Saturday 31 July 2010

Gloom all round

What a gloomy early morning it was on the reserve today, I think it was darker out there when I arrived at 6.15 than it was at 5.15 when I got up. The amount of light seemed to keep on decreasing for a while. Even as I write this now at nearly 10.00 it's still gloomy enough to almost need lights on indoors.
Consequently butterflies were reduced to just a few Gatekeepers, there was none of the really good numbers of the last few mornings, including a fine Small Copper yesterday. After early season promise Small Tortoiseshells seemed to have become very scarce again, hopefully we will shortly see a new hatch that will boost numbers.

The cattle have at last been moved to the un-grazed half of the reserve and seemed quite content to be munching away on greener and better grazing. The half that they had been in for some time was looking really tired and dust dry with decent grass very much at a premium. Which pretty much describes the reserve at the moment. I had a look along the "S" bend fleet, which is basically a long and winding, wide but shallow fleet, which normally dries out in dry summers. It is a favourite site of the reserve's wildfowl and at this time of the year, as more and more mud becomes exposed, migrating waders. This morning however it was host to just a couple of Green Sandpipers, a few Redshanks and some Mallard still in eclipse. I would imagine that by the end of August it will be two-thirds dry again.

On arriving on the seawall in front of the reserve I was surprised to come across one of the Kent Wildfowlers and his dogs, having an early morning look at potential targets and their flight-lines. He quickly increased the gloomy atmosphere out there by excitedly going on about how we were now only four weeks away from the first opportunities to kill wildfowl - lovely isn't it, some people's attitude to wildlife!
Anyway, he was one of six KWCA members who actually live on Sheppey and who shoot out there most days and I have always been able to chat quite amicably to him and the others. I've never hidden my dislike for what they do and their prescence there and they accept that and we get on OK and being local they do at least have more respect for the area. A particular bonus with this guy is the fact that because I can get him to accept both my views and the fact that some of the KWCA members are less than perfect, I managed to get him last year to become a KWCA warden for the site. This means that I can take my complaints about their behaviour to him and he has increased the vigilance over the members.

This is not me going soft on the wildfowlers in any way shape or form, just me accepting that they will be there and therefore using friendly liasons to the reserve's best advantage.

Still very depressing though to think that in just four week's time, that suddenly overnight, the dawn will see around 20 people out on the saltings doing their level best to kill ducks.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Great Bells Farm

I attended the monthly meeting of Eastchurch Parish Council last night, nothing too exciting about that unless of course you were interested in high street parking and Mrs. So and So's scruffy garden. But what I and several local farmers and other assorted people were there for was a presentation after the council business, given by the Environment Agency and the RSPB.

Some months ago the Environment Agency (EA) bought Great Bells Farm, which lies between Eastchurch Prison and Windmill Creek on Sheppey. Great Bells Farm is 193 hectares of currently poor grazing marsh seperated from the RSPB's Elmley reserve by Windmill Creek. Freshwater and intertidal wildlife habitats are being lost around the coast due to rising sea levels and EA's actions to reduce flood risk to people and properties. Under European law EA have to compensate for that loss and therefore took the opportunity to buy this site.

Their thinking behind this is to use the farmland to create a wetland habitat for a variety of freshwater species of birds, animals and insects and to possibly use a section at the southern end, which borders the tidal entrance of Windmill Creek, to create a small area of intertidal habitat. This would be achieved by realigning the the current sea defences, i.e. move the seawall back and allow that part of the farmland to become saltings and tidal. Currently that operation does not look like happening due to the cost and it could instead be used to create a freshwater reservoir used to replenish the water levels acroos the reserve in the dryer summer months. At the moment therefore it looks as if the whole site, which is currently very dry grazing marsh, will be re-profiled and considerably wettened up in order to attract the variety of wildlife that it has the potential to do.
This is great news and to effect these changes EA has appointed the RSPB as their tenant managers and between them they intend turning the site into yet another important nature reserve along the southern side of Sheppey and will have the effect of extending the huge Elmley nature reserve complex into the Eastchurch marshes, seperated purely by Windmill Creek. They have some exciting plans for the site which will include new ditches and reelways, higher water tables and part flooding in winter and hay meadows in summer. They intend for it to be accessible to the public once access routes can be made established and even now it is accessible on foot via a public footpath that goes across the Elmley RSPB reserve, across Windmill Creek dam and through Great Bells Farm.

