Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Today, there are no two ways round it, it was shitty. It was cold with a gusty wind and it was wet, basically it was January on the eve of April. I couldn't hack another day of mud and cold on the reserve today so I stayed in and left the outside world to those that can't sleep at night unless they've counted every bird on their patch for the umpteenth time.
I sat in the conservatory and watched a tug pulling a large barge into the Medway Estuary and a huge car boat going into Sheerness docks, I watched odd rays of sunshine briefly light up Southend seafront across the Thames estuary and it was depressing. But in amongst all that depression a bumble bee lethargically made it's way across the conservatory floor, chilled by the coldnes of the day. I don't know what the attraction for these bees is in the conservatory, perhaps its the yellow painted walls of the bungalow which it abutts, but whenever I leave the door open, in they pour. Normally I simply throw them back outside but today the weather wasn't bee friendly so I put it on the flower head of a geranium inside, where it seemed happy enough to be. At regular intervals through the day it would wake up and wander from petal to petal, finding little sustance, but it and I were happy that it was in the dry and the warm.

Everytime that a gust of wind rattled a rain shower against the conservatory windows I worried about my robin outside. The nest is in an open-fronted box on a fence and part covered by a bush, just a few yards past the end of the conservatory. The robins spent some time filling the box to well past the halfway mark with vegetation until finishing it off with the nest bowl of moss and dog hair at the top. The hen has been brooding the eggs now for about a week and over the last few days has been battered quite badly by the rain and the wind, day and night. I check on her regulary and all that is visible at the back of the box is a pair of black and beady eyes atop a fraction of orange breast. I probably worry unduly because she always seems quite resolute but I do long for her a warm and sunny day.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Is it Spring?

After the exhaltations over last week's spring weather and migrants, a visit to the reserve this morning was pretty depressing. After the rain of the last 24 hours some ditches had risen by two foot again and some of the grazing marsh had gone back to being either waterlogged or part flooded. It was cold, wet and muddy, and almost certainly a few Lapwing eggs will be sitting in icy water and will be lost this time round.
To complete the wintery picture the flock of around 280 White-fronted Geese were spread out across part of the marsh, happily grazing the grass and wondering what all the fuss was about.

In my garden, a robin sitting on eggs in a nest box by my conservatory was huddled down tight against the rain this morning. The box faces south and unfortunately she was copping the rain full on for a while. A pair of blackbirds appear to have just hatched out their first brood in next door's garden as well, the female was on my lawn earlier on, collecting small worms and taking them back to the nest site.

With strong and cold winds and more rain forecast into the weekend it looks like we're going to start a fourth month of this continuously unsettled weather.

Monday, 29 March 2010

A sporting estate

Its a cold, wet and gloomy morning, which matches my mood given the forecast for the rest of the week. So I'm giving the reserve a miss today and will instead refer you to an old book of mine entitled "Memoirs of a Gamekeeper 1868-1953"

The gamekeeper in question was one T.W. Turner and he was gamekeeper at Elvenden in Suffolk for 50-odd years. His recollections are very much those of a gamekeeper steeped in the old-fashioned and ruthless ways of gamekeepers of that era and on an estate that was one of the finest in the country.
I have taken a couple of examples from the Elveden Game and Vermin Registers over many years which will show you the degree to which both Game and Vermin were pursued in those days with some astonishing totals which, especially when you consider it was just one Estate amongst very many in the country then, shows the astonishing extent of wildlife in those days and the extent, in most cases, to which it has diminished today.

1921/22 - Game

Pheasants - 10,245
Partridges - 3,016 (presumably Greys)
Hares - 2,258
Rabbits - 128,856
Woodcock - 60
Snipe - 2 (367 in 1907)


Pheasants - 8,023
Partridges - 705
Hares - 705
Rabbits - 23,535
Woodcock - 106
Snipe - 0

But it is the "Vermin" killed that is astonishing and especially when you consider that these pests were found and killed in similar amounts nearly every year.


Rats - 10,489
Stoats - 1,137
Hedgehogs - 479
Weasels - 234
Jays - 90
Crows - 360
Hawks - 124 (oh dear)
Magpies - 1
Squirrels - 300
Various - 706 (whatever they were?)

In 1911 they also began Mole trapping and killed 3,629 that year but rarely saw a fox until after the First World War.

Interesting stuff but not in a lot of ways acceptable by today's standards.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The five-bar gate

This yo-yo weather continues. After yesterday's warm and sunny morning and the exhilaration of seeing three swallows and a wheatear, this morning saw a return to a cold W. wind, cloudy skies and wetness under foot from overnight rain. I saw nothing new or exciting.

