Sunday, 20 February 2022

Season Crossroads

 Today was the last day of this winter's wildfowling season and it will not resume now until the 1st September.  That now means that my favourite winter birds, the White-fronted Geese, can safely fly around the area close to the reserve  until they fly back to their northern European breeding areas as Spring approaches.

As a result I was along the sea wall of the reserve not long after first light, to see how many wildfowlers were present on this last morning, enduring the gusty strong winds and grey, poor light. The answer was five and as they begun to regretfully pack up and set off for home, I walked along with a couple of them for a while, chatting about their shooting season and what will happen on the reserve during the Spring and Summer months. I realise it's only natural for many birdwatchers to abhor the fact that the wildfowlers get enjoyment from shooting the wildfowl but their actual bags throughout the season are surprisingly low and achieved from many hours of sitting in intense cold weather in muddy conditions. To talk to these guys, as I do on a regular basis, is to realise that they get a perverse pleasure from enduring the harsh weather conditions in order to kill their next dinner and that many have long experience of wildlife and the countryside in general. So, apart from odd birdwatchers and walkers, my dog and I now have the reserve to ourselves for six months, Spring beckons and with it, the excitement of the first returning Wheatear.

In a few weeks time the sheep will leave the reserve and be replaced soon after by cattle with their recently born calves, Lapwings will begin their courtship displays, the grass in the grazing meadows will begin to green up, the catkins on the willows will burst forth and a whole new season will begin - I can't wait.

Monday, 31 January 2022

Coming up to date

 After the recent couple of postings that have seen me looking backwards to very earlier times, it is now the last day of January and time perhaps, to come back up to date with the nature reserve that I look after as it's Voluntary Warden.

The last couple of months have been very quiet weather-wise. December saw us suffer endless days of grey, very damp and gloomy weather that, despite little actual rain, rarely saw anything outside actually dry up. January started off in a similar vein but we did at least get some frosty and sunny interludes but it has changed today, with a combination of strong N.W. winds and sunshine, something we haven't experienced for a couple of months. As a result the ground is drying out and there is some relief from roaming round the nature reserve each day in large areas of soft, clinging mud, left behind by the heaviness of the cattle before they were taken off before Christmas. In their place came the flock of 200 ewe lambs and they haven't churned up the soft ground anywhere near as like as the cattle did. They were brought in to graze the grass over several of the reserve's fields, down to the tight, short sward that will give ideal breeding conditions for the Lapwings in a couple of months time. They will probably be taken off the reserve at the beginning of march.

My little Jack Russell terrier was a puppy when she last saw sheep on the reserve and so I was initially worried at how she might react to encountering them now at ten years old. Many dogs are notorious for chasing them and it might of meant that all walks would have to be done with her on a lead. But no, the very first morning that we walked into the field where they were, she looked up and then carried on sniffing along the ditch bank that she was following and completely ignored them all and that's how it has continued. 

To go back to the weather, while the reserve for the last couple of months has been soft underfoot and always wet and muddy, rainfall has been pretty much absent, apart from the odd bout of drizzle. That means that as we start February tomorrow the water levels in the ditches and fleets on the reserve are at best, average. At this time of the year they should be brimming or overflowing and their should be large areas of floodwater across the grazing meadows, making it ideal for wading birds and wildfowl. March is normally a drying month, with regular dry easterly winds combining with sunshine to dry up wet winter conditions. Should that be the case this year then it's looking very likely that we will be heading into another drought summer as far as the reserve goes.

So, that's enough of meteorological matters, what else is happening on the reserve apart from enduring the cold and the damp and telling myself that Spring will eventually happen, and knowing that some summer birds have already begun their long journeys back to here from Africa. Those winter favourites of mine, the White-fronted Geese that I reported on before Christmas, disappeared for a few weeks but then came back to eventually total their current counts of around 360 birds. The calls of those beautiful birds on a frosty and sunny winter's morning as they fly around the reserve are just so magical and equal easily that first Swallow sighting of the Spring. To date, as far as I know, very few have succumbed to the guns of the wildfowlers that await them on the seaward side of the reserve's sea wall, and hopefully the majority will return to their northern European breeding sites before returning again next winter.

