Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Tomorrow is a Long Time

It's a rare damp and misty afternoon here on Sheppey in Kent, after an even rarer couple of hours of rain. Best described as damp, murky and warm, oh how I wish it would rain regularly for weeks on end!
After spending the first couple of hours of the morning wandering round the reserve with Ellie, I spent the rest of it near breaking my back digging bone hard and bone dry soil in the rear garden of my house. I've cleared a largish area of all of it's shrubs and things, cleared the weeds, etc., and begun digging the site in the vain hope that the once normal winter weather of rain and frost will break up the ground and make it able to be re-planted in the Spring.  Now, I'm sitting in the conservatory, sipping a glass of beer, listening to a James Taylor CD and feeling quite wistful - James Taylor has that effect.

Dylan Thomas once wrote:-
"It is a winter's tale
that the snow blind twilight ferries over the lakes
and floating fields from the farm in the cup of the vales,
gliding windless through the hand folded flakes"......

As I sit here now on this mild, damp afternoon with dusk creeping mistily nearer, I wonder if I will ever see such a snowy scene here again, experience that hushed silence that creeps across the countryside and that delicious feeling of being tucked inside the warm nest of a home while all the world freezes outside. Out in the garden a big, fat, Wood pigeon waddles it's way down the lawn towards the pond and takes a drink. It has spent the last hour or so scurrying around under the bird feeder tubes, filled with sunflower hearts and being gorged upon by thirty odd House Sparrows, scattering crumbs non-stop to the pigeon below. The mist is creeping in from the nearby seashore, evening is approaching and out further in the estuary the fog horns are beginning to sound their eerie wail, a sound that has been the backdrop to so many of my memories.

Time to stir, time to shower, time to cook my dinner - time to think about tomorrow - tomorrow is a long time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Hard Times

Silly as this might sound, over the last couple of weeks I've been trying to dig some flower borders prior to the winter, should it actually occur. Being at the wrong end of the very long dry period that I keep harping on about and having clay soil, it's bloody near impossible to get a spade in the soil it's so hard. This is the silly bit - consequently, to make it a tad easier I'm having to put the garden sprinkler on for a couple of days in order that the ground softens up a bit and even then the soil is turning over in large clods like house bricks - plenty of rain and some hard frosts are needed.

The situation on the reserve and it's grazing meadows remains the same, endless drying winds, sunshine and just the occasional heavy shower. It really is ridiculously dry and talking to one or two farmers, it seems another problem is now rearing it's head as a result. Ditches and fleets on grazing marshes are always called "wet fences", i.e. all the time that they have sufficient water in them livestock cannot cross and stray where they shouldn't. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, with many such "wet fences" now dry thanks to the drought, livestock is wandering about all over the place, even on to neighbouring farmland and it's a real headache.
Now here is the bizarre bit, if you were to visit and look at the arable farmland alongside our grazing deserts, you'd almost say that the above was a lie, the recently sown wheat and rape is growing away like magic! Shortly after the crops were sown we had several heavy and prolonged showers, just enough to soak the top inch or so of soil, germinate the seed and start it into early growth, those fields look quite green.
Of course, several heavy showers are a long way short of the heavy and prolonged rain that we need to wetten and re-fill ditches to the average depth of three feet and indeed soften up the whole marsh so that birds can probe for insects.


Thursday, 21 September 2017

There was a Time

Back in the days when we still had four seasons each year, seasons that came with annual regularity and obvious signs, we knew what to expect. We never had rose beds still in flower at Christmas, lawns that still needed mowing in Jan and Feb and summer visitor birds such as Blackcap and Chiffchaff over-wintering in ever increasing numbers. Nowadays it's not unusual to find woods of trees still in leaf at the turn of the year. There was a time when fruit and veg. also came with and denoted a particular season and we eagerly looked forward to a season coming round. Parsnips and sprouts in mid to late winter, after a frost had been on them, strawberries in early summer, mushrooms gathered from the fields in early autumn. All that has gone now, everything is available all the year round and it ain't quite the same
Take snow, the photos below were taken round my house in Jan 1987 - 30 years ago. You can just make out my car on the drive. That snowfall was so severe that it pretty much paralysed the Isle of Sheppey here for a week and cut us off from the mainland.


 Note the icicles hanging from the guttering around my bungalow.

That was thirty years ago and I really can't see it happening again to that degree. Since then, as "winters" have become milder and dryer, snowfall has been at a premium, the last time we had snow was four years ago and that only lasted a couple of days.
Which brings us round once again to the dryness of winters now. The first two photos below show the result of a normal wet winter on the reserve. The last time that occurred was about five years ago, since then the winters have become progressively dryer. When the reserve was that wet birds such as Lapwings and Golden plovers could be counted in the several thousands, wildfowl likewise. Regular bird counts were hard work because there were simply so many birds to count over a large area.


Today, the scene above looks like this below, dry and waterless as far as the eye can see and it makes for a pretty boring walk round each day because there are so few birds to see. There was a time when we knew what season we were in but that's no where near as clear cut any more.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Some things just ain't changing

It's really quiet on the reserve at the moment, small parties of Swallows still go through at speed, heading south and occasionally a Chiff Chaff works it's way through the willows looking for insects. Stopping to pass the time of day with the odd wildfowlers as they come back along the sea wall inevitably turns to the same old subject - isn't it bloody dry out here!
Take this through pipe which allows the ditches either side of the crossing to be at the same level, the water level should be at or above the pipe but it's no where to be seen.