On the reserve, in front of the barn alongside which us wardens park, there is a five-bar gate, the type that you see in old photographs with a rustic farmer type leaning against it, one foot on the bottom bar, and sucking on his pipe or a piece of hay. Our gate has a ditch either side of it, flanked by willows and reed beds, and it acts like a curtain that you step through, out into a different habitat. A habitat of flat grazing marsh, bordered in the far background by the seawall, the saltings and then The Swale. Today the gate looked quite forlorn as it stood closed with its bottom bar sitting in the water created by the ditch flooding across beneath it.
The only time that I really do the farmer bit and lean against it and chew the cud so to speak, is in September. In as much as May is the gateway to the summer, September tends to be the gateway to the autumn and then the winter. In September you can sense that the warmth and light of summer is fast slipping away and on some warm, early evenings in that month, when it still feels like summer, it is easy to lean against the gate and reflect on how good the summer has been. To hang on before going home and to paint the picture in your mind. There is an easy calm and serenity about September evenings like that as small parties of young swallows begin to come into the reedbeds to roost, resting before The Big Trip South, the first wisps of mist begin to rise from the ditches, and the dogs, weary at wandering the marsh on a warm evening, sit nearby flicking their ears at mosquitos.
And then gradually, as the mist and the dusk increases, pheasants begin to call, rippling their alarm sounds from one to another across the fields and hedgerows, the swallows rise up and fly around one last time before roosting back again, a dog barks somewhere in the distance and the dark increases, and its time to go home.

Friday, 26 March 2010

A nip in the air

Although its fairly sunny now as I write this, earlier on this morning it was somewhat colder on the reserve with a moderate and cold SW wind and heavy grey skies. In fact as I sat in the Tower Hide with a cold blast coming through the observation ports, watching winter birds such as Whitefronts, Wigeon and Teal, it felt like we'd gone back a month. Couple that with the fact that the reserve still hasn't recorded a spring migrant yet, well not on my visits, and it was a tad frustrating (I'm starting to sound like Warren).

The White-fronted Geese number has gone down since Wednesday's 320 and totaled just 160 this morning. There were also 300 Wigeon, 100 Teal, 50 Shoveler, 6 Tufted Duck, 2Pochard, 40 Greylag Geese, 3 Canada Geese, 150 Coot and 26 Avocet.

I also spent some time watching the farmer, whose grazing fields border the Shellness track and have supported huge numbers of birds this winter, and that go all the way round to the Raptor Viewing Mound, both spreading dung and scarifying the fields. This annual and necessary work enables him to get a good hay crop off those same fields each year and all in all those fields have added hugely to the local habit since he returned them from arable to grazing a few years ago.
In a waterlogged/part flooded condition in winter they provide feeding and roosting conditions for a wide range of birds, in spring they provide ideal habitat for nesting Lapwing, Redshank and Skylark and as undisturbed hay meadow until July, provide perfect food, nesting and cover conditions for a wide range of wildlife. Even now, although the fields are a tad too wet for work that would of been best left for a few weeks more for them to dry, he is pressing ahead in order that he keeps ahead of the main Lapwing breeding season.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Rocking along

Those of you that read this blog regularly will recall the posting "Ten men went to mow" about my time on the Kent River Authority in the 1960's on Sheppey, today is part two, about the rock pitching days. Some of you that have walked the seawalls of The Swale might have pondered the rocks that are set into the seaward side and how they got there, this will illustrate how.

Around the Island and the southern side in particular, the seawalls were faced to some degree with rocks in order to protect them from tidal erosion. The saltings along the Swale were continually, and still are, eroding away, and where they did it then allowed the sea to eat away at the seawalls. As a result we spent a lot of time each year facing the earth of the seawall with rocks of Kent ragstone. It was the most hazardous and physically demanding of the work that we undertook at the time.
To get the rocks in place along such an isolated stretch of seawall the KRA had its own little tug which towed a small, twin-hatched barge, with a crew of two, the barge skipper and his mate who had responsibility for the barge. The rocks were collected from somwhere near Allington Lock on the Medway and then towed down at high tide to where they were needed. On arrival, the barge was towed and nudged in as close as possible to the seawall and then left to settle on the mud as the tide dropped, the hatches were uncovered and the tug disappeared off to return the next day or later. Immediately that it was possible we clambered aboard the barge to commence the unloading. By today's standards and in reality, even then, the discharge methods were both archaic and dangerous, a fact that was recognised after I left the company by the installation on the barge of a small crane.

The rocks had come direct from the quarry and as well as being rough-edged, came in all shapes and sizes, from very small to some that required the efforts of three men to lift them. And lift every one is what we were expected to do, and then great effort, "simply" throw them over the side into the sea or mud and thereby create a new rock stack in the mud alongside the barge. We would split into two groups, one in each half of the barge, although below deck the two halves joined as one hold, and at first, despite the physicality of it and the cuts and bruises to fingers, arms and legs, it was reasonably easy because we were level with the deck. On a hot summer's day, when just shorts were being worn, the splashback as rocks hit the sea was really appreciated as a cooling agent.
As the rock level in the hatches began to drop, the exertion to unload the rocks began to increase greatly and for a while you had to throw the rocks up into the air to clear the barge's deck and over the side. Given the size of some of the rocks this was impossible and bloody dangerous, so as soon as possible we would hang a small platform on the inside of the barge's hold. This enabled a guy to stand on it at a comparable height with the deck and the others, as they got lower into the hold and eventually on to the floor, would put the rocks onto this platform for the person(s) on it to throw them over the side.
Incredibly, if we started a barge at around 07.30 in the morning, a gang of around eight to twelve of us would normally have the barge emptied of up to a hundred ton of rocks by about 16.00 in the afternoon. We weren't capable of much else that day though and went home caked in dust and salt and with lines of scratches and bruises on both arms and the thigh of the leg that you used underneath each rock to get it over the side of the barge.

