Monday, 31 January 2011

A Stillness in the Air

With some trepidation yesterday morning I arrived at Leysdown having agreed to Lead a Kent Ornithological Society Field meeting, firstly to Shellness Point and then round The Swale NNR. It was a bitter cold and windy morning and the prospect of several hours freezing to death, and being out of my depth doing something I'd never done before, was quite daunting. In the event, the wind dropped, the sun put in an appearance and our 8 member party had a thoroughly good time and at Shellness Point we were even temporarily joined by a large party from the South Bucks Bird Club.

The High Tide Roost at the Point was unfortunately a bit of a damp squib because the high tide was of the lower height variety and by failing to cover much of the inner mudflats it allowed the few thousand waders to remain spread out along their length into the distance. However spirits were raised as we watched a distant speck in the sky out to sea gradually morph into a Peregrine Falcon that eventually dive-bombed some waders almost alongside us before disappearing along the tide-line again. A Merlin also put in an appearance, using an old lorry tyre way out in the saltings as a perch.
Leaving there we made our way along the seawall to the main part of The Swale NNR, and along the wall, I reckon the best bird of the day got up out of the grass just yards from us, a Short-eared Owl. A cracking sight and very soon after we stopped to get some equally good views of a flock of around 160 White-fronted Geese that were feeding in a grazing meadow alongside the seawall. Eventually scared up by an approaching helicopter they flew a circle around us, filling the air with my favourite wild goose calls.
The marsh part of the reserve was fairly quiet birdwise but we did at least catch up with several Marsh Harriers that until then had been reluctant to put in an appearance.
This is a bit of a wizz through a wander round that lasted almost six hours but I'm sure that the participants found much to enjoy.

I was back on the reserve with Midge earlier on today and with little wind and the sun beginning to break out through patches in the cloud it was a really pleasant patrol. What was very quickly apparent was a feeling that something had changed, and for the better. After a few drying and windy days the surface of the marsh was dryer and firmer and almost seemed greener, the sun was out and couple that with an overpowering stillness in the air, you could feel that Spring was very, very close. There were other little signs as well, a few indivdual pairs of Greylags had broken away from the main flock and were looking like prospective breeding pairs and even better, one or two Lapwings were practising their courtship displays with much "peewitting". Yes there was definitely a whiff of Spring out there this morning and just think, many of the Spring migrants will have already left their wintering grounds and be starting the migration north, not long now before that first Sand Martin turns up over a pond or waterway.
I wonder if the Hooded Crow was thinking the same this morning as it made its way out onto the saltings with a flock of 120 Carrion Crows, was he thinking of Scotland once again, he looked quite dapper in his two-tone plumage.

Yes, there's been a stillness in the air today that suggested that we were almost at the crossroads of the seasons.





Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Little Lad in Me

"When I was a windy boy and a bit" is the opening line to Dylan Thomas's poem "Lament" and it regularly re-occurs in my mind for some reason and inevitably makes me think back to my childhood.

My early childhood was spent in a narrow group of terraced streets in Sheerness where the sky was only seen above the tall, hemmed-in roofs of the houses and for fun we raced lolly sticks down the raging, rainy gutters, or so I remember them.

But as I grew from a little child into a bigger child of around ten or eleven, I began to explore further away from home. One day, having wandered through the width of three more streets and alleys, I suddenly, like The Mole emerging from his Spring-cleaning, burst apon the grassy banks of the stretch of water that bordered all of Sheerness, known as The Canal and The Boating Lake. Suddenly to my childish eyes I was confronted both there and beyond, with this whole, wide world known as The Countryside and what a wide world it was.