In 31 years of being involved with the reserve I've never seen this ditch dry out but it's looking likely that I will this year.

I've featured this fleet before, it snakes it's way for several hundred yards through the middle of the reserve and is normally where most of the wildfowl and waders can be found, it's currently bone dry and hard.

 And the shallow lake in the Flood Field remains steadfastly bone dry as well, as is the whole field.

 Alongside the Flood Field is the pump house that can be used to pump water from the ditch into the field but you will notice that the end of the pump hose is sitting above the couple of inches left in the ditch.

So, after around eighteen months of this dry weather, we can only hope for a wet winter, it will happen, it's just when?
In the meantime, look at this distant shot of two rabbits alongside their burrows, a normal brown one and a jet black one. Around 15/20 years ago the black ones were a fairly common sight on the reserve, breeding naturally in that colour but they have become much rarer nowadays. Breeding in that colour has some fancy scientific explanation but I can't recall what it is.

Friday, 1 September 2017

A New Season

It's the first of September today and therefore the first day of a new wildfowling season. Pre-dawn this morning wildfowlers will have been turning up across marshes and estuaries in an attempt to shoot their first duck or goose of this new six month season.
As I have done for the last thirty years, I made my usual dawn visit to the reserve sea wall to see how many wildfowlers had turned up and to chat with them as they returned homeward along the sea wall. As you can see below it was a spectacular dawn sky as I made my way across the reserve, through the cattle and a light mist that was rising and there was a surprising nip in the air as well, just 8 degrees at first.


On reaching the sea wall and glancing along the saltings I was able to make out just six wildfowlers spread out at regular distances and below you can see one of them, optimistically waiting for a goose or duck to fly past.
Now did they actually shoot anything, well no. With the tide in front of the saltings being low, there were around eighty Greylag Geese on the exposed mudflats and all becoming more and more vocal as they got close to flighting inland. Eventually, as the sun rose above the eastern horizon, there came a great clamouring of geese calls and rather than cross the saltings where the wildfowlers were waiting, they flew along the mudflats for several hundred yards and then turned inland where there were no wildfowlers. Now geese are incredibly intelligent and wary birds but I really feel that today they were simply just lucky. One thing's for sure, there were some incredibly frustrated wildfowlers who came back along the sea wall afterwards. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Better Times

Since my last rant about the inclement weather, it has improved somewhat. We've had regular heavy showers and a couple of lengthy rainy periods and always followed by very warm sunny days. The rain hasn't added a single centimetre to the ditch levels, which are now at ridiculously low levels, but it has definitely greened up the grass on the grazing meadows. Harvesting operations on the surrounding farmland have almost all finished now and all the straw bales such as you see below have been carted away. Those wheat stubble fields will remain like that now and have already been re-sown with rape which is beginning to show as lines of green seedlings. All that's left to do now is to re-sow this year's rape fields with wheat for next year's crop and so the annual rotation goes on.


Back on the reserve, the bulls that have been servicing the cows through the summer months are due to be taken away to their winter pastures this week. One of them is shown below and I really was that close, they are a very docile and trustworthy breed thankfully.

Below is one of the other bulls with one of his harem. I was amused to be told the other day about one of several bulls on a nearby reserve. It has had to be withdrawn from "active service" for this year because the regular rearing up of such a huge frame onto a cow's back, put so much weight on it's back ankles that they became strained and swollen. Not all fun in the stud world it seems!

The pair of Mute Swans hatched seven cygnets this year on the reserve but only these four have survived, they are doing well though.
In the early mornings lately, when the grass is wet from rain or heavy dew, I been coming across numerous small frogs making their way through the grass away from the ditches. It happens most autumns and I guess they move into dense vegetation ready for winter hibernation. The photo makes it look a lot bigger than it was, it was only about an inch and a half long, probably one of last year's froglets.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Weather Dominates

After heavy-ish rain all afternoon and evening yesterday, the walk across the reserve this morning was wet, muddy and dominated by wind. Now yesterday's rain I was grateful for, we've long needed it, although one of the local farmers who still has to get his well ripe corn harvested, wouldn't agree. But being out this morning in wet conditions that were exacerbated by grey skies, spits of rain and a strong and cold NE wind was depressing to say the least. I needed to wear clothing very similar to what I would wear in the winter and had to continually tell myself that yes, really, this is the height of summer, if only by the date.
Last night I sat indoors watching the World Athletics Championships in London and to avoid putting the central heating on in mid-August, had to get up and put on a thick sweater. And the athletics, well they were taking place in non-stop rain and chilly winds, which affected the performances of many of them to some degree.
So this morning, as I wandered round hunched up in my winter coat, I also found myself reflecting on the fact that so far this year, our summer has consisted of two hot and sunny weeks seemingly many moons ago. Two rare weeks during which some people found it necessary to complain about how hot it was, well I hope that they are happy about these current awful weather conditions, because I bloody well ain't and I doubt many of the competitors at the athletics were either.