

Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve on a sunny day © Bryony Chapman

On a wet and windy day recently, Vinny and I went to Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve, near Faversham, as part of his induction. We met up with Kevin Duvall, who looks after the reserve and several others in this part of Kent.

The reserve is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area, because of its importance for populations of wading birds and wildfowl. This coastal grazing marsh reserve is made up of wet grassland drained by a network of ditches, reedbed, scrub, shallow lakes, saltmarsh  and the mudflats where Faversham Creek meets the Swale estuary.

Looking out over Faversham Creek and the Swale at Kent Wildlife Trust's Oare Marshes nature reserve
Looking out over Faversham Creek and the Swale at Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve

Kevin has been working at the Trust for 8 years now, taking on the management of Oare Marshes after having been involved in the site for many years as a volunteer. He also looks after another seven reserves, some of them wetland, some woodland and others chalk grassland sites. Like all of our wardens, he needs to have a wide range of expertise in managing different kinds of habitats. He also has an engineering background, which has been invaluable in dealing with the complexities of managing the hydrology of the site. At Oare Marshes, it’s all about the water levels: judging just how much water to retain in the spring to avoid the reserve drying out over a hot summer. This is essential for the wildlife of the damp grassland and ditches.

This is achieved through a system of sluices, I was intrigued to see that the sluices had bristle strips to allow elvers to negotiate the sluice and swim upstream. The sluice boards are set to maintain the correct water level throughout the year – any additional water flows over the top and out through the ditch system.

It is also important to maintain the right balance of scrub and grassland, each of which provides habitat for different species. Here, as on many of our reserves, we use grazing animals to help manage the grassland. Konik ponies keep the grass under control so that it is suitable for ground-nesting birds in the spring, when the ponies are moved to other sites. They also munch through scrub regrowth that would otherwise have to be cut back by hand. They are hardy, well adapted to the damp conditions and can be out all year round, even in snow. Kevin said that when it does snow, he battles the elements to bring hay to provide extra food for the ponies, but they often ignore this in favour of digging down beneath that snow to get to the grass and roots.  Unlike some hardy pony breeds, our Koniks are very easy going for the most part, but they do have one little quirk. They like to chew the tops of the gates, even when they have been protected with chicken wire, which means regular repair jobs for the reserve team. And you are strongly advised not to park your car next to their field gate, as you are quite likely to come back to find pony teeth marks in the paintwork!

Konik ponies graze the reserve, keeping the vegetation in check so that less needs to be cut back by hand.
Konik ponies graze the reserve, keeping the vegetation in check so that less needs to be cut back by hand.

Of course the Koniks do a great job, but what came across really clearly was how much Kevin values his team of volunteers. Time and time again he would point out work that had been completed with their help. There are a team of around 9 regular volunteers, who carry out regular maintenance on this and other reserves in the area and help on projects such as creating a series of ponds across several sites at Wilderness Down, one of the Trusts Living Landscape areas. Without the help of the volunteers it would have been impossible to get all the ponds finished on time, in fact without our dedicated volunteers we wouldn’t be able to anywhere near as much management on reserves, or all sorts of other work. If you want to be thoroughly appreciated check out our volunteering page and find out more.

Shoveler duck
The Shoveler gets its name from its broad beak, which it uses to sieve from the water various small crustaceans, insect larvae, molluscs, worms, plankton and bits of plant. Image © Kevin Duvall

Oare Marshes is one of the best places in Kent for bird-watching. I’m still very much an amateur, and was very keen to get some advice on how to tell apart all those long legged birds silhouetted against the shoreline. Kevin is clearly an expert, with quality equipment – he brought his telescope, and the difference between the image through that and my binoculars was amazing.

Kevin Duvall at Oare Marshes crop bright
Proper kit – Kevin sets up the telescope to show us the birds on the shore

It is fantastic to walk  around a reserve by the warden, you get to see things that you would probably never spot otherwise. At one point, Kevin stopped near a line of pylons and started scouring the tops through his ‘scope.  Try as I might, I couldn’t see anything special about them but suddenly Kevin said “got it” and there, right on the top spar of the pylon was a peregrine, invisible from the ground and just a blob in my binoculars, but through the scope its striking grey and white markings and even its black moustache were clear.

