Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Lodge Hill - a site full of surprises

Yesterday a few more documents were put on the Medway Council website regarding the ongoing consultation for the plans to replace a vast, thriving chunk of countryside at Lodge Hill on the Hoo Peninsular  in North Kent with a new town of 5000 homes, plus shops, facilities, roads etc. It's horrendous.

The latest documents were hard to find on the page but they are there, buried in the jumble of responses and consultations - quite a lot of them as you'd expect for something of this size. They are dated '28th July 2014' and marked 'OPA Assessment' and 'Updated Invertebrate Survey'. Check the page here and enter the reference MC/11/2516 then 'documents' if you'd like to have a look - I've had a quick read and they make quite interesting reading!

The invertebrate report is an important one for a site like this, since it's position as a 'brownfield' site in the middle of a relatively remote, rural greenbelt area means it comprises quite a mix of habitats and ecotones that have developed with little disturbance. These include ancient woodland, wetlands, grasslands, scrub and rocky or disturbed ground. There's lots of room for insects to thrive at Lodge Hill. Here are a few things I picked out from the report:

  • The report, which replaces one done in February 2014, identifies the site on the whole as being of "county level significance" for the invertebrate groups assessed
  • This was based on 386 species that were recorded
  • Of those, 29 species are really important - being of conservation concern

The survey is great because it finds a lot of things that the average Joe Wanderer (me!) would miss and in areas that it's not possible to visit. Here are just some of the things it found:

  • Duke of Burgundy butterfly (Hamearis lucina) - great! Recorded in 2013, this is a very rare and declining butterfly not only in Kent but in the UK. According to Butterfly Conservation it's of High Conservation Priority and threatened on a European level. It's listed on the Kent Local Biodiversity Action Plan.
  • Other scarce butterflies like Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Small Heath - these are listed as 'vulnerable' on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) standards and Small Heath is 'Near Threatened'.
  • Garden Tiger Moth - a declining species
  • Paragraph 3.3.3 says "Three species of bug formerly extinct or endangered in the UK, but now more widespread in England were also recorded" this includes the Box bug Gonocerus acuteangulatus previously only known from a single UK site.
  • They found Lesne’s earwig (Forficula lesnei) - I love earwigs!
  • And a nationally scarce Long–winged conehead bushcricket (Conocephalus discolor)

The report then talks a bit about how the survey was 'scored', in terms of assessing the relative importance of habitat and species. These scores are re-configured against subsequent changes eg expansions in range of some formerly very localised and scarce species. And this is how it reaches the conclusion that it is likely of county-importance, at the very least, in this regard. Disappointingly it rather supposes that the fauna is not "exceptional" for a site of this size in South East England. But I live near it and disagree, looking through that small list above, I think it's a site that is really important...and full of surprises.

What do you think?

Duke of Burgundy butterfly - image courtesy of I Kirk via WikiImages (29/7/14)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Swanscombe Marshes

Upon entering Swanscombe marshes today, I experienced two distinct sensations. The first thing I noticed was the incredible noise, a thrum, emanating from crickets and other insects in the weedy grass, barely metres from the last block of river front apartments. My delight with this was quickly tempered though by something else, a feeling in my gut, an almost physical lurching, when I thought about the future of this important site. Walking through it, over the rocky, flower-rich embankment and along the many overgrown desire lines, on the verge of being reclaimed by bramble, buddleia, rank grasses and more, it was impossible to hide from the unpleasant distraction of the imminent planning application from London Paramount. But it is testament to this place that I could still wander, immersed and frequently amazed, happily for a few hours.

I wasn't the only one. A couple of guys fished on the bank of the river by the entrance, while their kids sat cross-legged in the tall grass. I asked what they were catching, "mud and boots so far", but they didn't seem to mind. Elsewhere, an elderly couple sat quietly on some steps, watching the river, and a few dog walkers made their way about the place. Between all this was that ever-present thrum.

Walking through the tangle of grass, clover and vetchling, butterflies flushed at every step; mobs of gatekeepers, common blues, the odd skipper, whites and a Small Copper. After one such step something bigger took flight with a silent clap of deep yellow wings and a Clouded Yellow butterfly swept across my path. This was my first in Britain this year and somewhat unexpected given it's relative scarcity. Later on, I saw several more, with at least two individuals present.

