Did you see Elmley on Countryfile yesterday evening?

Philip Merricks has done a very good job, on the whole, at Elmley NNR.  It looked jolly wet on the TV last night didn’t it? Let’s hope lots of Lapwings and Redshank will be nesting successfully there this spring as usual.

You have to go back as far as 28 April 1987 to find this interesting reference to Elmley in Hansard. I wonder whether that £1.6m was an accurate figure – it wasn’t denied, I see. And I wonder what it was for.

This takes us back to the time of the publication of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher – which I remember buying in Washington DC as I believe it was banned in the UK.  Kinnock and Thatcher were clashing in the Commons. And it was before my kids were born. Gosh it was a long time ago – and £1.6m was worth a bit then – nearly £4m in today’s money, it seems.

I imagine that Elmley has been well and truly signed up to agri-environment schemes over the years – I certainly hope so.  It would give me great pleasure to know that my taxes had contributed to the success of waders on the Merricks land.

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18 Replies to “Did you see Elmley on Countryfile yesterday evening?”

  1. Worth every penny in terms of outcomes for waders like the lapwing - particularly when you compare and contrast Philip Merricks' results with the neighbouring Reserves on the North Kent marshes! See the table in the linked article here - http://tinyurl.com/orytzn2.

    I wonder how much public money the other bodies on the table have received, and for what exactly, one might ask.

    Merricks' five components of management deserve close attention. Follow them and you might just mirror his achievements. Neglect even one, and you are likely to emulate his neighbours' results.

    And you even warrant a mention Mark.

  2. As a member of the Elmley NNR management board you can sleep easy that the money is very well spent Mark.

    It is a superb example of what land owners can do with passion and encouragement. All of the Merricks' family are right behind this huge area of biodiversity and deserve praise and appreciation for their contribution.

  3. I'm from 'up north'. What happened to the RSPB reserve down there? I know of other areas of land which were RSPB reserves but no longer like Handa. Can we find the full story somewhere! May be another book Mark!

    1. John,

      the management of the Elmley RSPB reserve was transferred to the Essex Wildlife Trust, on 8th May 2013, see here - http://tinyurl.com/o6ntk4z - and here - http://tinyurl.com/ocn2baa.

      No explanation offered, but perhaps because Merricks' management regime was so superior in terms of biological outcomes? Newton's explanation of reserves acting as ecological 'sinks', (due to inadequate management regimes?) rings true to me.

      I imagine such situations are not uncommon on many UK reserves where ideology probably often trumps hard-won local knowledge, empirical results and practicality.

      1. Keith - I don't think Elmley has moved to Essex has it?

        There are many reasons why landlords and tenants might end their relationship, aren't there?

  4. Good spot Mark, typo on my account - delete Essex, insert Kent, as per my 1st post.

    There are indeed many possible reasons why such relationships may change. But there is nothing like empirical evidence and biological outcomes to illustrate the efficacy of differing management regimes (on neighbouring, similar habitats), both striving to achieve similar goals.

  5. Wrong! The family retained the RSPB land after the lease ended. This was done by mutual agreement. The whole area is managed by The Elmley Conservation Trust not Kent Wildlife Trust.

    1. Like I said, typo on my behalf - ownership as per the 2nd link on my original post - and changing the location Essex for Kent, as per Mark's astute pick-up.

      It's the successful management regime that is the important take away here.

  6. I know Elmley Marshes very well and can assure you that the RSPB reserve was very well managed and extremely rich in many forms of biodiversity, including breeding waders. The number of breeding lapwing pairs can be used as an indicator of good grazing marsh management, but is not the only measure to be used to measure biodiversity richness on such habitats. Elmley Conservation Trust do focus their management towards breeding lapwing numbers, and are very successful at doing that. Their land is also good for other types of wildlife too and Philip Merrick's is a good example of conservation farming on a large scale. He prefers to manage the land he owns, rather than have the RSPB do it.

