In November 2014 we took on two meadows on the Kent coast near Deal. The smaller meadow is about 2 acres and the larger one about 4 and they are located in quite an exposed position on a degraded low chalk cliff with a road and shingle beach below.The smaller meadow had been an arable field until 30 years ago and the larger one until about 15 years ago and since then had been maintained by the previous owners as grassy fields which they regularly mowed through the summer with their vintage tractor, letting the cut grass lie where it fell.
We had no previous experience of managing land but we were very interested in birds and so back in November 2014 we foresaw that we would be managing the land to provide habitat for as diverse a population of birdlife as we could manage and also provide a safe haven for incoming and outgoing migrating birds. We thought we would be planting copses of fruiting trees and thorny shrubby areas, building a bird hide overlooking a wildlife pond and creating an interesting Thinking Path circumnavigating both fields allowing an invigorating and interesting walk around to see whats about.
As is often the way, things haven’t quite gone along these envisaged lines and, now ten months on, our priorities and interests have considerably altered since those early days. We have so much to learn and getting the correct management of these meadows is something that is going to involve much ongoing trial and tribulation that I thought it might be good to record our progress to date and on into the future
It turned out that the first job that had to be done was to refence. The cliff is a densely overgrown tangle containing numerous fox dens , the inhabitants of which used the meadows freely and openly to hunt for voles. Our dog found all this tremendously stimulating and the first few days were really dispiriting for us since she got that wild look and feel about her and took every opportunity to get out there and roll in fox poo and then squeeze through gaps in the elderly chestnut paling fencing, making her way down the cliff and onto the road in pursuit of the smells. So at eye watering expense we got fencing contractors in to refence much of the circumference of the fields, also trenching down to discourage tunnelling under. The feeling of security this has given us now that we don’t have to worry about the dog is huge – one hole appeared almost immediately in the second meadow along the cliff line but we have decided that this is a good compromise with the cliff dwelling wildlife and have let it be.
The second job was to dig a wildlife pond. More contractors and a digger were involved in the strong, cold easterly winds of the bog end of the winter digging a 5 by 10 metre pond. It was lined with many old carpets, a liner and then 6 inches of compacted topsoil to protect the liner. Turf was laid round the margins and dipping into the pond and it was planted up with wild aquatic plants. I was worried that the nitrogen in the top soil lining the pond would make this pond an unpleasant algal bloom kind of place for a while but this doesn’t seem to have been the case and very quickly it has become colonised by all sorts of life and looks like it has been there for ages. We have been visited all summer with many different species of dragonfly, all laying their eggs in the water and so next year it will be home to all manner of small but voracious predators
As well as these major jobs, we have put heaps of stone, piles of wood and sheets of metal around the place to increase habitats and safe refuges. We also thoroughly enjoyed constructing an insect hotel out of all sorts of things that were around the place. It was a very satisfying aspect of the project that the only thing we had bought especially was some chicken wire. By late summer several of the holes we had drilled into a lump of wood and incorporated into the hotel had been used by solitary wasps so that was very pleasing.
In the early summer of 2015, we decided that, since we didn’t actually know what we were doing, there was great potential for going off down the wrong route with the land and making decisions that could then take a long time to correct if subsequently proved to be wrong. This worry led us to contact Kent Wildlife Trust to see if there was was anything they offered that might help us. And it appeared there was. Neil from the land management side of the Trust came and visited us and advised that small areas of land like ours are difficult to manage because they are too big for garden sized equipment but difficult to interest the owners of large sized equipment in. However, if correctly managed and dotted around the country, can provide an enormously important wildlife resource. The precious chalk grassland habitat has many species of plants and animals that are completely dependent on it and yet it has declined dramatically and desperately in recent times putting this area of biodiversity in great jeopardy. If we could manage our fields to steer them as closely towards chalk grassland – with a coastal influence in our case – then we would be doing right by the fantastic privilege that we have been granted to be the current caretakers of this lovely piece of land.