Sunday book review – On the Marshes by Carol Donaldson

Reviewed by Ian Carter

I’ve always liked books about alternative lifestyles, especially by people seeking out a gentler pace of life, more attuned to the natural environment. This is a good example and it’s a book I gradually warmed to as the author’s journey across the North Kent Marshes (contrary to the sub-title) unfolds.

 In keeping with the recent renaissance in nature writing,the book mixes autobiography with observation and reflection. It charts a difficult period in the author’s life as a long-term relationship falls apart and she loses her home in a static caravan on the RSPB reserve where she works. Her journey is, in part, a form of therapy as she reflects on events and takes stock of her life.

She travels through towns and villages, sleeps in churches and laybys, camps in remote marshes and even on islands out in the estuary, visiting friends and acquaintances as she goes. She is particularly interested in the history of the area, its patterns of settlement and development, and the prospects it might offer as she tries to decide what to do next with her life. The birds and other wildlife get plenty of mentions but tend to be quickly glossed over and I felt were rather lost in the story – it would have been nice to hear more about them.

 I don’t know the North Kent Marshes well but manybirdwatchers will be familiar with the area. It includes the well-known bird reserves at Cliffe, Northward Hill, Elmley, and on the Isle of Sheppey. Then there is the MoD land at Lodge Hill with its scrub and Nightingales and endless controversy. Overall, it comes across as a place of stark contrasts; the remaining wild areas hemmed in by heavy industry, caravan parks, rough Medway towns, and the intrusive, sometimes destructive, activities of the growing population. This is where Boris Johnson famously wanted to install a new four-runway airport, and smaller encroachments, legitimate or otherwise, continually chip away at the landscape.

It is a gentle-paced story in the main but it held my interest, and as she nears the end she talks more boldly about the importance of wildlife protection, the damage caused by economic growth for its own sake, and the valiant efforts of the RSPB (and others) to try to stem the losses. For me, these last few chapters were the most powerful and thought provoking, providing a fitting finale to her journey and the book describing it.

On The Marshes: a journey into England’s waterlands by Carol Donaldson is published by Little Toller Books.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Tim Melling – Roseate Tern

Tim writes: on 24th July 1812 Dr Peter McDougall was with two friends on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde.  They went out to two small islets in Millport Bay where terns were nesting. One of the party shot a tern and McDougall noticed it differed from other terns in having more black on its bill and whiter plumage.  They collected a number and one was sent to George Montagu in Devon, who described the bird as new to science.  Unfortunately for McDougall, Montagu got his name wrong so Roseate Tern still bears the name Sterna dougallii (as opposed to mcdougallii).    Peter McDougall’s bad luck did not end there as he caught a fever and died two years later aged just 37.   I notice on the BTO website it continues the error by saying the tern is named after Peter Dougall, and the French still call this tern La Sterne de Dougall.  Unbeknownst to McDougall, there was almost certainly another undescribed species on that island as Arctic Tern was not described until 1819.

Roseate Tern is by far the rarest of the regular breeding terns in Britain.  There are fewer than 150 pairs breeding in the whole of Britain, and the vast majority of those are at a single site in Northumberland.  For comparison there are around 53,000 breeding pairs of Arctic Tern.   I took these photographs in Northumberland in late July.  You can see the large amount of black on the bills plus the long tail streamers that are much longer than the wing tips.  Although the black on the bill recedes towards the tip as the season progresses, so the flying bird had an unusually black bill compared to the others.

Mark writes: this is a favourite bird of mine and one with which I was most involved in my early years at RSPB (see Fighting for Birds Chapter 3). The photo above also shows another characteristic of the bird which can help identification, even at long distances (though is not diagnostic) – the prominence of the legs in flight. Compared with Common Terns, with which Roseates often (indeed usually) nest in their colonies in the UK, Ireland, France, the Azores and the USA, the legs are much more often displayed in flight. This can be suggestive when viewing a melee of terns flying around on a distant offshore island.


from Mr Carbo


Saturday cartoon – Ralph Underhill


NE compliance with information requests

Dear NE

Thank you for your response on 12 November to my email of 2 November which you have chosen to treat as a complaint.

Your response is detailed and clear, but still unsatisfactory and so I wish this matter to be escalated to the next stage, Stage 2, with this email now forming part of the material to be considered, please.

I am grateful for the clarity of your response.

What you have sent me demonstrates, and you accept, that whereas 40% of FoI/EIR requests overall are dealt with in 0-15 days by NE, only 25% of my requests are dealt with in such a timely manner. When it comes to requests dealt with in the last 5 working days of the 20-day period, 45% of all requests are answered this late in the process whereas 58% of my requests are dealt with in such a relatively tardy manner, And whereas 15% of all requests are dealt with after the 20-day deadline, 16% of my requests are so treated.

So the data you provided me demonstrate two interesting things:

  • NE usually answers such requests in the last 5 days of the 20-day period or later (sometimes very much later)
  • my requests are very much less likely to be dealt with in the 0-15 day period, more likely to be dealt with in the 16-20day period and a bit more likely to be dealt with after (sometimes well after) the 20-day period.

My view is that this shows that NE is not responding in a suitably timely manner in general, and my own requests are being handled in an even less timely manner.

Here’s another piece of analysis on my own requests and their responses. Of the 14 requests of mine that received responses in the 16-20 day period they received responses as follows; 1 on day 16, 2 on day 17, 1 on day 18, 5 on day 19 and 5 on day 20.  This demonstrates a considerable clumping of the responses towards the very end of the deadline. I do not have the data for others’ requests but you do.  I will conjecture that the responses to me are more clumped towards the very end of the 16-20 day time window (as well as being more likely to fall into this window in the first place) than the pattern displayed by all responses. I’d be interested to see that breakdown to the extent that I will happily pay £10 to a charity of your choice (excepting the GWCT) if you provide those data and I am wrong in my conjecture.

Moreover, and just for illustration, if one looks at the 5 responses which NE sent me on day 20 of the period, they were received at the following times: 13:37; 14:25; 15:24; 15:43 and 16:31. So, not only are my responses much more likely to be in the 16-20 day window, and very clumped towards the last two days of that 5-day window but those which fall on day 20 are invariably sent in the latter half of the day and mostly sent in the last quarter of the working day.

Your defence for NE’s general tardiness in replying and your apparent increased tardiness in responding to me can be summarised as ‘it’s difficult’ but no doubt the regulations on this matter took that into account when deciding on a 20-day deadline (not target as it appears to have become in NE) for responses. Also, I invite you to look at the requests which have received responses towards the end of the 20-day period (as I have done) and reconsider whether they actually are complex – many certainly are not (and some are). I’ll be prepared to share my views on that with you at a later date but no doubt that will form part of the Stage 2 of your own internal assessment which I now request.

Yours sincerely and with renewed thanks for the detailed response,

Dr Mark Avery