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Winter Waterfowl Wonderland

Cliffe proposal would put years of effort to waste?

When the RSPB began to add lowland farmland to its original woodland reserve at Northward Hill in 1990, the primary purpose was to reverse the decline in breeding waders on the Hoo peninsula. Winter wildfowl were seen as a secondary objective, and with a history of low duck numbers on the inland side of the seawall across the marshes, we did not anticipate a rapid response to winter flooding. However, recent years have seen annual increases in peak wildfowl numbers, and this winter has again broken most records, with a real waterfowl spectacular developing.What has brought this about?

Of course water level management is crucial, and we are now reaping the rewards of a lot of hard work, and considerable investment.There are two main areas on the reserve which can be isolated from the low level ditch system [which is needed to keep neighbouring farmland from flooding]; when there is adequate rainfall, and water running through the system, sluices are closed and water levels in them are raised by pumping. Pumping water on a large scale can be hard work [not least getting the necessary license to do it !] and we have less than fond memories of getting vehicles laden with cans of diesel stuck in the mud, or being unable to retrieve the pump we borrowed from Elmley till June, but that`s all in the past now. For the last five years we have been developing an electric pump system, which began modestly by reconnecting the old farm power supply to our nearest reservoir, and filling that with our first pump. Impressed with how effective that was, we have extended the system annually, and now have cables running under the marshes for up to 1.5 km to serve the remote northern flood, as well as the wetland that can be viewed from the viewpoint. We now have 4 pumps, including a marvellous fixed German Archimedes screw pump; these run off 415V 3 phase electricity and laying the cables can be quite a task, with longer cable runs weighing over a ton. Once they have been positioned in late autumn they merely need switching on and off, the northern flood pump for example is controlled from a box outside our office! Result - no more getting stuck in the mud or covered in diesel, and no disturbance to the birds using the floods while tending pumps every day. Also crucial to reducing disturbance and creating a refuge, has been a new winter stock management system; for the first time our grazier`s sheep and cattle are spending the winter in comfort in several of our barns, and on high grasslands, instead of on the flooded marshes. This arrangement is proving better for the animals, for him and for us, and means that now there is little need for anybody to enter the marshland proper, which is clearly much better for the birds.What have the results been?

In the early 90s, when there was a series of drought years, wildfowl numbers were low, and significant numbers were recorded only on the fleets or our one reservoir. It wasn`t until the middle90`s, when a lot of work had been done and it rained more reliably, that wildfowl began to be attracted to the flooded fields on a regular basis and some good counts were made. However, only recently have Wigeon begun to graze regularly, favouring shorter swards adjacent to water, this January a new record count of 1700 was made. Similarly, Teal numbers stubbornly remained below 1000 for years, but that four-figure count finally came this year, rising to an impressive 2100 in February. It makes it hard to find the almost annual Green Winged Teal though! Pintail too have been really impressive this year; with a spectacular 540 in February doubling the usual peak counts. Along with 100 Gadwall and 150 Shoveler, the dense rafts of ducks in a relatively small area are a fine sight on those sunny winter days, which seem to quite frequent this winter.It`s been particularly pleasing to regularly record White Fronted Geese using the reserve and adjacent fields, grazing grassland rather than winter wheat. Scarce in recent winters, and rarely seen on the reserve, up to 52 have been seen to date. Along with all these ducks have been good numbers of Lapwings, 1600 being the highest count in recent years, though Golden Plovers are quite scarce. 16 Ruff are regularly present, representing a return to form for a species which was much more regular 10 years ago. On a recent count at high tide I was pleased to see 220 Black Tailed Godwits roosting, I can`t recall a winter roost of these here before.It`s important, in view of the Cliffe Airport threat, that as many people as possible can enjoy bird spectacles such as these, and its very encouraging that so many wildfowl can be seen from our Marshland viewpoint. For some time we have been working on a second hilltop viewpoint, named the Ernie Hemsley viewpoint after the late organiser of Bexley RSPB members group working parties on this reserve. Reached from the Saxon Shore Way or the Marshland Viewpoint, this will be open imminently and provides excellent viewing in a more sheltered setting than previously available.Why not come and have a look - you can come anytime, and its free !

Alan Parker - Site manager RSPB NW Kent reserves.

4th July 2014