Monday, 29 April 2013


The study in my little Minster bungalow not only looks across to the Minster Shingle Bank and Southend, the other side of the Thames Estuary, but also across part of the Scrapsgate and Sheerness marshes across the road. The view across the marshes is unfortunately not an uninterrupted one, I two houses between my place and the edge of the marshes that break up a complete view but I can still see a large chunk and all the way across to Sheerness.
Anyway, sitting there very early this morning, waiting for the sun to rise and break up the grey skies and the paper shop to open (no man should start the day without reading the paper first), a thought suddenly struck me, something from my past actually hadn't changed. The view and the habitat that I was looking at, was pretty much exactly as it was 55 years ago when I was a 10 yr old boy wandering around there. Despite the huge new housing estates that are now creeping across rural Sheppey, in most directions and covering most things green, there like some unspoilt green oasis still exists the marshes that I wandered across as a child, capturing, as Dylan Thomas put it........
"a springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill's shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened"

I took the photograph above about five years ago, which only shows about half of the marshes between Sheerness and Halfway and if I stood by the canal bank now and took a black and white photograph up the Halfway Road, apart from the holiday camp, the view wouldn't be unlike how I remember it as a child.
Also on the subject of childhood back in the 1950's, I was discussing it the other day with a couple of bird watching friends at the Harty Raptor Viewing Mound. As you do, we were reminiscing over all the things that children don't do, or aren't allowed to do, these days, such as scrumping, climbing trees, going out in the morning and not returning to tea-time, making your own entertainment by wandering in the countryside (when it was bigger than a simple Country Park), getting dirty, eating dirt and generally being very healthy - and the subject of food came up. Getting crackling with your fish 'n chips, suet pudding with your roast dinner and also with jam or syrup for "afters", bread and dripping (imagine offering that to a child today), and my favourite, boiled pig's trotters. On returning from the pub at night, my father would regularly have left out for his supper, a couple of cold pig's trotters and as a young child I often helped him eat one. I'm not sure that I could gnaw round their feet, toes and toe nails these days but at the time, I recall they were quite tasty.

On a similar theme of how it used to be, the photograph above shows the old farm cottages that once stood at Elmley, where the current RSPB car park now is. The cottages were demolished in the early 1970's and are no more and this week, the RSPB themselves, end their long association with managing the bird reserve at Elmley as they move on to other sites in the area. The now, ex- RSPB Elmley reserve, will still remain open to visitors but will become part of the National Nature Reserve owned and managed by the Elmley Conservation Trust, which covers the whole of Elmley.

Also in my files, I have this aerial photograph of the old RAF Eastchurch airfield taken in 1924. The site is now completely covered by the Eastchurch prisons complex but in this old photograph it shows how it had developed from it's original conception in 1910 as a simple Aero Club landing ground. Several hangars stand on one side of the landing area and on the other, at the foot of Stamford Hill, are the clusters of accommodation huts. The white square to the right was the old Parade Ground which was just inside the main gate and the slim white line running away from it to the right, was the road leading back up to Eastchurch village.
When the Aero Club and Shorts Bros. areoplane factory moved to Eastchurch in 1910 they left behind the old landing ground at Leysdown airfield but it was retained by the RAF and used mainly as an emergency landing strip and practise bombing and gunning range for visiting aircraft in WW2. The photo below, taken c.1939-40 shows a prototype armoured car and guard there at the start of the war. The sea wall and open sea was only a few yards away and given that we narrowly avoided a German invasion in 1940 it is tempting to think that we might of been lucky if this is what was defending our side of the sea wall.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Crows and Things

Pairs of Carrion Crows continue to plague the reserve at the moment and all the time that they do, few of the  marshland breeding birds stand much chance of being successful.
One day last week another ex-vol. warden and myself sat in the Seawall Hide watching a Lapwing sitting on eggs in a nest on top of the bund around The Flood field. Several yards away from the Lapwing a Carrion Crow also sat on top of the bund, it wasn't hard to work out what was likely to happen. Two days later, having not seen the Lapwing at the nest both days, I investigated and lo, no eggs - another Lapwing nest failure that the lessening local population could ill afford. A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of a Coot's nest and eggs, that too was robbed of all it's eggs soon after. At the moment it has a second nest within feet of the last but with crows using the nearby barn roof as an observation post, I don't hold out much  hope for it being successful.
For the last three years the number of breeding pairs of Lapwings on the reserve has been reducing each year, with the successful fledging of chicks seeing an even more dramatic fall, so these lovely birds badly need any help they can get. Legal trapping of corvids is one vital and now necessary way of reducing the threat from the crows, a method used far more widely on reserves than some people might like to accept. The above poster on the reserve spells out the alternatives quite simply - a crow stealing eggs or a successful brood of chicks - You Choose!
What I still find hard to accept, is that there are still many dedicated birdwatchers out there that continue to campaign against the culling of crows, in other words, they choose the first option! People who with one hand would enthusiastically campaign against houses being built on vital bird nesting habitat such as Lodge Hill, will with the other hand also campaign to allow pest species to still systematically reduce threatened species even further. The two don't go together, there's no point saving the habitat if you then turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what is killing the birds, simply blaming everything on farming methods is not the whole answer.