The narrow Halfway Road wound its way into the distance and was bordered on both sides by water-voled ditches, allotments, pig sheds and above all else, great wide grazing marshes. Marshes that contained sheep and cattle, ducks, skylarks and hawks that hung in the air - and I was hooked. Gradually I began to make regular incursions further and further up the road, entranced by the road-side ditches bursting, or so it seemed, with water voles and moorhens. Then, as I became more daring, I began to venture out into the marshes themselves, fear over-ridden by an intense curiosity in what Nature had in store to be found. And the first of these was a plank that crossed a ditch in the middle of one of the fields and throughout that Spring I spent hours laying flat along that plank, nose almost touching the water, watching every movement of the things below the water. Sticklebacks, Water Beetles, tadpoles, frogs, and great swarms of Water Fleas. I think I spent as much time in the library trying to identify these things as I did laying on the plank but I was encaptured, and still are, by anything to do with water.

Exploring still further afield I came across the council's sewerage works on the edge of the marsh. Great round and open-topped beds full to overflowing with fermenting effluence, continually sprinkled with water by rotating arms and all un-fenced and open to the curiosity of a young child such as I. This was indeed a fascinating place and worthy of many visits and during the summer months many dozens of self-sown tomato plants grew around the site (think about it) and it was great to be able to pop warm, juicy tomatos into my mouth as I walked by, a rare treat in those days.

Gradually, with every visit to my little solitary world, more and more specimens got taken back home for observation. An old stone sink with the plughole blocked up was my pond full of tadpoles, where I was fascinated to actually watch these grow into miniature frogs. Sweet jars, with top covers of old pieces of net curtain, were packed with stinging nettles and caterpillars and I watched as these eventually turned into chrysalis's and then beautiful Small Tortoiseshell butterflies.

I imagine that these days it would be almost impossible for a lad of that age to be able to self-educate himself in the ways of nature in such a way, times and parents have changed and its an almighty shame.

"Now as I was young and easy under the apples boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes".................Dylan Thomas.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Little Shooter

Since my last posting and the reference to the young lad who was accompanying his father wildfowling I have been taken to task for suggesting that he might be learning something useful. To be honest, I thought that it was a quite reasonable statement to make but I guess because I have always been so fiecely critical of the wildfowlers there, it wasn't what people would expect me to say.

Let me try and explain.
I have never totally condemmed all forms of shooting, just those alongside nature reserves and those that make no attempt to give anything back for what they take. For some people, a perfect world would see no shooting at all, but let's face it, it's here and it ain't going anywhere in the near future and so the best you can do is to look at what's good and bad about it - and yes, there are good bits. Historically, a huge amount of wildlife-friendly habitat was, and still is there because of shooting interests. It is provided, protected and maintained for most wildlife because it also makes good shooting habitat - remove shooting from the British countryside and you very likely overnight remove many thousands of acres of perfect wildlife habitat with it.
Shake your head, deny it for all your worth but deny those people their "sport" and wildlife would also be denied a huge acreage of perfect habitat because it would be immediately ploughed up, grubbed out and over-grazed out because no government, especially one about to sell off our forests, would be able or willing, to grant-aid or protect that degree of habitat. Hard as it is to accept, remove most of shooting and you also remove a lot of wildlife with it.

Now - over the last couple of months - and I can hear the cries of "I knew it!" and "heresy" already, I have got into regular E-Mail correspondence with a long-term member of the Kent Wildfowlers, who I have yet to meet and who took me to task over my criticism of his fellow members at Shellness.
This guy would no more give up his shooting and fishing habits of many, many years than I would my opposition to the wildfowlers being allowed to shoot in front of The Swale NNR, but we persevered.
Our early exchange of E-Mails were as you would expect, quite hostile towards each other as we rigidly stuck by our points of view, but we couldn't let go and we stuck at it and carried on swapping comments. The longer we did, and once we had defined the no compromise areas, it was amazing just how much common ground we had between us. Our attitudes towards each other's views softened and we actually found ourselves agreeing on some points, as well as realising, the killing aside, that we had grown up with and still have, very similar concerns for wildlife in general.
Amongst book loads of swapped views and opinions that we have shared a few stand out. He has made me realise that true foreshore wildfowling has pretty much a pin-prick effect on wildfowl numbers - there are far worse examples of shooting, which he admits too and equally despises.
He has also admitted, to his surprise, to find out via RSPB magazines, the true extent of successful prosecutions against wildlife crime, which are never mentioned in the shooting press for obvious reasons.