One day perhaps, we could finaly see this huge complex link up with The Swale NNR, which is not that far away now, and have the whole of southern Sheppey,from the Sheppey Way to Shellness as nature reserve, wouldn't that be fantastic!

Saturday 24 July 2010

The Railways of Sheppey

Whilst re-reading The Sheppey Light Railway by Peter A Harding last night I was astounded to note something that I had obviously missed before, that the first railway came onto Sheppey in 1860! In that year the Sittingbourne & Sheerness Railway Company laid a single track line to what was one of the most important sites on Sheppey, then and for many years to come, Sheerness Dockyard in Bluetown. Another short branch line, to Flushing Pier, Queenborough, was added in 1875 in order to serve the daily cross-channel sailings to Flushing in Holland. Lastly, in 1883, another short piece of line was laid just outside the Bluetown station, to create what still is, Sheerness-on-Sea station.
Although it was un-used and overgrown by then, I can still recall the old Bluetown Station from my childhood before it was demolished and taken up as part of the Steel Mill complex. The overgrown site and station buildings were a haven for wildlife.
The Flushing Pier station had fell out of use well before then but was finally demolished in 1956.

We then come to the Sheppey Light Railway and this single track railway was finally opened to huge fanfares in 1901. Indeed that inaugral first journey from Queenborough to Leysdown and back saw the train carry 160 invited guests, which must of been one of the few times that the train was ever full. The tragedy of this line was that it eventually closed in 1950 due to lack of use, not long after Leysdown took off in a big way as a holiday village and would of been a potential huge attraction for holidaymakers travelling down from London with their luggage.

The route itself couldn't of given a more attractive viewing of the best of Sheppey's countryside, especially as the train only trundled along at around 25 mph. The line began behind the current off-Sheppey platform at Queenborough and curved out of the station and through the open fields of Sheerness marshes to arrive at Sheerness East station halfway between Sheerness and Halfway village and here people could easily walk the mile from Sheerness to catch the train. This was the largest of the several stations and also had several sidings, both for spare carriages and the receiving and unloading of goods. Here and despite only being three years of age, I can just remember the white crossing gates across the Halfway Road as the train crossed the road. These gates were a similar feature at all of the staions.

From here the line continued through hedge-rowed farmland and past the local golf club before arriving at East Minster Station on the Minster Road. Old photos show the crossing gates and the train passing, alongside a shop which still remains open today and on the other side of the road, the Harps Inn public house.
Once again the train trundled off through open farmland to arrive at Minster Sation, about a mile below the village. Quite a bit of farm goods and livestock were loaded or unloaded at this station although, like the remaining stations to come, the platform was small and the waiting room was little more than a wooden hut.

The countryside that the train was travelling through, even by its closure, was beautiful and unspoilt traditional Sheppey farmland and must of been a real treat to travel in the summer months. You also have to remember that the train and its carriages were smaller than a traditional steam train of the time and so even in that it had its quaintness.

From Minster the train eventually crossed Elm Lane, passed across the bottom of the still beautiful Tadwell Farm to arrive at Brambledown Station, around 100 yds short of where the Farm Shop now is. From here it headed past orchards to Eastchurch Station, a mile or so south of Eastchurch village. At first this station was quite small with a few sidings to enable the collection/unloading of all the farm produce from around that busy area. However, once the Royal Naval Air Station, later RAF airfield, came into being a few yards further south during WW1, the railway station expanded somewhat and included a spur that went right into the heart of the airfield.

That left just two more stations, reached through rolling cornfields. Harty Halt was a tiny station around 100 yds before the current Harty Road turn off, and it served those people walking out from the isolated Harty farms. From there the train travelled on to arrive at Leysdown, just a 100 yds or so from the beach, the site of which is now a public car park behind a large amusement arcade.

