Sunday, 24 November 2019

Oh, no.

It's that time of year again, where each day, I find myself happily wishing my life away. Counting the days until it's the "Shortest Day" and then one week later, New Year. Oh, joy of joys, the start of a new year, daylight increasing by the minute and soon the hour.
Gawd, how awful this time of the year is. The darkness, dampness, depressing, cold and solitary confinement of being indoors so much. The walking round the marsh through the mud and the water, weighed down in heavy clothes that protect against the cold but must add extra mileage to your endurance levels.
So much better are the warm and sunny days of lightweight clothing, the carefree days of birds, butterflies, bees, and all things that don't really matter, because you have a whole, long, summer's day to do it in.
Yes, I'm counting the days, cocooned in my world of darkness and depression, the long nights and the short days - saved only by the promise that another Spring will eventually arise.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

A Lament

Famously, Dylan Thomas once wrote of his dying father
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

These days, as old age begins to wrap itself around me, I find it harder each day to rage against the claws of cold that come with every winter's month. Every time I pass a mirror the face looking out at me is an old man's version of my younger self. It's not pleasant and winters make the face look older.
Anyway, the nature reserve is suffering winter now as well, it's wet and it's muddy. Tracks that in the summer blew dust across the butterfly wings, now have no fun to sing of. Only Skylarks still sing from leaden skies, small cheer and I thank them for that.

Once, several years ago, as I wandered alongside a huge phragmites reed bed on a cold and windy winter's day, I startled up a Marsh Harrier from it's depth. I stood there for a moment and wondered what it would be like to shelter in that reed bed and resolved to find out for myself. With a glance in either direction to make sure that nobody would be witness to my strange way, I fought my way in. Arriving in the center of this great jungle of reeds I was tightly surrounded in every way and even the brown seed plumes were a couple of feet above my head. It was a totally different world and as I crouched down in there, there was no wind and no cold, I felt totally secure from what the weather and any other living thing could do to me.

This autumn/early winter is turning out to be wetter than the several that have gone before it and yet surprisingly, we still lament at the failure of the ditches and dykes to increase in depth. The grazing meadows are soft and the return of cattle this week are seeing tracks churned into clawing mud but still water levels remain low. The neighbouring arable fields are still soaking up the rain and failing to release it into the reserve's water systems and consequently those birds that like the water still remain scarce.




Thursday, 14 November 2019

Thinking Back

This afternoon, a typical cloudy and cold November afternoon, I sat in the conservatory and aided by an Alison Krauss CD and a couple of glasses of a particularly good Pinot Noir, I sat staring across the Thames estuary to the Essex shore. As you do at such times, I found myself reflecting on the past summer and a particularly good weekend in July.
Sunday 14th July was a very warm and sunny day and I was at my partner's in Surrey. We had planned to go out but the afternoon coincided with the Cricket World Cup Final and the Wimbledon Men's Final. I spent the afternoon enthralled by the cricket, listening to it through headphones attached to my Laptop, while we both watched the tennis at the same time on the TV. Both finals ended in the way we wanted them too and after some dinner it still remained a very warm and humid evening, so how not to waste it.
At 9pm with the light barely beginning to fade, we set off for some woods nearby where Nightjar annually breed. I had never seen Nightjars,coming from a marshland habitat and so the prospect was quite exciting. We made our way through a large wood and came out above a large, shallow valley full of trees, scrub and bracken where the Nightjars were regularly seen, close to and after dark, they being a nocturnal bird. We sat on a bench, surrounded by trees and looked down over the habitat below us as dusk began to quickly settle in. As it became gloomier and more humid, the only thing we saw for some time were bats, no doubt feeding on the millions of mosquitoes that were swarming round us. Then, just as it was getting almost to gloomy to see anything, a loud churring begun below us, the sound of a male Nightjar calling, quickly echoed by another some way away - so exciting! Then a dark shape against the fast receding sky flew past us, my first ever Nightjar - wow! After that, it was too dark to see anymore, but we listened to them for a while before it was time to make our way back through a very dark wood.
But there, the excitement didn't end, small glows of luminous light began to show in the undergrowth, my first Glow worms for fifty odd years, it was almost magical.
We emerged from the wood as the first stars were beginning to light the sky and made our way home, where we ended a humid evening by sitting in a dark garden, drinking white wind and feeding even more mosquitoes for a while - easily the best day of this year.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Autumn finally arrives

Well as a blogging friend of mine from Yorkshire keeps reminding me, my posts are getting very irregular. Put it down to lack of enthusiasm. But here's we is, back again, and so let's start with the reserve.
Summer has finally left, it hung on for as long as it could but Autumn has won the day and with it's coming we have had some regular rain. Not the "fill-dyke" rain that we still need, as the photo shows


..... but it has had the effect of freshening the marsh up, the dry staleness of late summer has gone and the ground is getting softer and the grass is growing again, there is a green-ness about the marsh. A few mushrooms are also beginning to appear.