Our correspondence has taught us, and allowed us, to accept things that we didn't think we probably would, to widen our views on things, and above all, proved what simply talking to each other can achieve.

So, to go back to the little lad on the saltings with his father, there's no guarantee that he will grow up to be another wildfowler but what is guaranteed is that he has experienced a cold dawn, he has experience the wildlife associated with it, he has experienced that "feel" for that time of day - how many of his critics can admit to the same.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Spring will get here one day

I took the photo below for another subject but its bleakness seemed to fit this morning's visit and so, well, there it is.

While its rare, there are occasionally those days when you visit your patch when you wish you hadn't bothered. Early this morning was one of those times - grey skies, a cold N.wind and regular showers of icy rain - basically it was bloody uninspiring. Dawn did happen but the light never progressed past that, the morning seemed to stay in a kind of half light and I just couldn't get warm.
As I started to trudge across the marsh I knew inwardly that I should have stayed at home - got the papers, had some breakfast, stayed warm and give it a miss, but it was Saturday and old habits die hard, I always go at dawn on Saturdays. So silly really because being retired, every day is the same as another, weekends and Bank Holidays aren't special anymore like they were when I was still at work, but one stupidly still rotates to that same cycle.

Anyway, trudge I did, across the flat and muddy marshes towards the seawall. Although I couldn't actually see them, I could hear the short whistles of Teal to both the left and right of me in the ditches, and they were answered close by by the longer "wee-oos" of Wigeon. Mallard called from further round and from the east came a small flock of Whitefronts, which circled the reserve low down, calling all the time with their beautiful and wild "winkling" calls, until eventually dropping in alongside some of the resident Greylags.

And so, up onto the seawall and the Spotted Redshank. This bird has been present in the same tidal pool alongside the seawall there since before Christmas and is not only almost guaranteed, but is almost tame. Quite strange actually and these days, a very uncommon bird.

After that, the wildfowlers, and how many would there be this morning on the saltings , well 7.5 to be exact! 7.5 you might exclaim! how is that, did somebody fortunately part expire. No, as they packed up, fortunately duckless, and began to make their way home, it was obvious that one was only around 6-7 yrs old and being led along by his dad, clothed in his mini-camourflaged suit. A tad too cold and long for somebody of that age to be out there in my opinion but hey, apart from the odd unfortunate duck being killed, what a wealth of natural sights and sounds that young lad must be storing away for the whole of his life ahead. The shooting bit is not ideal I know but there is so much worse that that lad could be learning and I couldn't really say that it was that bad.

One last comment on the wildfowling front, some people have asked me why it is that the duck shooting season above the tidal High Water Mark, ends at the end of January and yet below that Mark it is OK to shoot and kill wildfowl until the 20th February. Well I asked a very experience wildfowling aquaintance of mine and he suggested that the ruling was brought in in order to protect wildfowl that were often pairing up by the end of January. Very commendable says I, but then immediately think, well how do these birds know not to fly over the seawall after Feb 1st? - they don't of course and some still get shot, so its not that a good idea.

Anyway, I didn't hang about out there this morning, I don't have deadlines to meet and so I came home and left it to another, warmer and more enjoyable day.

"My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn't have to say she's faithful
Yet she's true like ice, like fire.
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can't buy her."...................Bob Dylan

Monday, 17 January 2011

A Matter of Opinion

Well, any lingering thoughts that I had about the reserve starting the Spring far too dry are now out of the window after today's rain. During the course of the morning I have watched the grazing marshes across the road from my bungalow change from just grass to areas of shallow water. I imagine that the reserve, if I could be arsed to go down there and wallow in mud, would look pretty much the same. It's a shame, because when I was down there late yesterday afternoon, taking part in the monthly Harrier roost count, it looked great, just the right amount of winter water but after a windy and sunny afternoon, drying out on the surface nicely for walking on.
The Harrier count, on the reserve at least, provided a really good count of roosting Hen Harriers on the saltings near to Shellness Hamlet - 2 males and 3 ring-tails - best for a few years.

