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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the moment you can see the pink spikes of the common spotted orchids as you drive past. Last year, Gill’s volunteers counted 26,000 orchids on the Bluebell Hill Roadside Nature Reserve. As well as common spotted orchids, there are pyramidal orchids, man orchids, bee orchids, common twayblade, broad-leafed helleborine and white helleborine.
Not all chalk grassland flowers are as showy as the orchids, you have to look closely to appreciate the beauty of delicate fairy flax, eyebright and milkwort.
Chalk grassland flowers are adapted to grow on dry chalky soil that doesn’t have much in the way of nutrients. When the much of the Downs used to be grazed by sheep, most of the nutrients from grass and other plants went into the sheep, rather than back into the ground, and the orchids and other chalk grassland flowers did well, whilst plants that need a lot of nutrients couldn’t grow very fast. Shrubs and trees got nibbled before they could grow very big, and much of the Downs remained as open grassland.
Although road verges are cut back by highways maintenance to maintain visibility, the usual way to manage them is to mow a short distance from the road from time to time, leaving the cuttings to mulch down in situ, which, in effect, adds a nice composty layer and enriches the soil. Great for nettles and other fast growing plants, which then smother the growth of the more delicate chalk grassland flowers.
Gill and the RNR volunteer team cut the vegetation on the Bluebell Hill verges by hand, across the whole of the site and rake up all the cuttings. It’s very labour intensive, as is counting the thousands of orchid spikes that are the result of this dedicated work!
I’ve had meetings in a couple more interesting places this month – a few weeks ago I went to Brogdale Farm with Paul, our new Biodiversity Information Officer, who joined the team at the end of April. (Yes, it’s going to be confusing, two Pauls in the team, and neither of them own up to a nickname.) Paul’s job is to develop a more systematic way of surveying and recording how wildlife is doing, on our reserves and in the wider landscape. We want to demonstrate that not only are habitats being created restored and enhanced, but that this is increasing the success of species.
There is already a huge amount of information being collected about wildlife by Trust staff and volunteers, who record the wildlife they see on our reserves (including Roadside Nature Reserves), carry out regular surveys of particular groups of wildlife such as butterflies, birds and reptiles, survey the rare habitats and species on Local Wildlife Sites, and, through our Shore Search and Sea Search activity, record marine wildlife. The challenge is to make sure that similar things are being surveyed in a similar way, so that we can compare results between different places, habitats and years.
One of the things that we will need to do is to come up with a way of storing all the data. At the moment there is a mixture of ways being used, but having a single system will make it easier to analyse it. (Or even to find it in the first place; much of my amphibian survey data is still stored in a box under the desk, on slightly muddy and previously damp bits of paper that I will put in a spreadsheet as soon as I have a moment…) There is already an organisation that stores biodiversity information for Kent, and we don’t want to duplicate what they are doing, so that is why we were at Brogdale farm, visiting the Kent and Medway Biological Record Centre, and discussing the best way to work together, as well as getting some very helpful advice.
My next quirky meeting venue was a shed, at the Sussex Wildlife Trust offices at Woods Mill. Known as the Board Room, it provides additional meeting space, and no doubt useful storage space, as the need arises. I was there to meet Peter Anderton, one of the Sussex Wildlife Trust volunteers, along with Ian, the Conservation Manager. Peter is a geological engineer who has a long experience within the petrochemical industry and had offered to untangle the facts from the hype that surrounds fracking.
We have a number of policies and position statements, setting out Kent Wildlife Trust views on certain contentious issues, which are approved by our Trustees and reviewed regularly. I have been updating our position statement on Badgers and Bovine Tb, and the one on Offshore Wind Farms, and next on the list is the one on fracking. It is important to make sure that the Trust’s position is based on scientific evidence about the impacts of any process on wildlife, so I read various research papers to try to form a balanced and evidenced based view, which is then reviewed by our Conservation Committee. However, the technicalities of hydraulic fracturing are way outside my experience! Sussex Wildlife Trust had kindly invited me to meet their volunteer who could explain the principles of hydrocarbon extraction in layman’s terms. It was incredibly interesting, and once I’ve finished reading up on some other aspects the existing policy will be updated and submitted to our Trustees for approval.
Last week, we held a letter writing coffee break, encouraging staff who wanted to write in response to the government consultation on whether more marine areas should be protected from damage. Fuelled by cake kindly brought in by Bryony and Fiona (the marine officers) and inspired by the talk that Bryony gave, showing us the amazing wildlife hidden under the waves, we wrote to Defra, explaining why we thought the government should designate three areas around Kent as Marine Conservation Zones.
This is such an important time for marine conservation – we take it for granted that there are areas on land that are protected from damage, we have nature reserves, national parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Local Wildlife Sites for example, containing much of our most treasured wildlife and landscapes. But very little of the seascape is protected, and it is vulnerable to all sorts of potentially damaging activities. Sadly, because we can’t see the beautiful landscapes and habitats under the sea, we don’t even know this is happening.
Now we have a chance to change this. New legislation, The Marine Act, passed in 2009, requires the government to designate a network of Marine Conservation Zones. £8 million of public money was spent on a wide-ranging and fair consultation of all sea user groups, who finally agreed on 127 sites, which would have protected good examples of each kind of marine habitat (just as on land, habitats on the sea bed are incredibly varied) and formed an ecological network, allowing species to move between protected sites. Since then, only 27 have actually been designated, and another 23 are being consulted on now. Governments are driven by public opinion, so we need as many people as possible to write in to the consultation and say that they think it is important to protect marine wildlife for the future – for its own sake, for the health of our seas and the economic future of the fishing industry.
For people who are not marine experts (this includes me, and 98% of the staff at Kent Wildlife Trust) writing on the subject can be daunting, which is why we organised a letter writing coffee morning. With Bryony and Fiona on hand to answer questions and provide descriptions of each proposed Marine Conservation Zone, we all felt more confident to put our thoughts on paper. Although you don’t have access to Bryony and Fiona, they have provided this information on our website, and there is a page on The Wildlife Trusts national website to give you tips on writing a response to the consultation. So please, write today. Every individual response counts for so much more than a signature on a campaign; it’s a chance in a lifetime to get marine wildlife protected!
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.