It has certainly been a welcome relief for the cattle on the reserve - real, green grass again after the dry, dead stuff that they had been existing on over the dry summer. This week they have been temporary corralled up in order that the adult cows can be scanned as part of their pregnancy testing.


Following that, in a few weeks time, this year's calves will be taken away from the herd and weaned off, giving their parents a few months rest before they begin calving again in the early Spring. As you can see from the photo, the calves are now quite well grown.

On the surrounding arable farmland the rain has had an almost instant effect on fields that have stood tilled and dry for several weeks. Wheat seed that has sat in the dry soil un-germinated has quickly done just that and those brown fields have a film of green across them now as millions of green shoots now begin to emerge from the soil.
Bird life on the reserve still remains in low numbers, hampered by the lack of large areas of open water but the odd surprises still appear at times. Recently we have had a couple of Great White Egrets stay for a few days and this week I also had a Bittern drop into the large reed beds alongside the sea wall. One or two pairs of Stonechats have also started appearing along the fence lines, they are regular winter visitors and before long the Fieldfares and Redwings will join them.
So, for a few weeks ahead now, possibly months if recent Autumns are anything to go by, we can enjoy the mellowness of Autumn before the winter starts. And as the Autumn intensifies, what else can we expect to experience, well the mists for one. Thick marshland, Dickensian mists that dare you to step onto the marsh and disappear into them. That swallow you up and surround you in ghostliness as you attempt to find familiar markers that take you in the right direction.
Later, there are the winter winds, bitter cold easterlies that arrive under leaden skies from the nearby sea. There's very little shelter on the marsh from such winds, they go through you rather than round you, freezing your aching bones and making the heat and humidity of summer seem like something that you dreamed, not actually experienced.
But for now, it's still early Autumn and last week, still a glutton for wild and desolate places, my partner and I enjoyed a week in a farm cottage on Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall. I love Cornwall and have rented cottages there on many occasions. I love it's wildness and living as I do, on an island in the Thames Estuary surrounded by the sea, Cornwall makes me feel at home, the sea is never far away there. The cottage that we stayed in was directly opposite the Jamaica Inn and easily the best cottage that I have ever stayed in down there, just the cottage and alongside, the owner's farmhouse. Driving across Bodmin Moor in driving rain and wind is not for the faint-hearted but it made me feel at home and besides, a log fire and a few real ales in the Jamaica Inn soon make things feel better, if a little wobbly on your feet.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Change of Season

Today, was the opening day of the new wildfowling season - wildfowlers are people that sit in tidal estuaries attempting to shoot any ducks and geese that pass them by. How you view that long established form of shooting is up to you, for me, it is the toughest form of the various types of wildlife shooting that there is and probably the least damaging in respect of numbers shot.
I arrived at the reserve barn at 05.30 this morning, it was pretty much still fully dark but what a wonderful, pre-dawn atmosphere/sense of anticipation that there was. I let little Ellie out of the car and we went through the five-bar gate, stepping on to the reserve's grazing meadows, it's marshes. To my left the sky was just beginning to brighten and the distant Sea Wall Hide just about visible. As usual at that time of day you tend to hear birds rather than actually see them. The Greylag Geese in the fleet on the reserve, thinking about moving on; and out on the tidal mudflats the bubbling calls of Curlews, the piping calls of Dunlin and Grey Plover, were a wader orchestra tuning up.


As I made my way across the  grazing marsh, picking my way through the idle cattle, chewing the cud so to speak, I felt a fast increasing tingle of anticipation running through me. Not at the prospect of seeing the various birds that might be about, but because this morning was yet another first morning of the wildfowler's shooting seasons that I'd attended. Would there be any sitting out there on the  tidal saltings, the other side of the sea wall. Being there at first light on the first morning of the wildfowling season is not something I'm expected to do as a Voluntary Warden, it was something I started 30 odd years ago, firstly to see if they were where they should be and then it became a habit and it's now a silly personal tradition.
Standing on top of the sea wall, the dawn had begun to brighten and I was able to pick out things and people, there were eight wildfowlers strung out across the saltings, all crouched down in wet and muddy rill-ways.