The next day would see the rock pitching commence and for this we would each have several basic tools, a spade, a club hammer, a string line, a length of wood as a level and a "punner". The punner was like a wooden log about three feet long, with a handle sticking out halfway along its length and one on the top. In this way you could use it to thump the rocks into the clay of the seawall. If these broke at any time we would often utilize the pulp logs that were being unloaded at Ridham docks by Swedish ships, spillage of which that would drift along the Swale. One guy took some of these free logs home one time to saw up and use on his fire but they burnt like a fire-cracker and he reckoned he was kept warmer by chasing the sparks around the room to prevent his carpet being burnt!

To get the rocks ashore from the stack, if it was out in the mud, we basically had to lay planks across the mud and then carry the rocks to the base of the seawall for chipping with the hammer into a roughly square shape. Working side by side we would each mark out a section of seawall 4-5 yards wide and begin by digging out a "toe" trench along the base of the seawall. Into this we would punner a base line of rocks and protruding from the mud by about a foot.Then from each of the two end rocks we would run a a line of punnered in rocks up to the top of the seawall, gradually punnering them in further until as you reached the top the last rocks were level with the soil.It was then a matter of in-filling this U-shaped section with rocks, starting at the base and using your length of wood as a level between the two upward lines of rocks. But it was not simply a matter of just throwing rocks down and punnering them in, each one was specially chosen by handling and where necessary chipped into a semblance of square before being punnered in. At the same time you quickly learnt from experience that each rock had its own naturally angled top that meant, when punnered into place, that they would continue the correct slope of the seawall, a rock placed the wrong way round would stand out like a sore thumb again the level.
On completing the section by reaching the top of the seawall you would then complete the job by hammering in all the small chippings, known as "corking", between the rocks in order to tighten them up and prevent them being washed out in rough tides.

It was back-breaking work that we carried out with much pride and rivalry to achieve the best and most level sections and could be very cold in the winter with freezing winds blowing for days on end. Some mornings we would even have to light fires of driftwood on the base of the wall in order to unfreeze the mud in order to be able to pitch into it. These fires would often be kept alight to keep us warm as well and to dry out our pitching gloves during tea breaks. Basically these supplied gloves were made of rough leather with staples across the fingers for grip and during the tea breaks we would leave them round the fire on upright bits of stick to dry out. Unfortunately if you left the gloves too close to the fire and for too long, you would often return to find a pair of shrunken, mini-gloves that a child would struggle to get on. Those winter months were really hard and taxing out there.

The other side of the coin were the summer months and Spring tides. With a high tide covering your work on the seaward side of the wall to almost the top for a couple of hours there was nothing else that you could do, we were "washed out" and enjoyed the opportunity to simply sunbathe or better still explore. We were normally along the seawalls of Rushenden, Elmley or Harty, with huge ares of marshland to wander over, rabbits to catch and kill, Moorhen and Coot eggs to collect and boil over the fire, etc.

Really hard but happy days that I have rarely bettered for both enjoyment and education in the year round history of life and nature on Sheppey.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Old News

Walking back across the reserve yesterday morning I was watching one of our regular Barn Owls flying across some rough ground with a vole or mouse in its talons. As it flew past a pair of circling Kestrels one of the Kestrels swooped down, flew up under the owl, flipped upside down and snatched the mammal from the owl and sped off. I've never seen that before.

On a different theme but also yesterday during a quiet period in the afternoon, I had a read through the 1961 KBR which I picked at random from the shelf. Those were the days when we still published a list of the names and addresses of all the members and I was amused to see myself listed as an "under 18" member, oh happy days! It was interesting though to see how many of the current KOS heirachy go back that far, not that many to be honest.
Becoming hooked I then had a look at the 1963 KBR which came up with some startling comparisons with today. I know the beginning of that year was part of the infamous 1962/3 freeze up which could of been the reason for some of the high numbers, but how about some of these counts that I picked at random and how they compare with today.

Twite - 600 at Chetney in January - I doubt that figure has been reached again by adding all the following years together.
Snow Bunting - 300 at Elmley in February.
Brambling - 1400 at Sandwich Bay in January
House Sparrow - 1000 at Sandwich Bay in October
Brent Geese - 180 in February was the highest count for the year!
Collared Dove - 6 at Whitstable in March was the highest count for North area that winter!

Lastly, and this must cause people to think of such good old days - Red-backed Shrike - successful breeding at Canterbury, Chatham and Nothfleet.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Coincidence x Coincidence

I was on the reserve earlier this morning and wandered along the grass banks below Harty church, normally a good spot for early Wheatears but apart from a few Skylarks and around 50 Brent Geese on the saltings, there was little about. Seems I might have to pop back to Warden Point again, where I managed to see Wheatear, White Wagtails, Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap yesterday in the enjoyable company of Andy M and his good lady.