As I've been writing this a small party of Long-tailed Tits have just passed through the garden. There were, I should add, none of the charming white-headed northern cousins that seem to be attracting the twitcher brigade down to the South Coast. At least they are clearly identifiable as "different", even by the more ordinary of us birdwatchers, not so the Slaty-backed Gull identified across the Thames late last week. Looking at the photos of this bird I have to say that I for one wouldn't have given it a second glance, it just didn't stand out as anything different and I bet that 98% of those that twitched it at the weekend, if first finding it alone themselves would of thought any different.
On this subject, I was amused on reading a posting on the KOS Forum the other night, to see that a new list had been published of ornithological "taxonomic splits," which apparently gave the author the opportunity for "30+ new ticks." Is that what it has come to in the twitching world, new birds are invented because of slight differences in feather or song so that they can be added to stagnating life lists - so sad. My friend breeds British Birds in his aviary and a common hybrid is Goldfinch x Greenfinch, imagine,should he release some of these and the orgasmic delight if a twitcher saw them first - another finch "taxonomic split" - whoopee do!

I was really chuffed to see the response to my recent blog about the Hunting fraternity, a serious point of view from me and some equally serious and sensible comments in reply. For me this is what these blogs are about, if you can be bothered to start one up, then at least be bothered to vary the subject matter and keep them interesting. There's a lot to discuss and be debated out there - so much more lively and interesting than just the same daily count of birds added to year lists.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Windmill Creek

What seems like a lifetime ago, which I suppose it is if you're only 33, four of us used to regularly fish in Windmill Creek for eels on hot and sunny, summer Sunday mornings. Each week we used to split into two pairs and have a light-hearted competition to see which pair could catch the most eels. The "prize" was an imitation cup that we had fashioned out of the tin foil that our sarnies were wrapped in. The rods were nothing special, just cheap "junior" fishing rods, mine for instance was bought in Woolworths and I still have it. The bait was always simple garden worms, although sometimes we would employ "secret" methods such as dipping the worms in sardine oil, it probably made no difference but we had fun trying to devise these new aides. The big difference between then and now was the fact that you caught eels almost as soon as the worm sunk to the bottom of the Creek, nowadays you can sometimes wait hours just to catch one.
It was such great fun and on hot mornings like the one below it was sheer bliss being somewhere so remote and picturesque. Elmley RSPB was still in the early stages of being created then and so the Spitend marshes alongside the Creek still looked pretty much as they had for a few hundred years. Windmill Creek was pretty much the same, despite being dammed off after the damaging 1953 floods. The old saltings along the Elmley side of it were wide in places and overgrown and ungrazed, fissured by old reelways and honeycombed by hundreds of rabbit holes - rabbits were counted in huge numbers in those days.
I'm afraid the quality of these photos is poor as they were taken in 1977 and they certainly don't show how hot it was that morning. DOUBLE CLICK ON THEM TO BRING THEM UP IN BETTER DETAIL.
The top photo shows me as a slim and youthful version of my now aging self and the second is two of my friends looking amused at the "bootlace" eel that one has just caught

To get there we drove up the Elmley track and through Kingshill farm with its old barns and farm cottages. The farmhouse itself, which had been home not long before to the large Gransden family, was at the time newly occupied by Peter Makepeace the first RSPB manager and sometimes we'd stop for a chat and a cup of tea. After that it was down the slope the other side and across the Newlands track towards Wellmarsh. I wonder how many people visiting these days realise that the track that they follow between Kingshill and Wellmarsh is on top of one of the original anti-flooding bunds, pretty much the same as the Harty Road. The piece of marsh between the track and the seawall there has always been called Newlands and I imagine that it's a pretty fair bet that it was a result of the new piece of marsh that was created when the seawall was eventually built. Its also probable that the bunded track was once the original seawall.
From there we would arrive at Well Barn, or at least the ruins of it, and pretty much all it was in those days were some open-sided cattle stalls. I don't think any of it is still there now.
From there it was over the hump created by the counterwall that ran off of the seawall and runs behind the Wellmarsh Hide these days, past the fledgling Flood and past Cod's House, the derelict two-storey old farmhouse. Imagine living there in the old days, in weather like we've recently had - so remote and exposed, it just doesn't bear thinking about. From there it was the last stretch across Spitend to park at the base of the Dam and walk along the beautiful Windmill Creek.
It was such a privilage to be able to drive out there as we wanted too in those days and to wander all over such a wild and remote area and I miss it enormously. In fact I've only been back to Spitend a couple of times since then.

