Monday, 22 August 2016

Dusty old Drought.

The drought here in North Kent continues to take hold. According to the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, many parts of E. England have had just 2mm of rainfall over the last couple of months. Strong drying winds and very warm sun have been the most dominant type of weather lately and you can spot tractors carrying out cultivations across the arable fields here by simply looking for the dust cloud that is following them. The rather poor photo below shows the bone dry, yellow stubble fields stretching as far as the eye can see.

Farmers are often regularly depicted as the next best thing to Satan, especially if they also combine farming with game shooting. One farmer here on Harty however, does do his bit for the wild birds on his land. The set-aside strip shown below is around 400 yds long and 12 yds wide and is typical of the sort of thing that he sows each year. The grasses below the sunflowers are an amazing mix of around six different varieties, each producing seed heads bursting with small seeds. With the grasses there are also seed producing plants such as Fat Hen and Redshank and I've taken mixed bunches home for my canaries and British birds and they love them, as do the finches and buntings there each winter. Last year winter a nearby strip, with chicory flowers instead of sunflowers, was attracting a flock of Linnets of up to 160 birds daily and that flock was often joined by Reed Buntings.

Unfortunately it's not all good news. The two photos below show the current wheat stubbles along the Harty Road and just a third of the several hundred Greylag and Canada geese that are feeding on the spilt grain each morning. This and another field alongside, are sandwiched between Capel Fleet on one side and the dark green mound in the background, the other side of which is a large pond dug to attract ducks for shooting. The wildfowl are also shot in Capel Fleet, often in large numbers. It's hard not to believe that in several days time (Sept 1st) when the shooting season commences, that those unsuspecting geese will fly in as usual to be met by a barrage of shot from the syndicates that ring and shoot the area.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Annual Drought

Last Tuesday night we had a few hours of rain, which after several weeks with no appreciable rain, was most welcome. However the following day saw very warm sun and strongish winds and the moisture disappeared very quickly and so we continue with increasingly dry countryside here in North Kent. The grazing marshes are now looking quite yellow and dry and water is disappearing quite fast. Just look at what is normally the large splash of water in the Flood Field on the reserve, it seems to disappear by several inches almost daily and unfortunately will now not get replenished until winter rains.

Likewise this large clump of water lilies in one of the fleets, only a few weeks ago the water was almost level with the upper leaves of the plants. It's all part of the annual cycle of events here on the North Kent marshes as I've mentioned before, water-logged in winter and bone dry in summer, although this year water levels have hung on longer than usual.

 However, the continual warm, sunny and dry days has seen an upsurge in butterfly numbers, with really good numbers of the various brown butterflies now on the wing, including this Small Copper.

And some late broods of wild pheasants have also been seen on the adjacent farmland, presumably soon to be joined by many hundreds of their hand reared cousins, ready for the new shooting season.
 And on the subject of hand reared game birds, there was a disturbing announcement from Natural England last week, they have granted a licence to a gamekeeper on a shooting estate to potentially kill up to ten Buzzards! The reason - these birds of prey are guilty of harassing and often killing some of the game bird poults while still in their pre-release pens. Now it has to be remembered that pheasants are artificially reared by the many millions each year to be released into the countryside to be shot, we're hardly talking about an endangered species here. It's possible that some shooting estates can often release more pheasants and partridges in a year than there are buzzards in the whole of the country and Natural England's judgement here has been severely questioned. The concern now is that this will start a creeping tide of calls from other shooting groups with what they will see as valid reasons why various birds of prey should be culled.
While I'm talking about shooting it's amazing that we're only three weeks away now from the resumption of wildfowling in front of the reserve, the last six months since the last season ended seems to have wizzed by. It's no secret that I get on OK with these guys and they have a minimal effect on what wildfowl we get on the reserve, mainly because the reserve only gets wet enough to attract good numbers of ducks for the last couple of months of the winter.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Hot Stuff

It has been a hot and sunny week and on a couple of days, very hot, and how enjoyable it has been after such a miserable summer so far. How wonderful it has been to be out on the marsh early in the morning while the dew is still on the grass and the sun is only just starting to warm the air. Birds are busy scurrying about, doing what they need to do before the heat of the day sets in and they then disappear to the depths and cool of the undergrowth. Yesterday a lone Cuckoo flew by, no longer issuing it's haunting call notes and no doubt already on it's way back south to Africa for the rest of the year. Some of the grazing meadows, that have not yet received attention from the cattle, are looking as good as I've ever seen them, long lush grass thickened by great carpets of red and white clover in flower and Birds-foot Trefoil. The heat and sunshine has also brought out larger numbers of various butterflies to skip through the grass, while bumblebees feed on the clover flowers, high summer is at last with us.
The hay has all been cut, baled and stacked and the rape crop harvested to leave great, dry fields of bare stalks. Very soon now the wheat and spring barley will also be harvested and it is looking very golden in the early morning light.