Other than that, little else is happening and I walk the reserve most early mornings, through damp and murky conditions. But there are some dawns when the sky is blue and when from behind the hills over on the mainland, the very first edge of the sun begins to climb above those hills and in literally minutes becomes a great orange ball of fire in a dawn sky - magical. This morning as I left the reserve, in the small farmland copse that I have to drive through, the buds on the crack willows are just starting to burst and the a glimpse of the catkins to come are evident. February can be a  particularly harsh month  but those bursting buds and the Snowdrops in my garden tells me we haven't got long to wait for Spring now.  


Saturday, 22 January 2022

The Library

 From a very early age a place of both refuge and information for me was the local library. From either of the two places that I lived in in Sheerness up until my early twenties, it was never more than fifteen minutes away.

Books did not exist in our household when I first became aware of them when I was around six or seven, we were a poor household with numerous tensions and unhappiness and so once I discovered the library I spent quite a lot of time there in it's sheltering warmth. It began a literary thirst for knowledge that has never diminished to this, my 75th year, despite all the other internet options. The only thing that has changed in recent years is the source of those books, these days I always buy them. As my age increased into nine, ten, eleven, twelve, so the amount of time that I could be found there also increased. I discovered and devoured Enid Blyton's the Famous Five and my all time favourite book, the "Wind in the Willows". By accident I discovered the early books of David Attenborough, where as a young man, he described his early excursions abroad to foreign countries to catch and cage and bring back to England many unseen birds and animals. By the time that I was around twelve years old I was already exploring the marshes near to my house and regularly looked to the library for natural history books that identified and described the kind of wildlife that I was seeing. As a result, in 1959, I came across information in their well thumbed Natural History section, about the Kent Ornithological Society and joined it as an under-18 member and remain a member to this day. Around that time I also came across "The Eye of the Wind" Peter Scott's early autobiography and I was hooked, I wanted so much to be able to emulate the kind of naturalist that he was at that time, and subsequently continued to be, he was easily my first hero.

As I progressed into my early teens, my association with the library never diminished, it always remained a comforting place where I could hide for several hours each week. My books to lend might of expanded to include detective and mystery ones but they also rarely deviated from my two constant hobbies, natural history and gardening. Then, as I approached and entered my early twenties, I discovered the library's upstairs Reading Room, until then the place that I associated as the place where only senior members sat around, talking in whispers and looking very knowing. There I first tried to emulate them by reading "posh" papers like The Times and The Guardian, papers that reported things in depth that I never saw in my Daily Mirror, oh yes, I was smugly moving ahead of my peers, or so I thought. Finally, that led me to explore the contents of the locked glass cabinets, where a great treasure trove of local history literature was stored, I was enthralled, places that I passed by every day now took on new meanings. 

Today, I buy all the books that I read, I haven't lent a book from the library for probably thirty odd years but I still visit it for my family and historical research, it still has that special place in my heart.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Retrospective times

 Since my last post we have now entered into another new year, one that will be my 75th and I guess that, as I have lived here on Sheppey all of my life, it makes me someone with a quite full memory bank of how things have changed over the years.

My first New Year was that of 1950, a new decade and I was just two and half years old and not celebrating my third birthday until the July of that year. That year and indeed for much of the decade, we were to struggle to rise up from the austerity and poverty of the previous decade and it's World War, I believe that we still had food rationing until around 1953.

I'm always fascinated when old black and white photos from those times appear on on our local Sheppey History Facebook Page, and people comment jealously at how clean and tidy the town's roads were. An easy answer to that is the fact that councils employed teams of local road sweepers in those days, people who conscientiously walked the streets with a barrow, broom and shovel and were aided by the fact that there was none of the throw-away packing and litter that we have nowadays. But it wasn't all the Shangri-La, that those photos made it look, yes life was much simpler but in the side streets and roads behind the High Streets, there was a lot of poverty. In my childhood in the 1950's food  there was only enough food each day because of the invention of mothers who never wasted a scrap. They would shop in local shops each day, buying food that was fresh, in small quantities because there were no fridges and often in ounces rather than pounds. In the butchers the cheapest cuts were always bought and often included ox-tails, hearts, brawn, belly linings, pig's trotters. Chicken was a luxury that we sometimes had at Christmas  and often came from the few scraggy birds that we kept in the back yard for our eggs. The carcass of those birds was used the following day to boil in a large pan with vegetables and turn into a broth. Likewise, a rabbit in a small hutch was also kept each year for the purpose of a Sunday or Christmas dinner and I recall that my grandparents wasted nothing from those animals, even the head was cooked and the brains eaten afterwards!