In the winter, we made just as many visits but this time in order to catch rabbits, a vital service at the time. The photo below shows me on top of the Windmill Creek seawall pulling a rabbit from a hole, the ball of mud in my left hand is my very first Jack Russell, Jessie.
This wasn't however the only way that we caught rabbits out there, sometimes the four of us would walk line-abreast across the rough Spitend grassland looking for rabbits "sitting out". Rabbits wiil spend part of their day sitting out in long grass in "seats" that they form in tufts of grass and as well as being surprisingly hard to see, if they think that you haven't seen them they will sit tight until you have passed them by.
However, being used to the marsh we became quite experienced at picking out a likely "seat" and as we walked past it would suddenly swipe downwards with a stick that we carried, mine was an old hockey stick and the rabbit would roll over dead. It sounds brutal but I can assure you that it was an instant death and it was surprsing how many rabbits that we could catch by this method as we walked round on a Sunday morning, dreaming of the pint of beer that always followed in the pub at lunchtime. Even better these pints were often free, paid for by the sale of the rabbits.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


D'you know, every time that I think I've calmed down about the alleged Hunting Ban along comes somebody to wind me up over it again. This time it was Robin Page in the Weekend Telegraph, who until he got slung off of One Man and his Dog some years ago, used to write sensible articles about the countryside. Since then all he does is rant about green politics and generally hate anybody that doesn't agree with his vision of the countryside.
Today, he was siding with the Hunts again and moaning about how stupid this continuing Ban is and how it is one reason for the increase of foxes everywhere. I get so wound up about this smoke screen that Huntsmen and their supporters put up about this alleged Ban and about how its not allowing them to go out, and how its threatening the existence of their packs of hounds, etc, etc. There is nothing to stop these people from enjoying charging about the countryside on their horses and with their hounds, all that's been stopped is their enjoyment at chasing a fox until its lungs give out, that's all. And if you live here on Sheppey its still possible to watch that occur because the Hunt, a few times each winter, still hunt in the traditional way, just as they always have.

Aided and abetted by the farmers whose land they hunt over, they turn up, unload their horses and hounds, unload the quad bikes with terrier men and terriers onboard and off they go after the first fox. Not only that, as is their traditional arrogant way, they also ignore the pleas of a few smaller properties out there to not go onto their land and do just that.

Now, I want to make it clear that I'm not against most pest control, which includes foxes, because as a hands on reserve worker I've seen the damage that foxes and the like can do to things like ground nesting birds colonies and have come to realise that simply "leaving things to nature" doesn't work. But what I do demand is that something should be killed as immediate and humanely as possible, not chased for a few miles for fun first. That's all the Hunts are about, killing for fun, controls are just a cover up.

Lets also consider how many foxes that a Hunt actually kill during one of these days out, probably 3-4 if they were really lucky, if they were really serious about their position as fox controllers they could probably kill far more, and more humanely and regularly, by going out at night with high-powered rifles and lights.

And lastly, one practise that used to go on in official hunting times and possibly still does is that of fox-earth protection. Yes, some hunts would actually safeguard some earths and their vixens in order to guarantee a supply of foxes for the following season's hunting and it has also been known for them to move fox cubs onto a barren estate. That fact somehow gets overlooked when they claim that a Ban prevents them from providing a fox control service in the countryside.