As the sun rose and then burnt through the clouds the sky quickly became a clear blue and the sun gained in strength. I mused over the thought that this was not real wildfowling weather, not bitter cold, windswept winter mornings, straining eyes and ears for that elusive duck with feet frozen cold as they stood in the mud of the rills. This was going to be another sun-bathing day, one to be shared with swallows and martins as they passed by, hurrying south - do we really get proper winter days nowadays!
The wildfowlers sat in sun-swept anticipation, swatting mosquitoes away from their faces, until suddenly around thirty odd Greylag Geese rose up from the security of a reserve fleet, could this be their time! The geese rose in a cacophony of sound, flew towards the sea wall and danger but then turned and flew out across the reserve to the farmland behind. But all was not lost, there a farm tractor disturbed them and they returned and once more the wildfowlers tensed and squatted down further. But the geese must of known something, they were heading out to the tidal mudflats to pick up grit for their gizzards but instead of crossing over the wildfowlers they took a route across the only section of saltings that the wildfowlers couldn't access, they were safe.
With the sun rising higher and the morning and the birds settling down into an anti-climax, a few of the wildfowlers began to pack up and head for home, I chatted to a couple of them, the season had begun but it was more summer than autumn.


I did the same, getting out of bed at 04.30 was beginning to seem a long way away. Crossing back across the yellow and dry grazing marsh, Ellie doing fox-like leaps into every clump of grass in anticipation of a vole or mouse, I pondered over the likelihood of us getting our fifth dry winter. It certainly looks that way, the reserve is parched again. Then suddenly, I was surrounded in a huge, swirling flock of Sand Martins and Swallows, skimming across the grass tops as they headed south, they know that autumn's close, it's sad to see them go, I bid them safe journey.
Finally, I reached the barn again and here you see the five-bar gate alongside it, with the view out into the reserve and it's distant grazing cattle. The dark line behind them is the sea wall.
 

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

A Kind of Goodbye

"This day winding down now
At God speeded summer's end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my seashaken house
On a breakneck of rocks
Tangled with chirrup and fruit,
Froth, flute, fin and quill
At a wood's dancing hoof,
By scummed, starfish sands
With their fishwife cross
Gulls, pipers, cockles and sails"................Prologue - Dylan Thomas

The above, the last stand-alone poem written by Thomas, a year before he died, could when you read  throughout it's whole length, be seen as a kind of goodbye to all that, sort of poem. It pretty much sums up the way I feel these days.

Here on Sheppey, our little island off the North Kent coast, there are not many of us aged, in our 70's, "men of the countryside" left. By that I mean people who have spent their whole life wandering the fields, hedgerows and marshes of this island, and as a result have memories of its wildlife, it's seasons and it's people that go back a lifetime. When I was a youngster there were always those old boys that wandered the countryside, that drank from a bottle of cold tea, that always knew where wildlife had hidden up, that could kill, skin and gut a rabbit in minutes, or look at the sky and always seem to know when it was going to rain.
I can only think of a few of us now of that ilk, that are left round here. I'm not trying to portray myself as some kind of modern day Jack Hargreaves, far from it, but it's rare these days to come across someone else that you know who has been wandering the area for so many years. A lifelong friend of mine, who I first worked with on the Kent River Authority on Sheppey's marshes here in the 1960's is another such person. He's a couple of years older me and has a store of knowledge and skills that you just can't buy, that come with a lifetime's experience. We still coax our arthritic limbs round the fields each day, still always have a dog at our side and now despair at some of the changes that continue to occur. Who for instance would of expected to see so many empty rabbit warrens. We could never have imagined that in our lifetime, rabbits, that once were counted in thousands, would now only be counted in dozens.