  7. Thanks Mark, that’s good of you. Apologies to those who want to comment about their Blackcap sightings, that you have allowed me to rewind the discussion back to your blog of last Monday and on to the land use debate of the early 1980s. A crucial time for conservation.
    You say Mark that you didn’t ask questions in your blog on Monday. Re reading that blog, I reckon there are four questions wrapped up as queries in your Monday blog:-
    (1) “I wonder whether that £1.6 m was an accurate figure.”
    (2) “I wonder what it was for.”
    (3) “I imagine Elmley has been well and truly signed up to agri-environment schemes.”
    (4) “It would give me great pleasure to know that my taxes had contributed to the success of waders on the Merricks land”
    Whether you regard them as questions or not, I reckon that your readers and followers of your blog deserve to know the answers:-
    (1) “I wonder whether that £1.6 m was an accurate figure.” Yes it was. It refers to the lump sum payment received in 1987 for the eight years 1980 -1987 from the then Nature Conservancy Council (NCC was the predecessor body to English Nature which became today’s Natural England). In April 1980 NCC used their formal powers to stop us growing (very profitable) wheat and manage for (financially unprofitable) conservation on the 2400 acres of the Elmley Estate on the North Kent Marshes. If you divide the lump sum of £1.6 m by eight years and by 2400 acres and you arrive at the sum of £83 per acre per year. So £83 is what we were paid per acre per year to give up our hugely profitable wheat growing with its MAFF 60% drainage grants + 10% FEOGA grants together with corn growing equipment grants and manage the land the way that NCC (which was then an agency of the Dept of Environment) wanted.
    All this was reviewed by the House of Commons all party Environment Select Committee who came down to Elmley in 1984-5 and gave us a really supportive review in their subsequent Report. What they liked was that I was critical of the negative aspects of the then legislation (Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981) and suggested that it would make much more sense for all concerned and especially for nature conservation outcomes if farmers, instead of being paid negatively as set out in the legislation, were paid to manage positively for conservation.
    A principle, which I am really pleased to say, and I hope you are too Mark, a few years later developed into the concept of agri-environment management – something that united farmers and conservationists. And created a better countryside. And still does.
    (2) “I wonder what it was for.” It was for managing the 2400 acres of Elmley for eight years as a National Nature Reserve under the direct rules of an NNR Management Plan drawn up by NCC.
    (3) “I imagine Elmley has been well and truly signed up to agri-environment schemes.” Yes it is. Some areas are in the wintering birds AES scheme, some areas are in the breeding wader scheme and some areas are in the extensive grassland scheme.
    (4) “It would give me great pleasure to know that my taxes had contributed to the success of waders on the Merricks land”. I hope that your “great pleasure” is our pleasure Mark. As you probably know Elmley NNR now holds by far the largest concentration of breeding waders in lowland UK.
    We have done this by focussing on chick productivity. We believe that fledging rates are crucial . Sadly for breeding waders, chick productivity, for many many years has been ignored by conservation managers and agri-environment schemes prescriptions which, we believe, has been a big mistake. Really pleased to say that Defra, Natural England, BTO and now some (or might it be many) in the RSPB have changed their minds on this and are now convinced of the vital importance of chick productivity. You and I Mark had a vigorous debate re this issue on your blog of 26 July 2012, where we took differing views. As more and more evidence is emerging, where do you stand on the issue now, Mark?
    Looking at those who have commented on your blog:-
    Derek Moore is a birders’ birder and is on the Elmley NNR Management Board. I don’t know John Miles or Keith Cowieson. Barry O’Dowd is a former RSPB warden of the 670 acres of Elmley that we leased to the RSPB. Re that, and as you seem so keen on money issues, Mark, during the 25 years that we leased this 670 acres to the RSPB (1987 – 2013) I left the rent of £18,500 per year for the 700 acres, the farmhouse, the car park and the buildings, unchanged for the whole of the 25 year period. I must have been bonkers. Or not very astute about money.
    As you know, the RSPB gave up their Elmley tenancy with us last year. The reasons for this are set out in the press release headed “Good for wildlife, good for people, and good for everyone” – A new approach to wildlife conservation on the Isle of Sheppey” issued by the RSPB Regional Director and RSPB Kent Manager last year – see link http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/121008_Statement_tcm9-326297.pdf
    Barry O’Dowd, a former RSPB warden of the 670 acre RSPB reserve, makes an interesting point in his comment on your blog (above). Namely that “the number of breeding lapwing pairs can be used as an indicator of good grazing marsh management”. Good point but the number of breeding pairs is not the biological outcome – what is, are the number of chicks successfully fledged. This is a crucial difference. Mark, you will know that lapwing need to fledge approx. 0.7 chicks per breeding pair per year to maintain a stable population. Setting aside immigration and emigration, get more than 0.7 and there will be an increasing population but less than 0.7 and the opposite happens and conservation management will have created a sink population or as some biologists term it, an ecological trap. You will know Mark, that the 670 acres at Elmley, managed by the RSPB for breeding waders in the period (1995 – 2012) never produced the necessary 0.7 fledged chicks per adult – ie the breeding lapwing on the site were a sink population. Last year (2013) under different management, the fledging rate as monitored by independent, experienced field workers, rose above 0.7. for the first time in 18 years. Hurrah.
    So that’s about it. Would be very pleased to show you round Elmley, Mark. Or anyone else who might be interested. We welcome about 12,000 visitors a year, who are looked after by our daughter and son-in-law at Elmley. It would great if you were to join them.

