Sunday, 29 December 2013

Woods and Marshes

I was in Surrey this weekend and as usual this last year when I've been down there, I had a wander round Hawley Woods and heath. I was struck by how open to view that the woods had become, every last leaf had been blown off the trees, and cottages close by, invisible throughout the summer and autumn, had now lost all their privacy.
Of course, none of this comes as a new revelation to people used to woods all the year round but as someone who has spent a lifetime in the wide open spaces of Sheppey's marshes it's all quite fascinating to me. The bracken and other undergrowth had all died away to leave just naked tree trunks and the well trodden paths that I normally followed through the undergrowth had now disappeared against the bare woodland floor where humps and hollows that I didn't know existed had become exposed. All those places where just a few months ago I was trying to identify woodland fungi were now covered in a deep layer of leaf litter, and the ever-present Robin song now echoed through the trees rather than being muffled by the overhead canopy. It was all so reminiscent of that passage in the Wind in the Willows when the Mole made off to the Wild Wood one winter's day -
"the country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and intimately into the inside of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been the mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically............"

It all makes winter sound terribly romantic and yet me, I prefer the memories of high summer in the woods - stepping out from the shade of the pine trees into pools of hot sunshine, the sweet scent of the gorse in flower, the buzz of bees in early heather flowers - long, hot summer days and arthritic bones make perfect bedfellows, not so short, dark and cold winter days.

Back on the reserve on Sheppey the only marked variations that we tend to get throughout the year are the fact that it is either very dry or very wet and at the moment, as the photos below show, we are now entering our very wet phase. I took these at dawn on Boxing Day and since then the water has continued to rise as the water drains out of the higher farmland alongside. Clearly we are going to experience our normal winter flooding and will now see the hoped for upsurge in wildfowl and waders. Signs of this were evident on Boxing Day as a few more Teal, Mallard and even a pair of Pintail sprang up from various flooded areas, unfortunately one of the Pintail was immediately despatched by a waiting wildfowler, which I could of done without. But once large areas of the grassland become flooded it tends to float up the various weed and sedge seeds that are laying around, making them easily available to the ducks to find and eat. This can then have the effect of limiting the attraction of the farmland corn fed shooting ponds for the ducks and therefore reducing the opportunities for them to be shot, hopefully.
These twice yearly weather effects always seem to be so pronounced and typical on the North Kent marshes, this year the reserve was around 40%  flooded until well into the early summer and then we had around three months of fairly hot and rain-free weather which brought about large cracks in the ground. It was almost as if the snow, the rain and the cold Spring had never happened as rain spent months going round Sheppey, rather than actually over it, the sun became more constant, butterflies flourished, and yet now, here we are, back with an excess of water!

 months weather.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Elmley School

It's becoming increasingly sad to see the old Elmley Schoolhouse now pretty much in it's last death throws before it finally falls down, or has to be knocked down for safety's sake. It now looks even worse than this photo, taken a couple of years ago.

 It is some way from it's former glory, as this faded photo taken in the 1920's shows and in those days it still stood alongside the long-gone Elmley church.

But how did it all begin.
Well in 1872, schooling had become compulsory throughout the country and to accommodate this upsurge of children being forced into the classroom, new schools began to spring up in towns and villages everywhere. In 1841 the population on Elmley, Sheppey, was recorded as just 42, being made up of the main Kingshill farm and numerous small labourers' cottages dotted around the marshes. However by 1851 it had shot up to 131, the result of a short-lived brick making factory that started alongside the Swale there. By 1860 the brickworks had ceased to be, being taken over by a cement manufacturing factory on the same site. At it's height the Turkey Cement works had spawned a mini village alongside with a main street, numerous cottages and some houses, a pub-come grocers and a small dock. It meant that by 1891 the total population living on Elmley had risen to 219 people. This growing population, coupled with the farming inhabitants nearby, clearly needed the addition of a proper school out at Elmley. There are various dates given for when Oxford University, the owners of Elmley, built the new Public Elementary School (mixed) at Elmley, with 1885 being the most prominent. Whatever the actual date, the school was built around that time and was built on the high ground above the cement works, alongside the recently re-built Elmley church, midway between the works and Kingshill Farm. The school had a teacher's office, room for around 86 pupils and a small, separate toilet building.
A slight query to the above date concerns the 1881 Census, because recorded as living at Kingshill Farm that year were the family of  Thomas Goodwin, the farm bailiff and a 31 yr. old National schoolmistress Amy Wells from Deal. So either the school was built earlier than suggested or Miss Wells was already teaching from the farm or another building.

Clearly the living arrangements for the new school's mistress weren't appropriate because a budgetry inventory for all the buildings on Elmley through the years had this entry for 1885,  under  the heading -The School House.
1885 - 22 October; estimated cost of necessary repairs and alterations to north portion of farmhouse (Kingshill) in order to convert it into a residence for the schoolmistress - £53.10.0. Estimated cost for sundries, i.e. wicket gates, posts for new footway from farmhouse to church £3.5.0.
I understand that a concrete path was eventually laid from Kingshill farm to the school and church in order to make it easier for the schoolmistress to walk there and small lengths of the edging can still be found along there.
Although they don't appear to have been happy about it, local Rates for the schoolmistress's house had to be paid for by the various tenant farmers at Kingshill until 1913, when the tenant that year declined to do so, and so in the April of that year the Kent Education Committee finally agreed to pay them themselves.

