Team Blog

Read our monthly blogs from one of the team.

Dandelion – Derek Whitehead

It is often neglected as a weed, defiled by gardeners and generally thought of as an undesirable – I think the beauty of the dandelion is overlooked. The dandelion can seemingly grow in smallest amounts of soil and is definitely a generalist. It arrives in abundance in early spring providing a valuable nectar source for a range of pollinators. The name dandelion comes from the French ‘dent de lion’ or lion’s tooth.

Francis Rose describes the genus taraxacum as having hundreds of microspecies too complex to separate in the Wild Flower Key, as if they would command a book of their own. The dandelion has a composite flower head made of many small flowers. The basal rosette, is common in many flowers and may well stop them from being trampled under heavy foot. The substantial tap root not only makes it more secure in the ground but also harder to dig out – frustrating gardeners even more. And the seed dispersal strategy is an absolute wonder – especially for children making a wish.

The whole of the dandelion is edible, and it is claimed that any health benefits are not lost when cooked. So, dandelions can be used in casseroles as well as salads, the flowers can be fried in batter to make fritters and the root can be ground into a coffee-like drink. I am sure I have drunk dandelion wine before and dandelions were used to flavour ‘Ale’ before hops were introduced by Flemish weavers in the 14th century.

Wildlife organisations quite rightly champion the rarer and more exciting species such as the Avocet or Adonis Blue, and we all enjoy the thrill of spotting something that would score highly on the ‘Chris Packham one-to-ten scale’. This spring though, don’t despair at the sight of the humble dandelion but give it a second look and at least leave it to dispense its bounty before it is picked and discarded.

Sandwich Year at Medway Valley – Reece Evans

I never actually planned on taking a sandwich year before heading to university; on UCAS I signed up for a three year undergraduate bachelor’s degree like many others. A sandwich year was kind of unknown and not really discussed at sixth form while studying A levels.  Only once at university was the benefits and details explained.
So….. What is a sandwich year?
A sandwich year also called a placement year changes your course from three to four years, this extra year normally taken between the second and third year from university, gives students an opportunity to gain work experience within their industry of study. Bournemouth University give all students regardless of subject an opportunity to do a placement year; and very much encouraged.  After receiving lectures about the importance and benefits of taking one and learning the statistics such as;
“The 31% of entry-level positions were expected to be filled by graduates who had already worked within the industry” and the advantages it has on my C.V for future employment, these reasons didn’t really persuade me. After all once taking a placement year you become a year behind everyone else including friends, housemates and course mates if they  haven’t chosen to take one ; watching them graduate while you are just starting your third year.  Then also questioning whether you want to go home for a whole year once already living away for 2 years. Other queries came to mind; actually finding one and then asking myself what would I like want to do for the placement year; who would I work for and doing what? This question was the reason I took a placement year; what job would I want once graduated from university? Having no actual experience within the environment industry which job role would I like or be able to do?

Finding Medway Valley Countryside Partnership.
I knew I wanted to work within conservation and benefiting my local area.  After some research I came across the countryside partnership. Once reading their diverse range of projects from rivers, meadows to invasive species and also running events open to the public; I knew this was the best place to gain experience. Once finding this non for profit organisation and being so closer to my local area I wanted nothing else.  The placement year lectures started in my first year in order to give us time to decide, needed an answer by the end of the second year, so I planned in advance That following summer I emailed Medway Valley looking for summer work experience, unfortunately they were already accommodating two students at that time and were full. After this short contact it became clear that the organisations were very popular and in demand, making me want it even more. The end of summer I emailed in advanced requesting to gain experience with them for my sandwich year starting the following September. By this time I still haven’t officially signed up for the sandwich year and had it in the mindset that if couldn’t be at Medway Valley I wouldn’t take one, thankfully it didn’t come to that and Medway Valley got in contact with offering me the position!

My time at Medway Valley has now come to end and ironically has become the best thing about going the university. After all where else can you get the opportunity to hold a wild Dormouse or Barn Owl? Gain the knowledge to conduct wildlife surveys for Water Voles, wild flowers and Invasive plants. When do you get the chance to stand in a watery ditch for two days trying to get a pump to extract water that doesn’t actually work? I am truly saddened to be leaving Medway Valley; it has been full of fun, experiences, knowledge and a great introduction into the life on environmental conservationists which cannot be learnt in a lecture hall.

I would to say a huge thank you to the team at Medway Valley Countryside Partnership for being understanding, friendly and helpful not to mention for putting up with me.

Wildlife Gardening – Derek Whitehead

I was becoming a ‘wildlife gardener’ more by laziness than actual desire and have always been more comfortable with a slightly untidy garden than a well-manicured lawn. My conversion from factory employee to countryside worker has increased my awareness of environments and the benefits of wildlife gardening is appreciated by the family. Even our teenage son – who is anchored to his computer, comments when the goldfinches are taking the seed from last seasons’ teasel stands.

I would describe our garden as a small, semi-urban with a northerly aspect, which doesn’t bode well for productivity. We do though, live near to the river Medway and a local park, which act as good corridors for our local area. We have recorded twenty-one different species of bird into the garden and we get a variety of mammals and replies as well. We contribute to the annual surveys of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch and The Butterfly Conservation Big Butterfly Count.

We have less than 50 square metres of open garden, twenty square metres of decking and a driveway. This houses one pond, two bird boxes, two compost bins, two water butts, three bug homes, a summer bat roost, a hedgehog box, a wormery and a selection of bird feeders and feeding stations which varies through the year. We are starting to get near capacity but believe there is room for more, especially if different bird species are targeted. A relation of ours has been putting ceramic teapots in their hedgerow to act as nests for robins, the spout makes a great drainage hole.