One of our two neighbouring farmers in recent years has taken to sowing wide strips of wildlife friendly flowers alongside some of his crops. Last year it was the tall and strikingly blue chicory flowers that attracted bees and butterflies from far and wide and whose fallen seeds fed a large flock of Linnets all winter. This summer it is a purple flower that I cannot identify but which is proving just as irresistible to bees. The flowers have a scabious look about them but rather than the pop-pom effect of scabious flowers, these have a curved effect to the segments.

Friday, 15 July 2016

A Lovely Sunny Morning

The early part of today was pleasantly warm and sunny on the reserve with no cloud or wind, lovely jubbly as the man said. I'll continue with another selection of odds and sods as I walked round.
Looking across the grazing marsh from the Tower Hide, I watched this Thames sailing barge making it's way down The Swale and out to sea.

This Mute Swan family have done well to survive with five cygnets.

Bristly Ox-tongue

This flower, Gipsywort, grows to around two feet in thick clumps along the reserve ditches and yet it has tiny little white flowers.

White Clover covers much of the grazing marsh and yet most days we don't give it a second glance, but just look at the lovely formation of the flower if we get up close.

and here, is the post-flower fruit pod of the Strawberry Clover.

This one's easy, it's Teasel.

This year, butterflies are about in much smaller numbers, this is a Small Skipper.

The cattle decided to follow me back to the car but there was agate

With the walk over Midge and Ellie waited in the car for me to stop taking photos.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Harvest Beckons

So far here in North Kent, we've had over a week of dry weather and no rain. Some days have seen almost hot sunshine, some cloudy but humid weather and for most days there has been a strong and drying wind. Consequently, local landowners have at last, begun and successfully completed, hay-making. They have now begun harvesting the rape fields and this too is going very well and so all of a sudden, the weather related doom and gloom has gone and things are catching up. This is also apparent in the other arable fields of wheat and barley, the wet and warm weather has filled the ears with plump grains and yields look like they should be fairly high. The only downside of that is the high Black Grass content through the grain fields. Despite all their best efforts, farmers seem to be facing an uphill battle against this weed. It appears to have become resistant to spraying and so deep ploughing in the autumn has been the most recent suggestion. This has the effect of burying the seeds deep enough to stop them germinating and also has the beneficial effect of opening up compacted soil to improve drainage. Unfortunately fields here on Sheppey that were deep ploughed a couple of years ago, still have a 40% infestation of Black Grass this year, I guess there's little you can do if the seed is in the wheat seed that you buy in and sow.
I had a Hedgehog in my back garden early yesterday morning, which, given the slug infested and overgrown nature of it, makes for pretty ideal habitat for the creatures and I'd love to have them reside there. Unfortunately, owning two terriers, I've had to do my best to keep them out which is a real shame and I miss having them here and feel guilty at not helping an animal that is in dire straight these days.

I read an enormous amount of books each year, still in the old-fashioned, non-kindle way. I favour autobiographies and biographies, especially those about privileged people from the 1930's and 40's and especially members of the Bloomsbury Set. Currently I'm reading a new one by the Countryside farmer Adam Henson about his life to date and prior to that an 820 page book on Paul MCartney and another about the artist Sir Alfred Munnings and his life in an artists community in Cornwall pre WW1.

The reserve is now very overgrown and settling down into the post breeding lull, only butterflies and the start of returning wader migrants now seek to break the ordinary-ness of each day. Green Sandpipers and Greenshanks are beginning to pass through on early autumn migration and Cuckoos have already left. Below is a badly taken photo of a Gatekeeper butterfly on Ragwort, a plant that is a saviour to so many insects on the marsh in the summer.