    1. Philip - you didn't have to - but thank you for such a detailed reply to questions which were never asked. Much appreciated.

      I am now quite curious about the £1.6m. So could you possibly educate me some more about the events of a few years before I even started working in nature conservation - you see, you have been in the business for much longer than I!

      If I understand you correctly, the £1.6m was compensation for not destroying a designated site - put rather bluntly? Presumably, but do correct me if I am wrong, it was for not ploughing up parts of the Swale SSSI some of which had been designated in 1968 under the 1949 Act (according to my understanding of the NE website (http://www.sssi.naturalengland.org.uk/Special/sssi/sssi_details.cfm?sssi_id=1003678))?

      From your own website I see that Rose Cottage was a hay store and Cod's House was a shepherd's dwelling up until the 1950s. Was there a history of growing wheat at Elmley? Since wheat fields are rarely designated as SSSI or NNR I'm guessing that this would have been a pretty dramatic change in land use for this designated wildlife site?

      I totally agree that landowners deserve payment for delivering public goods such as wildlife. And I am very pleased that Elmley is benefitting from agri-environment payments. I should think that you are near the top of the list as far as delivering wildlife value under the current schemes. I notice that practically all of the Swale SSSI is in Favourable condition too.

      As you know, I have visited Elmley several times and always (at least at the right time of year!) been very impressed by the numbers of breeding waders. I'd recommend a visit to anyone - and the next few months should show it at its best in many ways.

  8. Hi Mark
    The link to the press statement from the RSPB re them giving up their lease at Elmley doesn't seem to work. Hence please see the statement in text form below.

    Good for Wildlife, Good for People, Good for Everyone A new approach to wildlife conservation on the Isle of Sheppey.
    The Elmley National Nature Reserve (NNR) is currently managed in two sections. The majority of the site is managed by the owners, Philip & Corinne Merricks, Elmley Conservation Trust (ECT); the eastern section, Spit End, is managed by the RSPB, who lease the land. Philip & Corinne Merricks have decided, with the support of Natural England to take the Spit End area back in hand and manage Elmley NNR as a single unit. The RSPB is aiming to leave before their lease expires and use their resources to bring more land on the Isle of Sheppey under conservation management. Negotiations are ongoing but the intention is that ECT will manage the whole NNR from Spring 2013.
    Good for wildlife – The RSPB has been managing Spit End as a nature reserve since 1975. Philip & Corinne Merricks (ECT) acquired the whole of the Elmley estate, including Spit End in the 1980s. After initially farming the estate, other than Spit End, conventionally they put the whole 2,400 acres into nature conservation management. After a number of years of great success, ECT will take the Spit End area (600 acres) back in hand to create one large 3000 acre reserve. ECT will also continue to manage the Swale NNR (600 acres).
    ECT’s decision has been inspired by learning from the RSPB and others and this decision will allow the RSPB to use their resources in places where there is greater need. Adjoining areas where the RSPB is involved will be managed to create a landscape scale approach to wildlife conservation in the area.
    Good for people – ECT are keen to ensure that access for the public, including RSPB members, will continue and will be enhanced with an additional visitor route and additional hides being provided. Facilities will exist for continued formal educational visits by adults and children. RSPB members will be able to enjoy Elmley in the knowledge that that the organization is using its resources to extend its activities in the area.
    Good for Everyone - Private landowners managing NNRs as a Natural England Approved Body is not common place. This is a positive move for nature conservation and a model for the future. It is impossible for conservation bodies to own and manage enough land to ensure a wildlife rich countryside. The RSPB (Futurescapes) and the Wildlife Trusts (Living Landscapes) are promoting vision of landscape scale conservation but these visions can only be fully realized if more private landowners can be persuaded to manage their own sites for conservation.
    Best of all, this is the perfect demonstration of landowner and conservation body working together to maximize nature conservation and should be developed where possible across the UK.
    Chris Corrigan
    South East regional director (Brighton)
    Tel: 01273 763613
    Email: chris.corrigan@rspb.org.uk
    Alan Johnson
    Kent area manager
    Tel: 01634 222480
    Email: alan.johnson@rspb.org.uk