Clouded Yellow butterfly, Swanscombe Marsh, 27/7/14
Small Copper, Swanscombe Marsh, 27/7/14

By the derelict pier, two skylarks flushed from the bare, weedy ground and flocks of linnets and goldfinches buzzed overhead. The abundance of scrub here is ideal nesting habitat for birds like these so it was no surprise to see many juveniles in their midst. While admiring the pier and the manner in which nature has blossomed in its disrepair, a Common Sandpiper called and flew in to find a suitable roost for the high tide. A little further along I spotted a fine, male Stonechat perched up on a spiny limb of Dog Rose, shortly before he was joined by a female and a juvenile. This group were then joined by a never-ending parade of common whitethroats, with up to eleven appearing in the same bush at any one time. Again, it was good to see many juvenile birds, sandy-toned and with plainer features - I've never seen so many in one place before! A Kestrel shot across the sky in the distance before alighting on one of the pylons. Over a small, stagnant pond, a flock of house martins stooped and were joined by a couple of swifts, no doubt on their way back south. At the edges, I watched dragonflies chasing around endlessly. I was mesmerised by a pair Ruddy darters mating:

Ruddy darters, Swanscombe Marsh, 27/7/14
Emperor Dragonfly ovipositing, Swanscombe Marshes, 27/7/14
House Martins over Greenhithe
Stonechat and Common Whitethroat, Swanscombe Marsh, 27/7/14
- in the background is the Cobelfret ferry - familiar to estuary birdwatchers!

It was an excellent walk and great to see the wildlife thriving - long may that continue. Swanscombe marshes has a truly excellent variety of habitats and is an overlooked local gem. It is a wild classroom and in many of its parts, an excellent example of natural succession in an urban context. The blinded and irresponsible development proposed for it will punch a hole in the lungs of North Kent.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Howlin' Fling! Isle of Eigg, July 2014

It seems that barely a month passes these days without me visiting some achingly beautiful corner of Scotland, this was my fourth trip in under a year; how I've grown used to the unnerving jolts of sleeper carriages in the night and the efficient hum of CalMacs. So it was this weekend as myself and a few others headed north once more, this time to the majestic Isle of Eigg, nestled between Rum and Mull on the west coast. Unlike previous trips, wildlife or wilderness was not the driving factor here, in fact 'FUN' (and therefore not necessarily birding) was the party line I was given before we left, rather it was the promise of seeing some great bands, drinking, dancing and generally having an amazing time - all courtesy of the great folk behind (Eigg-based) Scottish independent record label Lost Map Records and the 3rd 'Away Game' mini-fest, this time out christened 'Howlin' Fling'.

And have an amazing time we did. Of course I still found time to explore the island and my surroundings, anything less would be plain foolish. I found Eigg to be a charming place and had a great time birding its heathery slopes and rocky shores between splendid bouts of gaelic rap, glorious noise, swooning, drinking and yes, howling.

Meeting the aptly named Shearwater from the train in Arisaig harbour on Thursday, the hour-long crossing to Eigg bought a scattering of seabirds including singles of Kittiwake, Puffin, Gannet and two Razorbill, while the rocks around around Arisaig harbour hosted numerous common seals. An interesting mid-channel sighting was of a small flock of Golden plovers that arced low past the boat and off to the south west. Nearing the small jetty at Galmisdale, Black guillemots were fairly conspicuous and a few Eider nursed young in the shallow and muddy inner harbour.

Pitching our tents on a low, grassy headland a short walk from the harbour afforded nice views of the Sound where several dozen Arctic terns from a nearby colony squawked and swooped endlessly during our stay. A pair of hooded crows kept an ever watchful eye on the pretty harbour and more than once I heard common sandpipers shrieking somewhere nearby. With the sun out and the music not kicking off until the Friday, we took a walk along the cliffs to the west and a path that led to the Massacre Cave. It was nice to find a single Grayling butterfly here, a species that is largely absent from my local area. Meadow pipits called throughout and a few crossbills and Spotted flycatchers flicked around the pine woods lining the path from the 'village'. Near the cave was a single juvenile Wheatear and a small flock of rock doves. The cave itself was spectacularly eerie, requiring some agile shuffling on knees to access, with the darkness inside lending weight to its reportedly tragic history. But it is a GREAT name for a metal band at least.