So, how lovely it would be to still travel on that train today, despite huge developments on Sheppey, its old route is still amazingly across pretty much open farmland and would yield much wildlife to be observed. Even better, and the local council must regret this very much, how wonderful it would be if the old route had been turned into a public footpath and cycle route. To be able to walk the length of Sheppey through it's middle would be truly amazing. This cannot happen now unfortunately as some lengths of it have been bought and built on.
What a great shame.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Here we go again

The euphoria exibited in my post last Sunday evaporated on Monday evening. Taking part in the latest count as one of a three man WEBS team on the reserve late afternoon/early evening on Monday everything was going swimmingly in the sun and heat until I spied movement on the farmland alongside part of the reserve.

A few weeks ago the farmer in question dug out and landscaped, quite nicely I must admit, a series of largish ponds, beginning just 80 yds from the reserve boundary fence and running out into his land. They also abut some land that he recently sold to SEEDA and part of which has been donated to the RSPB. I went round that way to where some guys were pumping water into the ponds from what was left in a ditch alongside. One of them came and spoke to me over the fence and introduced himself as someone who has leased the ponds off of the farmer with the intention of corn feeding them and so attracting wild ducks into them for the purposes of being shot by paying guests. It would appear that he saw the reserve, just a few yards away and flooded in winter with both water and wildfowl, as an ideal supplier of targets. I tried the emotional, isn't that a bit too close to a nature reserve and a tad immoral angle but he was having none of it - so that's it, once again the reserve is seen as something that is ideal for supplying targets, the exact same opinion that the Kent Wildfowlers members have on its opposite boundary on the saltings. It means that this winter, because of the reserve's narrowness, that wildfowl will find it difficult to get in and out of the reserve without being shot at. You will also find that both of these shooting groups will preach their conservation crudentials, especially the Kent Wildfowlers, which quite frankly is b..locks, which is the same response that I give to those birdwatchers that can see no wrong with duck shooters plundering nature reserves as they do in the Swale, and believe me there are some.

Sunday 18 July 2010

A Magical Spell

This morning's weather was pretty much a repeat of yesterday's, the first hour or so saw warm sunshine and just a breeze and then once again the wind began to increase and cloud cover came over.
I arrived at the reserve barn at 6.00 and a long walk was not planned as Nana my beagle is now approaching 15 and cannot manage long walks, I have the same problems, I just wish I was also approaching 15 again.

Pulling up at the barn I put up a Turtle Dove, possibly yesterday's one, and it seemed to have teamed up with a Stock Dove because both flew off together and circled round before heading off back to the entry gate thicket. One of the Barn Owls was also still out hunting and looking especially white in the sunlight as it drifted by me, eyeing up the dogs.

When I'm not doing a long walk, one of the places that I like to head for on a sunny morning, as has been mentioned before, are a couple of the old salt working mounds. Most of these mounds are around a 100-200yds in circumference and about 30-40foot in height and the two I headed towards were a pair alongside each other but split by a ditch running between them. Heading into the SW breeze it had a degree of chill to it and so it was nice to walk into the mini-valley created by the ditch between the mounds and sit on the sunny eastern sides. Here it was totally breeze free and surprisingly warm in the early morning sun and here also I experienced one of those magical spells that break the humdrum of an ordinary visit and which broke the butterfly gloom of yesterday.
The long grass, yarrow, dead nettle and thistles on the sheltered banks were alive in butterflies! Here as I sat and watched in the warmth of the sun, were dozens of Meadow Browns and Small Skippers, a Red Admiral, some Large Whites and at last - several Gatekeepers with flattened wings, sunbathing as well. Whilst the dogs wandered off I sat there for around three quarters of an hour and enjoyed this mini- butterfly fest and it got even better as a Small Copper put in an appearance - bliss!