To continue the non-waste of food, there was bubble and squeak. In my house it was usually left over food items from the Sunday roast such as vegetables and scraps of meat, all fried in a pan the next day to create another belly filling meal.

And what of puddings, or "sweet" as we knew it because it was normally just that, sweet. A common one was suet pudding. Those puddings were a staple of the Sunday Roast, created on the day by mother cooking the ingredients in the well used pudding cloth and then sliced and added to the roast as a typical stodgy belly filler. Any that was not used in the roast was served afterwards for "sweet," coated in sugar, jam or treacle. Other stodgy belly fillers were rice or macaroni, or in the summer months, home-made fruit pie and custard.

And so it went on, nothing was wasted, nothing came ready packaged with use by dates and vegetables and fruit were seasonal, sprouts and parsnips for instance only appeared in winter and when they did were seized on for the seasonal treat that they were.

So, younger generations might look at those old black and white photographs and wish themselves back in those times but in reality they wouldn't know where to start. 

Friday, 24 December 2021

In the Beginning

 We're now in that fag end time of the year when if like me, you get no enjoyment out of all this Christmas stuff, life can get a tad tedious.. What's more, the weather tends to be cold and miry making most activities outside quite unattractive. I spent some of the time this last few days improving a 40-odd page document that I wrote a few years ago that detailed the daily life of myself and my friends during 1965 to 1968.

It is entitled "In the beginning - out of the shadows," because having experienced an unhappy childhood and a boring early teenage spell, it documents my discovery of a group of people of similar age and interests. I've always felt that my real life only begun it's life long trail from then on and many of the friendships still endue to this current day. To give you a flavour let's start at the start of that document:-

In the beginning, early 1965, there were two thirteen year old schoolgirls walking along Rose Street on their way home from school and as my workmates and I drove by there was something about one of them that made me take a longer look. It was her hair that stood out - later, it was always her hair - it was long and it tumbled in waves and curls down on to her young shoulders in the most wonderful deep, gingery red colour that flashed fire in the sun. Other than that she was just a skinny young schoolgirl and it was only a moment and then, still chattering to each other the two girls were gone. I guess that in that moment, although I wasn't aware of it at the time, my dice were thrown but the gamble still had to be made.

Shortly after that I stumbled on the group of people that I've mentioned, we all worked conventionly five days a week but we were folk music fans and so in the evenings, the weekends and holidays, we drifted around out town as it's resident hippies, long-haired and scruffy. It continued in that way for the next year, we drank too much, smoked pot, played guitars, we slept rough, had a few girlfriends and we hitch-hiked to London for long weekends. Fast forward to June 2nd 1966, I'd packed in my job because three of us were due to spend some time hitch-hiking between London and the south coast. That day was hot and sunny and a gang of us, including some old girlfriends, were sitting in a local park alongside the sea front sea wall. Because of the weather the sea front was very busy with people in swimming and suchlike and as we chatted, I casually looked along the people sheltering out of a slight breeze behind the sea wall. I was suddenly struck by the fact that of two young girls busy drying themselves, one was the gingery-haired girl that had caught my eye the previous year. Intrigued and attracted to her, I left my friends and walked over to the girls, who of course had no idea who I was but long-haired and dressed in denim I had some romantic notion that she might be awed by my appearance. What could I say by way of introduction and so I mumbled something about "I'd like a swim, could I borrow your towel to dry off after," to which she agreed and so in my jeans I had a quick dip and sat alongside them drying myself off. We chatted for some time, I told her about my plans to go hitch-hiking in a couple of days, my music interests, my friends and she told me that her name was Christine and she's had her fourteenth birthday just a few days previously. There was me, a month short of my nineteenth birthday becoming infatuated by the minute in this rather young looking girl with the ginger hair and we agreed to meet again the following day. Those moments by that sea wall saw our lives change directions from wherever they were naturally going, I went hitch-king, I came back, we re-connected, she grew up, we fell in love and four years later we got married.