Going back to there being room for 86 pupils, it's doubtful that an attendance figure of that magnitude was ever reached. Despite schooling being compulsory, children were still in the habit of "bunking off" at harvest time in order to earn a few coppers in the fields for their families. Sometimes school start times in September were even delayed in order to facilitate these needs. The highest average attendance that I have seen recorded was 49 in 1891, at the height of Elmley's population figures. Thereafter, with the closing of the cement factory by 1908, the population on Elmley dwindled as people moved away to find other work and by 1907 it was down to 146, 1911 - 50 and 1931 - 19. A school attendance figure for 1907-8 shows between 8 and 14 pupils and so the school was clearly feeling the effects.

Following on from the first schoolmistress, Miss Wells, the schoolmistress by 1891 was a 44 yr old widower by the name of Mrs Jane Beeby, originally from Essex. She had been replaced by 1904 by Mrs Jane Harris, a widower. She was still there in 1911 when the National Census recorded her as aged 60, a Certified Elementary Teacher born in Bloomsbury and living in the Kingshill School House.
From then on it has been difficult to find out the names of future teachers, although the school clearly remained open for many years after, despite the fact that it must of been reduced to educating just the few children of the farm labourers out there. The Gransden family farmed on Elmley for 45 years from the 1930's and the first four of their eventual 14 children were taught in the Elmley school until it's final closure in the early 1950's. After that, schooling for the Elmley children was given at Murston on the mainland side of The Swale and this involved the youngsters trecking across the fields to the Elmley Ferry and enduring the return trip across the tidal Swale in the rowing boat that served as the Ferry. Not an ideal situation, especially in the winter months and many days schooling were lost when adverse weather conditions made the trips impossible.

The Elmley church was pulled down in the 1950's and with the closure of the school around the same time, the school building quickly became little more than a storage building for the farm and even at one time, a chicken shed.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Weather, Pikeys and Elmley.

Well, after the delightful clear and frosty morning in my last posting the weather has become damp, damp and even damper. The trouble with mild winters such as we are currently experiencing is that they tend to come with lots of moisture laden south-westerly winds. This last few days have seen several mild and regularly drizzly days and even when it wasn't actually raining the wind itself seemed to be damp. It has meant that the daily visits to the reserve, or indeed any garden work, have become thoroughly mucky affairs involving lots of mud and water and unpleasant conditions.

That aside, I was intrigued this last weekend to see a feature in the Daily Telegraph about an MP who had referred to a post office worker as a "Pikey", which these days is usually a derogatory term used by people to describe travellers and gypsies. What caught my eye was mention of the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of "pikey" to a newspaper in 1838, referring to strangers from the Isle of Sheppey. Later in that century it was defined in the Dictionary of Kentish Dialect as "a turnpike traveller, a vagabond; and so a generally low fellow". Food for thought there!

A visit yesterday to a newly found distant relative on Sheppey, by myself and girlfriend Diane in pursuit of more knowledge of our family histories, came up trumps. We found an 87 year old lady with an amazingly sharp memory who was happy to feed us with both her accurate memories of our ancestors and some pretty exciting photographs, all alledgedly from the 1920's. I have posted a few of many below. PLEASE DO NOT COPY AND RE-USE THESE PHOTOGRAPHS.
The one below is taken outside Seaview Cottage down at the old Elmley cement works (details of Seaview Cottage were mentioned in my blog of 13th January this year). To the left of the photo is The Swale but more exciting, in the background is the old cement works, the first photo that I've seen that shows the actual building.

This one is also at Seaview Cottage during a break in hay-making and this time the cement works buildings in the left background seem to be a tad more derelict. Writing on the back of one these photographs states that the old factory was demolished in the early 1920's and the rubble taken by barge to make the Southend arterial road.

This one is the old Elmley Ferry, showing the larger boat that was used when livestock was needed to be transported across The Swale.

Again the old Elmley Ferry but from the Murston side looking towards Elmley. On the rear of the photograph, not seen to clearly on the photograph, writing states the following. The two posts with white boards on in the water Elmley side indicate that it was low tide. Behind the boat at anchor Elmley side, is a white square. This is the ferry hut and the ferryman was called from the Murston side by leaving the hut's doors open to show the white interior.

Lastly, another view of the old Elmley schoolhouse but this time showing the opposite end to others that have been published. This one shows the end alongside the outside toilets, which are not in view.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Mist and Frost

I arrived at the reserve this morning to receding mist, a hard frost and blue skies and sunshine, all combining to make quite a stunning morning.
This is only a brief post in order to show the geese there this morning, sitting in the frost marsh. These photos were only taken with my bog-standard Fuji so don't expect photographer speak about ISO's and could do better's, although the birds lets me get to almost 100yds of them, these are the best my camera does. I should also add that the birds were still there undisturbed when I moved away.
Below you can see the frosty scene that met me as I arrived.

The geese were all together as one flock and comprised c.130 Greylags and 72 White-fronts. Below are all Greylags.

Here you can see a couple of Greylags and the rest Whitefronts, showing the difference in size.

These two photos are all Whitefronts, they are surprisingly tame for wild birds.