For me, it begun as a young boy in the 1950's, keeping tadpoles in an old sink in the garden and watching them turn into frogs. Keeping the very common Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars in a sweet jar with muslin on the top, feeding them on stinging nettles and watching them pupate. Now Small Tortoiseshell butterflies are very hard to find, almost rare. As a young child I wandered the marshes near me, all alone - laid besides ditches, clambered through bushes and learnt what I could about wildlife. When I joined the Kent River Authority as a teenager I found myself among several people who fished, hunted, shot and trapped, and I learnt a lot about countryside ways. When I left to work in the local docks for the next 34 years, I still carried on practising those skills. A friend and I spent the cold, wet and wintry months for many years catching rabbits which we would skin and gut and sell for pocket money. During the summer months we netted the ditches and caught eels, often lots of eels, and sold them to a shop in the East End of London and then later, I even tried duck shooting for one winter. Then I became involved with the local nature reserves and my bird watching became more serious and so did my convictions.
 I still roamed the marshes with my dogs(s) in the usual unrestricted ways but I had a purpose, I recorded everything I saw and passed it on. In 1987 I became a Voluntary Warden of a local, Natural England reserve on the marshes and still am 32 years later. As a result and for many years, I was very anti shooting and hunting, fell in with the mind set that if you are a bird watcher or to do with conservation, then you automatically have to be opposed to such things. However, a number of years ago a wildfowler began to make me realise that many of the things that I was opposed to had their rightful place in the countryside and in many ways helped preserve what is left of it. I began to realise that there was and should be, room for all of the various pursuits in the countryside, after all, it was how I had begun, not with the blinkered and idiotic Chris Packham views about hunting and shooting.
So, I'm ending my time in the countryside as simply a "man of the countryside", enjoying being part of it and all that goes on it, and as my friend often says, we should be glad that we're the age that we are - we've had the best of it and won't have many more years to see it get any worse.
And that is about it.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Harty and the Reserve

The view below shows what you first see as you drive down Capel Hill along the Harty Road at the moment, here on Sheppey. A combination of stubble fields and grazing marshes, all golden yellow and bone dry.



In the stubble fields, the resident Greylag Geese, numbering several hundred in total, are now a daily feature as they glean all the spilled grain.

On the nature reserve itself, we have two herds of cattle and their calves, one larger one and this small one. Once again the dryness of the grass is quite evident.

These well grown calves were curious to see what I was up to. They'll probably be taken away some time in October as their parents are already pregnant with next year's batch.

Just two months ago, "The Scrape" as we know this site in the middle of the reserve, was full of water and home to several pairs of Avocets and their chicks. It only re-fills from rainfall and some water pumped from a nearby ditch, which itself is very low, and so it's unlikely that it will be full again before the New Year.

On the reserve we have three types of clover, the common red and white types and this one known as Strawberry Clover - easy to see why.

I came across this male Common Blue butterfly this morning, sheltering from the wind. Apparently, nation-wide, they have seen a large rise in numbers both last year and this, which has to be a good thing.

At the moment (Weds), the weather forecast nationally is for extreme weather for most parts of the country, Friday into Saturday. Strong winds and heavy rain are forecast but I think that the operative words are "most parts". We'll of course get the strong winds, a combination of those and hot sun have been drying every last drop of moisture from us all week. But heavy rain - I'd love to be proven wrong, but rain has a nasty habit of always passing just wide of this island a lot of the year - time will tell.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Times Move On

I feel a bit awkward posting a photograph like the one below, bearing in mind the damage that the heavy rains have caused to both farmers and households in Northern England but this blog is about the local scene.


Here on Sheppey all the farmland is very dry and the harvest has been very successful due to pretty much perfect weather conditions. Once all the bales of wheat, barley and rape straw have been collected and stored, then various tidying up and light cultivating of the fields will take place. Rape is normally sown first, in between the lines of wheat stubble, followed by the wheat or barley further in to the autumn, but neither is likely to germinate given the dryness of the soil.
The next couple of weeks will see the arrival of the partridge and pheasant poults ahead of the game shooting season, which for partridges, starts next month. It all seems a bit early given the warm and sunny weather that we are experiencing, most forms of shooting one tends to associate with cold winter days and besides the poults will need time to grow into adult birds.
On the reserve, the last couple of days have seen the continuation of the early autumn migration with the first Wheatears passing through on their way south. So it may be only late summer but an autumnal feel is beginning to gather in the wings.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

The Doldrums

Driving across the marsh road lately, it's difficult to distinguish the reserve fields from the neighbouring farm crops of wheat and barley. The farm crops are resplendent in bright golden colours and are currently being harvested, the harvesters marked out by the great clouds of dust that follow them across the fields. The long grass on the reserve's grazing meadows is also now looking golden and dry, an air of mid-summer quietness covers the reserve, little, 'cept the butterflies, is moving.
The ground is baked hard and a strong, sweet and sickly smell hits you as you arrive - the ditches, low in both water and oxygen, are stagnating and turning funny colours.

