We are delighted to welcome visitors back to our reserve at RSPB Dungeness! It feels like it's been a very long four months when we weren't able to welcome visitors to our reserve, but we are now finally open!

The reserve is currently operating on reduced hours, so we are open:

  • Main nature trail, main car park and toilet block - open Thursday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm
  • ARC car park for easy access to the Public Rights of Way - open daily 9am to 5pm (there is also accessible parking available outside Boulderwall Farmhouse)

We thought you may all appreciate an update on what's been happening on the reserve over the last few months. The trails may have been closed, but the team has been really hard at work making sure Dungeness is a fantastic place for nature, so here's a blog from our Warden, Craig, on what the team have been up to.

The Last Four Months at RSPB Dungeness

Following the government’s announcement for people to stay at home, along with all other RSPB nature reserves we sadly closed Dungeness on 24th March to all visitors. This was not an easy decision by the RSPB as we recognise how important access to nature and open space is for people’s wellbeing. However, the health of staff, volunteers and visitors has been of paramount importance to the organisation throughout this pandemic.  This initial approach led to reserve-based staff working from home and only visiting reserves for essential work under the government’s guidelines, such as legal compliance, animal husbandry and safety works and checks.

With the announcement of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, Martin Harper, Director of Conservation said: “These have been some of the most challenging weeks in the history of the RSPB. We’ve closed our nature reserves, postponed crucial conservation work and brought home colleagues from across the world. These changes have all had a significant impact on our income.

Because of this, like many organisations, we are accessing the Government’s Job Retention Scheme and initially asking around 50% of our colleagues who can no longer fulfil their roles to take leave from their day jobs. This will enable them to focus on caring for others, learning and development or volunteering for other organisations if they are able. “

For Dungeness and Lydden Valley this meant furloughing four members of the team and all volunteering roles were also put on hold.

As a result of government and RSPB guidelines all but absolutely essential work on the reserves stopped. This included breeding bird surveys, monthly WeBS counts and general estate maintenance.

It may be easy to think that since the reserve closed to the public there hasn’t been a lot of work happening on the reserve. However, this is definitely not the case! The remaining small team have continued working hard to save nature on our reserves.

 

Behind the scenes

Corinne, our new retail manager, joined the team the day the national lockdown started. Some may say not great timing, others would say fantastic timing! Corinne hasn’t been able to get stuck in to running our shop during the lockdown, so she’s taken on a whole range of other roles whilst working from home (with a helping hand from her cats and dog!) instead. She’s been busy running the Operation Turtle Dove social media account (@SaveTurtleDoves), helping the Conservation Team assess planning applications and their potential impacts on nature, and helping some of the other Kent and Essex Area Team with project management. She has also been making lots of plans for our reserve to help us get the site ready to welcome our visitors in a safe way.

Charlotte, our Warden at Lydden Valley, and Gareth, our Senior Site Manager, have been working hard to continue planning and delivering the RSPB Lydden Valley Wetland Creation Project. This is a major groundworks project to create around 250ha of wetland habitat on the east Kent coastline, and has been generously funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. This is a two-year project to recreate the wetland habitats that once made the area fantastic for a range of wildlife. The project will also help reduce the impacts of flooding in the surrounding area. Work has now restarted on the Minnis Farm element of the project, and the other half of the project on Willow Farm is continuing to develop and we are hoping to have groundworks starting in a few weeks’ time.

As well as working on the Lydden Valley project, Gareth has also been working on interpreting both government and RSPB guidance to ensure our reserve is safe for staff, volunteers and visitors. Everyone’s safety is our priority, and there is lots to do behind the scenes to make sure everyone stays safe.

I myself haven’t spent much time working at home due to the type of jobs happening at this time of year – it’s quite hard to repair fences and carry out essential checks when I’m at home! When I have been working from home, I’ve been planning ahead and liaising with the statutory agencies that are involved in the reserve. We are trialling different habitat management across the reserve, so I’ve been in discussion with Natural England around a whole range of things – introducing overwinter sheep grazing in new areas of the reserve, repairing the livestock handling pens, and clearing the islands on Burrowes Pit of all of the vegetation that grows up throughout the season. We’re also looking at how we can improve the ARC area of the reserve, for wildlife and for visitors, so I’ve been discussing lots of ideas with Affinity Water (who own some of the land there).

Some of the bigger projects we’re planning require funding from external donors, so I’ve also been looking at how we can find money for a range of projects such as: large scale scrub clearance at ARC to reduce willow and sea buckthorn which has completely taken over the rare shingle and sandy habitats; creating new viewing areas across the ARC lakes and Water Tower Pits; installing seabird cameras on the islands on Burrowes Pit so our supporters can also enjoy our reserve remotely; and last but by no means least, a new tractor!

We’ll be able to carry out some of the projects we’re working on fairly quickly (the majority of our new benches and viewing areas have already been installed for example, but others will require much more time. One of our longer term plans is to remove some of the large shingle bunds that surround some of the lakes – we should be able to reduce the height of these so that visitors can see the lakes without needing to use hides, and it will also let our visitors feel much more in nature rather than surrounded by giant shingle bunds!

New bench installed by volunteers

Out on the reserve

Much of the early work in late March was ensuring that our wet grassland fields were in optimal condition for breeding waders, such as lapwing and redshank. This included getting our new pump installed and set up, as well as fixing our old pump. Once running, the pumps were run daily to provide the required water and wet mud combination our waders need. The fields were in great condition for much of the season and this resulted in an excellent breeding season – by far the best for a number of years. We couldn’t carry out a full survey, but there were lots of lapwing chicks seen while we were carrying out other essential works, and we think there were around 10 or 11 fledglings seen as well.