Mixed birds

All Greylags

Monday, 9 December 2013

Foxes and fings

As I suggested I would do at the end of my last posting, I arrived at the reserve yesterday morning at dawn, and just as the eastern sky was beginning to turn pink as the sun began to climb below the horizon.
I just love the dawn, no matter what time of year it is, it offers much promise for the ensuing day, it doesn't always turn out to be good but for that brief period in time, hope is always there. This photo looks eastwards along the reserve sea wall and in the distance you can just make out the buildings inside Shellness Hamlet.

Everything about that time of day is so great, birds become active again after a long night, they become vocal and the marsh echos to their calls, the sun gradually creeps higher until it peeps over the distant hills, the last dark corners brighten up and all of a sudden a new day is fully lit. The Greylag Geese below could feel it and they moved into the reserve for a wash and brush up after pre-dawn feeding out on the farmland winter corn fields.
Apart from the opportunity to enjoy such a wonderful time of day, I was also there to see if the local wildfowlers were out and about on the saltings, they've been so quiet this season, but despite the lure of the Greylag and White-fronted Geese there was nobody about, except a lone and early birdwatcher who appeared along the sea wall as the light began to brighten.

Driving home after my visit, I came across this young fox by "Capel Corner" along the Harty Road. It was drinking from a roadside puddle and as far as I could see it was fit and healthy, but it made no attempt to run off as my car approached. I drove past a few yards and stopped in the road, wondering if I might get a photo or two. By the time that I got out of the car the fox was sitting in the middle of the road, about ten yards away and seemingly taking in the view, not the way that nervous and truly wild foxes act.  

 I took a couple of photos and then to my amazement and despite the rabid barking of my two terriers who were looking at the "enemy" through the rear window of the car, the fox began to walk towards me. It got to within five yards and then eventually the barking of the dogs deterred it from getting any closer but I'm sure that without them there that I could of possibly almost stroked it.

Clearly this fox was not acting like any fox that I had come across on the Sheppey marshes, most get one glimpse of you and turn and run for their lives, this one was almost tame. It wasn't there when I went past earlier that morning, I came to suspect that some "do-gooder" had released it, hoping that it would have a happy life after being returned to the countryside, but it doesn't work like that. Elmley NNR has suffered for years from foxes, captured in cities such as London and being illegally released along the track out there.  They can be as unsure and scared of the wild countryside as some humans are and their trusting nature simply makes them vulnerable to being shot, the one above will surely suffer that fate in the near future.
Now I have mixed feelings in respect of foxes, having watched them almost wipe out a breeding colony of Avocets on the reserve, I fully accept and agree with then being controlled in the countryside where vulnerable species become threatened by their increased predation, but after yesterday the "but" gets much bigger. Looking at that young fox sitting on the road looking bewildered, it was almost like looking at one of my dogs and I know I could never be the one that pulled the trigger on it.    

Leaving that confusing and emotional subject behind, lets look at last week's mega North Sea surge. For many years I have complained and written to the Environment Agency about their annual mowing of the sea wall in front of the reserve. So many butterflies, moths and other types of wildlife use the long grass of the sea walls as both their refuge and breeding site that it has always seemed to be environmental vandalism to mow them so short every year. But at a pre-Christmas get-together at Elmley yesterday, all became clear. Apparently, if seawater manages to clear the top of the wall and run down the overgrown inland side of the wall, it will have to run through the tangled and un-mown vegetation and in doing so rips out the vegetation and then the exposed soil it is growing in. This happened to a section of the Elmley sea wall in last week's surge between Elmley Hill and the Elmley Ferry site. The sea wall there is lower than some others on Sheppey and as a result was over-topped and erosion was caused on the inland side, potentially weakening the wall and allowing some sea water to get into the fresh water fleet alongside. Photos taken by the reserve management show this to be case but fortunately they had their own on-site JCB and this quickly repaired the damage.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Grey Skies

It was a grey and gloomy morning as I arrived at the reserve mid-morning today, it was one of those less picturesque winter mornings, sun was forecast but it never arrived while I was there. As I began walking away from the barn I could hear the repeat shots of a game shoot in the distance, somewhere back towards Eastchurch, the weekly Sheppey farmers shoot.
It's a muddy old trek round the reserve's tracks now as the cattle continue to churn up the soft ground and the gateways but it's all part of the winter scene on the marsh, just a matter of accepting it. As I approached and then went round the back of the Flood field, the resident flock of mixed geese began to drop in from the farmland alongside (above). This morning the flock totaled 130 Greylag Geese and 70 White-fronted Geese and what a beautiful sound the Whitefronts make as they fly in and settle, all the time calling with that high-pitched, wild goose sound of theirs. The earth bund around the Flood field has numerous teasel and thistle heads along it's sides and from there a flock of 80 Goldfinch and a dozen Greenfinch got up in front of me as I walked. They've been around a few weeks now and despite visiting the same plants most mornings they never seem to tire of looking for the very last few seeds that might still be about.

Raptors are slowly starting to increase now, unlike the ducks. Marsh Harriers and Kestrels are there every day but there were also two ringtail Hen Harriers and a superb male about yesterday, plus single S.E. Owls, Peregrines and Merlin are also being seen, so gradually things are looking up at last. Certainly that's the case with the Brent Geese, they've taken up daily residence in a field of winter corn close to the track down from Harty Church and every day they provide a spectacular sight as 2-3,000 fly in from out on The Swale (see below). It can't be much longer before they incur the wrath of the farmer and suffer whatever action that he takes in order to protect his livelihood, so many geese acting as lawn mowers as they graze across the crop do not provoke friendly thoughts.