Spring migrants are arriving on the reserve, helped by the recent warm and sunny weather, but as is usual most Springs, it's only at a trickle, we never get the rush and great variety that the likes of Reculver get. Wheatears have been a classic example, despite visiting the reserve six days a week, I have only seen four in three weeks and most other species have been the same, we still only 3-4 singing Sedge Warblers, although I did have 12 Swifts one morning.
One promising sign however, has been the regular sighting of Small Tortoiseshell butterflies this week, dare we hope for a much needed recovery, we will have to wait a few months for signs of that.

Along the Harty Road, a couple of large fields were unable to be sown with winter corn last autumn due to the wet weather. Several weeks ago they were instead sown with what appears to be spring corn, which is now growing quite well, due no doubt, as has the winter corn also, copious amounts of nitrogenous fertilizer being applied. It's many a long year since I've seen spring corn sown and it will be interesting to see how far behind, if any, the spring version is at harvest time.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Rabbiting in the 70's

 I have touched on the subject of my rabbiting and eel-trapping days on Elmley before, (that's me above), but  here I will go into it in a bit more depth. Obviously it won't appeal to all those who read this blog, those who simply prefer to read about my current bird watching news, but it happened, I enjoyed it and it was all part of the jigsaw that makes up my life-time of  being out and about in the countryside. So if you don't agree with the killing of animals in the countryside it would be best to not read on any further.
The photos were all taken in 1976-77 on what is now Elmley RSPB and perhaps surprisingly for some, it was after the RSPB had begun shaping that marsh at Spitend into the bird reserve it became. Peter Makepeace, the first RSPB warden there, not only recognised that the huge rabbit population there needed controlling, but also enjoyed spending a few hours helping us catch the rabbits at times. Mind you, the methods that we employed, as well as being hard work, were never going to make much of an impression at all on the rabbit population. Eventually ferreting and the shooting of rabbits on the reserve, especially along Windmill Creek, by other people given permission by the RSPB, became a necessary way of managing their numbers. The minute numbers of rabbits to be found throughout the whole of Elmley these days are nothing compared with the many, many thousands there in the 1970's and 80's.

The Elmley track in those days was a lot worse than it is now and so in order to not to have to worry about damage to our cars, especially as we drove across parts the marsh, we bought an old Post Office transit van with no MOT or tax, which gradually became a bit of an old wreck. We used to leave it parked between visits, at the start of the Elmley track, confident by the state of it that no one would steal it. It's condition became even more hazardous soon after getting it, as the fuel pipe came apart and so we made a short cut fuel supply by running a length of piping from a jerry-can in the passenger well - fortunately we never smoked! If I remember rightly that old van served us for a year or so and my 8 yr old step-daughter, who used to sometimes come out with us both rabbiting and eel-trapping, used to love having a go at driving it along the track.

The most heavily infested area for rabbits was always along Windmill Creek, where the old saltings, inland of the 1953 dam, were a mass of dried out rills and deep fissures, a haven for rabbits but with so many escape routes, very difficult to ferret or dig out. Although we did sometimes work along the Creek, we much preferred to work the smaller warrens that were commonplace throughout the flat marsh. Ferreting would of always been an easier and more productive method of catching the rabbits and we occasionally employed that but generally be preferred to use the nose of our dogs and dig out the rabbits. We used my two terriers and even my friend's labrador to identify which rabbit's holes had rabbits down them and they were rarely wrong thankfully, because it could be a hard dig.

The rabbiting was only carried out through the winter months from November to the end of February and in that way it was rare to come across any nests or young rabbits.
Having identified a positive hole among those in a warren we would begin digging, continuing to expose the tunnel as we went. Although the tunnels occasionally went deep, mostly they remained just a foot or two below the surface and would sometimes meander for some distance, so it was hard work, especially as in even the wettest of winters, the surprising peatiness of the ground meant that it was generally bone hard and dry. All the time that we were digging we were encouraged by the increasing excitement of the terriers and rather than dig right up to the rabbits in the tunnel, we would lie down and put our arm into it full stretch until we could feel the rear of the rabbit. Having found it, it would then be pulled out, immediately dispatched, before another check of the tunnel would be done and sometimes a second rabbit would also be located there.
Having established that the end of the tunnel had been reached and no further rabbits were there we would carefully back fill the earth and leave it as we had found it.

We would spend most of a Sunday morning carrying out this rabbiting until we were either knackered or had a dozen or more of rabbits, by which time as you can see below, the dogs weren't in the cleanest condition to take home. The binoculars by the way, weren't for rabbit spotting but there in case an interesting bird flew by. Once we'd given the dogs a bit of a wash in a nearby ditch it was then time to make our way to the local Workingmen's Club where most of the rabbits would be swapped for a few pints of beer, because in those days, fresh caught rabbits were still a favourite meal for a lot of people.

