Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Birds of the North Kent Marshes

Hearing the news recently of the death of the great E. H. Gillam I was inspired to re-visit the book with which he is most known for. In 1950, E. H. Gillham and R.C. Homes had published their ground-breaking book "The Birds of the North Kent Marshes". I was three years of age at the time and so it all went over my head but I recall later reading it as a young lad, after borrowing it from the local library. Last week I bought it from an excellent second-hand book website that is brilliant for such purchases at really good prices, those who regularly look for old, out of print books should check the site out -
The book describes very well both the various habitats along the North Kent Marshes and also the birds to be found there at the time. Sixty years later it still remains a fabulous opportunity to compare how habitats and bird numbers have changed. Prior to the publishing of the book published records of bird numbers were very thin on the ground and the authors do make reference to this fact when quoting what information they used. It has to be remembered that prior to 1950 birdwatchers were probably as thin on the ground as the birds that they were attempting to see, and the best equipment that they had were probably ex-army binoculars and a notebook. No telescopes and wide-ranging and lightweight binoculars, no web-sites and pagers and no daily blogs where some obsessive bloggers could probably if asked, give you the stats on how many times the same Blue Tit has hopped from one branch to another.

Those two authors simply had a few old and sometimes doubtful records of other people and their own hard won observations to go by, and how well they presented them. The Systematic List is particualy eye-opening and indeed surprising, for instance I was amazed to read that Pheasant were rarely seen on Sheppey prior to 1948. For me also, I was struck by how regularly the fact that birds were shot cropped up. It seems that in the pre. Protection of Birds Act (1954) days and many years before they wrote the book, that anybody curious to know what the strange bird that they were looking at was, simply shot it in order to have a better look. Have a look at these few examples from the book.

Rose-coloured Starling - one was seen near Rochester and shot from a flock of Starlings and recorded in the "Zoologist" for 1857.
Golden Oriole - in the "Zoologist" for 1868 it was reported that a female had been shot in an orchard near Faversham.
Commom Crossbill - as many as twenty were obtained by one man and others were shot at intervals until January 1869.
Woodchat Shrike - a male was recorded as having been shot at Murston in July 1868.
Firecrest - apart from one shot at Rainham in December 1860...........this is the hardest one to understand. Anybody who has tried to photograph a Firecrest will know how rarely they stand still and so to manage to shoot one must of been a rare feat, and for why?

Clearly both birdwatching and bird protection have come a long way and the mention in the book of the the duck decoys scattered around the marshes also raises a valid comparison. These large and tall, tunnel-shaped decoys made of wire netting were built over fleets and wide ditches and wild ducks were lured/driven into them on a regular basis and then caught and killed. The book makes mention of the fact that in the mid-19th century great numbers of wildfowl were weekly taken and sent to London. When you also consider the amount of un-regulated wildfowl shooting that was also going on at the time by a large number of the population, it does make today's wildfowling bags pretty piffling by comparison.

Its a really good book that invites a lot of nostalgia from a time when there was a lot more habitat about and birdwatching was a simple past-time that only required a pair of binoculars and a notebook - pretty much how I still do it today!


  1. Great post again Derek, strange how the same old chestnut crops up again on North Kent, shooting birds!The wildfowlers seem quite tame compared to our victorian forefathers. I shall continue shooting but only with my camera and telephoto lens.

  2. Mike, the shooting issue will always be there for those that cannot see past the gun itself, but there is more than enough evidence these days to show that, providing it is managed in its current form and not allowed to revert back to the style of those bad old days, it is not as bad as many try to portray it. Couple that with the amount of conservation work that is done by the shooting fraternity as well, and they are an entirely different and better breed of people.

  3. My wife will love this book. Off to Amazon.