Skylark numbers are also a feature of the reserve at the moment, no doubt swollen by visitors from the Continent, most fields seem to have half a dozen or more birds get up and we have had as many as 40 birds so far this winter and always great to see. And just as their numbers have swollen so those of Coots have slowly decreased to nil, as I have mentioned before, this is a new feature of recent years, they never used to disappear in winter.
It was grey, it was gloomy but slowly brightening, and by the time I got to the top of the sea wall, it was also fairly mild, or so it seemed. I could see several bird watchers making their way out to Shellness beach, it seems to be coming quite popular all of a sudden, although with a very low tide this morning most birds were going to be quite distant. It seems quite amusing at times to see birdwatchers adopting the same tactics as the birds that they watch and flocking together, perhaps I'm the odd one out, preferring to do my bird watching on my own. But back to the sea wall and I was interested to see how far up it was the tide-line after Thursday's record tide surge. Clearly the saltings were well flooded but the sea wall did it's job and although the new tide-line of old plant material was a metre short of the top, it must of still been a scary scenario to have witnessed at the time, especially at Shellness Hamlet where there is no sea wall at the front.

Tomorrow morning I think I'll forsake part of my pre-dawn vigil watching the last couple of hours of the Test Match and be on the reserve at first light, it'll be interesting to see if the wildfowlers have been tempted by the geese numbers. Hard to believe that inland of the seawalls that there is only seven weeks of shooting time left, with it ending at the end of January.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Return Journey

Last Thursday Mick, my friend of nearly 50 years and I, travelled by rail and tube to the Royal Albert Hall to see Bob Dylan and his band. It was something of a return journey as the very first time that we saw Bob Dylan in concert was at the RAH in May 1966 and for Dylan, he has not been back there for the last 47 years. We have seen Dylan numerous times since then and for me, the last couple of concerts that I've seen, he has been pretty poor, this one was Bob Dylan at his very best, three consecutive nights and all sold out. With excellent, near front-row seats in a really magnificent venue, we could almost touch the old curmudgeon and we had a great evening. A hot Cornish pasty at Victoria Station, the train home, and tucked up in a warm bed by midnight, just as it should be for two aging hippies.

So different to that last time in 1966, when Dylan sang the first half to acoustic guitar and then for the second half, brought on The Band and played with loud electric backing and upset many of the audience, me, I recall finding it just as good. Our travel arrangements that time had also been different, we got dropped off at Westminster Bridge from a lorry driven by a friend of my father, had a wander around London and then walked out to the RAH in time for the concert.
After the concert had finished we then walked back into central London and eventually out to the A2 and began trying to hitch-hike home. Although at the time it was our usual method of getting to and fro from London, it was a long and tiring night but with the help of a few short lifts and a lot of walking, we eventually got back home at 8.00 the next morning. I immediately rushed round to the home of my young girlfriend to tell her all about our exciting night, but barely got the words "Bob Dylan was fantastic" out when she said "ah, sorry but things have changed." "Changed, what has changed" said I, "my ex-boyfriend has returned from the Merchant Navy" she said, "I'm going back with him."
Eventually we resumed our courtship twenty-five years later but that's another story. Below you see me in 1966 - playing guitar, myself and Mick to the right in the group of four and doing my best Dylan impression behind bars.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Shellness Morning

With the daily walk round the main marsh part of the reserve becoming both a tad boring due to a general lack of birds and mucky lately due to a combination of wet weather, mud and cows hoof prints, I decided to drive down to Shellness Hamlet earlier this morning. I was hoping to catch up with a flock of 15 Snow Buntings that had been seen on the beach at the Point there over the weekend and with Shellness Point being part of The Swale NNR it meant that I wasn't also going off patch.
Despite being in their winter plumage these winter visitors to Kent still remain an attractive and fairly approachable bird to go and see as they seek out seeds among the vegetation along the shell beach. I thought that I was going to be unsuccessful when I couldn't immediately find them but eventually they flew in over my head with those lovely, almost budgie sounding calls that they have, and landed not far in front of me, although I only counted twelve birds. Although you can't see them in the photo above, they were on the very last stretch of beach to the right of the Point, where the gulley seperates the Point from the long expanse of saltings.
Turning immediately to my left from the photo above, I took the photo below, looking out into The Swale and with the beach of the Point running round the corner. Although it was 9.30 on a very bright and sunny morning, the low height of the sun made it look as though it was early evening.

 And once again, turning to the view behind me, I took this photo below looking back towards Shellness Hamlet itself. The line of posts marks the roped off section of the Shellbeach, important to protect against disturbance to both nesting birds and daily hide tide roosts.

And lastly, from the old concrete look-out post, I took the one below, looking back southwards along the beach to the Point. Along that stretch the beach has built up considerably again, with erosion and re-builds being a regular feature throughout the year as high tides and gales come and go. Likewise, it was notable how much of the soft, food rich mud of the mudflats had also disappeared to leave large slabs of the hard, base clay showing. Whether this was simply the natural result of strong tides or the actions of the regular visits from mussel dredgers close by, it's hard to know but numbers of some wader species, such as Oystercatcher and Dunlin, have been falling there in recent years. However, having said that, one species appears to be currently increasing in number, the Sanderling and I counted c.200 spread out across the mudflats this morning.