 

Redshank © Tom Marshall
Redshank are found on the reserve all year round, nesting in the damp grassland. They use their long bills to probe in the mud for worms, crustaceans and small molluscs. Image © Tom Marshall

As we approached the mudflats, which from a distance seem barren, I  realised there were birds all over it, feeding on the molluscs and worms hidden in the mud, and these are in turn feeding on microscopic life which is sustained by the nutrients washed down by the river carrying sediment and organic waste from the landscape upstream. This time of year, migrants like the black-tailed godwits are passing through, and hundreds of wildfowl are arriving to spend the winter here. We got plenty of bird identification practice in, spotting things like shellduck, shovelers, pintail and teal in the estuary, and curlew, lapwing, redshank, dunlin, black-tailed godwits and avocets feeding on the mudflats.

There is lots of other exciting wildlife to discover at Oare – we looked out across the water to a distant sandbank, and again, without the powerful ‘scope, wouldn’t have been able to tell that the dark shapes outlined against the horizon were actually a dozen or so basking seals.

It was fantastic to get out of the office for a few hours and see some of the wildlife that we are working so hard to protect. At the end of our wander around the reserve, I felt refreshed and relaxed, all traces of stress blown away, demonstrating the truth of the advice that contact with nature is good for you. Try it yourself – if you live in Kent there is a Kent Wildlife Trust nature reserve within 10 miles of your home; if you have never been to one, go explore, and let me know if it worked!

 

Creative ecology

pumpkin carving
Feeling a bit guilty – having volunteered the team to spend a lunchtime carving pumpkins for the Trust’s Sights and Sounds of the Night event last Friday, as part of our team building efforts, I wasn’t able to join them on Thursday. Seems to have gone well though. Thank you Sam, Paul, Hannah, Fiona and Ewa for giving up your lunch break!
This is what happens when you ask a bunch of ecologists to carve pumpkins: beetles, bats, centipedes and marine wildlife.
This is what happens when you ask a bunch of ecologists to carve pumpkins: beetles, bats, centipedes and scary marine wildlife.
Batty pumpkin lamp
Bats and pumpkins, a winning combination!

Ten to One

Once or twice a week, at 10 to 1 pm, the conservation team (or those of us who are around at the time) climb the precipitous stairs up to the Sunley Solar. This is the informal meeting space at the top of the farmhouse offices, named after a generous benefactor of the Trust. The ten to ones, as they have come to be known, are a chance to share knowledge and help us keep up to speed with the latest in conservation, or simply to ask if anyone knows the answer to question that has cropped up in our work that day.

meeting in the Sunley Solar
Half of the Conservation team gather in the former attic of the 17th century farmhouse that now houses our offices, so that Chloe can update us on the latest in wetland conservation.

For example, last week, Chloe fed back to us about a conference she had just been to, Wetland Futures, which was focused on those areas where the rivers meet the sea. These wetland areas can look desolate, but the marshes, mudflats and saltmarshes that characterise them are some of our most wildlife rich areas. We are looking at what we can do to improve wetland biodiversity, it is an important area of our work at the moment; Chloe brought back lots of information about projects that are happening around the country, and ideas for things that would work in Kent.

Marine species like the sea walnut can be carried in ballast water and in the absence of local predators, multiply and form extensive populations. The sea walnuts then consume zooplankton, including fish eggs and larvae, reducing the food available to native species, and having a knock-on effect along the food chain and a devastating impact on local fisheries. Image from: http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-photos/sea-walnut-mnemiopsis-leidyi
Marine species like the sea walnut can be carried in ballast water and in the absence of local predators, multiply and form extensive populations. The sea walnuts then consume zooplankton, including fish eggs and larvae, reducing the food available to native species, and having a knock-on effect along the food chain and a devastating impact on local fisheries. Image from: http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-photos/sea-walnut-mnemiopsis-leidyi

She also provided an update on the problem of invasive non-native species, which are particularly difficult to deal with in these environments. It is vital to track the spread of invasive species, to understand how they colonise areas and where we should target work. Anyone can help to do this, simply by recording species that they come across and sending this information to the various recording schemes which record the spread of invasive species. There is even an app for that to make it really easy to do -download the That’s Invasive app.

Ivy bees have only recently been found in Britain, and are spreading across the South.
Ivy bees were first found in Britain in 2001. Since then, they have spread throughout the south of England. If you see a very stripy looking bee, with a furry thorax, on ivy in the autumn, it is almost certainly an ivy bee. They are mining bees, which means they create a nest in the ground. Although they are solitary bees, each creating a single nest, you can get large aggregations of bees nesting in one area.

Sometimes, at ten to one, we go for a wander instead. It gets us away from our screens, provides some low level exercise, gives us time to catch up with what other people are up to, and we usually learn something new as well, or at least I do. It’s the good kind of multitasking. Last week, on a lunchtime walk with some of the conservation team, we were practicing wild walks, Greg was spotting spiders, Paul found a badger latrine and I learned about ivy bees.