Harty gossip at the moment alleges that a fox hunt on Harty last week cornered at least one fox, which was killed, I assume that the artificial trail that was presumably laid led them past that fox by accident.
It is also alleged that the police were called by somebody to the finding of a swan found shot dead. One method of scaring swans off the crops out there at the moment is to fire a noisy rifle over their heads, I assume the two are not connected.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Springing back

Encouraged by regular postings on Kent-Birders in recent days (good old K-B,) I went down to the reserve earlier this morning to once again hunt for the elusive migrants. Mind you, on arrival it seemed as though Spring had taken a step backwards, I was met by strong winds, grey skies and bouts of drizzle. Undaunted I made my way round to the Tower Hide and sat in there to get the best views, whilst being gently rocked by the gusty SW wind. Unfortunately the only birds that I saw simply maintained that wintery feel, Wigeon, Teal, Golden Plover, a ring-tail Hen Harrier and around 80 Fieldfares. It was noticeable however that the wildfowl numbers had plummetted over the last couple of days as breeding duties elsewhere called, and a combined total only came to around 400 birds.
Despite my mood matching the grey skies, there was one glimmer of sunshine however, a Grey Wagtail appeared close to the hide, a rarity on Sheppey.
So, still no spring migrants, but tomorrow is another day as they say and I shall return with renewed hope.

Returning to one of my previous postings on the subject of rabbits, I was on another site on Sheppey the other day, where rabbits used to abound in large numbers, but have now, for better or worse, been "controlled" down to a trickle. I stopped to speak to two local rabbiters, who were just finishing and questioned if they'd been successful that morning. They gloomily showed me their total catch of just four rabbits and invited me to feel how "poor" they were. And they were just that, just skin and bone and with no fat content around their kidneys at all. Apparently that has been the case with a lot of the rabbits caught and killed this winter, presumably the result of the prolonged cold weather and little fresh vegetation causing them to live off their fat. In that condition it obviously means that they have little value as a food product or to game dealers.
I can only assume that while the rabbiters instincts surely tell them that they should now be leaving the rabbits alone till next season, if they want to maintain their permission to continue, then they still have to show willing. Not how it used to be!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Makepeace at Elmley

In the early 1970's a friend and I roamed pretty much the whole of Elmley from Straymarsh Farm out to Spitend, mainly rabbiting in the winter and eel netting in the summer. I can't recall how we came to be able too do this unchecked but we were very familiar with the area from our recently left jobs on the Kent River Authority and were friendly with some of the Gransden family, who were in the process of vacating Elmley after some thirty-odd years of farming there.
Sometime around 1974 whilst down on Spitend emptying eel nets we were surprised to see a person turn up with a wheelbarrow and spade and begin tipping barrowloads of mud into a ditch close to Wellmarsh counterwall. Curious, we wandered over to him and introduced ourselves and explained what we were about and were even more surprised to find out that the RSPB had leased the whole of Spitend to create a new bird reserve. Our man turned out to be Peter Makepeace, the new Warden of the reserve and the story of how we went on to help him start to create what is now The Flood has been told before on The Forum so I won't repeat that. Meantime Peter was perfectly OK for us to carry on with our two seasonal activities, eventually for the whole time that he wardened there, and some winter mornings even came down to Windmill Creek and spent a morning rabbiting with us. The only thing that changed as the reserve began to take shape and attract visitors was that we had to carry out the rabbiting before visitors began to appear and our eeling by then had mostly moved on to other parts of Elmley.

And what of Peter Makepeace, well he could be a little short-tempered and from what I've heard since, he wasn't everybodies cup of tea, but I liked him and I became quite friendly with him and his wife. I recall one day down at Spitend witnessing him break the shotgun of a mis-behaving shooter over his knee and he took on hero status then - how I'd love to be able to do that on the seawall these days!
He was an ex-carpenter who prior to Elmley had been working as assistant to the great Herbet Axell at Minsmere and he features in the excellent book at the time, "Minsmere - Portrait of a Bird Reserve." I began to take odd days off from work and wander around with Peter on Elmley and by pointing out birds that until then had been a mystery to me, he re-kindled my lapsed interest in birds and I joined the RSPB and began to start recording birds that I saw.
Peter was a talented artist and sometimes when my wife and I went up there for a meal Peter would be found at his easel, classical music playing, happily painting away. I also recall that in those days the gardens and orchard at Kingshill Farm held numerous plum and greengage trees which habitually had bumper crops and we and some of his other friends, would take away plums by literally crate fulls.

After painting, Peter's other great love was fresh water fishing and a few times, he and his wife took me with them to the fishing lakes at Murston, nr. Sittingbourne and I saw my first Bearded Tits and Great Crested Grebes there with him. A few years later, as the water levels increased and expanded on Spitend, my friend and I whilst netting a particually wide and deep ditch there for eels, were surprised to find in our nets several carp and other fresh water fish. We reported the fact to Peter only to find out that we had stumbled on an unofficial fishery that he was creating for himself. We fished that spot no more and as far as I know Peter escaped down there when he could and enjoyed a spot of uninterrupted fishing.

They were both happy and educational days out there then and Peter was instrumental in introducing me to conservation proper and I hope that I with my local knowledge was able to give him something back. However all things good come to and end sometime though and eventually Peter was chuffed to be given the opportunity to Warden at Dungeness, where his mentor Herbet Axill had begun prior to Minsmere. For a while after he moved my wife and I stayed at Boulderwall a few weekends with Peter and his wife and Peter introduced me to that great reserve.

Back at Elmley, Les Street had taken over, attitudes quickly changed and I found it easier to continue my birdwatching at Harty, eventually becoming a Voluntary Warden of the Swale NNR for the last twenty-three years. I have been to Elmley RSPB just twice in that time, when the excellent Bob Gomes was there.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Feeling good

Well today, Spring really did arrive. Temperatures rose to the dizzy heights of 12 degrees, there was warm sunshine and little wind - it was great to be out.

