Sunday, 19 April 2015

Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm has seemed quite an appropriate title for the reserve this last few weeks given the cold weather that we have generally been experiencing for some time here on Sheppey. But first mention of the brief spell of almost summery weather that we experienced on Tuesday and Wednesday. The wind finally shifted round to the South and West and combined with long spells of very warm sunshine, it not only meant that I was able to walk round without a coat but that it brought about an incoming rush of migrant birds. As I mentioned in my last posting, the barren spell of Spring migrants that I was experiencing finally broke, since then, I have seen most of my target species, although not in large numbers. Wheatears, Sedge Warblers, Sand Martins, Whitethroat, Common Sandpiper, Yellow Wagtail and Hobby, were all recorded. Coot's nests and some chicks have begun to appear and I even saw a Spoonbill in The Flood one morning.
By Thursday however, the wind had gone back to the regular ENE direction that has plagued us for several weeks now, and with often dull skies, the temperature has fallen away again. Earlier this morning the wind had an almost icy feel to it and I was back to wearing my winter coat and gloves again as I wandered round hunched against the wind and cold. And with those cold and drying winds and any sun that appears, there comes the constant drying out of the wet marsh and the speculation that we are fast heading into a very dry summer. The current weather forecast suggest that we have another week of ENE winds with no rain and you only have to look at the photos below to see how much the water levels have dropped already. Just 5-6 weeks ago the dry area of mud was covered by water and the white water mark on the bush trunk shows how the water has already dropped by almost one and a half feet!  

This drying effect means that much of the grazing marsh has already become rock hard and is starting to crack up and the rather odd photo below shows something that gives me great discomfort as I walk round. It shows the countless cow hoof prints that are created as they walk on the soft ground in early winter before being taken off the reserve. When they become dry and hard as they are now, it has the constant effect of walking on cobbles and given that many of the areas that I walk each day, are affected like this, after a couple of hours of walking, the arthritic bones in my feet begin to ache quite badly and on bad days it is quite an ordeal.

Anyway, moving on from my tales of cold weather and knackered feet, I visited a part of Elmley this week that I haven't been to in almost thirty years - Spitend. Although I have often walked down to the "Brickfields" part of Elmley, for historical and solitude reasons, Spitend and it's daily visitors to the bird hides there has never really appealed to me. I have always been more than happy for the last thirty years with my patch, The Swale NNR,  mainly because of the peace and quiet that I get there. But, my "return journey" to Spitend turned out to be immensely enjoyable. It was nice to see how well the flood areas that I helped to start, back in 1976, have helped to create a beautiful nature reserve but more than that, I was filled with a great deal of melancholia because it still retained that over whelming feeling of flat and isolated marshland that has remained unchanged for centuries. It brought back memories of those pre-RSPB days in the late 1960's/early 1970's when we would roam across Spitend at will, hunting rabbits in the winter and eel-catching in the summer. Such special memories of youth and country pursuits and knowledge of the countryside learnt by actually doing it rather than reading about it.
Nothing portrays how hard it must of been living out there in the late 1800's/early 1900's than Spitend Cottage (Cods House) pictured below.

Thanks to the current owners of Elmley, this is one of just two surviving cottages out of several that used to be scattered around the marshes there and which either tenant farmers or their labourers would live in. Spitend Cottage was/is easily the most isolated of all the cottages that used to be there though. Standing as it does in the middle of Spitend marshes, it had one or two other buildings, probably cattle byres, adjacent to it at one time but that was it, it was miles from any other habitation in most directions. Fresh water probably came from a nearby well, lighting, if any, would of been candles or paraffin lamps, heat would of been from what little could of been found to burn and food, well it too must of been hard to come by. Try and imagine living there in those conditions, with several children, in bitter cold winter winds, rain and snow.

Oh, and one last thing, some misguided pratt or pratts this week, have been releasing the decoy crows from the reserve crow traps. Pest controls are a valuable part of successful reserve management and continued breeding bird success's and most nature reserves now employ them. It's annoying therefore, when soft-hearted people, with little practical experience of how the countryside works, have to interfere in such matters and without doubt, contribute towards the demise of such threatened birds as Lapwings. 


  1. Very interesting post, Derek. That cow-churned pasture looks quite treacherous. I can see how the solitude of Spitend appeals for visits, but it would have been hard going to live there in days gone by. Can't believe you had to wear gloves! Yesterday's high temps were in the mid-90s F (34 C) in these parts. No complaints from me, I'll take the heat.

  2. As a hot weather person Wilma, I loathe the cold and would love a run of temps. like you've been experiencing. Unfortunately I forgot to add a close up photo of the cottage before posting, never mind.