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.