There is a lot of deceit being, and always has been, employed by the Hunts and those people that sit in their warm armchairs and smugly think that an alleged Ban is working, or that huntsmen deserve some sympathy, need to get out and look behind the smokescreen.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Getting more Swampy


Over the last week or so it has been amazing to watch how quickly nature has re-addressed the water shortage pronlem on the reserve, several bouts of good rain has made a quite rapid impression on the ditches and fleets. It helps I suppose that the reserve is the lowest piece of ground on that part of Harty and the farm fields alongside, being higher, all slope and drain towards the reserve. The melting snow made little impression except wet the surface of the flat marsh, but the rain has worked wonders. Ditches that a fortnight ago were still only a foot deep are now three or four foot deep and while we are nowhere near the flooded acreages of the last two winters, we are approaching normal winter water levels again.
While this hasn't, surprisingly, seen a big rise in wildfowl numbers, it has seen the return of large numbers of Lapwing and Golden Plovers, all attracted to the much softer grassland. This morning whilst walking round I had over a thousand of both species flying around above me after a superb male Hen Harrier decided to fly through their feeding flocks at ground level.
This seems to be a characteristic of Hen Harriers, they tend to hug the ground when hunting, far more than Marsh Harriers do. The other difference that you will see between the two types of harriers, is their ability to scare birds. A Marsh Harrier or two moving over a flock of ducks or waders will hardly cause a stir but a Hen Harrier doing the same will cause an immediate commotion amongst all the birds - I wonder how they know the difference.

One effect of the wetter conditions now is the gradual appearance of shallow "splashes" on the flat grazing fields. These "splashes" are only a few inches deep but as they gradually expand their width they become a favourite area for Wigeon as they graze the flooded, grassy areas. The photo below shows one of the these "splashes", which just before I took the photo was occupied by 34 White-fronted Geese, that flew some yards further away out of view, just leaving a few Greylags behind in front of the cattle.

This photo shows The Flood, just before Christmas and with a Spring drought looking very likely.

The same view this morning, helped a trifle in this field by a bit of pumped water over the last few days. The Flood is the field in front of the Seawall Hide but unfortunately this part is at the opposite end of the field to the hide.

Once again, The "S Bend Ditch" as it looked along its whole length just before Christmas and how it looked this morning. Such a relief and so important to the reserve's habitat.

Friday, 7 January 2011

A Swampie's Tale

After it raining all day yesterday dawn this morning wasn't much better, well I say dawn, in reality it was simply an extension of the night, it was that dark.
It was one of those mornings where common sense said "stay indoors" but the thought of another day's boredom replied "sod it I'm still going." January tends to be like that, pretty damp and cold and its only redeeming feature is that by its month end you become aware on a good day, of the light hanging out till almost 5.30.
However as I drove along a wet and murky Harty Road at 7.30 this morning it just didn't seem to be getting any lighter. Likewise as I drove through the farm thicket (pronounced farm fikkit if you live on Sheppey), a few damp and fed up looking pheasants were queuing at their corn feeder for breakfast. Only another three weeks and those unshot can enjoy the delights of Spring and the other things that they do, without being shot.
Unlocking the reserve gate I drove the couple of hundred yards down the track that seperates farmland from marshland, parked at the barn and walked to the 5-bar gate. Midge and I then stood there,peered through the misty and drizzly gloom and pondered which way to go. Whichever way I chose this morning was going to be unpalatable underfoot and require waering awful wellie boots. With the added bonus of yesterday's rain the cattle had completed their annual job of turning the gateways and access tracks into that lovely quagmire mixture of mud and cow shit, knowing dam well with a delighted swish of their splattered tails that there was no way that I could get round without walking, slipping and sliding through it.

The mist and the drizzle increased and visibility was pretty poor and it was obvious that I was going to see very little and just get soaked for my sins. That's the one thing with marshes when the weather's bad, there's no escaping it, you're out there exposed. None of this creeping along in the lea of hedges and woods like our inland cousins and staying warm and pretty dry, no, us Swampies do it the hard way, or at least that what I tried to convince myself when I got back to the car later, wet through and cold and a tad fed up.

