For an island, Britain packs a huge variety of landscapes and wild places into its 80,000 square miles. If you wanted, you could see craggy mountains, windswept coastal plains, bleak moorland and lush valleys, cascading waterfalls and meandering rivers, wide open spaces and tiny urban green gems, all in the space of one day. Although you would spend most of it in the car, to explore it properly takes more time.
A two week holiday makes just a small impact on the list of places I would love to visit, so this year I am taking a three month sabbatical break from work, to see all those places. Travelling the length and bredth of Britain in a campervan, I will find out more about meres and mosses, limestone pavements, honeycomb reefs, and the Machair.
Released from my desk into the wild, I hope to see more of the biodiversity we are working so hard to look after. It is also a chance to find out more about other Wildlife Trusts, their reserves and projects. So for the next three months, this blog will feature a series of Wildlife Trust reserves from around Britain and the people that look after them.
Friday was my last day at the Trust for the summer. In a fabricated meeting about rubber ducks (don’t ask, I may post an explanatory picture next week), the Conservation Team presented me with a sabbatical survival kit. As well as providing camping rations, midge protection and emergency wine, they have set me the challenge of filling in a hand crafted I-spy book of things I should be looking out for on my travels.
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!
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.
Arriving 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite the recommendation that the area should be designated a Marine Conservation Zone, protected from damaging operations, plans are afoot to dredge up to 2.5 million cubic metres of sand and gravel from the Goodwin Sands. This will be used in the new Dover Western Docks Revival scheme. We will be commenting on the eventual application, but in advance of that, Bryony has been in communication with the ecological consultants to voice our concerns and discuss what we feel should be included in the Environmental Impact Assessment.
We do not see how the removal of a huge amount of the sands for which the area was designated can fail to have a negative impact on the marine environment. Bryony and I went to a meeting at the Royal HaskoningDHV offices in London, to hear more about the work that has been done to assess the likely impact of the scheme on the underwater habitats. It is a huge challenge to survey the seabed in sufficient detail over such a large area, and to predict what will happen when this amount of sand and gravel is removed. The overview of the work was fascinating and it was useful to have the opportunity to request that particular concerns were covered in the Environmental Impact Assessment. We will be scrutinising this in due course.
As yet, there is no real coordination of the many activities happening at sea around the Kent coast. This is about to change, and I went to an event in Whitstable to find out more.
The new marine plans are intended to guide what happens in the marine area, making sure activities take place at the right time and in the right place, says the Marine Management Organisation. Their aim is to enable sustainable economic growth whilst protecting the environment, balancing the needs of all. The meeting was to get input from interested people and organisations to help shape the plan for the South East marine area, from Felixstowe to Folkestone.
Although its overarching purpose is to enable sustainable growth, marine planning will provide us with a new way of influencing activity in the marine environment, providing advice and information to help identify where this could be best placed to avoid any damage.
Woolly Watery World
Staying with the marine theme, this week I press-ganged as many colleagues as possible to join a lunch-time session on crocheting a coral reef. Several years ago, at an event, a very interesting lady told me about the Crochet Coral Reef project.
This is a worldwide project which raises awareness of the plight of marine wildlife by getting people together to create amazing reef structures using crochet. I’ve had this in the back of my mind ever since, and now that we are working on the Guardians of the Deep project, I wondered if it would fit with the aims of that project, to involve people in understanding and looking after the marine environment.
So, on a rainy Easter afternoon, I persuaded my daughters that what they really wanted to do was to try crocheting or knitting some marine creatures, and took the results in to work to inspire colleagues to join in. Guided by Ruth, the Trust’s Queen of Crochet, we are going to test whether we can convincingly render the intricacies of Kent’s marine biodiversity in wool.
Another great location for a meeting – the Education Shelter at Samphire Hoe has fabulous views of the white cliffs of Dover and out across the Channel.
With some trepidation, the conservation team gathered in the Education Shelter at Samphire Hoe, a country park on the outskirts of Dover. They had provided me with a long list of things they really wouldn’t want to do on a team building day, and a quick internet search had added to the list of activities widely considered to be uncalled for. Luckily, Bryony, Paul, Vinny and I had come up with (we thought) an excellent idea – to get everyone to work on producing some video clips about the work of the team. It seemed to meet with general approval, provided certain people didn’t have to stand in front of the camera.
By the time we had got our ideas together, it had stopped raining long enough for us to risk taking the ipads we had borrowed from the marketing department outside. We headed out to various locations, braved the cold and our fears of being in front of the camera (for some of us; but it turned out that some of my colleagues could be doing this for a living!) I will share the end results once Gordon, social media guru, has turned our various clips and re-takes into the seamless footage we had planned.
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…
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 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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!