With no metal in sight sadly, the Thursday night headline slot was seized by a pod of common dolphins that swam into the small channel by the pier and gave incredible views to those assembled on the little terrace of the tea room/bar overlooking it. They swam and breached down to 20m at times, causing a little crowd to gather in appreciation on the rocks - undoubtedly the best views I've ever had.

Friday started with an hour watching the sound from the new harbour wall with Manx shearwaters in mind. Happily it paid off and, although distant, the distinct low, gliding flight pattern revealed a steady passage of birds and some small flocks gathered on the water. Following breakfast, an assault on the imposing peak of An Sgurr that towers over the island like a sinister basalt dorsal fin was planned and we headed up the steep path to the accompaniment of Ravens kronking overhead. They lurked at the top too as we ate a victorious picnic, gawped at the incredible view, played 'Name that Island' and took selfies (naturally). But aside from the view, the morning belonged to a ringtail Hen Harrier that gave good views as it cruised over a nearby slope. To see these stunning birds on a bleak marsh in winter is special but to see them glide over purple-studded heather on a summer's day in a landscape as right as this is breathtaking.

With some great birds on show, it was perhaps fitting that the lines were blurred somewhat when it came to the festival line up. This is why I spent an hour or so on Saturday watching a Woodpigeon duel it out with a parliament of eagleowls - with the result being closer than you might expect. Then there was an encounter with a WOLF too which wasn't actually the least bit frightening, in fact it was kind of beautiful. It's testament to the organisers' vision and good taste that every band I saw bought something to the weekend and contributed to the spirited atmosphere with simply great performances. Sorry to go a bit Buzzfeed but off the top of my head stand outs included - Sam Amidon, Johnnie Common, The Pictish Trail, Meursault, SeaZoo, Jens Lekman, local band Metta and the two guys playing in the Ceilidh Hall on Sunday afternoon that we we stamped and clapped along too. Look them up. This is how music festivals should be done.

Then all too soon it was time to leave again. There was just time on Monday to cycle down to the beautiful singing sands at the other end of the island where a couple of Whinchats hopped among the scrubby croft margins and some kestrels bounced on clifftop gusts. On a high ledge on the shear rock cliff that surrounded us I'm sure I saw a Golden Eagle alight briefly too. Packed into the Shearwater for the return trip there was a heartwarming cheer for the organisers and residents waving us off before we crossed back to Arisaig. The water was flat calm under the hot sun and quiet as a result but still a couple of harbour porpoises appeared briefly and two superb Great skuas pitched off the glassy sea and flew past. I thought that would be it for the trip but there was one more highlight to come. Sitting sleepily on the train, not far out of Arisaig, I perked up momentarily as the train veered into the open and ran adjacent to a large loch. It was just in time to see a summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver sat on the water! What a beast. It was a blink and miss it moment and it felt quite surreal, but it was a great way to end a fantastic few days.

Campsite, Eigg, 17/7/14

An Sgurr, Eigg, 18/7/14

Dolphins! Come on! Galmisdale, Eigg, 17/7/14

And some footage with bonus great commentary (!):

Dolphin crowd

Meursault in the Marquee - f'in Yes! Eigg, 20/7/14

An Eagleowl takes flight - nearly. 

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) at Cleadale, Eigg, 21/7/14

Awesome beetle in the grass by our tent - ID  suggestions welcome

Rum rising - from the Singing Sands, Eigg, 21/7/14

Thanks to Johnny and everyone. KS, sorry for stealing your joke :)

Monday, 14 July 2014

London Paramount: Round 1

The photo above (taken from a display panel)  shows the extent of Swanscombe Marshes as they fan out into the Thames in North Kent. This is the site of a massive development proposal by London Paramount for a vast theme park and entertainment 'resort'. I am thoroughly opposed to this idea on environmental grounds so took the opportunity to attend a public consultation in Greenhithe on Friday. This is just a quick post with a few notes I took but I'm sure I'll mention it again in the future.

The consultation in the British Legion Hall was the usual affair - 6 display panels, a few spokespeople, a table of forms to fill in and a car parking free for all outside. The panels laid out the very basics of the proposal which at this stage mostly amounts to a lot of big numbers:

  •  27000 jobs
  • 2 bn investment
  • 200 new businesses
  • 15-18m visitors annually

And that was it really, other than numerous reminders that this is a project of 'national importance' (it's an NSIP or Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project). The main aim of the consultation was to determine how local people wanted to be consulted. It laid out a 4 stage programme of events, up to next summer, in which we apparently have a chance to make our opinions count. 

