It was a wet, muddy and windy walk round the reserve earlier today after a couple of hours of rain. We've has several rainy days over the last month or so and they've certainly done a good job of making the gardens wetter and the surface of the reserve, it is muddier and greener. There isn't, however, still any surface water showing across the reserve, nothing in the still dry rills and ditches still a few feet below decent levels, but it's not looking as dry as it did this time last year, yet.
All of the cattle were taken off the reserve last Friday, which is earlier than usual, but really good news because as it starts to wetten up on these rainy days it means that they cattle won't churn gate-ways, etc, into boggy and difficult areas to walk through. The grazier has taken both the calves and their mothers back to his stock yards a few miles away and there the calves will be separated from their mothers for weaning. The adult cows have reached the end of their reproductive lives now and will therefore be fattened up in the yards for a while before being sent for culling and presumably turned into various meat products - tough but all part of the livestock cycle of things. Next Spring we will presumably have a new and younger herd on the reserve, grazing and eventually entertaining the bulls.
It has also been noticeable over the last week, on a smaller farm near the reserve, that the rams have been put out with the ewe sheep. This always takes place around November 5th and it's always easy to spot because the ewes that have been impregnated will each have a coloured mark on their rear end, left by the coloured block that is strapped across the ram's chest.
So, going back to the reserve and without the livestock now, it seems quiet out there walking round. The cattle can be a pain at times but they do add to the sights and the sounds of the place.
The other noticeable feature of the place as vegetation starts to die down for the winter, is the lack of rabbits. They were always a normal part of the reserve and indeed much of Sheppey, but not any more. When I first became a Volunteer Warden there in 1986 and for many years afterwards, every earth bund salt-working mound and even the flat ground, was inundated with them in their thousands. They conformed to the old-time photographs that we used to see of rabbits in plague proportion and most people who lived in and off of the countryside, carried out rabbit shooting, trapping or ferreting at some stage. Then around twenty years ago a combination of myxomatosis and a new disease that cause them to haemorrhage, began to see their numbers plummet. At first it was seen as a blessing because of the damage that rabbits do to crops and infrastructure and controls by shooting ferreting continued in the same old way. But gradually, as numbers dropped to really low levels, controls became both unnecessary and unattractive to those who enjoyed such sport.
At first some places on Sheppey still hung on to really good numbers of rabbits but now even they have seen a massive drop in numbers and these days the traditional sight of rabbits sitting out in fields or along hedgerows at dusk is becoming rarer. These days as I enjoy my daily walks around the reserve I would estimate the population of rabbits over the whole reserve, to me no more than about fifty rabbits. It's a real shame because rabbits have always been an iconic part of the countryside and more importantly, a vital part of the natural food chain. Without an easy and widespread choice of young rabbits to feed on the likes of birds of prey, foxes, stoats, etc., are forced to become a nuisance by turning to other food items such as ground nesting birds and game birds for example. Hard to believe but we need to leave rabbits alone to replenish their stocks.