I made a brief visit to the reserve at lunch time, mainly to give Nana my Beagle a short walk. She's into her 15th year now and can't manage a long run anymore, can't even walk fast! She has spent her whole life running the reserve and knows every short cut, every plank across the ditches, every best rabbit field, but struggles to get to them anymore, that's sad and I'm beginning to know how she feels.

Of the reserve? well everything was pretty much the same as it was on Sunday - it just looked better in the warmth, but I did see my first Small Tortoiseshell butterfly of the year, fluttering weakly over some newly emerged Stinging Nettles. And, perhaps its just me, but such a lovely day makes you think backwards into fond memories and I for some reason got thinking about Enid Blyton.

As a devotee of hers and when I first retired, I went onto E-Bay and gradually purchased all twenty-one of her Famous Five novels, complete with dust jackets. Even at 62 years of age, reading the Famous Five for me is pure nostalgia, good and innocent days, pure childhood, nature and everything that went with it. And as a result of those purchases, I became aware of the illustrator of all her books, one Eileen Soper, not only a superb illustrator but a true naturalist herself, who with her sister, lived together in a house in Hertfordshire for most of their lives. It wasn't really until after their death and a search through their dilapidated house with its huge and overgrown garden turned over to wildlife, that Eileen's true and secret life was exposed and written up in the excellent book - "Wildlings" by Duff Hart-Davis. She is perhaps more widely known for her study and drawings of Badgers in her book ""When Badgers Wake" and the follow-up book "Wild Encounters".
Eileen Soper was a true and talented naturalist of the early 20th Century kind and I encourage you to read her books.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

WEBS and things

With the weather due to be springlike again today I shook off all the cobwebs, dusted myself down like a busy little bee, and looked forward to my two trips to the reserve today.
The first was to take part in the monthly, all year round, Wetland Bird Survey (WEBS), always carried out around a high tide and generally on the same day all round the country. On the Swale NNR there are three of us that take part and we then combine our totals. I always count the middle part of the reserve, that is the grazing marsh, and the adjacent farmland. Another guy counts at Shellness Point and another the saltings below Harty church. Both of those positions are at the extreme ends of the reserve and hold important and historical wader roosts. Today it took place during late morning/lunch time and despite milder weather and fast reducing water levels, I still had good counts of birds on my section.

62 Mute Swan - 260 White-fronted Geese - 600 Brent Geese - 50 Shelduck - 800 Wigeon - 30 Gadwall - 200 Teal - 140 Mallard - 30 Pintail - 80 Shoveler - 6 Pochard - 150 Coot - 1400 Golden Plover - 700 Lapwing - 100 Dunlin - 1 Ruff - 150 Curlew - 50 Redshank

There were a few other bits and bobs but the above were the highest counts and the best part was the arrival of the Whitefronts just as I got to the hide. They began flying in from the Harty Road just a mile away and after scattering all over the sky above me, suddenly began dropping into the reserve no more than a hundred yards away from me. The beautiful cacophony of Whitefronts calls as they do that is quite magical and after a quick wash and brush up, most of them were asleep, heads tucked under wings, within minutes.

With the WEBS finished at lunchtime there was time to get home and joyfully watch Man Utd beat Fulham before a return to the reserve for the Harrier roost count. Once again this is a monthly count, carried out around Kent over the six winter months and is designed to build up a picture of favourite roosting sites and the number of harriers that use them. Information that can be utilized in lots of ways.
Remarkably, as seems to have happened each time this winter, cloud cover during the afternoon cleared for the last hour and we were treated to a lovely sunset. As the day winds down then, the marsh is a lovely place as dusk settles in. The huge array of bird calls gradually dwindles with the light until at the very end you get that sudden rush of darkness as though somebody has switched a light off. But the birds still call intermittently, especially when they sense you trudging past in the gloom, and best of all, like this morning, it was the Whitefronts that held my ear, this time a mile or so away and perhaps calling "good night" to each other. Who knows, but it had been a lovely day, you just can't beat the big open skies of a marsh.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Goodby to Winter

What an uninspiring week this has been both weather and bird watching wise. The intensity of the cold has made being out in exposed places such as the Sheppey marshes, very unappealing. However if the weather forecasters are to be believed (dare we), today sees the start of Spring weather proper. We are supposed to be basking in temperatures of up to 12 degrees by tomorrow and by mid-week, with winds turning to the South and temperatures reaching 14 degrees, could this indeed be the week that our Spring migration kicks off. Exciting stuff!

One of the two Harty farmers has been active this last few weeks, planting many thousands of mixed hedgerow saplings to replace old hedgerows and in a couple of places, to create new ones. On the approach to his house alongside Harty church he has also added some new young oak trees to the avenue of small oaks that is becoming established there. As small and isolated as these oaks are out there, last winter they attracted the first pair of Jays reported on Sheppey for many, many years, so who knows what they might be the start of. A lot of Harty has been re-planted in this way by the two farmers over the last fifteen-odd years and ithas been a big boost to various wildlife species.
Unfortunately, what isn't needed after all this hedge planting, is a long dry summer. Most of the plants have been planted into wet, clay soil and will normally spring into leaf and life quite quickly over the next couple of months. However, given a normal to dry summer and that same soil will be dust dry and bone hard by July and with regular watering in the first year just not practical, it could sadly lead to the demise of a lot of this fine effort. Time will tell.