Walking back, I bumped into just one other birdwatcher, Mike Gould, who regularly watches his local patch in the Seasalter area. It was ironic that he'd probably had to drive around thirty odd miles to stand opposite Seasalter, just three miles or so, visible directly opposite Shellness across The Swale. Lastly, as I drove back along the Shellness track, I has a Great Skua fly in off the sea just ahead of me, which then carried on across the marshes before re-joining The Swale further on towards Oare.
I didn't see an awful lot but it was a lovely cold and sunny morning and it was enjoyable for a change being briefly away from the mud and the water of the marsh.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Harty Ducks

As you can see I was on Harty at dawn this morning for one of my early morning patrols around the reserve. The one above was taken from the top of Capel Hill, with a touch of mist swirling low across the fields, whilst the one below was from the reserve seawall just as the sun broke the horizon. One thing that always fascinates me as the winter progresses, is how far round below the horizon that the sun travels before it eventually comes into view. During the summer it rises behind the Shellness car park but by now it is right round behind Seasalter before it comes into view behind the hills in the distance.

And what an early morning it was, no wind, clear blue skies a moderate frost and then warming sunshine, quite spectacular and very refreshing after the mild dankness of recent weeks. It's just disappointing that the birdlife still continues to fail to match the conditions, wildfowl especially. Sure we have a resident flock of geese, with a combined total of c. 100 Greylags and c.20 Whitefronts, seen below as they began to move around this morning, but ducks remain the real mystery, a count of 50 is a rarety this autumn.

One thing's for sure, any that are seen aren't shot by the Kent Wildfowlers, those guys rarely shoot in front of the reserve these days because its so quiet. Even the inland duck-pond duck shooters on Harty seem to be having a quiet time. Despite regularly seeing their vehicles parked along the Harty road, I hear very little shooting taking place when I'm out and about and they even released several hundred Mallard for easy shooting. So perhaps Harty is finally reaching pay-back time for all that intensive duck pond shooting that has taken place in recent years, it was certainly an out-come that I and the genuine wildfowlers thought might happen. In conclusion I suppose it's tempting to think well at least it means that ducks aren't getting shot, but that's only because there's bugger all there to shoot and if there's bugger all there then us birdwatchers aren't seeing anything either, it's a double-edged sword.
So where are all the wildfowl, well those that actually are on Sheppey are to be found at the Elmley NNR and in very large numbers in some cases. The very wide and flat marshes and water there, allow the birds to feel secure from any danger and coupled with the un-shot waters of The Swale at Spitend Bay, just over the seawall, have the perfect refuge. Sheppey is very fortunate to have such a reserve as that one.
That little tale of woe aside, the Flood Field, in front of the Seawall Hide on The Swale NNR, is finally starting to wetten up quite well. There's still some way to go before we reach the excellent wet conditions of the early part of this year but waterlogging of the grassy areas is beginning to happen and with it yesterday came the first signs that waders are beginning to re-use it as a high tide roost, as small flocks of Dunlin came in.

I came across the little fellow above, on the reserve yesterday as I wondered around. It wasn't much bigger than a grapefruit and I imagine that it's chances of surviving the winter must be pretty slim.
Anybody travelling along the Harty Road recently cannot fail to have noticed the intensive ditch digging that has taken place alongside the road as the farmer tries to prevent the annual waterlogging of his arable fields each winter. It's easily the deepest that I've seen those ditches dug and I certainly wouldn't want to slide off the road this winter, a coach would barely be higher than the ditch top. It also makes one wonder, given the unstable nature of the road itself, if perhaps it might now begin to slowly slide towards the ditch, time and wet weather will tell.

I've had numerous comments recently made to me about those two hideous blots on the Sheppey landscape, the wind turbines at Eastchurch Prison. Close to them and seen from the Harty Road, is the huge purple field of solar panels and as you drive along the Lower Road at Minster you pass the near town-sized development of houses that continues to expand. Now we have news of a second 55 acre solar panel farm that is seeking planning permission (at Southlees Farm, facing the Elmley Track), 4 more wind turbines at the Prison and 4 more wind turbines on a farm close to the Prison. How glad I am that at 66 I will drop off the perch before having to witness the complete rape of what's left of Sheppey's countryside.

And finally and happily, as someone who has a weakness for too much red wine and the eating of good quality bread, let me recommend one of several jewels in Sheppey's crown, the excellent Leysdown Bakery. Their fresh bread and cakes are second to none and any birdwatchers passing through to Shellness should make a point of stocking up in there, the earlier in the day the better. Oh, and they also do very good take-away food and hot drinks - give them a try - yum yum!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

It was a green and pleasant land.