Unsurprisingly, there was no mention anywhere of the marshes, so I found one of the few reps present. There was a good turn out and a dozen others were doing the same. The majority were concerned about the traffic and infrastructure implications of the development which is pretty understandable. There was talk of the Thames Crossing and whether the proposed development will have an impact on the decision ("no"). I raised my concerns about the impact on wildlife on the site and the huge loss of green space in an already impoverished area. I was told that the boundary indicated on the map (encompassing the entire site) was not intended to show the full, developed area, rather the 'planning limit' for inspectors. Great, not very reassuring at all. In addition the rep said that "some marshes will remain" and pointed out that they'd be "stupid to build right up to the river". Ok, but on a floodplain? Uh... There was an invite to attend a future session with the ecologists undertaking the EIA at the moment before the thread unravelled with a comment about how land of poor quality could be enhanced? But of course, land doesn't necessarily have to be 'quality' to have ecological value.

And that is the sad thing about Swanscombe Marshes. For the majority it is a waste ground, this Kent Messenger article describes it as "derelict", but that couldn't be further from the truth. The first time I visited the site a couple of years ago, on a curious foray around my local area, I was blown away. I remember smiling to myself at the luck of discovering the site, a scruffy, imperfect oasis, nestled between the river and the miserable suburban sprawl. Wheatears popped up on the odd ruined structures, Cetti's warblers blasted away in reeds sprouting from murky ditches and linnets, skylarks and more flushed from the rank grassy areas. Overlooked and left for nature to do what it does, it is almost certainly full of pleasant surprises and is precisely the kind of site that urban areas need. 

Look at that image above again.

Here are a few more recent ones from July 2013 (thanks to RK):

Recent sightings on Swanscombe marshes include 8 Little egrets, 9 Lapwings (inc some nearly fully grown young), 3 adults & 1 Juvenile Cuckoo, Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat’s, Cetti’s, Chiffchaff, numerous Reed Warblers, Skylarks, 5 Herons (2 Juveniles)

 The site also holds Adder and Common Lizard. (Again, thanks to RK for this info)

Despite the ongoing need for jobs, the proposed plans for Swanscombe Marshes show the cynical profiteering at the heart of so much planning policy today along with a dramatic misunderstanding of what is actually needed. Is a theme park, car parks, roads and yet more shopping complexes what this heavily pressurised corner of the country really needs? A development on this scale will impact negatively on tens of thousands of people on both sides of the river. As it stands, it will irrevocably wipe out a local wildlife haven - one that might look derelict but is far from it. 

This article summarises a lot of information, it also points out that one of the main landowners involved is Land Securities - remember them?

More detailed information on the planning application will be available in October.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Mr Happy

I wish I'd taken my camera out tonight, the fields looked majestic in the sunset. But a camera wouldn't have done any justice in truth; no strong scent of honeysuckle as it laces up the hedgerow nor the warmth emanating from the feint and dizzy heads of wheat. The occasional clanking of the sprinklers straddling the rows of spring onions would instead be replaced with a generic image of modern lowland agriculture today.

There'd be no clip of the dragonflies' wings as it steamed past me and certainly no record of the two yellow wagtails skipping above the now substantially bushy potato field. I lucked on to these birds as I scanned the field idly, actually more engrossed by how previously invisible insects were now catching the light as they darted this way and that, like fireflies. But the birds appeared and darted across my view, alighting on the dark leaves, absolutely golden in that light.

Yellow wagtails don't breed on this site (although I'm sure they do in the wider vicinity) so it seems that autumn has begun. If there was any doubt of that, a minute later two swifts charged through the sky towards me and carried on determinedly past, sailing on, the south calling.

Walking back, a large dog with a glossy coat bounded towards me, closely followed in a less enthusiastic fashion, by an ageing, tall, thin chap in shorts and baggy t-shirt. The shirt was one of those ones with a big, grinning Mr Men character on - in this case, Mr Happy. I didn't suppose he'd bought it himself, but then really, I guess, that's not the point.