Thursday, 19 March 2020

Everyone needs a father

In this crazy world at the moment, we're going into un-chartered territory for some months to come, with our lives, health and finances all at risk from the Coronavirus. We're all clearly going to have a lot of time on our hands for reflection and I've been doing that just recently in respect of my father. I show him below during WW2.
He died in 1969, when he was just 50 and I was 22. Up until his death I had always had a pretty poor relationship with him, he worked extremely hard to support the family, worked himself to death in all respects, but he was not a good family man. At 22 years old, I had a whole lifetime in front of me and so little time for a father that shared little with me, that, as far as I was concerned, could come later in my life, which of course it never did.

I was the second child, born in 1947, a year after the first child, a girl, died just a week after birth. Therefore when my sister was born in 1950, I guess he always saw her as the replacement for the first one and favoured her at my expense for the rest of his short life. Later came three other children but my father had his favourite and so it was and so I spent my childhood and teenage years being somewhat withdrawn from normal family relationships. As a result I guess, I've struggled with relationships all of my life and still do to this day, always needing a great deal of time with just myself.
However, around ten years ago and after the death of my mother, I gradually found myself being drawn back into the family circle after a long time out of it. I guess as I plodded through my sixties and into my seventies, I was being looked upon as a father figure by my younger siblings, a funny kind of realisation. That led me, as the curiosity of old age often does, to begin researching my family history and in particular, the male line from myself backwards. That, while it has been very successful, rewarding and enlightening, has exposed a great and much regretted hole in my life, all  those missed bonding chats with my father. The missed opportunities to ask him what growing up on Sheppey in the 1920's was like, what the countryside and living conditions were like, what his parents and his aunties and uncles were like, why he went into the army in 1935, earlier than he should by saying that he was eighteen when he was really only sixteen.
I was lucky in that I managed to get hold of his complete army record in the Buffs until de-mob at the end of the War and seeing what he did and endured through that helped me realise that there was far more to him than the person that I thought that I knew, when I was just twenty two. 
I would dearly loved to have chatted with him over the last ten years or more, because everybody needs a father and I missed the opportunity to have one.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Spring is waking up

After what seems like a whole winter of rain, heavy rain, gales and severe gales and of course storms, this week is giving a glimmer of hope that Spring is finally very close. No gales and little wind is forecast and indeed yesterday, we had the rare treat just lately, of blue skies and sunshine. Walking across the waterlogged reserve in sunshine made it all seem so much better and a couple of pairs of Lapwings were even doing their aerial courtship displays. Not to be outdone either, Skylarks were singing, high in the sky and from several parts around the marsh, we're so fortunate to still have a good population of them  - so things really did seem better.
With lengthening daylight hours, some birds are now being encouraged to begin nest building, Tits are taken material into nest boxes and the poor old Rooks, with tree tops battered by constant gales, have built and re-built their nests several times.
Just outside my conservatory I have a large rosemary bush which is currently covered in small, pale blue flowers and every day several bumble bees spend all the daylight hours visiting it for it's much needed early food source. Daffodils are in full flower, tulip flowers are beginning to show from among the leaves and my lawns have been cut several times, although they are a tad wet. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it's nice and warm and I'm now approaching the latest date that I've ever got my tortoises out of hibernation in the garage. I'll wait another week and then will have to bring them into the warm and see how they are, they might have to be left to wander about in my conservatory till it warms up in the garden.
Back on the reserve, large areas are still covered in water, or at best, water-logged and muddy and it's hard at the moment to see how ground nesting birds such as Lapwings and Skylarks will be able to make an early start to nesting, should they be so minded, but wildlife normally finds a way. Certainly one or two duck pairs have already begun because I've started to find the tell-tale signs of crow predation in the form of new duck eggs that have been pecked open.
What of the Harty farmland alongside - well the autumn sown crops of rape and wheat are doing OK despite much water-logged soil. Both rape and wheat plants are beginning to noticeably increase in size now and it will only take a couple of warm days to see a great spurt in growth. The one flock of sheep on the farmland should of begun lambing by the end of the month and I guess that the owner of them will also have his fingers crossed for some warm and sunny weather.
So all in all, Spring seems to be slowly waking up, the signs are all there - it can't come quick enough!