Then, just to completely seal this magical spell, a large party of around a hundred juvenile Swallows began to drift slowly towards and over me, feeding as they came, but with them were about fifty Sand Martins! Now besides being pretty much a reserve rarity, this bird is also my favourite hirundine and I was ecstatic at sitting there with so many of these delightful little birds feeding all around me before they finally began to drift off south towards the Swale. We virtually never have Sand Martins cross the reserve in Spring and only in the autumn do we normally see just a few.

So, a lot of pretty ordinary species and common to most people but when it all comes together as it did this morning it creates one of those memories that one digs out of the memory bank time and time again in the depths of a winter.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Lots of Wind

As is my custom I arrived at the reserve nice and early this morning to be greeted by blue skies and just a breeze but my hopes of avoiding any strong winds were soon dashed, inside an hour actually, and they were soon back, smashing into the reedbeds.
But heyho, 93 degrees for next week, happy days again I hope.
Briefly getting back to this week's strong winds, I have been struck by the weather reports terminology. With some gusts reaching 50mph here on Sheppey I was surprised that they were forecast as "brisk breezes" and yet the same winds in winter would come with a warning of "strong winds that could cause some disruption" - apart from the temperature, why the difference?

The small farm thicket that we have to drive through to get onto the reserve was quite active this morning, well as far as Whitethroats were concerned it was and although only three males were singing, I saw a total of twelve birds altogether. They were joined by a Turtle Dove, which seems to have been lost in that spot as a breeding bird in the last couple of years.

The only really noteworthy birds seen as I walked round were 4 Green Sandpipers, 1 Common Sandpiper, 5 Little Egret, a brood of near full grown Pochard and a couple of Marsh Harriers. Well that was until I was crossing one of the reserve's grazing meadows back to my car and what I at first assumed was going to be a male Marsh Harrier, turned out to be a Red Kite - my second ever. It lazily followed a ditch line across the reserve towards Harty Church, completely ignoring the attention part of the way, from a Grey Heron.

I decided to pay attention to what birds were still singing on the reserve given the time of year. The winners hands down were the Reed Warblers, they seem to sing non-stop from the time that they arrive to the time that they leave. I also had several Skylarks and a couple of Reed Buntings but nothing else, unless you count the odd quacking duck which is about as good as a duck's "song" gets.

Perhaps it was the increasing wind, or the time of day, or the increasing cloud, but once again butterfly counts were pretty poor. I had several Meadow Browns and Small Skippers, one Large White and one Small Heath and still no Gatekeepers. Its looking like a poor year for butterflies on the reserve this year unless next week's forecast heatwave improves things. One thing that can't be put into that category though is grasshoppers of the type that are currently abounding in the ungrazed long grass of several of the meadows. Every single footstep this morning created an explosion of around 50-odd of these small, beige coloured ones. Multiplied across just one meadow and the total count must of been in multi-thousands.

Lastly, as I made my way across one of the few one-plank ditch crossings this morning, I was struck by its height above the water. During the winter flooding it was impassable and about a foot below the water, today as is normal in summer, it was around three feet above the trickle in the ditch. That's around four foot of water to be collected before we return to the regular winter levels and some months to go before it even begind to happen. These planks were used throughout Sheppey's marshes as crossing points on long ditches. They avoided having to walk a long way round the ditch to get back almost to the same point but on the other side. Regular marsh users always knew exactly where they were and could even find them in a thick mist. They have not been replaced in recent years but then farmers and reserve staff rarely walk the marshes these days, they mostly use quad bikes and 4x4's and as a result miss an awful lot of sights and sounds that only being on foot can produce.

Monday 12 July 2010

Rainy Day Blues

Those of you who have been reading my blogs this summer will have picked up on the fact that I am a tad obsessed with the euphoria that comes from experiencing a succession of hot and sunny days. The early morning sunshine, the opportunity to just wear a pair of shorts and a T shirt, to be dry underfoot, to lie back on a warm seawall and watch butterflies in the sun, to have your doors and windows open all the time. Not for me the alternative bliss that others derive from mud, cold winds, the weight that comes from wearing coats, gloves, scarves and wellington boots and sheltering behind a stormy breakwater.