Bird life becomes less obvious with every day, the wildfowl are moulting and with the temporary loss of their flight feathers, are skulking close to reed beds out of harms way. Hard to believe that in just four weeks time the wildfowlers will return, intent on shooting them. Sitting on the saltings at either end of a hot September day, being pestered by mosquitoes and feeling too hot, doesn't really fit with the romantic image of stormy, bitter cold winter shooting days but some still do it.
But back to the birds, the reed beds are becoming quieter as the Reed and Sedge Warblers gradually begin to slip away southwards, back to their African winter quarters. This has been most apparent over the last 2-3 weeks as regular numbers of Swifts, Sand Martins and young Swallows, pass across the reserve in the mornings, swirling around me looking for those last fat flies and then, they're gone, southwards is calling! Just 4-5 weeks ago they were eggs in a nest and now as young birds are taking an untravelled and unknown road across continents - a brief moment of feeling regret and  abandonment flits across my mind as I look at a now empty sky.
Some Cuckoos, fitted with satellite transmitters a month or so ago in England, have already reached their winter quarters in Southern Africa, such a fleeting summer visit each year. A friend recently likened them to some humans - they arrive, they breed and then quickly bugger off to leave their children to be brought up by somebody else!
Birds are currently leaving us faster then any newly arrive. Small numbers of waders, fresh from breeding in northern climes, such as Greenshanks, Spotted Redshanks and Green Sandpipers, will briefly drop in to feed along muddy ditch edges and then be gone again. It's what many birdwatchers call the summer doldrums - the dry, boring gap between  mid-summer and mid-autumn, when birdwatching becomes a faintly inspiring past time.

Friday, 12 July 2019

More Flowers

As I promised yesterday, I was on the reserve earlier this morning in order to get a few more photos of mostly meadow flowers.

Meadow Rue - this grows to around 6ft tall

Common Club Rush

White Clover

 Lady's Bedstraw - strong fragrance

Yarrow

Bird's-foot Trefoil

Agrimony

Sea Lavender

Bristly Ox-tongue

Goatsbeard

 Essex Skipper butterfly

 Marbled White butterfly - only my second on the reserve in 32 years

Ellie doing her best Meerkat impression - the only way she can see over the long grass

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Summer Meadows

Well as I mentioned in my last post, the small herd of cattle that we have on the reserve this summer, have been fighting a losing battle to reduce the height of the grass and other vegetation. But while that was a problem in the early breeding season because long, wet grass, not only conceals plover chicks from being counted and can keep them wet and cold, at the moment the grazing meadows look quite lovely.
Over the last couple of weeks of very warm and sunny weather, the meadows, with their grass seed heads all swaying gently in the breeze, have been a joy to see. That weather has also brought about a moderate hatch of Meadow Brown butterflies and they form so much a part of the meadow scene as they flutter across the grass tops. In the last couple of days Gatekeeper and Small Skipper butterflies have also begun to join them. Hot and dry conditions on the reserve are now starting to tighten their grip, the dirt tracks are dry and dusty and ditch levels are dropping fast.
This view across one of the grazing meadows shows the uniform, near thigh high grass levels. In mid winter these fields would be short grazed, wet and muddy.


As a result of the reduced grazing it is turning out to be a great year for wild flowers on the reserve, a few are shown below. I will post a larger selection next week.

This is Weld.

Scentless Mayweed

Great Lettuce. It grows to about four foot high and is almost identical to Prickly Lettuce, just missing the prickly stems.

Teasel.

Lesser Reedmace. A small, slimmer seed-head than the normal bullrush.

My annual favourite, the appearance of Cinnabar Moth caterpillars feeding on Ragwort. This year has seen the best hatch of the caterpillars for years.


Thursday, 27 June 2019

Back Again

I've been asked recently, why no new blog postings, well to be honest I ran out of ideas and enthusiasm. But time has moved on, so perhaps a few up-dates will prove interesting.
The weather here on the North Kent coast this week has certainly been frustrating, we've been stuck with a strong and chilly NE wind  all week. It has come straight down the North Sea for several days and kept us under grey skies and low temperatures. Today was a classic example, the Western side of England had temperatures of 27 degrees and the best we could do was around 17 degrees. It has been a rubbish summer so far.
Sitting in a hide of The Swale National Nature Reserve this morning, with a large bed of the tall, phragmites reeds in front of me, I felt sorry for any nesting Reed Warblers in them. They build their small nests by weaving them round two or three of the upright reed stems. Watching the reeds being smashed to and fro in the blustery wind this morning, it was easy to imagine the nest either being pulled apart, or any eggs or chicks being thrown from the nest.
The breeding season on the reserve is running down now to it's finale and from what I've recorded on my daily patrols, it doesn't appear to have been all that spectacular. Lapwings have continued their run of several poor breeding seasons, for no reason that we can particularly identify, despite conditions being very good for them. Around a dozen or so pairs do not appear to have fledged all that many young, although the long grass this year could of prevented some being seen. The Little Terns on the Shellness shingle beach also appear to have failed miserably, despite high hopes from several pairs of this delightful small sea bird this year.
On the plus side, the Greylag Geese have raised their regular, annual 50-60 goslings, not that we need many more and Skylarks have also continued with a consistent annual number of around 24-26 pairs. Throughout the marshes of Sheppey as a whole as well, Barn Owls have had a good breeding season and many chicks have been ringed.

