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.

 

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.