I came across this small toadstall/fungus peeping out of the grass yesterday and have never seen one before. According to my wildlife book it is a Blackening Wax Cap but I'm happy to be corrected on that.

Friday, 8 July 2016

More Flowers and a Surprise Owl

It's been a blustery and cloudy morning but is turning sunnier this afternoon and it's noticeable now how quick the area is drying out, which has finally seen some hay-making take place.
It was disappointing this morning on the reserve to find one of the newly fledged Marsh Harriers dead and judging by how thin it was, it had probably starved. But on a happier note, a friend called me round to his garden the other day to see this Long-eared Owl. It had taken one of his white doves from a dove-cot and was eating it, totally unconcerned by our fairly close presence. The owl roosted in a large bush in the garden that evening and then went on it's way.

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, in very warm and sunny weather, my partner and I went over to Reculver on both days to enjoy what has to be one of my favourite places in Kent. Apart from the large Sand Martin nesting colony there, we enjoyed good long walks in both directions, the sea wall going east and up over the cliffs going west. In particular I thoroughly enjoyed a really good selection of wild flowers in the lovely maritime and meadow habitat there but here I can only offer a selection of some more from my daily patch, The Swale NNR.
This first one, that I have found no where else on Sheppey, is Spiny Restharrow.

And in one of the ditches, Common Water Plantain.

This Marsh Bedstraw is growing on the ditch bank alongside the Plantain above. Both plants have tiny flowers that are easily missed but they have a beauty all the same.

Great Willowherb.

Lady's Bedstraw, so named apparently because women used to use it for stuffing pillows and bedding with.

Birds Foot Trefoil with a bit of White Clover peeking in.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Birthday Blues

Today was my 69th birthday and I now begin the unsteady march towards my seventh decade. When I was nineteen, twenty-nine even, seventy when it gets here, always seemed as far away and as unlikely as being on the moon. Sometimes on sleepless nights, the thought of it might briefly cross my mind but it wasn't pleasant. It conjured up visions of old people bent over walking sticks, half blind, half deaf, talking to themselves, pissing themselves and smelling and quickly it would be dismissed as too far away to contemplate. Of course I'm almost there now, still upright, still reasonably fit, still not wearing incontinence pads, still able to do most of the things I've always done, so I've convinced myself that it must be ninety when all the things above start to happen.

But when you get to this certain age, you do tend to sit around more, mulling over the last sixty odd years and unless you've had an incredibly boring life, you wonder at all the directions that you've taken and all the emotions that you've felt. After three wives and a couple of lengthy relationships, all of whom remain my good friends, I guess you could say that I've had my fair share of both of them. That aside though, to think back over almost a life-time is to wonder at times how you fitted everything in and travelled from one end of your life to the other.

A lot of my childhood was unhappy and subsequently blanked out and I won't dwell on that too much, but I do recall from around ten onwards, that I could be found alone on the marshes near where I lived, sitting by ditches, taking in the wildlife and later learning about it from books from the library. In my twenties and thirties I not only got involved in sport, as a Sunday League goalkeeper and a useful badminton league player but I enjoyed being out on the marshes in all weathers, eel trapping in summer and rabbit catching in winter. I played guitar and wrote poetry and now write blogs. In 1976 I became involved with the RSPB at their Elmley reserve and then a Volunteer Warden for thirty years for Natural England on their Swale NNR here on Sheppey. I became indoctrinated into the conservation world and spent far too many years being told and believing, that far too many people involved in countryside sports such as shooting and those of my earlier years, were the enemy of conservation.
My working life began as a milk boy on a local milk round in the bitter winter of 1962/3 and then I was employed by the Kent River Authority to scythe and maintain ditches and repair sea walls, a favourite job in the late 1960's, early 1970's. For the next thirty four years until I took early retirement in 2006, I was employed in the local docks, for nineteen years as a stevedore and the rest in management there, retiring as part of the middle management team.

Now, as I tread softly and arthritically towards seventy, I've turned back to my old and original thoughts and enjoyment about and with countryside sports and realised that they have a part to play in conservation. If I was young enough I'd love to still be out eel trapping and rabbiting but I have to make do with chatting to farmers, chatting to wildfowlers and simply enjoying most aspects of what's left of the countryside, without bias.