On to the seawall and a quick perusal of the saltings showed that even the wildfowlers had more common sense than a mere reserve warden and had given the place a miss today. So I followed the seawall along to its end, putting up a few Wigeon and Mallard from the Delph fleet as I did, gave up on trying to see as far as The Swale in the mist and turned back through the middle of the marsh. Pretty much all that broke the silence out there at regular intervals was the retort from the gas guns on the farmland alongside, which always make you jump out of your skin everytime. They've certainly had an effect on the geese this last week because I've only seen a couple of Greylags.
But at last, a few birds began to appear as I began to follow the few bushes along the reserve boundary. A few dozen Fieldfares and Redwings pecked at the few berries that were left and then out of the mist and by now rain, came a ring-tailed Hen Harrier, hunting along a ditch but quickly soaring upwards as she suddenly saw me. No sooner had she passed by than she was followed on pretty much the same course by a beautiful pale grey male Hen Harrier, it looked almost ghost like as it glided past.

I was approaching the barn by now, rain was soaking down my neck and I pondered wether to carry on past and go round and put the big diesel pump on and pump some water onto The Flood. Nope, that could wait until tomorrow, I was going home.

And do you know what, as I sit here writing this, its early afternoon, the sun is out and we have blue skies, talk about a day of two halves.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Rained Off

My visit to the reserve was curtailed early this morning as soon as I got there, it was raining steadily and didn't look as if it was going to stop, which has proven to be the case and its still raining steadily as I write this in the early afternoon.
It makes for a frustrating time with little indoors to do but at least after such a dry winter we are on the way to seeing water levels rise a little on the reserve. Despite the snow recently ditch levels have pretty much remained at mid-summer levels, which is very low, and that's not the way for a wetland reserve to head into the spring. Today's rain will help bring up the water levels out there enormously and more is forecast for tomorrow, so its a matter of enduring the boredom and knowing its doing good somewhere.

As a result I found myself looking through some old books and photograph albums and came across a couple that might be of interest to those readers that recall some of Sheppey in its better years (perhaps boring for those that don't). They should enlarge if you double click on each one.
This grainy first one harks back to the start of my last blog and the picture of the two bridges, this is the original Kingsferry Bridge that stood there before those two, taken from the Elmley seawall. Like its successors it was a combined road and rail bridge with its central section hinging upwards from both sides when a vessel needed to go through to the small Ridham Dock opposite Elmley. Evert time a train went over it it used to clatter and rattle quite noisily.

This photo shows the old Sheppey Light Railway crossing the Minster Road en-route for Leysdown, at Harps Inn in around 1949-50. The shop is still there today.

Two stops down the line, and the train is once again seen, crossing the Lower Road at Brambledown. The current Farm Shop is around 100yds past this to the right but there is no sign that the railway ever crossed there but the houses in the background are still there.

This last one shows a scene from Chapel Street, Minster village, I know not what year. This view has changed a lot and the current Minster Post Office now stands more or less where the tree is. The low building to the left of the children was originally the village blacksmiths and then in my early years was a greengrocers before being demolished. The pointed roof to the right of the children and further down the road, is that of the Bethel church, which still remains, although the houses before it are long demolished.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Rushenden Marshes

Given the small size of Sheppey as an Island and the fact that I have lived on it all of my 63 years, its surprising sometimes to realise that there are parts of it that I haven't been on for a long time. This was true of the stretch of land that runs between the Sheppey Bridge and Queenborough and named on the map as Rushenden Marshes, which is a bit incorrect because these days Rushenden Marshes don't exist as such.
This stretch of land, like most of Sheppey's marshes, borders onto the stretch of tidal water, The Swale, that seperates all of the southern side of Sheppey from the mainland, as we like to call the rest of Kent. My walk this morning began at the two bridges that link Sheppey to the mainland, you can see both in the photo below. The small four-poster Kingsferry Bridge, which has a central section that lifts to the top to allow small ships through, was built in 1959 and was superceded around five years ago by the far more impressive Sheppey Bridge.