During the summer months the terriers would often have time off to produce a litter and here below is one of my early dogs, aptly named Whitey, seen in the garden both before and after having her puppies.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Yateley in the sun.

After several weeks of grey skies, arctic E winds and snow showers, I spent the weekend at the girlfriend's in Surrey and there at long last, I was able to experience those two things missing from life for weeks, sunshine and warmth.
Yesterday we took my dogs for a walk round a huge MOD site, that has public access, called Hawley Woods, I believe. The wooded areas consist of mostly pine and birch, with odd oaks dotted about but it is the huge acreage of gorse in full flower and heather, that is quite stunning for someone from a marshland habitat. The sun, the warmth, the whole different micro-climate, made it a very pleasant walk round, with several newly arrived Chiffchaffs singing as we walked. I was also able to add another bird to my species list that I haven't seen for around thirty years, Coal Tits, we don't have them on Sheppey and I watched two seperate birds singing from the top of some pine trees. The early sight of two Small Copper butterflies fluttering around in the sun was also enjoyable but the real stunner for me was my first ever Goshawk, fantastic! It came out of a block of pines, sped across a large area of gorse and disappeared just as quick back into some more trees., it'll probably be some time before I repeat that sightings.
It's not often I enjoy being away from my beloved Sheppey but those heathland are a real treat and hopefully this summer I can add the likes of Woodlark, Tree Pipit and Dartford Warbler to my list, Nightjar even.

And so, back To Sheppey this morning and The Swale NNR and what did I experience as I walked round - grey skies and a chilly E. wind, nothing had changed, if nothing else, Sheppey is consistent. However, weather aside, the walk got off to a brilliant start because as I parked up there, alongside me in a farm field was my first Wheatear of the year, a female - whoopee-do. After that though and much stumbling as I watched every small bird movement in the sky for a Swallow or Martin, it was back to the usual fare. Despite wildfowl numbers continuing to fall away, there were still 120 White-fronted Geese and 8 Canada Geese present, though no sign of the long stay Barnacles. With the continuing drying of the once wet areas, Snipe were getting up regularly from the muddy edges and I eventually counted 20 in all. The long-time Flood field in front of the Sea Wall hide is also seeing an increasing drop in water levels, exposing more of the island there. With the tide high, large numbers of waders continually poured across the sea wall and into The Flood to roost, including Grey Plover, Dunlin and as I left, a 100+ Barwits.

The only other thing of note was the fact that a Carrion Crow's nest has appeared in a boundary bush over the weekend. I shall have to climb up and remove that tomorrow. the last thing that the reserve's few Lapwing pairs need is the crows feeding on their eggs and chicks.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Dream Days

I had a dream today.

I walked across the reserve this morning with more winter clothes on than I wore in either December, January or February and yet it was April 3rd. I was bent over into a bitter NE wind, unbroken all the way from Holland, freezing cold, with odd snow flurries and gusting to 40 mph and under heavy grey clouds and I had this dream. I dreamed that one day I would walk round the reserve upright and relaxed and in lightweight clothes and it would be warm and sunny and most of all, that there wouldn't be the arctic E. wind that has blown continuously for a month!
I have been active on the reserve for 27 odd years now and yet I can't recall such a prolonged and continuous spell of constant and bitter cold E winds as this, ever.

The only thing that is favourable that those winds have done, is to greatly dry out the grazing marsh from it's previously well flooded winter state, in fact the top of the seawall is starting to crack up. Walking across some of the grazing fields however and knowing the grazier likes to get his cattle and calves out from the stock pens and onto the marsh during April, it looks quite bleak. They are absolutely billiard table flat and without a single blade of green grass showing, just a thick coating of yellow moss, the grass just hasn't grown at all this winter. In other words, putting stock on those fields will benefit the reserve nil this Spring, it will be interesting to see who has the most influence - the reserve, or the grazier - things don't always happen as they should!

So far, the only evidence of breeding on the reserve this so called Spring, has been a pair of Coots that have the nest portrayed above. It'll be interesting to see if they manage to succeed and rear any chicks, normally those nasty predators of marshes, Carrion Crows, end up eating the eggs, clapped on by those who feel that they have a right to do so!

On Monday 1st, I made a point of counting the reserve's wildfowl population to start off the April records on the reserve and it was a very winter-orientated count, to say the least.
30 Mute Swan - 150 White-fronted Geese - 4 Canada Geese - 5 Barnacle Geese - 20 Greylag Geese - 200 Brent Geese - 50 Shelduck - 150 Mallard - 60 Gadwall - 110 Pintail - 600 Teal - 500 Wigeon - 80 Shoveler - 26 Tufted Duck - 20 Pochard - 120 Coot.
Not a single summer visitor among them and to be honest, today 3rd April, is the latest I've gone without seeing even a Wheatear for many a long year.

Marsh Harriers seem to be increasing again after their winter drop in numbers and are re-appearing in many pairs around the reserve. The female above was captured quite well I thought, by my girlfriend with her small pocket camera through the glass window of the Seawall Hide.