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Year End

 At last we have now seen the passing of the Shortest Day of the year. Technically the length of each day will now increase, although in reality, little of that will be noticed much before the end of January, but if nothing else it encourages daily optimism. For me the most significant day of the winter is January 1st, when we cast off the shackles of the old year and can look forward with hope and inspiration at what a new year will bring.

After several days of continuous gloomy, damp and cold days when it rarely seemed to get fully light, we ended yesterday with an hour or two of sunshine. That led to a hard overnight frost and a beautiful morning today of white frost, blue skies and frozen ground that was a relief after trudging round in ankle deep mud at times. It might also help to nudge flower and fauna into accepting that we are actually in mid-winter, some flowers have been acting as though we are in either autumn or spring. 

Coinciding with this mini cold spell, this week has begun to see the arrival of the first White-fronted Geese of this winter - 64 on Monday had risen to 150 this morning. Unlike the large flock of feral Greylag Geese that are resident on the marshes here, these White-fronted Geese are truly wild birds that fly in to winter here, from their normal homes in the more remote areas of Northern Europe. A lot of their number are family groups, i.e. two adults with this year's bred juveniles. They are lovely geese and a great favourite of mine but unfortunately, because of their wildness, they are also a favourite quarry of the wildfowlers that shoot along the front of the reserve. Hopefully the geese will stay out of danger for much of their stay. 

Another bird that always puts in an appearance in the winter is the Stonechat. They are a resident breeding bird in the British Isles but for a couple of months in the winter they leave their favoured heathlands and wander around the hedgerows and reed beds of the coastal marshes. We have 2-3 pairs of these dapper little birds on the reserve at the moment and I love to watch them rise up above the tops of the reed beds and briefly hover there like a puppet on a string.

There's not much else to say really, both the reserve and the surrounding farmland are looking quite bleak at the moment but I shall be out on the reserve with little Ellie, early every morning over Christmas and the New Year, hoping for that something different to occur.

Monday, 13 December 2021

Been a Long Time

 Gawd, August since I last posted, how far away that now seems. Then I was hoping for a decent spell of possibly hot and sunny weather, well we did get some but overall, this summer has been pretty average. Now, it's December 13th and one of those gloomy, never getting fully light sort of days and as I start this it's 3.30 pm, the afternoon is closing down and passing cars already have the headlights on. In another hour it'll be fully dark and another fourteen hour, long night of darkness will begin. Dear me, how do some people love winters?

The nature reserve approaches the New Year with continuing low water levels and as a consequence the wildfowl numbers are also very low, in fact bird numbers there generally are very low. Few winter thrushes have arrived, only immigrant Blackbirds and Chaffinches are about in noticeable numbers. That's not to say that the reserve is totally dry, the heifer flock has seen to that. We've had enough rain to soften the ground and their obsession with pressing against any gateway that is holding them in, in whole flock loads, has seen those gateways turn into areas of a combination of liquid mud and cow poo. All the heifers are pregnant and due to calve in two/three months time and so this week, I'm assured, they're due to be taken off the reserve to calving sheds and pens - can't wait, they make access round the reserve so difficult. In their place we already have 200 of this year's ewe lambs. Lovely looking, sturdy animals and happily supplied by a local farmer in order that we can keep the sward levels of the grass at a low enough level throughout the winter, and therefore benefit the Lapwings next Spring as they begin to breed.

The farmland alongside the reserve now sits pretty much cultivated for the rest of the year. Next year's rape is now over a foot high and the winter corn a few inches high. Any fields now lying fallow will do so until next Spring and then almost certainly be sown with maize to feed the local bio-digester plant with. The only thing that disturbs the farmland tranquility now is the odd crop sprayer and the weekly game shoots. 

The weather patterns these days are all quite crazy really, a few mild days next month will already see the catkin buds on the willows starting to swell and even burst and currently in my garden some daffodil tips are just beginning to push through the soil. But Covid permitting, we'll carry on carrying on and soon the dark days of winter will be behind us.