Once apon a time, before Sheppey's countryside became covered in huge housing estates, caravan parks and green energy farms, it was a green and pleasant land. I suppose it still is if you visit from some of the poorer areas of London but as somone who has lived here all of his 66 years the loss of countryside has been immense.
Countless small farms were still to be found and sheep were the predominant livestock, there were still pleasant and narrow lanes to be walked and perhaps, to some people's surprise, there were market gardens and many small orchards. One such pear orchard was still to be found along the Harty Road as recently as the 1970's, it stood alongside the last bend on the road before you turn to take the last few hundred yards drive down to the Ferry House Inn. Prior to that and close by, there had also been another small orchard between the church and Park Farm out there. It ran right down to the edge of the saltings alongside the Swale and it's site now, is still surrounded by the tall hedging that always was there to shelter the trees from the cold winds. Orchard Close along the Minster Road, is a small cul-de-sac that as it name implies, was built on the site of an old orchard.

Walking was another feature of my childhood, very few families that I knew had cars. When my father and I visited my grandparents in the Halfway, we always walked from Sheerness, we had neither a car or the bus fare. Likewise when my mother took us blackberrying in Minster, it was reached by a long walk along the sea front. The beauty of all that though was that you absorbed and stored away all manner of wildlife sightings and memories of the open countryside as you grew up, because of that it is now possible to make comparisons with how it once was and nowadays. The only comparisons that the youth of today will be able to make are between the insides of the various cars that their parents drove them around in.

I acquired my first bicycle when I was around 10 or 11, an old bone-shaker left by my uncle when he died. It was an embarrassment to be seen on and no match against my friends' posh Raleighs, but if nothing else it gave me the opportunity to get to Minster that much easier. Minster was an absolute paradise of open fields and hedgerows in those days, everything a young lad interested in collecting butterflies and bird's eggs, etc. would be interested in and I would have given my right arm to live there. One of my favourite walks then was that along the length of Oak Lane, a very narrow and quaint lane that must of been still unchanged from a hundred years before. It was bordered and boxed in by tall elm trees and hedgerows that made the lane seem even narrower and behind the hedgerows there were great meadows that ran for miles and down to the edge of the cliffs. Ah yes, and at the end of the lane, it abruptly ended at the cliff edge, indeed regularly collapsed down it, the great high cliffs that looked out into the Thames Estuary and the remains of the ex-WW2 Boom Defence running out into the sea. The cliffs that were very dangerous and where we were warned not to go to but we did because that made them more exciting. Large spinneys of silver birch, willow and morello cherry that had once grown along the cliff's edge before slipping downwards with erosion now blanketed the various levels of the cliff's downward track. In the sheer, sandy face of the topmost part of the cliffs Sand Martins nested in short tunnels that they dug into the soil each year on their return from wintering in South Africa.
Standing on the top of the cliffs as a youngster the challenge and excitement in trying to find a way down these cliffs to the beach below was irresistible and probably still is today, given the rescues that still take place. The first challenge was to get around and down past the sheer face at parts of the top of the cliff, sometimes we did it very dangerously by absailing down on old bits of rope that we found. Sometimes where the drop wasn't quite so sheer there were secret paths down that weren't quite as dangerous to fleet-footed youngsters. Below the sheer face of the cliff the surface then gradually tumbled down to the sea through all kinds of levels and hazards. There were the thickets, overgrown grassy areas and wet areas fed by springs from above and worst of all, the quicksand bogs that caught out most first-time youngster to the area. Stepping into these meant that the very least that happened was that you eventually struggled out without wellies if you was wearing them, the worst and most frequent incident saw you getting stuck up to your waist and needing to be rescued by the police or coastguards. I was lucky, my one time getting stuck there as a 12 yr old only saw me lose my wellies, although re-climbing the cliffs in bare feet wasn't that pleasant.

Most children of today aren't allowed to, or even want to, have such adventures but back then, in that green and pleasant land, it was our idea of fun, it was how we learnt about life - would love to do it all again.  

Sunday, 3 November 2013

More About the Sheppey Light Railway

After my last post mentioning the Sheppey Light Railway, it stirred me to re-read the excellent little booklet by Peter A. Harding entitled "The Sheppey Light Railway".
From the booklet, I noted that preliminary discussions over the Line's route across Sheppey decided that the route would take it across the southern marshes of Sheppey from Queenborough to Leysdown, with few actual stations en-route.  However at an Enquiry to discuss this that took place in Queenborough town hall in 1898, it was stated that the Line would now start at Queenborough and it's first stop would be at Sheerness East, a mile outside Sheerness along the Halfway Road. It would then travel through the middle of Sheppey before re-joining the originally planned route at Eastchurch.
This still didn't satisfy the Sheerness Chamber of Commerce and incredibly, they wanted the Line to start at a point near Sheerness Dockyard, not Queenborough, and then run through Sheerness High Street to the Halfway Road's Sheerness East station, before turning east for Leysdown. Imagine that, the railway line running down Sheerness High Street, how bizarre! The Light Railway Commissioners over-ruled that objection however and so in August 1901, the railway, with a top speed set at 25mph, was officially opened.
Stations were built at Sheerness East, East Minster, Minster-on-Sea, Eastchurch and Leysdown, with a few minor "halts" such as Harty Halt and other sidings featuring where necessary for farm trade. During the First World War, with the Royal Naval Air Station becoming established just below Eastchurch Station, a spur from the line was also run into the Air Station in order to benefit operations there.

