Many people are surprised to discover that there's probably not an inch of the UK's landscape which isn't managed in some form or another, most of it by farmers. Yet they rarely get the credit they deserve as custodians of our green and pleasant land. Keeping it that way is hard work and it's governed by laws created to curb the occasional rogue farmer who puts profit before land and wildlife. Right now there are proposals to weaken the powers of the green watchdog that polices such things and we're asking people to sign our petition for a watchdog with proper teeth.
Carol Donaldson is a RSPB volunteer farm advisor, working with some of the best farmers in Kent to support wildlife as they produce the crops and livestock that end up in our fridges and cupboards. Carol took time out to write this guest blog all about her work:
It is late June as I write this and the breeding season is coming to an end. One more week, three more 5am alarms and this seasons' chicks, the ones that have made it this far, will be fledged.
I am sitting by a rapidly disappearing pool on the North Kent Marshes waiting, waiting. A lapwing is alarming and the chicks are here somewhere. I just have to be patient and the birds will settle down and reveal themselves, so I drink coffee and eat cashew nuts and wait.
Every chick counts. It is the bottom line by which we can judge if farm advisory work is having results. Last year we doubled the amount of lapwing fledged from North Kent farms and this year I want to do better.
It’s not all about numbers though. It’s about getting the habitat right, encouraging farmers to go that extra mile for the birds. Yes, because the Higher Level Stewardship scheme pays them to do so, but more because, after working for three years with 13 farmers, I believe that many of them, particularly the older guys, want to see wildlife back on their land.
The generation of farmers in their 60’s and 70’s know that it used to be better and don’t want their legacy to be a countryside devoid of birds. They don’t say this of course. Farmers for the main are not going to admit to such bleeding hearted, eco tendencies. Instead they show it in their enthusiasm for the wildlife and their willingness to make changes if given the right advice.
The pool I am sitting by is not the most spectacular or productive, but it is special because it is new. Created only last winter. This year avocet, lapwing and redshank fledged from this scrape.
This work takes time. Time to build relationships and not expect all the change to come at once. Sometimes it is about doing an early morning survey and then accepting the invitation from the farmer to join him and his wife for breakfast where we enthuse over photos of the lapwing chicks just hatched on their land. Sometimes it is just about the ability to make friendships and slip the management advice in at the end.
The lapwing chicks are still eluding me, but two common sandpipers have arrived and one pauses to clean the mud from its toes. I also need this moment of pause at the end of 40 plus dawn starts to take stock of what we’ve achieved because half the time I am frustrated.
Frustrated that some of my most proactive farmers occupy land which is isolated from other good sites so don’t achieve the breeding success their work deserves. Frustrated that I can’t work with more farmers to join sites up because Agri-Environment schemes are overly complicated, restrictive and off putting for people who deal in common sense and plain English. Frustrated that on some sites the grass still gets too long and the cattle suppliers are in no rush. That farmers are willing to create more scrapes and pools like this one but there isn’t the money available to pay for the machines to do so.
Things could be better, but we all knew that changing the fortunes of breeding waders on North Kent Farms from the point of zero productivity was never going to be a quick fix. This year we had 15 more pairs of lapwing than last and more fledged chicks. We are getting there.
There is still a way to go however. It is hard to make farmland perform like a reserve. For the most part the farmers do not have the facilities or machinery and the land has to produce other things to remain economically viable; lamb, hay, shoots. But farmers are more than willing to make room for wildlife. Some farmers are willing to work their socks off for wildlife, if given the right help and advice.
So as the pool on the marshes diminishes in the hot weather, and the fledged lapwing finally makes an appearance to feed, I am looking forward to the autumn when I will come back here with the farmer and show him that his efforts have reaped results and point to the next field and say “Now let’s think about what can create over there.”
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