Swinging right and leaving the bridges above behind you, you then get the view down The Swale, with the top of the seawall that I followed for about 2-3 miles in the right hand corner. This first mile of The Swale is known as Horse Reach and then it becomes Long Reach before turning a tight point of land known at Lady's Hole Point (I don't know!) and into the wider waters off of Queenborough and then Sheerness.

The first half a mile of land alongside the seawall from the bridges is original and low lying grazing marsh, part covered by a large sewerage works and known as South Marshes. But immediately after the sewerage works and for the remaining mile and a half or so, the land and seawall referred to on the map as Rushenden Marshes, is very much higher and clearly not marshland as such. The photo below, which shows it stretching for some distance across to the housing estates of Rushenden, fails to show it how it actually looks. This huge acreage of land running all the way to Lady's Hole Point, is flat and overgrown but more importantly, is clearly some 3-4 times higher than the original marshland.
In the 1960's a dredging company who were deepening the shipping channel up the Medway to Chatham needed somewhere to lose their dredgings. They bought the majority of Rushenden Marshes, raised the seawall by some considerable height and spent many years backfilling the marshes across to Rushenden with dredgings. When I first worked for the Kent River Authority on seawall maintenance along that stretch of The Swale in the late 1960's, pumping had more or less been completed and that whole area inside the seawall, now overgrown, consisted of dead flat fields of dry sand and mud. Utilizing it to great effect for nesting each year were Ringed Plovers and over a hundred pairs of Little Terns. Its hard to visualise from this photo, but imagine an area of dry sandy mud the size of that on the right hand side of the Elmley track and that's what it was like.
Also, as we found when working out there in the winter on the seawall and needing fuel for our tea-hut fire, these dredgings had also deposited a good sprinkling of small pieces of coal, which we happily collected.

Directly opposite across Long Reach were the marshlands of Chetney on the mainland. Despite various agricultural changes over the years these marshes still retain a lot of their original marshland features and are home to large numbers of both wildfowl and wading birds.
I recall one time in the 1970's that a friend and I used to do a lot of unofficial eel netting over in the fleets of Chetney. We would launch a small fishing boat at the Kingsferry Bridge and with an outboard engine travel down The Swale and moor off of Chetney before walking ashore to empty our nets, normally after dark.
One particular night, by the time we returned to the boat with a bulging tray of eels, a really dense fog had dropped in. The minute that we chugged the boat out into The Swale we knew we were buggered, we could see no more than a couple of yards and didn't even know where the shore was, or even which way we were pointing. Thick fog, dead silence and two pretty scared men drifting somewhere in the middle of The Swale at 11.00 at night! Eventually, as we drifted along on an incoming tide, one thing saved us, I could smell sewerage to the left of us, it had to be the Rushenden sewer works. We started the engine and headed left into the fog and joy of joys, we hit the mudflats of the Sheppey shore but visibility was so bad that we daren't leave the security of those mudflats and go back into the river and get lost and dis-orientated again. So what did we have do, we stepped onto that soft mud and we pulled the boat for a mile or so down river until through the fog we could hear vehicles crossing the Bridge. Pulling a boat through soft mud in chest waders that night was unbelievably tiring and I certainly wasn't welcomed with open arms after midnight that night by my wife as I arrived home covered in river mud, freezing cold and stinking of eels.

This less than impressive view is the end of my walk along that stretch of seawall and shows all that remains of the gloriously named Lady's Hole Point, with Queenborough and Sheerness in the background. To most of us old Sheppey-ites it has always been known as "The Coal Washer" because for countless years this remote spit of land had a jetty that received coal vessels that unloaded coal for a coal merchant in Queenborough, with the coal being transferred by a single rail line along the edge of the shore. For many years after that and until recently, it was owned by a company that shipped scrap metal out to Italy.

So that pretty much ends my little ramble along that stretch of Sheppey's coastline, there was little else to do but turn round and walk back. Oh yes, what of birds - well to be honest it was pretty naff, the only birds of note were good numbers of wildfowl in The Swale itself, Wigeon, Mallard, Teal, Shoveler, Shelduck and Greylag and Canada Geese and most of those had come off of Chetney.