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.
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.
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!