Sunday, 1 September 2019

Change of Season

Today, was the opening day of the new wildfowling season - wildfowlers are people that sit in tidal estuaries attempting to shoot any ducks and geese that pass them by. How you view that long established form of shooting is up to you, for me, it is the toughest form of the various types of wildlife shooting that there is and probably the least damaging in respect of numbers shot.
I arrived at the reserve barn at 05.30 this morning, it was pretty much still fully dark but what a wonderful, pre-dawn atmosphere/sense of anticipation that there was. I let little Ellie out of the car and we went through the five-bar gate, stepping on to the reserve's grazing meadows, it's marshes. To my left the sky was just beginning to brighten and the distant Sea Wall Hide just about visible. As usual at that time of day you tend to hear birds rather than actually see them. The Greylag Geese in the fleet on the reserve, thinking about moving on; and out on the tidal mudflats the bubbling calls of Curlews, the piping calls of Dunlin and Grey Plover, were a wader orchestra tuning up.

As I made my way across the  grazing marsh, picking my way through the idle cattle, chewing the cud so to speak, I felt a fast increasing tingle of anticipation running through me. Not at the prospect of seeing the various birds that might be about, but because this morning was yet another first morning of the wildfowler's shooting seasons that I'd attended. Would there be any sitting out there on the  tidal saltings, the other side of the sea wall. Being there at first light on the first morning of the wildfowling season is not something I'm expected to do as a Voluntary Warden, it was something I started 30 odd years ago, firstly to see if they were where they should be and then it became a habit and it's now a silly personal tradition.
Standing on top of the sea wall, the dawn had begun to brighten and I was able to pick out things and people, there were eight wildfowlers strung out across the saltings, all crouched down in wet and muddy rill-ways.

As the sun rose and then burnt through the clouds the sky quickly became a clear blue and the sun gained in strength. I mused over the thought that this was not real wildfowling weather, not bitter cold, windswept winter mornings, straining eyes and ears for that elusive duck with feet frozen cold as they stood in the mud of the rills. This was going to be another sun-bathing day, one to be shared with swallows and martins as they passed by, hurrying south - do we really get proper winter days nowadays!
The wildfowlers sat in sun-swept anticipation, swatting mosquitoes away from their faces, until suddenly around thirty odd Greylag Geese rose up from the security of a reserve fleet, could this be their time! The geese rose in a cacophony of sound, flew towards the sea wall and danger but then turned and flew out across the reserve to the farmland behind. But all was not lost, there a farm tractor disturbed them and they returned and once more the wildfowlers tensed and squatted down further. But the geese must of known something, they were heading out to the tidal mudflats to pick up grit for their gizzards but instead of crossing over the wildfowlers they took a route across the only section of saltings that the wildfowlers couldn't access, they were safe.
With the sun rising higher and the morning and the birds settling down into an anti-climax, a few of the wildfowlers began to pack up and head for home, I chatted to a couple of them, the season had begun but it was more summer than autumn.

I did the same, getting out of bed at 04.30 was beginning to seem a long way away. Crossing back across the yellow and dry grazing marsh, Ellie doing fox-like leaps into every clump of grass in anticipation of a vole or mouse, I pondered over the likelihood of us getting our fifth dry winter. It certainly looks that way, the reserve is parched again. Then suddenly, I was surrounded in a huge, swirling flock of Sand Martins and Swallows, skimming across the grass tops as they headed south, they know that autumn's close, it's sad to see them go, I bid them safe journey.
Finally, I reached the barn again and here you see the five-bar gate alongside it, with the view out into the reserve and it's distant grazing cattle. The dark line behind them is the sea wall.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

A Kind of Goodbye

"This day winding down now
At God speeded summer's end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my seashaken house
On a breakneck of rocks
Tangled with chirrup and fruit,
Froth, flute, fin and quill
At a wood's dancing hoof,
By scummed, starfish sands
With their fishwife cross
Gulls, pipers, cockles and sails"................Prologue - Dylan Thomas

The above, the last stand-alone poem written by Thomas, a year before he died, could when you read  throughout it's whole length, be seen as a kind of goodbye to all that, sort of poem. It pretty much sums up the way I feel these days.