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Another Season Ends

Walking across a part-flooded reserve early this morning was hard work. Negotiating the flooded parts wasn't too bad, it was the gale force wind and bouts of horizontal drizzle that made it worse. Plus it means that I have to wear wellies and I never find them comfortable at the best of times. Large areas of foot deep water are not exactly the kind of conditions that I imagine Ellie, my little Jack Russell, finds enjoyable either, but she gamely runs or swims her way through it all.

I haven't been across to the sea wall for several days, simply in order to avoid having to cross the wet marsh, but today was the last day of the current wildfowling season. The wildfowlers put their guns away until September 1st, when it all starts again. As the reserve's Voluntary Warden and the only person the wildfowlers are likely to encounter from it's management, I always like to keep on friendly terms with them and have an end of season chat. Standing on the sea wall being buffeted by the wind and rain, it was surprising just how many wildfowl have returned, now, over the last couple of weeks, that we finally have the wet conditions that they so love.
It was an irony not lost on the wildfowlers as we chatted - all those wildfowl now that the shooting season has ended - a sod's law sort of event, which is not unusual in their pursuit. This morning, between the four of them, they had shot just the one duck, which was a pretty poor return for standing in deep, tidal mud and the wind and rain for several hours. We stood there comparing notes on how the two different types of season have gone for us all and it seemed a very long time ago since they sat out there with their guns on very warm and sunny September evenings, being bitten to death by mosquitoes.
But now they have finished for six months and apart from the odd birdwatcher or walker, I will have the place to myself again. Time to dream about sitting on the same sea wall on hot, sunny mornings, watching Ellie trying to catch voles in the long grass and being lulled into a lazy frame of mind by the drone of bees and the silent passage of butterflies - ah my kind of season.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Same Again

Well, almost a month has gone by since my last post and that post's title could just as easily apply to this one. There are a few subtle differences, the water levels have continued to increase in both depth and area and at last, duck numbers are also beginning to increase. Mallard, Teal, Pintail, Gadwall and Shoveler are all beginning to re-appear and combined with large numbers of Greylag, White-fronted and Brent Geese, it's all starting to look how it should do at this time of the year.

The photo below indicates the kind of access problems that we are now experiencing as a result of the rising water levels. The main track through the reserve runs through this gate and turns towards where I was standing on a raised bund. The ditch either side of the gate and track has flooded across them both and this is being repeated in many places around the reserve. It means that access/viewing, is pretty much limited to the boundary route at the rear of the reserve and the sea wall that you can see in the background distance. They say that you should be careful what you wish for and after four years of asking for decent rainfall to alleviate the reserve's dryness, we've now got a tad too much.

The other notable feature of this February so far, is the lack of any mild and sunny days, it been mostly cold, wet and windy, especially so during the two major storms, Ciara and now Dennis which we are enduring as I write this. Dennis is forecast to possibly dump a month's worth of rain today, so even wetter conditions will exist by tomorrow.
I have found it all so very depressing and cannot wait for us to climb out of this dark dampness and to feel a warm sun on my face.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Mud, Water and Winter

"I leant upon a coppice gate
When frost was spectre-gray
And Winter's dregs made desolate
the weakening eye of day"...............Thomas Hardy

The title pretty sums up this last month. So many days have been so grey, gloomy, rainy, windy and cold, that it's been a real challenge to walk round the reserve at times. I'm not a great lover of wearing wellie boots but so wet and muddy are parts of the reserve, that their wearing has been a necessary requisite in order to navigate some parts. No such comfort for my little Jack Russell, Ellie, she has spent a lot of her time swimming through flooded ditches or across lakes of flood water but she takes it all in her stride.
This month also saw us rid of the cattle herd, finally taken away to pens in the grazier's farm yard. They were left on the reserve far longer than the wet conditions allowed and now we have been left with a number of earth crossing points across ditches, that are almost non-traversable on foot due to the depth of the quagmire of mud churned up by their feet. They have now been replaced, for a couple of months, by a number of sheep. As well as being less damaging to the ground, their purpose is to graze the grass down to a very short sward and leave several of the fields perfect for Lapwing breeding this Spring.