Two monthly counts to be carried out tomorrow on Harty, the WEBS and the last of the winter Harrier roost site counts, so hopefully a return to some bird news.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Brass Monkeys, hares and rabbits

It was certainly brass monkeys weather on the reserve earlier this morning. Under grey skies and in the relentless ENE wind the wind chill was quite severe. It certainly made for very taxing conditions to be standing around in on the seawall and was too much for my old bones and I have to admit, I didn't hang around down there very long, I went home, whereupon blue skies and sunshine broke out!. It certainly didn't encourage any thought of Sand Martins and Wheatears being missed either.

I was interested to read a letter in the Daily Telegraph today from some guy from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. He began by rejoicing in the delights of his favourite British mammal, the Brown Hare, which he then ruined by going on to state how there is no close season for shooting hares because they're classed as an agricultural pest and have been since the 1880 Ground Game Act. He states that hares are shot where they are numerous and damaging crops. I imagine that that Act was introduced when hares were far more abundant than they are now and is probably as out-dated as the thinking behind the need to continue hunting them nowadays.
Anybody who has seen a large area of growing corn reduced to something akin to a bowling green by a nearby colony of rabbits, that sit out in large numbers munching away each day and night, could hardly argue against them being referred to as a pest. But hares - even when abundant, can never be witnessed doing what rabbits do and in such tight numbers, a nibble here and a nibble there, yes, but I challence anybody to show me anything that resembles damage warranting being classed a pest like the rabbit.

Finally, on the subject of rabbits, they too, as a result of both virus and pest controls, have gone down severely in numbers on Harty in my opinion. Too often these days people see a few rabbits out there and go away stating that there are hundreds about, believe me, as somebody that walks a lot of that area, there aren't anywhere near the numbers that there used to be. I have video footage taken on the reserve one summer's evening about fifteen years ago, that shows just one of the salt-working mounds there, covered in around four hundred-plus rabbits. That used to be repeated across the reserve and surrounding farmland to create consistant numbers of many, many thousands of rabbits, including the reserve's speciality jet black ones. On a recent walk round the reserve I found around fifty!

A good or a bad thing, there will probably be many views from both sides and Land managers would probably consider that a job well done, especially bearing in mind their legal responsibilities in respect of rabbit damage and controls. Me I'm not so sure, I think that they form a vital part of a nature reserve, if only as part of the food chain for other species and to reduce them to such low numbers, or eradicate them all together, would lose the reserve part of its long-term heritage.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Tem men went to mow

In 1966 when I was 19, I joined the Kent River Authority as a labourer in their small Sheppey workforce. We only worked on Sheppey and the work was very hard, poorly paid and tended to use archaic work methods and tools (some people even brought in corked bottles of cold tea) but the major benefit for me was being able to witness all of Sheppey's wildlife through all of the seasons.

Apart from some ditch maintenance our main function was maintaining and sometimes re-building, Sheppey's seawalls and beaches. One of the annual items of seawall maintenance was mowing and not with the luxury of tractors as is the case nowadays.

Grass cutting would start off in the early summer and most years would start along Queenborough seawall and then work in a continuous easterly direction all the way along The Swale, taking in Rushenden, Elmley, Harty, Shellness, Leysdown, Warden Bay, until ending up at Minster Beach. Where necessary both sides of the seawall would be mown and then the mown grass raked over the top and down the landward side of the seawall, using long-handled wooden rakes. The grown was left in a line along the base of the seawall then to dry for subsequent burning. All the mowing was done on foot, walking many, many miles behind two types of industrial mowers, the two-stroke Alan Scythe and an early rotary type by the name of Hayter.
At first the mowing would be relatively easy but as the summer wore on and the vegetation thickened and became flattened by weather, it got harder to cut through and was forever jamming and stalling the mowers.On some walls as well there was the additional hazards of cattle damage from the preceding winter. While the ground was soft the cattle had impregnated the seawall with deep hoof prints which had then dried to give a cobbled effect. Walking a mower along the sloping side of a seawall over these very bumpy conditions not only meant that your thighs were constantly battered and bruised by the mower handles between which you walked, but the mower would also be trying to bounce its way down the seawall. This meant that you also spent a lot of time wrestling with the mower, trying to keep it in a straight line. Add to that on a hot day, the two-stroke exhaust fumes, the sweat, and flies sticking to your skin and it could be a long and tiring walk round Sheppey! I remember one time also where the mower bounced out of my hands, ran away from me down the seawall and disappeared into a ditch alongside, with just bubbles revealing where it was.

Another incident was amusing for its sheer nerve. We tended to be a small workforce of half a dozen or so like-minded and long term labourers which was added to mainly in the summer months as extra work was required. Many of these extras simply saw the job as an opportunity to have a few months being paid to get a sun tan and see parts of Sheppey that they'd probably never ever see again. On our way to continue mowing and raking in the mornings we would normally first drop off one person, a mile or so behind us whose job it was to spend the day carefully burning the line of raked and dry mowings left behind us. One particular day we dropped off a guy who could of fell asleep standing up and told him what was expected. On going back to collect him at the end of the afternoon it quickly became clear that he didn't seem to be any nearer us than when we had first dropped him off, in fact there was no evidence that he had actually done anything at all!
We found the guy lying on the seawall and when an irate Foreman asked him for an explanation as to why he had burnt nothing all day, the guy simply said "I didn't have any matches!" which as you can imagine had us rolling on the floor in the back of the Land Rover in hysterics.