We have learnt over the years what does and doesn’t grow and of course don’t use any chemical additives. We have found that native flora takes over when the more horticultural species disappear. We suffer the odd failure and this years’ crop of ‘sloes’ went mouldy, probably caused by over watering. We harvest the bath water to supplement during times of little rain and perhaps I threw a little too much around the Blackthorn bush?

The local Wildlife Trust run a Wild About Gardens Award scheme, which we have entered for the last six years. We have twice received the top award of Gold and the results for this year has yet to be announced, although the judge who visited this year thought our daughter should win a prize for her enthusiasm. So, I recommend cutting the grass a few less times a year, allowing some borders to over grow and generally be a little bit lazier about your gardening – you know it makes sense.

Magnificent Meadows – Mary Tate

With the end of the Magnificent Meadows Project in sight, the last events being delivered and the hay being baled, it is a good opportunity to look back at the success of the project over the last three years.
The Save our Magnificent Meadow project started in 2014 with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project was unique in its delivery in that it was National covering nine landscape areas across the UK including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The ambitions aims of the project, which was led by Wildflower Charity Plantlife, were to target just under 6,000 hectares of wildflower meadows and grasslands to create restore and maintain their cover, to raise awareness and give people the opportunity to discover and explore meadows in their local area has not only been achieved but exceeded by the National project making it an important case study and example for similar projects in the future.

In Kent we have been working across Maidstone, Tonbridge and Malling. We have worked with 60 landowners, trained over 70 volunteers and run 18 family events worked with 10 schools and created/helped to restore 10 hectares of wildflower meadow in the area.
The most unexpected outcome of the project was the sheer national coverage the project provided for the Partnership. We have been invited to conferences and site visits all over the UK and have spoken at National conferences about the great work the project has been doing with Volunteers throughout the area. It is brilliant to be acknowledged for our part in this fantastic project.
But this really is just the start of the project. There is a clear appetite for this type of project in the area and we are hoping to continue the great work with more funding in the future. Look out for our forthcoming video which will summarise the project with features for every site it has covered from Scotland to Wiltshire to Kent (featuring our very own National Meadows Day celebrations!)
Don’t forget that National Meadows Day will continue to be celebrated every first Saturday of July from now on so look out for an event near you next year to even better out on an event of your own to join in the celebration.
If you would like to know more about the project please get in touch with Mary the Save our Magnificent Meadows Officer.

Notes from a barn owl surveyor – Mark Pritchard

Barn owls remain a favourite with the public, a crepuscular ghostly apparition, quartering meadows and fields in search of prey. Although not that easily seen they are the only owl species to be found on every continent (except Antarctica) so how are they doing in our patch? At MVCP we have a long-standing relationship with this lovely bird, having erected a series of nest boxes from Tonbridge to Maidstone and beyond some 15 years ago following the course of the river Medway.

This of course begs the question why do we survey, is it just curiosity or is there a point to it all? Well, surveying is in part natural curiosity, that particularly British gene which likes to collect and collate. However, without on-going monitoring we simply don’t know how well any species is doing. Not only is it emblematic of our Kentish landscape but it is a good indicator species as to the health, or otherwise, of the wider landscape. If the barn owl isn’t present then the grassland habitats on which it relies are not producing enough prey items (mainly voles and shrews but the occasional bird and frog too). It’s absence may also reflect changing land use practices as old decrepit barns become transformed into homes, and an insufficient number of large mature trees exist to supply nest sites.

The owl itself opens up conversations with land-owners as it can be a good pest-controller. Plus by allowing the longer grassland required to sustain the vole population later into the growing season, this also allows wild flower meadows to develop and persist, offering forage for much needed beneficial insects such as pollinating bumblebees, as well as myriad other species of butterflies and birds.

So how are they doing? Well as it happens quite well, and much of this is down to providing nest sites for them to breed in. Without nest box schemes Colin Shawyer, the barn owl guru, estimates that the UK would have only about 1000 pairs but the BTO now says is is substantially in excess of 4000 pairs, although no one knows for sure.

Barn owls are an open ground species so a box on a large tree over-looking their favoured long grassland habitat, or on a pole erected along a field-margin can both do well. Our preliminary checks this season indicate it will be a reasonable year, with owlets found in 40% of sites monitored and the best brood size 5 at a reliably good site in Yalding.

Natural Flood Management – Louise Smith

Since Storm Angus in November, things in Kent have been dry, really dry with the exception of a few rainy days here and there; there has barely been the need for a waterproof!

So with all this dry weather and a reassuring lack of flood risk it’s fair to say that for most people thinking about and planning for floods is very far from their minds. However, with more unpredictable weather patterns and increasingly short lived heavy downpours falling on that lovely dry ground the chances of flooding are ever more likely. Which is why I’m busy working on natural flood management measures across Kent to protect individual properties and communities.

In November 2016 the Government announced £15 million of investment towards Natural Flood Management (NFM) across the UK. Approaching NFM in this way and using it alongside traditional engineered flood defensives can only be a good thing for protecting communities and helping to enhance and protect the natural environment.

NFM alone won’t be able to protect against severe flood events but they can be used to reduce the cost and scale of traditional measures and hard engineering. There are also additional benefits from using NFM, creation of wetlands, tree planting, wet grassland and remeandering rivers, increases or even creates habitat, helps to protect species and generally supports a more rich and diverse environment. Plus NFM is cheaper to maintain and if done properly is more sustainable!

NFM can also be used to help reduce the risk of drought; tree cover and wetlands can help to replenish the aquifers and groundwater. Improved soil management to reduce run-off in heavy rain also increases absorption which can help during drier periods.

Working with nature rather than constantly trying to cajole and control the environment is far easier has greater success and offers many more benefits for people and wildlife.

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