You can imagine my despair at 4.00 this morning then to hear the increasing patter of raindrops outside my open bedroom window. At first I thought I was just having one of my regular nightmares that this might happen again, but then quickly realised that my eyes were open and I was indeed awake. A peek out of the window confirmed that the nightmare had indeed become reality, it was pouring and not only that, it was getting darker, not lighter. OMG as they say, what to do now, well obviously shaving was out - too risky in my new mood of despair, so go through to the back of the bungalow. Look at the direction the clouds were coming from, could it just be a quickly passing shower, were there blue skies and sunshine lurking to the south-west, but no it was overcast and rainy all the way.
Nothing for it, I had to put the lights on - yes lights on, how winterfied was that, and make a cup of tea and ponder the reserve this morning - long wet grass, mud under foot, reed beds weighed down with the weight of water and horror of horrors possibly wellie boots!

Well I did get to the reserve and it was wet and muddy, but I did manage to avoid the wellies, and there was bugger all about so I won't bore you with anymore, I shall just be at my bedside tonight praying for hot and sunny weather to return.

Sunday 11 July 2010

A Bad Hay Day

I tried to go down to the reserve at Harty at 6.00 this morning only to find that the Police had closed the Leysdown Road at Eastchurch due to a large fire on a farm close to the Leysdown Road. I did try a little known route through to Leysdown via Warden Manor and down an unmade track but this had been blocked by Leysdown market traders who had found the track unsuitable for their vans, so nothing left but to go back home.
Having mentioned in my blog yesterday of how the hay crop was mostly in and good profits could be expected this winter it turns out that one of the largest hay producers on Sheppey has lost 3,000 tons of hay in the fire and a barn load of fertilizer. Apparently he was still taking hay off the fields along the Elmley track late last night and has now lost a large chunk of his stored hay.

Sitting in the garden this afternoon I was delighted to see my first Small Skipper of the year. It had joined a large number of assorted bees on a lavender border and was followed onto it by a pristine Comma butterfly. I sat on a garden seat amongst this lavender and was captivated by the frantic activity of these insects. It makes all the hard work of planting all the right things in the garden on a cold winter's day so worthwhile to be able to experience such simple delights a few months later. The garden has an unkempt appearance which disgusts my fastidious gardening neighbour but in turn attracts all manner of wildlife - that for me is what it should do. The largish garden pond is similar, a tad overgrown and with a bit too much blanket weed and not what a lot of gardeners would want too see but it gives a lot of reward for being like that. Earlier this year I witnessed at least two Emperor Dragonflies hatch out, followed by some Common Darters and currently there are loads of Blue-tailed Damselflies using it. I've thought of cleaning it out a few times but then worry about the huge cycle of wildlife that I would destroy so it plods on in its scruffy state and lets face it, scruffy is normally just what wildlife loves.

Saturday 10 July 2010

The heat goes on

Blimey, its a week since my last posting and yet the weather fortunately remains identical. I've only made a couple of brief visits during the week, being busy at home.
It was a hot and steamy night in the bedroom last night (purely down to the weather, nothing else) and so at 4.30 I got up and after feeding my canaries was on the reserve by 5.15 in order to catch the cooler conditions, which lasted about half an hour. I'm always amazed that after such a scorching and moisture-less day that yesterday was that there re-appears so much moisture in the form of dew the next morning. After just an hour walking round my trousers were soaked right up to the knees.
The hay baling now seems to have been completed on the neighbouring farmland and despite some gloomy opinions on its scarcity by farmers in the press, Sheppey farmers at least seem to have got in a bumper crop, more good profits this winter I suppose, certainly they made some very good prices for it last winter. Harvesting the Rape is now being started and very close behind it, judging by its colour, is the wheat, so busy times ahead.