On baking hot and cloudless days as we mowed our way through the long stretches of Elmley and Harty, the conditions could be really punishing, especially the lack of shade. They could get even more desperate if you failed to take enough drink or ration it out through the day. By the early afternoon of one particularly hot day as we mowed across the dam at Windmill Creek, I had become so desperate for something to drink and for respite from the sun, that I ended up both soaking myself in a ditch there and drinking some of the less than palatable water! I had the next day off sick with sunstroke but surprisingly, not with an upset stomach.
Shortly after that, on the Eastchurch side of the dam after another punishing day, I got in the Land Rover to drive the gang home and the gearstick broke of in my hand! I was not popular and it was a long and unpleasant walk that late afternoon, across Eastchurch marshes, up through the Prison and finally to Eastchurch village, before we could a bus home.

But despite the conditions, the summer mowing had a myriad of compensations, especially if, as I did, you had an interest in wildlife and Sheppey's remoter places.To be paid to walk pretty much the length of Sheppey's southern side through the warmer months, through the breeding seasons, and most importantly, when the farms and marshes still looked pretty much as they had for hundreds of years, was priceless.

The other phase of seawall maintenance, for those of you who wonder how the rocks got set into the seawalls, was rock-pitching. This was a job that wasn't far short of the old prison chain gangs and something I'll write about in a later blog.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Fond climates

Ponder if you will, the following words:

"A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill's shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me"

A poem by Dylan Thomas to celebrate his "thirtieth year to heaven" but take out the October and it quite easily transfers to Spring.

As I stopped in the spinney this morning to unlock the reserve gate, beneath blue skies there were indeed Blackbirds singing and a Springful of larks over the marsh - poetic yes, but Spring does have the power to increase the levels of emotion in us all, it promises so much. Sand Martins and Wheatears were sighted in the West Country yesterday and excitement increases. All of a sudden every little brown job on a fence post makes goose bumps rise on your arms in the hope that it is a Wheatear and not just a Meadow Pipit, a lone Starling flying at distance can look surprisingly like that first Swallow.

Arriving on the reserve I sat in the car to listen to the news on the radio and watched a ring-tail Hen Harrier glide along the ditch alongside me and was in awe as it passed by me at only ten yards distance, such beauty.

March never ceases to amaze me as well for its ability to dry out the ground. Just one week after last Sunday's deluge and flooding and the daily drying east winds and sunshine have had a considerable effect on the saturated ground. Its not massive, but all of a sudden yellow and waterlogged grass is beginning to appear as water levels on flooded pasture recedes and ditches flow less fast. Bird numbers are also dropping fast as the winter visitors move away and very soon we will be in that interrum period between winter and summer visitors and interest instead fixes on those early breeders. Lapwings will make the first scrapes in waterlogged turf and Coots will build nests in reeds, nests that in a month's time will look ridiculous as they sit two foot above the water levels.

Spring is indeed a fond climate and one that its worth living through a winter to arrive at!

Friday, 5 March 2010

A spring in the step

It was lovely and sunny on the reserve earlier today under blue skies, but a tad too fresh NW wind kept it quite chilly.
We enter the reserve through a tiny spinney of trees and bushes, part of the farmland alongside, and it was lovely today to see the willow catkins beginning to open out and providing an early feed for any insects that there are about. Noticeable too on the reserve, that some of the Greylag Geese are now flying around in pairs, couple that with displaying Lapwings and we are inching in the right direction.

Taking note of Warren's comment yesterday about my lazy habits I decided to walk a longer patrol around what is not under water on the reserve this morning - result, my arthritic feet ache like mad now - wine and a snooze seems a better option!

The normal March swap over of ducks on the reserve was also apparent this morning, Wigeon and Teal numbers are beginning to decrease and Shoveler, Pintail and Gadwall are increasing. The pick of the counts this morning was as follows:-
60 Mute Swan - 90 Brent Geese - 60 Shelduck - 700 Wigeon - 60 Gadwall - 400 Teal - 280 Mallard - 50 Pintail - 70 Shoveler - 6 Tufted Duck - 5 Marsh Harrier - 1 Sparrowhawk - 200 Coot - 400 Golden Plover - 1,000 Lapwing - 150 Curlew - 100 Wood Pigeon - 1 Barn Owl - and lots of bits and pieces of other common birds.

I also have to say, that these numbers are pretty small compared with some of the totals that must be on the extensive and water-logged grazing marshes near by. Difficult to count due to the area that they cover but there must of been several thousand Golden Plover and Lapwing at least, plus Curlew, wildfowl and Starlings.

Now where's that corkscrew!

Thursday, 4 March 2010

I went down the reserve at around 8.30 this morning but I can't say as I enjoyed it. Walking round in foot deep water and in wellies, and feeling cold under grey skies and a strongish E wind is not what I find terribly enjoyable. I've had enough of the cold and the wet now, despite the birds that are about. Missing out on a drake Garganey in Capel Fleet on my way back didn't help.
Guess I should of gone this afternoon when blue skies and sunshine would of made it so much more enjoyable but I was giving my lawns their first cut of the year then and later enjoying 85 degrees of warmth in my conservatory with a glass of wine.