The down side so far, presumably because of the cool and wet spells that we've had, butterfly numbers are very low, almost none at times.

The grass on the reserve this year has had a very good growing season with some fields showing far more grass than we would like and a lot of that has been down to a shortage of cows to graze it. This Spring/Summer we have been limited to just two small herds of 20-30 cows, plus their calves and with a bull in each herd. One of the herds has this magnificent specimen in attendance and he has become quite a determined character.


For a day or so this week, the two herds were separated my a wide fleet with a gate in the middle and one morning I noticed that the black bull was in with the wrong herd, who had their own brown bull. I assumed that it was planned by the grazier and walked on. An hour later I spotted a steaming black bull walking back across the marsh to his proper her but, the gate was still intact, clearly after doing what he'd wanted to do, he'd swam back across the fleet to rejoin his own herd. It was then thought best to separate the two herds better and so two large fields and two fleets were put between them to hopefully stifle the instincts of the bull. It didn't work, this morning when I got there, the black bull was back in the wrong herd again and had crossed two fields and two fleets to get there - nothing like the lure of a ripe female to a healthy male, is there!

Away from all that testerone and on the neighbouring farm land, a change of crop seems to be taking place. Last year a few fields of spring barley were sown and must of produced results as this year a lot more has been sown, vying with wheat to be the dominant crop. If it continues it could be beneficial for wildlife because the field lay fallow during the winter months, giving much more foraging areas for seed eating birds.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Hogs and toads

The clocks went forward an hour last weekend to British Summer Time, which to an early riser such as myself, means darker early mornings again for a while. This morning as I lay in bed between five and six waiting for it to get light, the wailing of fog horns out in the nearby Thames Estuary, also made me aware of what weather to expect when I did get up. And so it was, thick fog reducing visibility to around 100 yards, not the best of starts. It was a real shame because yesterday saw unbroken blue skies and warm sunshine from dawn to dusk and with rain forecast during mid-morning today, I was hoping to get down on the marsh early on.
So, unlike me, I lay in bed for another half an hour, I always find laying in bed such a waste of time and life. With the fog horns still eerily wailing, alerting ships passing in the gloom, I found myself thinking about the demise of two once common elements of garden wildlife - hedgehogs and toads.

The nationwide decline of hedgehogs has been well documented in recent years, with various examples given as the reasons. I don't want to debate all those reasons, although one can definitely be discounted here on Sheppey, we're an island that has never had badgers living on it and so they have not predated our hedgehogs. Out on the marshes two examples could be leading to their demise there. One of the arable farmers spreads large amounts of slug pellets across his fields every autumn, using pellets whose empty sacks warn of being harmful to wildlife and of course hedgehogs will eat those poisoned slugs. On the two large nature reserves, the management are given short licences each Spring to live trap hedgehogs prior to their breeding season. These hedgehogs are then released on the mainland and so are not harmed but it does reduce the local population. The reason being that hedgehogs are notorious eaters of the eggs and young of ground nesting birds such as endangered Lapwings. But even in our towns and villages here on the island, hedgehogs are being rarely seen now when once they were a common feature and it's very disappointing.

Then toads, d'you know it's around 25 years since I last saw a toad, despite living in a rural area. That toad was given to me by a friend and I put it into my garden, complete with pond and old logs, etc., and I never saw it again. When I was a child in the 1950's and living in the main town here, toads were still commonly found in many small back yards and gardens, any damp corner had it's toad in residence. These days, I have a larger pond, complete with frogs and newts and have made several wildlife friendly corners and yet numerous enquiries over the years, through friends and acquaintances, have failed to achieve any toads, no one has seen any.