Here on Sheppey, our little island off the North Kent coast, there are not many of us aged, in our 70's, "men of the countryside" left. By that I mean people who have spent their whole life wandering the fields, hedgerows and marshes of this island, and as a result have memories of its wildlife, it's seasons and it's people that go back a lifetime. When I was a youngster there were always those old boys that wandered the countryside, that drank from a bottle of cold tea, that always knew where wildlife had hidden up, that could kill, skin and gut a rabbit in minutes, or look at the sky and always seem to know when it was going to rain.
I can only think of a few of us now of that ilk, that are left round here. I'm not trying to portray myself as some kind of modern day Jack Hargreaves, far from it, but it's rare these days to come across someone else that you know who has been wandering the area for so many years. A lifelong friend of mine, who I first worked with on the Kent River Authority on Sheppey's marshes here in the 1960's is another such person. He's a couple of years older me and has a store of knowledge and skills that you just can't buy, that come with a lifetime's experience. We still coax our arthritic limbs round the fields each day, still always have a dog at our side and now despair at some of the changes that continue to occur. Who for instance would of expected to see so many empty rabbit warrens. We could never have imagined that in our lifetime, rabbits, that once were counted in thousands, would now only be counted in dozens.

For me, it begun as a young boy in the 1950's, keeping tadpoles in an old sink in the garden and watching them turn into frogs. Keeping the very common Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars in a sweet jar with muslin on the top, feeding them on stinging nettles and watching them pupate. Now Small Tortoiseshell butterflies are very hard to find, almost rare. As a young child I wandered the marshes near me, all alone - laid besides ditches, clambered through bushes and learnt what I could about wildlife. When I joined the Kent River Authority as a teenager I found myself among several people who fished, hunted, shot and trapped, and I learnt a lot about countryside ways. When I left to work in the local docks for the next 34 years, I still carried on practising those skills. A friend and I spent the cold, wet and wintry months for many years catching rabbits which we would skin and gut and sell for pocket money. During the summer months we netted the ditches and caught eels, often lots of eels, and sold them to a shop in the East End of London and then later, I even tried duck shooting for one winter. Then I became involved with the local nature reserves and my bird watching became more serious and so did my convictions.
 I still roamed the marshes with my dogs(s) in the usual unrestricted ways but I had a purpose, I recorded everything I saw and passed it on. In 1987 I became a Voluntary Warden of a local, Natural England reserve on the marshes and still am 32 years later. As a result and for many years, I was very anti shooting and hunting, fell in with the mind set that if you are a bird watcher or to do with conservation, then you automatically have to be opposed to such things. However, a number of years ago a wildfowler began to make me realise that many of the things that I was opposed to had their rightful place in the countryside and in many ways helped preserve what is left of it. I began to realise that there was and should be, room for all of the various pursuits in the countryside, after all, it was how I had begun, not with the blinkered and idiotic Chris Packham views about hunting and shooting.
So, I'm ending my time in the countryside as simply a "man of the countryside", enjoying being part of it and all that goes on it, and as my friend often says, we should be glad that we're the age that we are - we've had the best of it and won't have many more years to see it get any worse.
And that is about it.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Harty and the Reserve

The view below shows what you first see as you drive down Capel Hill along the Harty Road at the moment, here on Sheppey. A combination of stubble fields and grazing marshes, all golden yellow and bone dry.

In the stubble fields, the resident Greylag Geese, numbering several hundred in total, are now a daily feature as they glean all the spilled grain.

On the nature reserve itself, we have two herds of cattle and their calves, one larger one and this small one. Once again the dryness of the grass is quite evident.

These well grown calves were curious to see what I was up to. They'll probably be taken away some time in October as their parents are already pregnant with next year's batch.

Just two months ago, "The Scrape" as we know this site in the middle of the reserve, was full of water and home to several pairs of Avocets and their chicks. It only re-fills from rainfall and some water pumped from a nearby ditch, which itself is very low, and so it's unlikely that it will be full again before the New Year.

On the reserve we have three types of clover, the common red and white types and this one known as Strawberry Clover - easy to see why.

I came across this male Common Blue butterfly this morning, sheltering from the wind. Apparently, nation-wide, they have seen a large rise in numbers both last year and this, which has to be a good thing.

At the moment (Weds), the weather forecast nationally is for extreme weather for most parts of the country, Friday into Saturday. Strong winds and heavy rain are forecast but I think that the operative words are "most parts". We'll of course get the strong winds, a combination of those and hot sun have been drying every last drop of moisture from us all week. But heavy rain - I'd love to be proven wrong, but rain has a nasty habit of always passing just wide of this island a lot of the year - time will tell.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Times Move On

I feel a bit awkward posting a photograph like the one below, bearing in mind the damage that the heavy rains have caused to both farmers and households in Northern England but this blog is about the local scene.