That is just a brief look at how the railway came into being but I was tickled by one mention in the booklet that illustrates the sedate and rural nature of the Line. Apparently a local farmer was travelling on the Line back to his farm at Brambledown when, after stopping for the guard to close the gates after the train had crossed the Scrapsgate Road, it stopped again a hundred yards down the track. The farmer put his head out of the window and asked the guard (who was walking alongside the train) what the trouble was - "cow on the line" was the answer. The train continued but stopped again after another two hundred yards and once again the guard descended from the train. "Is it another cow" the farmer asked, "no" was the guard's reply, "it's the same one, caught us up and passed us" - priceless!

Yesterday morning, not long after dawn, I had the opportunity to have a chat on the reserve's seawall with a couple of the local wildfowlers - I haven't seen any out there for several weeks. Among several local wildlife issues that we discussed, the point paramount in their thoughts was how lacking in wildfowl the reserve was, it made their visits pretty pointless. Well, OK, so they had little to shoot at, but that fact aside, I had to agree with them, there is bugger all being seen on the reserve - and there should be. Standing on the sea wall this morning under blue and sunny skies, the reserve looked pretty damm good - a few hundred acres of prime grazing marsh, with it's ditches and rills gradually re-filling after recent rains and a mosaic of habitat types and yet so few waders and wildfowl. Just along The Swale, west of Harty Ferry, wildfowl are being seen in their thousands and yet we remain pretty much empty, it's so frustrating 6 days a week. Just last week there was a report of 2,000 Wigeon being seen leaving the reservoir at Mocketts, just behind the Ferry House Inn on Harty, but of course that's simply the result of daily loads of corn being spread round the water's edge in order that large numbers of the duck can be easily shot at regular intervals - the bad effect of inland duck shooting for you. Of course, if the rain continues to be as regular as it at the moment then presumably things will eventually change on the reserve and come the New Year we will get our couple of months of avian glory but till then it all looks good but looks aren't everything.
The three week mushroom bonanza on the reserve now looks like it is coming to and end and less and less new ones appear each day but they were good while they lasted. I'm down in Surrey at the girlfriend's again this coming weekend and so I'll have to re-visit the chestnut trees in Hawley Woods to continue my quest for autumn foods for free in the countryside.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Railway Gates

The gate pictured below is one along the reserve boundary, nothing special about it except that it used to be part of the Sheppey Light Railway line years ago.
It apparently came from Harty Halt, a small, short platform station, with a small hut as it's Waiting Room, that was situated just before the Harty Road turn off along the Leysdown Road.

All that remains to indicate where the station used to be is this short line of hedgerow running into the wheat field just before you turn off onto the Harty Road. You can see the direction that the railway line took by following the line of telegraph poles that make their way across the field back towards the now Eastchurch Prison, the poles closely followed the railway line for much of it's route across Sheppey.

 Below, you can see another one of these identical railway gates, this time a few hundred yards past what would of been the Sheerness East station. It is still in it's original position along the road that leads to the Sheerness Golf Club and was a crossing point on the line between Danley Farm and Danley marshes below the golf club. The old bed of the railway line is immediately behind the gate and the crossing would probably of been used to move livestock between the farm and the marshes.
The Sheppey Light Railway closed in 1950 when I was just three years old, but apart from removing the tracks and sleepers the line was left as it always had been with its bed of stone chippings and fences and hedgerows. For the next ten years or so, as the line gradually began to re-colonise with all manner of wild flowers and shrubbery, it became quite a mecca for us youngsters who were interested in wildlife and were always out and about doing such things as collecting birds eggs. The section between the Scrapsgate Road in Minster and the Halfway Road is very overgrown these days but is still used as an unofficial shortcut to Sheerness, as it always has been, by those locals who know of it.

On the Harty Road, at Capel Farm this week, the rams have been put out to enjoy their brief annual sojourn with the ewes. Below you can see one of the rams in the middle of the flock with the harness round him that holds the coloured marker crayon in place on his lower chest so that each ewe that has been "served" can be identified. If rams have such a thing as pride it must be quite nice to look round the ever increasing number of coloured backsides and think, "mmm, not bad for an old ram".
Normally, after a week or so, the farmer will change the colour of the crayon so that he can see which sheep will start lambing first and gauge the expected lambing dates of the sheep. The traditional date that sheep farmers normally introduce the rams has always been November 5th but possibly this farmer has an eye on having the lambs ready for the spring market a tad earlier and perhaps having a better chance of a good price. Certainly, after some poor lamb sale years, this last two years have seen prices holding up very well and its surprising that this appears to be the last remaining serious flock of sheep on the whole of Sheppey, cattle have completely taken over as the livestock of choice.  

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

How warm it is

The weather remains incredibly warm at the moment, even when its cloudy and rainy, although Sheppey seems to have had a lot less rain than other areas in Kent. Walking round the reserve is certainly an enjoyable experience at the moment, rather than being in cold winds, but as a gardener, a nice hard frost would be lovely, if only to slow down the still fast growing lawns.
The first Harrier Roost Count took place on Sunday evening, unfortunately because it was the result of being postponed from the previous Sunday, I was unavailable due to being in Surrey, spending some time in the heathland and woods of Hawley Woods, as per below.