10 or 11 chicks from 12 pairs may seem low, but we aim for around 0.7 chicks per pair as an average, as that’s a sign of an increasing population. We also recorded a record number of 12 redshank nests – the previous highest we’ve had is four!

We have also spent time maintaining our livestock fencing on reserve. Each year we remove a stretch of old fencing (some is around 30 years old!) and we replace it with new fencing to ensure the area remains stock proof. This year was no different, and we replaced two gateways and around 270m of fencing so far.

At Lydden Valley, much of the livestock fencing had been removed in 2019 to permit the groundworks to be unhindered. This required replacing in March and April to ensure the right habitat conditions were in place for breeding waders. In total, this was over 7km of electric fencing which had to be installed from scratch. We also have c1km of electric fencing at Dungeness which has required regular maintenance and management. The long-term aim is to convert this to permanent fencing which will require a lot less time to manage and maintain!

One of our highlights this season has been introducing water level control to the Boulderwall Fields. We uncovered a number of old, clogged up pipes that were designed in days gone by for holding water in the Boulderwall fields to benefit a whole range of wildlife – breeding waders and wildfowl, rare plants that grow in the ditch network, and the huge array of invertebrates that this supports. We managed to unclog the pipes and get them back into working order (as much as we could!) and have held the water in these fields much higher than usual. It’s early days but hearing a drumming snipe out in the field for a few days in a row must mean it’s starting to work, and was quite an unexpected sound!

Late April and May meant several days out spraying creeping thistle in the sheep fields. Some thistle is great for insects (thistle produces loads of pollen which is a fantastic resource for range of bees, butterflies and a huge number of other things), but too much in the grassland fields outcompetes some of the rarer plant species, and also causes welfares issues for the sheep. So, to prevent them from dominating the grassland we control them with a discriminate herbicide (which doesn’t affect grasses, legumes and the rarer plant species) via knapsack sprayer. By getting on top of the thistle we area also creating more space for legumes such as red clover and tufted vetch to thrive and we are starting to see a good range of species developing within these fields. This is a great food source for our bees.

We have had our share of anti-social behaviour, along with lots of other reserves unfortunately, but thankfully things at Dungeness haven’t been as bad as elsewhere. As well as a huge amount of litter and cars blocking our gateways, our Viewing Screen has been vandalised and the swallows nest inside was intentionally disturbed by people looking to take photos of the chicks. So we’ve had to spend time and money repairing and securing the structure so that it doesn’t happen again.

A large proportion of our time has also been spent getting the reserve office, vehicles and workshop COVID secure – not quite as glamourous as exploring ditches looking for pipes, but definitely essential. This is to ensure the team can work securely and safely and has meant that we have been able to bring our first volunteers back a few weeks ago. A new way of working has been constructed and is being followed each week in order to keep those volunteers safe. Cleaning and securing the workshop has also given us a rather good excuse to have a good spring clean and tidy, and it has never looked as good as it does now!

Volunteers James, Jackie and David hard at work planting marshmallow

Some of the hundreds of marshmallow plants James, Jackie and David have grown and planted - all for the marshmallow moth!

It's been fantastic to be able to welcome back some of our volunteers to the reserve – we’ve definitely missed their help (and cake!). Since the volunteers returned, the majority of their time has been spent getting the reserve ready for visitors again. It took us slightly longer than planned to re-open some our trails, but we needed to put nature first, as I’m sure everyone will understand. We had lapwing nesting too close to the trail, gulls nesting on hide rooves, swallows nesting in the viewing screen, and bittern and marsh harrier nesting far closer to the footpath than normal. Now that we’ve been able to cut the overgrown paths back to their normal size, the benches have largely been installed, and a few new viewing areas created, we’re good to go! In total we’ve made 22 benches to put in around our trails and tracks so that, with the hides being closed, there are plenty of places to rest your legs, sit down and enjoy the landscape and being surrounded by nature.

Wildlife highlights

Usual species monitoring has not been possible this year, but we have lots of good news stories. We had four bittern booming throughout the season, and an equally impressive four marsh harrier nests. As I’ve already mentioned the lapwing and redshank numbers have been great this year, and common tern are on for a record year as well. So far we’ve recorded 109 nests, which is the highest number since 1999! We’ve also had around 80 fledglings so far from Burrowes Pit, with still more to come as there are still some nests active. Unfortunately we lost a few chicks in the really cold wet weather we had earlier in the season, but they’ve bounced back and the second brood is going really well.

Our other highlights throughout the season have been a short-staying purple heron, a glossy ibis and a passing black kite! Unfortunately the white-tailed sea eagle that was in the area didn't quite pass over the reserve, that we know of!

Onwards

We will continue to work hard over the coming weeks and months ahead with electric fence strimming, fence installation, bench installation, further thistle spraying and loads more things! We’ll also be installing the new boardwalk along the Willow Trail, which Affinity Water generously funded the purchase of.

If you do plan on visiting, please look at our social media accounts (@RSPBDungeness) to get the latest information on opening days and times, and to see which trails are open.

With lots of wildflowers in full bloom and insects galore around the reserve, now is a great time to visit. If you see a member of the team out working please come over and says a socially-distanced hello, we’d love to tell you more about the work we are doing.

Craig Edwards

Warden, RSPB Dungeness

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