To think that two, such once common creatures, could become so quickly uncommon, is very sad and there are probably others as well - when did we last see a slow-worm or lizard for example.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Spring woz and then it wasn't

Well it's been a month since my last posting and to be honest, there hasn't been a lot happening that in my opinion merited writing about.
February 20th saw the end of the wildfowling season for six months and so I now have the reserve to myself in the early mornings, which is always a nice thing. For the first couple of weeks since my last post we had a real taste of Spring, with early frost and mist quickly turning into warm, sometimes very warm, days. To walk round the reserve in such early morning weather was pure joy and to watch the large winter flock of White-fronted Geese, still reluctant to leave for northern Europe, coming into land under blue skies was truly wonderful.  The warmth brought out butterflies and bees, some birds began to nest and a few very early Swallows appeared on the South Coast, no doubt regretting it because the last two weeks have been wet and cold again.
But with every odd sunny day, it's possible to feel the sun getting stronger, the Skylarks are singing and the Lapwings beginning their courtship displays, wheeling and diving over the grazing marsh. In the hedgerows the blackthorn bushes are white with blossom and the willow buds are beginning to burst - Spring really is very close.
The regular amounts of rain and a bit of pumping water to where we want it, has now produced the welcome sight of part flooded grazing meadows, something the reserve's plovers and ducks are appreciating and looking like a wetland reserve should look like.


On the farmland alongside  the reserve the winter corn is now on the move and about a foot high already, although a couple of applications of nitrogenous fertilizer and insectiside has no doubt helped it.


Likewise the large fields of rape, always beautiful when in flower in the Spring. These are well advanced and will probably be in flower by the end of next month.


And lastly, these early lambs. I say early because the main flock isn't due to start lambing for another couple of weeks, but a lucky ram managed to twice get out twice last October and find his way among the sheep ahead of schedule. The result was around a dozen lambs born a month early which have prospered thanks to being born during the two weeks warm weather.


Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Getting Wetter

Last Friday, while most of Southern England was experiencing a heavy fall of snow, here on Sheppey we fortunately didn't. Despite the snow falling to within about 15-20 miles of us, we instead had 18 hours of rain, it was like we were in some kind of unique micro-climate.
Over the last few days, what that has meant, is that as the neighbouring farmland has drained towards the reserve, the ditches have filled almost to over-flowing. All the shallow rills across the grazing marsh have re-filled and the scrape in the Flood Field has also filled just as we need it - the reserve is now looking just as it should do at this time of year.


 Couple that with the fact that as I walked round it earlier this morning, it was much milder than of late and to be honest, in odd sunny spells, it felt almost Springlike. Tempting fate perhaps but a few Skylarks were singing, odd pairs of geese are separating from the main flocks and after the last few weeks of cold weather it was easy to feel that way.
There have been a few casualties over the cold spell though. Yesterday I found a dead Heron alongside one of the ditches and two juvenile Mute Swans from a brood of six last summer have died. Just this morning I also found literally just the two legs of a predated Redshank, one with a ring on. I took the ring number and rang the local bird ringing group and it turned out that the bird had been ringed on the reserve just two and a half years ago.
Back home, the garden is gradually stirring into life, a few daffodils are in flower, with many more soon to follow and tulips are now an inch or two out of the soil. I've pruned all my roses, manured everything that needs manuring and as I stated in my last post, we're in "limbo land" waiting impatiently for the opportunity to do some proper gardening. In the meantime I'll leave you with some of my snowdrops and aconites, how heart-warming they are.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Limbo Land

We're currently experiencing a series of very cold days at the moment. Sometimes they're just grey and bitter cold with a bone-chilling wind and sometimes they start with a hard frost and stay sunny and frozen for most of the day. Both the countryside and I are in limbo, seeing out each day waiting for the Spring to begin. Minute by minute the days are lengthening, heading in that Spring-time direction but too much time is spent doing nothing, spending very cold afternoons staring out of the windows.
The garden, visually at least, is giving me some solace from the urge to be back out there again. The snowdrops, aconites, heathers and helebores are all in flower and the daffodils and tulips are chasing them, inching gradually upwards out of the frozen soil.
For the moment, the early morning visits to the reserve with little Ellie are pretty much my only daily highlights. There the early morning daylight sees the wildfowlers packing up, with or without a duck or two and it's always nice to have a chat with them. Later perhaps, as the weekly farmland game shoots starts, I'll perhaps say hello to some of them as they pass by on the other side of the fence, even retrieve a freshly shot pheasant for them from the reserve.
One frosty dawn last week, with the frost so thick it looked like snow, I captured these White-fronted Geese as they flew into the reserve in front of me, such a lovely sight and sound.



But the shooting season is winding down now. Thursday sees the end of the wildfowl shooting on the land above the tidal high water mark and Friday is the last day of the game (pheasants and partridges) shooting season. That just leaves the wildfowlers with twenty days in February to carry on shooting ducks and geese below the tidal high water mark, which basically means that they must be standing in the mud at low tide. Peace and quiet will soon resound around the reserve and farmland as we look forward to a new breeding season.
On the farmland close by most of the fields are green with autumn sown wheat and rape but there are still several fields of stubble, un-touched since last summer's harvest. To these for the last week, tractors have been hauling trailer loads of manure from the stock yards full of cattle, a few miles away. This manure has been spread across the stubble fields and lightly turned in ready for what ever spring sowings that the farmers have planned.