 

Secret Spaces

Have you been for a bluebell walk over the past few weeks? Last weekend I went to some woodland near Patching, in Sussex, on the recommendation of a friend, and was rewarded by a view of bluebells cascading down the rolling hillside like a waterfall. Sadly, my photographic skills didn’t do it justice, but we have no shortage of bluebell woods in Kent, and here is just one of the many images we have of these.

Bluebells at Bredhurst Woods © Neil Coombs

Many of Kent’s bluebell woods are Local Wildlife Sites, and as much of the work of the Conservation team contributes to protecting and improving these sites, I thought it would be timely to write about it.

Only a small proportion of land in Kent is protected by law for the nature that it supports. I wonder how many people know that there are another 450 sites across Kent that hold most of the rarest and most threatened species and habitats outside of the legally protected sites. These are the Local Wildlife Sites, there is probably at least one near you. They might be ancient woodlands, flower filled meadows, old orchards, grazing marsh, chalky grassland or even churchyards. Most are privately owned, although some may be council owned green spaces, and they are found right across Kent, even in the heart of our biggest towns.

Grassland Local Wildlife Site © Neil Coombs
Grassland Local Wildlife Site © Neil Coombs

Many were identified in 1986, when it was recognised that the Sites of Special Scientific Interest and European protected sites held only some of the county’s important habitats. If we wanted to look after the rest of it we needed to know where it was, and let others know, so that it could be protected and managed wherever possible. Since then, Kent Wildlife Trust has been coordinating the Local Wildlife Site system. The system has evolved over time, following government guidance, and there is now a rigorous process for identifying and designating the sites. This is important, because although there are no laws protecting the sites, national planning policy sets out guidance for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity, including Local Wildlife Sites. In order for us to be able to argue for their protection in the planning process, we need to be able to demonstrate exactly why they are important for wildlife and that there is a fair process for their identification and designation.

Alison is in charge of this work, which starts with a request to the landowner for permission to carry out a survey to assess the wildlife value of the site. Sites have to have particularly rare or threatened habitats, or significant numbers of rare and declining species, in order to qualify as Local Wildlife Sites. Existing sites are checked, ideally every 10 years (depending on funding availability) to make sure they still meet the criteria. Over the past few weeks we have completed the review of these criteria, which are now undergoing consultation. We have a small team of experts who survey sites for us, then Alison, assisted by her volunteer trainee, Hannah, checks the results and prepares a map of the site and writes the descriptive citation.

There is an extensive consultation process for new and updated sites and, all being well, the site is eventually approved by the board of the Kent Nature Partnership. It doesn’t stop there though, Alison has to make sure that all the planning departments of local councils have information about the Local Wildlife Sites in their areas, which is provided in GIS (Geographic Information System) format. Alison is our GIS whizz, and tackles all the complicated, techie bits. For people like me, who have yet to get to grips with it, this is the best description of what GIS is that I’ve come across: What is GIS?

Bredhurst Woods Local Wildlife Site
Bluebell woods are an iconic part of the Kent landscape. Bluebells are strongly associated with ancient woodland (technically referred to as ancient semi-natural woodland, as nothing in our crowded country is really free from man’s influence), so much so that they are used as one of the suite of species whose presence indicates that a woodland has been in place for over 400 years. Many large areas of ancient woodland in Kent are designated as Local Wildlife Sites, and we work hard to ensure that bluebell walks in May will be available for future generations.

We do a lot of work to try to ensure that these wonderful sites keep their wildlife, and to encourage their enhancement and many Local Wildlife Site owners work very hard to manage the sites so that they support the best wildlife possible. Richard Neame made a generous endowment to provide an award to recognise the efforts of those people managing the sites and the contribution they make to saving and improving Kent’s threatened wildlife. On Friday, our Chairman, Mike Bax, presented the Richard Neame Gold Award to the Bredhurst Woods Action Group, who have been looking after Bredhurst woods for 10 years, and achieved some amazing results. Neil, our senior land management adviser, has been working with the Group for several years, providing advice and support to help the group enhance woodland and chalk grassland habitats and it was nice to hear him mentioned several times during the evening. It has clearly been a very effective collaboration.

 

Mike Bax presenting award to BWAG
Mike Bax, Chairman of Kent Wildlife Trust, presents the Richard Neame Gold Award to the Bredhurst Woods Action Group for their outstanding management of a Local Wildlife Site.