Here on Sheppey all the farmland is very dry and the harvest has been very successful due to pretty much perfect weather conditions. Once all the bales of wheat, barley and rape straw have been collected and stored, then various tidying up and light cultivating of the fields will take place. Rape is normally sown first, in between the lines of wheat stubble, followed by the wheat or barley further in to the autumn, but neither is likely to germinate given the dryness of the soil.
The next couple of weeks will see the arrival of the partridge and pheasant poults ahead of the game shooting season, which for partridges, starts next month. It all seems a bit early given the warm and sunny weather that we are experiencing, most forms of shooting one tends to associate with cold winter days and besides the poults will need time to grow into adult birds.
On the reserve, the last couple of days have seen the continuation of the early autumn migration with the first Wheatears passing through on their way south. So it may be only late summer but an autumnal feel is beginning to gather in the wings.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

The Doldrums

Driving across the marsh road lately, it's difficult to distinguish the reserve fields from the neighbouring farm crops of wheat and barley. The farm crops are resplendent in bright golden colours and are currently being harvested, the harvesters marked out by the great clouds of dust that follow them across the fields. The long grass on the reserve's grazing meadows is also now looking golden and dry, an air of mid-summer quietness covers the reserve, little, 'cept the butterflies, is moving.
The ground is baked hard and a strong, sweet and sickly smell hits you as you arrive - the ditches, low in both water and oxygen, are stagnating and turning funny colours.

Bird life becomes less obvious with every day, the wildfowl are moulting and with the temporary loss of their flight feathers, are skulking close to reed beds out of harms way. Hard to believe that in just four weeks time the wildfowlers will return, intent on shooting them. Sitting on the saltings at either end of a hot September day, being pestered by mosquitoes and feeling too hot, doesn't really fit with the romantic image of stormy, bitter cold winter shooting days but some still do it.
But back to the birds, the reed beds are becoming quieter as the Reed and Sedge Warblers gradually begin to slip away southwards, back to their African winter quarters. This has been most apparent over the last 2-3 weeks as regular numbers of Swifts, Sand Martins and young Swallows, pass across the reserve in the mornings, swirling around me looking for those last fat flies and then, they're gone, southwards is calling! Just 4-5 weeks ago they were eggs in a nest and now as young birds are taking an untravelled and unknown road across continents - a brief moment of feeling regret and  abandonment flits across my mind as I look at a now empty sky.
Some Cuckoos, fitted with satellite transmitters a month or so ago in England, have already reached their winter quarters in Southern Africa, such a fleeting summer visit each year. A friend recently likened them to some humans - they arrive, they breed and then quickly bugger off to leave their children to be brought up by somebody else!
Birds are currently leaving us faster then any newly arrive. Small numbers of waders, fresh from breeding in northern climes, such as Greenshanks, Spotted Redshanks and Green Sandpipers, will briefly drop in to feed along muddy ditch edges and then be gone again. It's what many birdwatchers call the summer doldrums - the dry, boring gap between  mid-summer and mid-autumn, when birdwatching becomes a faintly inspiring past time.

Friday, 12 July 2019

More Flowers

As I promised yesterday, I was on the reserve earlier this morning in order to get a few more photos of mostly meadow flowers.

Meadow Rue - this grows to around 6ft tall

Common Club Rush

White Clover

 Lady's Bedstraw - strong fragrance


Bird's-foot Trefoil


Sea Lavender

Bristly Ox-tongue


 Essex Skipper butterfly

 Marbled White butterfly - only my second on the reserve in 32 years

Ellie doing her best Meerkat impression - the only way she can see over the long grass

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Summer Meadows

Well as I mentioned in my last post, the small herd of cattle that we have on the reserve this summer, have been fighting a losing battle to reduce the height of the grass and other vegetation. But while that was a problem in the early breeding season because long, wet grass, not only conceals plover chicks from being counted and can keep them wet and cold, at the moment the grazing meadows look quite lovely.
Over the last couple of weeks of very warm and sunny weather, the meadows, with their grass seed heads all swaying gently in the breeze, have been a joy to see. That weather has also brought about a moderate hatch of Meadow Brown butterflies and they form so much a part of the meadow scene as they flutter across the grass tops. In the last couple of days Gatekeeper and Small Skipper butterflies have also begun to join them. Hot and dry conditions on the reserve are now starting to tighten their grip, the dirt tracks are dry and dusty and ditch levels are dropping fast.
This view across one of the grazing meadows shows the uniform, near thigh high grass levels. In mid winter these fields would be short grazed, wet and muddy.

As a result of the reduced grazing it is turning out to be a great year for wild flowers on the reserve, a few are shown below. I will post a larger selection next week.

This is Weld.

Scentless Mayweed

Great Lettuce. It grows to about four foot high and is almost identical to Prickly Lettuce, just missing the prickly stems.


Lesser Reedmace. A small, slimmer seed-head than the normal bullrush.

My annual favourite, the appearance of Cinnabar Moth caterpillars feeding on Ragwort. This year has seen the best hatch of the caterpillars for years.