But apart from the discomfort and pain of getting around the reserve on foot, it has quite clearly, looked better for wildfowl and waders than it has for the last 4-5 years. Frustratingly, however, we haven't seen a rapid rise in the numbers of either this winter so far. The flock of wintering White-fronted Geese rose to a maximum of 121 birds before they moved into the nearby Harty marshes and continuing to increase in numbers there. That left just the large flock of resident Greylag Geese and sometimes, odd Barnacle, Pink-footed and Tundra Bean Geese. As for ducks, well the days of flocks totalling hundreds, if not thousands, seem well behind us now and we're still only counting them in tens and twenties. My weekly chats with the wildfowlers on the sea wall only finds myself and them swapping the same frustrations - where are all the birds these days? They've had a lot of really cold and gloomy days hunkered down out on the saltings, waiting for wildfowl to shoot, just for nil returns.
It's been a pretty poor month all round and to be honest, I haven't enjoyed several of the visits but hey-ho, just the four weeks of February to endure and things will hopefully, slowly begin to improve - to much cold and wet does not do my old bones any good at all.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Midsummer Dreams

So here we are, New Year's Eve, a dull, misty and very damp day, one to easily forget. The excesses and once a year fakery of being religious for a few days are now almost behind us and already we are ten days past the Shortest Day. Tonight we step over the threshold into not only a new year but a new decade. It'll still be several weeks before the days lengthen enough for us countryside and wildlife lovers to begin to get excited about a new Spring but I console myself with dreams of one of my favourite times of the year - Midsummer.

At that time of the year it's quite usual for me to rise, after a sleepless and hot night, at around 4.30 and set off with my dog to the nature reserve on the marsh. There, in the brief freshness at the start of another long hot day, is a wondrous place. The first thing to greet me as I step onto the marsh is a great avian chorus - the geese the backing group, the Skylarks the lead singers and the Curlews the bubbling orchestra in the background.
As I begin to walk round, there will be faint wisps of mist rising from the surface of the ditches and fleets and I will be surrounded by the business of parent birds as they rush to feed offspring before the heat of the day starts to take effect. Coots will be "tucking" at their chicks, shushing them into the cover of the reed stems to hide from me. In the reed beds themselves, dozens of Reed Warblers will be constantly uttering their song, which is little more than the same couple of notes monotonously repeated over and over. Then there are the Marsh Frogs, noisy as hell as their loud croaking spreads like a bushfire throughout the whole marsh, to suddenly stop in an instant as some threat or other appears in their vision.
On the clumps of Ragwort large clusters of the stripey yellow and black Cinnabar Moth caterpillars feed hungrily on the leaves while assorted butterflies feed from the yellow flowers. Moving across the longer grass of the grazing meadows, where the skylarks continue to serenade me from far above, there are the butterflies. Meadow Browns, Small Heaths, Small Skippers, lazy in flight and giving a peacefulness to the avian frenzy all around. It's a lot to take in and enjoy but soon, as the heat begins to build again, it's time to head back home again and the rigours of the day.
In the evening, as the first zephyrs of cooling air begin to peck away at the lingering heat, it's time to sit in the garden and mull over the events of the long, hot summer's day. Small parties of Swifts will circle,high overhead, screaming down at me as they feed on rising insects. Then, as dusk begins to lessen the light, bats begin to appear. They circle my garden like large dark moths, happily feeding on the mosquitoes above my garden pond. Soon it is gone 10.00 and only in the western sky is there the last lingering brightness in the sky as the the day tries hard not to die, but it's time to draw a curtain on it all and go to bed, a midsummer's day to dream about.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Sunshine came softly

"Sunshine came softly,
through my window today" ........Donovan

At last, I actually got up early this morning to dry roads and clear skies, in other words, no rain! Eventually those clear skies became blue skies, filled with sunshine and no clouds - after several days of trudging round the reserve in mud and deep water, in rain and wind, the sunshine made it seem so much more bearable.
Despite all the rain that has fell, the reserve still isn't as flooded as I've seen it in past years, more a case of ditches and fleets full up and overflowing and waterlogged grazing fields. Two weeks ago the ditch below was three feet lower than it is now.

The one below was a simple ditch last week, now turned into a fleet.

Two examples below of how the reed bed fleets have filled up and spread out, just need the ducks now.

After spending two hours on the reserve wading through or swimming the wet conditions, Ellie laughs in the face of dogs that wear coats, she's fit and tough.
The White-fronted Geese numbers continue to creep up on a daily basis, yesterday there were 74 and this morning 81, which seems odd. Normally we would expect them to arrive as cold weather pushes them across from Holland, etc. but our winds are currently from the south or south west.
With sunshine forecast for tomorrow and Christmas Day it will be great wandering round the reserve for the next few days, brightening up the one week of the year that I hate the most. If I hear one more person say that people should never be on their own at Christmas, I will scream. Some of us do actually enjoy missing all that Christmas crap, roll on the New Year!