So far this summer wildlife on the reserve has thrown up a few noteables - noteable for the fact that numbers are greatly reduced, could it of been because of the severe winter's weather? Take butterflies for instance, whilst most of the regular species are about, so far they have only been recorded, by me at least, in single figures, the exception being a few dozen Meadow Browns. I still haven't seen a Gatekeeper or Skipper and yet other sites appear to be having a very good year. Both Marsh and Edible frogs are also either greatly reduced or just being unusually quiet, normally by now they would be very audible. Lastly, Ragwort is much reduced, and as a result so are the lovely and stripey Cinnabar Moth caterpillars, I'm very happy to see both.

Bird life was predictably quiet, although another reserve regular, Ian Davidson, yesterday had nearly 40 different types. For me the highlight was 5 Green Sandpiper at our last shallow and muddy stretch of ditchwork and a party of 8 Meadow Pipits, the most I've seen in one group of Mipits this whole summer, they've decreased badly here. The swallows in the Tumbledown Hide fledged their four youngsters a week or so ago and are showing no signs of returning for a second brood. This pair have been far exceeded by those at Brewers farmhouse, alongside the reserve. Here the owners have a small cluster of sheds for their horses and the last few years have seen swallow pairs rise to around sixteen pairs. Certainly this summer in recent weeks, the overhead wires to the house have regularly seen groups of 30-40 juveniles sitting along them so the production line seems be being maintained.

Lastly, I was fascinated as I started to walk round this morning, at the sight of a large Elderberry bush with a Heron perched on top of. Silhouetted against the sun the heron looked quite strange perched up there.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Special Thoughts

Yesterday was a very hot day which carried on well into the evening and is typically described in the opening of Chapter VII of the Wind in the Willows - "though it was past ten o'clock at night, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short mid-summer night".

We had a brief shower at 5.00 this morning which for a short time did freshen up the air but any moisture soon evaporated. It also illustrated how such a small island as Sheppey is, can still have a surprising range of weathers. I left Minster driving on wet roads for a mile, then a mile of bone dry roads and so on, so they must of been very small and well dotted rain clouds. Likewise the Harty Road, which at first was puddled with rainwater but then became bone dry as I approached and entered the reserve.

Mid-summer on the reserve finds it looking quite dry and dusty now and quite overgrown as the small herd of cattle struggle to make any effect on the grazing meadows. With few proper wide areas of water on the reserve, the effect of this tall vegetation and lowering water levels makes it difficult to actually see what wildlife there is in the ditches and fleets now from any distance. Its not really a fault of the reserve, its how it becomes in the summer and much as it might inconvenience those who want to see things, its good for a whole range of wildlife, you just have to look harder. It also highlights how difficult it can be for a grazier to get the stock levels just right, not so long ago the grass was growing very slowly and so some stock was committed to other sites that he grazes, now we could do with more cattle. The same grazier has also just cut all his hay meadows between the Shellness car park and the Harty Road Raptor Viewing Mound and how good it is to see such large acreages being utilized for such traditional crops. Once baled the fields will quickly re-green and provide fabulous habitat for wildlife right round until next summer again.

Bird-life, as I will repeat regularly now until the autumn, was very much at a premium and by far the largest number of any species to be seen across the reserve today was a flock of around 400 Starlings enjoying their summer holidays. A few ducks in moult were visible in some of the ditches and apart from a family party of Bearded Tits in the reed beds of the seawall fleet, it was left to the constant chatter of Reed Warblers to remind me that some life was still going on.

Butterflies were mostly confined to slowly increasing numbers of Meadow Browns, especially in the overgrown areas along the seawall of the reserve and here also, every step seemed to bring up large numbers of very small and pale, creamy coloured moth from the longer grass and I haven't a clue what they are. Another feature of the top of the seawall is a surprising number of both lizards and slow worms, which become quite eveident at times as they come out to sun themselves.
Wild flowers on the reserve at the moment are dominated by the yellow types - Wild Migonette, Weld and Lady's Bedstraw. Apparently in the middle ages Lady's Bedstraw was used to pack Lady's bedding although I cannot see why, its doesn't have much fragrance and it would take an awful lot to do the job, as opposed to say, hay or feathers.

So,no large numbers of anything and definitely no rarities but still a beautiful walk round and as a special friend said to me yesterday, you always remember those times.