So for now, it's just a matter of of getting through the boredom that is February and looking forward to those first mild and sunny March days, the first bumblebee, the first butterfly, the joy of Spring in my 72nd year.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

All Quiet

Today began at 6.00 as I sat at my laptop, catching up on overnight bits and bobs and with a beautiful full moon shining in the window in front of me. A frost that was quite intense in the middle of the night when I got up for a toilet break, had begun to lessen as a degree of cloud cover had appeared. It's a frustrating time of the year, a month after the Shortest Day and yet I'm found still hanging around indoors waiting for the first glimmers of daybreak so I can go out. That became apparent at just after 7.00 and I set off for the reserve, arriving there as the eastern sky was showing a wide range of yellows, pinks, oranges, although the actual sun rise was still almost an hour away. The large flock of White-fronted Geese (350+) that had been roosting overnight on the flooded scrape on the reserve must of sensed that I was there and got up with a huge clamouring of their very musical and beautiful calls. They flew quite low over my head in the half light, wheeled round and took up their usual day-time place in a stubble field on the next door farmland.
Very high above me as I headed towards the sea wall, came the plaintive calls of a circling Marsh Harrier, while lower down several other Marsh Harriers drifted slowly across the reserve, fresh out of overnight roost sites in various reed beds.
Up onto the sea wall in the increasing light and a quick scan along the saltings to see how many wildfowlers were out enduring the freezing conditions in their pursuit of wildfowl meals, just the one, who never fired a shot the whole time that he was there - wonder why it's always a he, and never a she wildfowler, more sense I suppose.
 Some way further along the sea wall I could see the distant figure of a fellow birdwatcher, one I had expected, and I spent some time walking along to join up with him. He'd been there last night until after dark to count in the roosting Hen Harriers on the saltings and achieved one of the best counts for some time - probably two male HH's and three female HH's. He was there this morning in the dark to count them back out as it became light. As we stood there talking and watching the sun beginning to rise above the hills to the east, the reserve and surrounding farmland looked almost Springlike with it's green fields and blue skies, only the cold temperatures spoiled that effect. We also discussed the absence of so many bird varieties and indeed the very low numbers of birds that has become apparent over the last few years. Low water levels has to be the most obvious reason, wetland bird species need large areas of part-flooded marshland to find such sites attractive and that continues to not be the case and to be honest, doesn't look realistic either in the near future.
We parted and my dog and I made our way back across the reserve, four Snipe got up from one ditch, as did several Mallard and I could hear the Whitefronts calling in the distance but that in all honesty was pretty much it until I got back to the car. There, I could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming in a nearby farm copse and a Shetland Pony that someone had left in a farm field alongside the reserve, came forward for the carrots that I give it every morning. It had been a beautiful but quiet walk round the reserve and now heading home too where people were still just waking up, unaware of the day that had already taken place..

Thursday, 3 January 2019

The New Year

Little change on the reserve at the moment, re. birds and conditions and given the extended Christmas holiday that many companies have these days, the wildfowlers have been regular in their sometimes twice daily visits to the saltings in front of the reserve. Talking to some of them this morning though, it seems that few of them have been successful at shooting themselves a duck or goose before going back to work next Monday. I counted the White-fronted Goose flock this morning and it still numbers around 160 birds and so they seem unscathed, which is good news, they are beautiful wild birds.

So a change of subject. It.s 3.00 and I've just come in from the garden, the lovely cold but sunny day has now been replaced by heavy grey clouds which have rendered early near darkness upon us.
After returning from my daily visit to the reserve I have been working in the garden, pruning and then manuring, two thirds of my rose beds, you can see one of the beds below. Between the roses there are large numbers of tulips planted, so it should look quite good in the Spring.


Tomorrow, if my aching back allows, I shall complete the task and if "Beast from the East Mk.2" does return as forecast in the next few weeks, everything will be ready for it and snug under it's mulch of manure. The manure by the way, comes from my local garden center at 3 sacks for £10, is good quality manure and equally good value.
My dahlias, a variety called "Bishop of Aukland", have also been left where they grew and given a good covering of manure and will be OK. I know that the experts always advise digging up the tubers and  dry storing them indoors through the winter but mine have remained in the ground for six years now and have come up just as good each year, despite snow and frost.