Getting back to the Roost Count, I haven't seen the various count totals yet but do know that the guy who counts the harriers going in to roost in the extensive reed beds along Capel Fleet eastwards from the Raptor Viewing Mound, had a nil count. This was not because Marsh Harriers weren't around but because they were regularly disturbed from attempting to roost by duck shooters shooting along the same reed beds. I say "duck shooters" and not wildfowlers, because there is a world of difference between these pampered guys and the true wildfowlers who experience the extreme conditions of the mudflats and saltings of the estuaries.
The fact that the duck shooters still shoot and disturb the Capel Fleet reed beds is a bit of a joke really when one considers that the whole of Capel Fleet is covered by SSSI status, but I have been told in the past that where such things were taking place before classification then they can't be stopped!! To be honest there have also been odd occasions in recent years where a digger has been used to create small pools in or close to the reed beds as well, but when I've mentioned it to Natural England they've always accepted the land owner's explanation that it was reed bed improvement work. The fact that corn then gets regularly thrown into these pools to attract ducks and that men with guns just happen to hide around these pools on a Sunday night, seems to have passed NE by.
Having said all that, I saw the reserve's first Hen Harrier of this autumn this morning, a ringtail and a really welcome sight.

One of the reserve's, years old ditch crossing planks, is starting to show it's age now and part rotting. It's been there for much longer than the 28 years that I've been wandering around there and I still use it most weeks. When you've walked the length of one long field on the marsh and there is a ditch between that field and the next one these planks are invaluable to avoid having to retrace your steps. In the old days when livestock "lookers" still walked around the fields rather than as now, using quad bikes, these planks would of been a vital part of the marsh infrastructure, sadly few get replaced these days.
I should also add that in a normal winter the water level in that ditch will normally be close to touching that plank and in a wet one, the plank will be submerged, so we have some way to go yet.

And at the same time as walking round checking on the livestock the "looker" would also have time to notice all manner of wildlife events going on around him as the seasons changed. One such event would the autumn arrival of field mushrooms, ripe and free for the picking. I photographed these yesterday morning before taking them home for my dinner and boy were they delicious to eat, a few more tonight in an ommlette is on the cards, topped off with a large glass of good Pinot Noir, me thinks .
So far this year I've made two litres of Slow Gin, ate some blackberries and now the mushrooms, all from the countryside, I'm now pondering over the use of rose hips.

Monday, 14 October 2013

More rain needed

After last Friday's 16 hour monsoon and then more rain yesterday, I was hoping to see a decrease in the dry conditions on the reserve when I visited there this morning. Well there was quite a bit of mud and some puddles along the paths and even a few puddles in some of the rills that weren't there before, but we're still a long way from having expanses of water attractive to ducks and waders.

However, having said all that, the large splash in the "Flood Field" had miraculously achieved a shallow covering of water over 75% of its width. The photo makes it look far better than it actually was, it's only an inch or two deep, but it's an encouraging start.

There are two arable fields along the Harty Road, not far past Capel Corner, that habitually have large splashes of water on their surfaces in wet winters, last winter was particularly bad and a lot of the young rape  plants simply rotted in them. Presumably in order to try and prevent this happening in future the landowner is currently deepening the ditches surrounding the fields and attempting to lay mole-drain piping across them, but I still feel that he is missing the point and wasting his money.
Now I'm no agricultural expert but I can't see how digging the ditches much deeper is going to prevent the water from laying on the surface, it's sitting there because after many years of non-ploughing and compaction from heavy plant a hard, compacted crust has formed making it almost impermeable. Even in gardens, anybody who works clay soil knows that it soil particles stick to each other like glue and that it regularly needs to be deep dug and exposed to the elements. I feel sure that if the farmer there was to actually plough the fields every 2-3 years and break up that crust, then the water would drain away far easier and he would avoid having to do what he is now is.

I was surprised to see the main headline of The Telegraph today boldly stating "Fox-hunting ban to be relaxed". Well as readers of this blog will know, people like myself, who visit Harty most days, have never seen any evidence that a hunting ban was actually in force anyway. The Hunt still visit on a regular basis, normally fox-hunting in the traditional way and we also get occasional visits from a Beagle pack that pursues the hares. Personally, I think that traditional fox-hunting still goes on a lot more than people think around the country and that the hunts simply make out that their really aggrieved by the "ban" just to pull the wool over the anti's eyes and to make them smugly feel that they've won some kind of victory. In that way every body's happy.
Despite my support for most traditional country ways and the fact that both the huntsmen and women and their hounds make a very picturesque sight in full flow, I don't buy into their usual claim that they are an effective form of fox control, I prefer and support other methods. Farmers in today's article (possibly hunt supporters) were claiming that a lot of lambs were lost last winter to hungry foxes and that they badly need the hunts back to control them, one reason for the potential easing of the ban apparently. Now the hunt may kill the odd fox or two during a day's hunting but the unnecessary disturbance that they can create to other wildlife during the course of it can be quite great. I watched the hunt on Harty a few weeks ago, working the pack of hounds through the wide reed beds of Capel Fleet and out were flying Marsh Harriers, Coots, Snipe and assorted ducks.
Send a guy in a 4x4 with long range spotlights and a high-powered rifle out at night onto farmland and he will almost certainly cull just as many foxes, or more, instantly and with the minimum of disturbance. That is serious and sensible fox controls by quiet and modest guys who are rarely seen and who don't need to gallop about noisily in a red coat to prove a point.  

And finally, Midge the older dog seems convinced that there's something still down that hole but Ellie seems to be saying "nah, it looks better over there".