Tucked away in the depths of East Kent lies a patch of country that I’m privileged to call my workplace. You’d think that anywhere sandwiched between London and the channel ports would be a bit of a jungle of roads, railways and development but thankfully the Kent downs have in many parts confounded the unstoppable pace of progress seen in other parts of the county and hung on to a wooded countryside of narrow chalky lanes, poor flinty soils and quiet hamlets and farmsteads.
Quite how long it hangs on to this is anyone’s guess but for now its poor chalk and clay soils have formed the bedrock, quite literally, of our conservation work on farms over the last 20 years. Couple this with an unwavering and, perhaps, outdated approach of close ‘one to one’ working with farms, building long term relationships over long time scales in order to gradually rebuild a landscape of high nature value networks piece by piece and you have, in our view, the right ingredients to bring about nature recovery across a wide range of species and habitats.
Forming a common strand to all of this work has been a strong focus on species-diverse grassland creation, effectively building a new generation of species-rich grasslands from scratch on arable and species-poor grasslands. Set aside, typically on the marginal chalky or heavy clay soils of the downs, a long forgotten, overlooked and much maligned element of the Common Agricultural Policy, became the most prized element of our stewardship scheme work with farms, the perfect springboard to create the building blocks of this new network.
Earlier arable reversion schemes of the 1990’s, instead of playing second fiddle to the species-rich chalk downland in the next-door field became the main focus of a farm’s scheme. A bit of a leap of faith at times, but twenty plus years on and with a continued focus on bringing in new reversion schemes year on year and we’re beginning to see large networks develop as the grasslands evolve in diversity and structure and with wildlife responding well.
That’s not to say the more traditional elements of the stewardship scheme ‘menu’ don’t have their place. In the gently rolling arable landscapes of East Kent our long-term project aimed at restoring arable plant communities plays an important role alongside the grassland work. The chalk ‘dip slope’ country here has long supported a rich arable flora with species such as Night-flowering Catchfly, Fine-leaved and Dense-flowered Fumitory, Stinking Chamomile, Prickly Poppy and Rough Poppy amongst a range of more common arable plants.
AB11 plot in East Kent ©Dan Tuson
AB11 plot in East Kent 2 ©Dan Tuson
Night-flowering Catchfly ©Alison Mitchell
Cultivated margins and low input cereal headlands have thus formed an important strand of stewardship schemes on over 18 farms in the project area, helping to diversify the range of habitats for arable plants and farmland insects and bird life. As part of this project a good working relationship with Kent Botanical Recording Group has enabled regular surveys to be undertaken on the farms – the Group enjoy surveying new sites and we and the farms welcome the survey data to inform the scheme results – a win-win for all.
Working with Alison from Back from the Brink, Colour in the Margins Project, has added an extra dimension to the work by introducing one of the long-lost arable species back into the plant community. Red Hemp-nettle, last recorded in the 1980’s in the East Kent chalklands, was introduced to one of our project farms last year under Alison’s planning and coordination and we look forward to seeing the results of the seeding this year.
Red Hemp-nettle plot ready to sow ©Alison Mitchell
Sowing Red Hemp-nettle ©Alison Mitchell
A bit like the stubborn soils of the Kent downs unyielding to the pressures of the modern age, I think a bit of stubborn and unwavering focus on one-to-one working with farms over long timescales may perhaps make nature recovery not as hard as we think! If you’re interested in our work follow us on twitter @kentdowns6
Colour in the Margins is part of the Back from the Brink programme, funded by the National Lottery, and led by Plantlife in partnership with the RSPB.