That aside, don't you just feel that a Wheatear or Sand Martin is just around the corner, although Sand Martins aren't frequently seen across Sheppey in the Spring.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A little bit of history

Some visitors to the Swale NNR will park outside Harty Church and walk down to the reserve from there. But what of the buildings that you park alongside.
The church itself dates back in its reasonably current form to around 1089, with one or two additions since then. Alongside it until a few weeks ago stood the empty and derelict Harty schoolhouse, home in recent years to mainly owls and other assorted wildlife. It had been built in c.1872 to educate the children living on the numerous farms and cottages scattered across Harty, and there quite a few of them. The line of small cottages close by, with the enviable view across the Swale, were also housing for farm labourers and they are still inhabited today, although their condition is less than desirable.

By following the track down to the seawall alongside the Swale, one of the first things that becomes noticeable are some old hulks out on the edge of the saltings. These are all that is now left of two old sailing barges, the "Lizard" and the "New World", both of them once carriers of the cement that was made at factories along the Medway and at Elmley in the Swale. The "Lizard" was built in 1891 in Rochester and the "New World" in 1877 in Sittingbourne. As was the common practise at the time, as barges came to the end of their working life many were "hulked" by simply abandoning them on the mudflats along the Swale and Medway, and several others can be seen further into the Swale.

When I was working for the old Kent River Authority in the 1960's, maintaining Sheppey's seawalls and ditches, what is now the Swale NNR looked pretty much as it does now, the only difference being that the surrounding farmland, now much converted to arable, also looked the same and extended that habitat over a far greater area. The area was also, due to its remoteness, much less visited by the public and somewhat unprotected from poaching, shooting and all manner of disturbances unwelcome today, except of course wildfowling. But for all that it was a cracking place that retained an air of mystery and a feeling of secrets yet to be discovered, and I loved it.

Fortunately the Nature Conservancy Council, Natural England's predecessors, with much draining and leveling of the majority of the Harty marshes going on at the time, began in 1974 the process of buying the numerous parcels of land that have now become the reserve. In doing that they have retained a part of Sheppey's traditional North Kent marshes heritage. It was surprising how many owners there were to such a relatively small area of 165 hectares but eventually in around 1976 the reserve began being declared and came into being. The only piece to today which is still leased is the Shellness shellspit and first three quarters of a mile of saltings and these are leased from the owners of the Shellness Hamlet.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

What a day

This morning the reserve really looked the biz. The floodwater is a real pain in respect of access but under blue skies and sunshine it adds a whole new dimension to the beauty of the place. The sun was packing quite a bit of warmth from quite early on and as it warmed the place up so the activity increased. Wigeon and Teal whistles echoed all round the place, across the Swale somewhere the barking of Brent Geese could be heard and best of all, Skylarks rained down there song as though to say, Spring is here!
After the winter we've had, sudden days like this on the marsh are magical and I realise what it is about the marsh that I so love. In some ways, as I always do, I can do no better than refer to a passage in the Wind in the Willows, where Ratty is describing what the River means to him, because it could also be my feelings on the marsh.
" Its my world, and I don't want any other. What its not got isn't worth having .... Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, its always got its fun and its excitements. When the floods are on in February, and my cellars and basements are brimming with drink thats no good to me, and the brown water runs by my best bedroom window; or again when it all drops away and shows patches of mud that smells like plum-cake, and the rushes and weed clog the channels, and I can potter about dry-shod over most of the bed of it......"

Earlier this afternoon, with my patio facing south and there being no wind, I dragged out a chair and sat in a very warm sun, and its surprising what appears around as you simply do that.
For the second day running a Bumble Bee buzzed around the heathers and two Ladybirds appeared on the leaf of a shrub alongside me. A pair of Dunnocks came out from the base of my hawthorn hedge and chased each other around with lots of wing flicking, before the male flew to the top of a bush and serenaded me for a while with its scratchy song. Above a nest box in a crab apple tree, a Great Tit "teachered" away for ages, trying to impress any female in the area, and then to put the icing on the cake, a Peacock butterfly flew past me.

A bit poetic and perhaps fingers down the thoat stuff for some people - but for me, it was simply "what a day."

Monday, 1 March 2010

After the Flood

Going over Capel Hill on the Harty Road this morning it was evident that yesterday's rain had increased the areas of surface flooding across the marshes but it wasn't to the extent that I was expecting, which was good news.
Not quite the same story on the reserve though, mainly because the reserve's flat marsh areas receive all the rain that drains off the higher farmland alongside and then can only drain back off at the one point, back onto the same farmland.
However, despite the increase in flooded acreage, under blue and sunny skies this morning and with the sunlight being reflected off all of that water, it was quite superb to see. Adding to the spectacle were large flocks of birds wheeling about in the sky everytime that a harrier passed over them. Yesterday really did seem another world away.

Back home in the garden and the Robin looks to have finished its nest in the nest box and spent some time sitting in there this morning. Hopefully eggs will be along fairly shortly. I also had my first Bumblebee, desperately trying to find some sustanance from snowdrops and heather.

So, dare we start to think of Spring.