  9. Very happy to answer your direct question Mark for you and readers of your blog.

    Much of Elmley was under arable cultivatin in Victorian times. In fact the deep lateral clay pipe field drains installed in the 19th century on the marsh are a pain in the neck where we are trying to retain water for wintering birds. They are very deep and not easy to find to break or block up. The 19th century very large corn barn adjacent to the visitors car park is a thing of beauty but it was built for a prosaic functin - corn storage.

    Then during the beginning of the 20th century much of Elmley was under the plough and again during and after the Second World War.

    In our time ie from the 1970s, much of the Elmley marshes were growing wheat. This was in response to very strong signals re farming intensification eg huge grants from MAFF for under drainage and other farm improvements work - am I allowed to say that these were "improvements " on your blog? And also in response to the two White Papers " Farming and the Nation" and "Food from our own Resouces". Happy days for production minded farmers but a dreadful time for conservation.
    In fact if in the late 1970s, you had looked from where the Countryfile guys were filming, that view would have been a sea of wheat rather than a sea of wintering birds. One of the 1970 grain stores still remains in the reserve visitor car park. i wonder how many of our visitors realise that its black vertical steel wall panel is very robust grain walling. At least that remains useful today for keeping out non birding night time visitors who want to pinch the quads and other tools.

    Is that enough history for you Mark?

    Re your other question, I repeat that the £1.6m was the lump payment for eight years (1970-77) payment for managing 2400 acres as an NNR under the the 1968 Countryside Act. (£83 per acre) This was a mechanism termed a Nature Reserve Agreement (NRA). It all got very tangled up in media terms with the political environmental campaigning of the late 1970s and early 1980s which led to the 1981 Wildlife and Countrside Act which both farmers and conservationists seemed to equally dislike. At that time the Somerset Levels were in the news not because of flooding but because the NCC and RSPB officials were being burnt in effigy down there by farmers who didn't like the use of the new SSSi powers. Hence our wish to be somewhat more positive and manage the land at Elmley positively for a different objective.

  10. Give the location of Elmley in what is becoming a densely populated area shouldn't we just be happy at what we got, who would rather have the £1.6m Mark? How much would the taxpayer pay today to do something similar?
    Never been over to Kent for a spot of birding, might be coming down soon though.

  11. Excellent and visionary work on Elmley, Philip - well done! This is 'landscape-scale-conservation' in action, and provides us all with an object lesson in how to achieve meaningful biological outcomes for red-listed, Biodiversity Action Plan, priority bird species - and others to boot no doubt.

    And thank you very much for walking us through the whole story of your remarkable success story. I for one have every intention of taking you up on the kind offer to visit.

  12. On behalf of the RSPB North Kent team I would just like to point out how lucky we are to have farmers with such enthusiasm and talent for wildlife management in this area. With the worrying picture painted by the recent State of Nature report (May 2013) we need more people stepping up for nature in this way! It is also worth pointing out that we take wader productivity very seriously and in 2013 we had above target lapwing productivity on all of our reserves, with an average of 1 fledged chick per pair across six sites (excluding Elmley, which we managed only up to the early part of the 2013 breeding season).


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