Tuesday 25 September 2012

Rain and Lanes

Above is the reserve this morning, rain to the south and blue skies to the north, a day when you find out if you can still sprint short distances, or in my case, hobble faster.
 The bit of rain that we've had in recent days has had no effect whatsoever on the reserve's current drought and no areas have re-filled as a result. Unfortunately it would take rain in the amounts being currently experienced by those in the North to make a significant difference, but that of course would bring problems of another type. If nothing else however, it has at least wettened the surface of the grazing meadows and hopefully it will encourage the grass to re-grow and green up before the first frosts set in.
Birds still remain in short supply, although I did have a singing Cettis Warbler in willows by the reserve barn as I wandered back, the first for around a year and the first Brent Geese of the winter have begun arriving in The Swale.

 Moving away from the reserve and into Minster, the photos above and below relate to one of two Community Woodlands that were planted around 10-15 years ago.

 They illustrate one of the benefits that can be gleaned from the massive housing developments that are swallowing huge tracts of virgin farmland on the Island at the moment. One development is the mini town that is being built opposite the Sheppey Rugby Club along the Lower Road, the other is at Chequers, on the high ground just past the Island's Water Tower. When both of these developments were proposed and put forward for planning permission, Swale Borough Council at the time fortunately had in their ranks a councillor responsible for Environmental issues who insisted that permission be granted only if some environmental benefit was felt by the community. As a result, the Council insisted that a quite large acreage at both sites had to be set aside and planted up as woodland, this was agreed, thousands of saplings were planted and the result is now two maturing woodlands containing mixed varieties of shrubs and trees. The undergrowth in these woods is allowed to grow long, with just set paths kept mown for public access and mammals, birds and butterflies are colonising the area with great success.

Because the woodland area above borders onto the lane below, it got me thinking about what few, old fashioned lanes that we still have on Sheppey, I could only think of two, or three at a stretch. The one below is Plough Lane, which runs from Eastchurch through to the Chequers Road at Minster, going past the Warden Road, Connetts and Garretts Farms on the way.

 This next one is Elm Lane, part of which that used to be called Stickfast Lane many years ago. Given that it used to be a mud cart track that sometimes flooded, perhaps that's the reason for the secondary name. This is a lovely old lane that runs between the now closed British Queen pub on the Chequers Road and Scocles Road, the one lane on Sheppey that probably looks little different to how it always did so. The section below also follows the bed of the old Sheppey Light Railway line, and was crossed at the corner half way along the lane by it.

The third remaining lane from my youth, is Oak Lane. This began on the opposite side of the main road from the British Queen and the end of Elm Lane and ran very narrowly and prettily north eastwards to end up at the steep cliffs above the sea. At it's seaward end there used to be a tiny pub, not much bigger than a domestic garage, called the Royal Oak, which sadly many years ago disappeared down the ever eroding cliffs. I spent many happy years as a youngster on these cliff tops watching the Sand Martins at their breeding colony in the sandy soil of the cliff face but that colony, like the Royal Oak, are long gone. Oak Lane still retains its old-fashioned narrowness and some hedges but over development each side has seen much of its charm disappear.

Monday 17 September 2012

Harty Weekend

 On Saturday, I was fortunate to be on Harty at both ends of the day. The two photos above were taken by myself at 06.30 on the seawall at The Swale NNR as the sun began to rise over Shellness Hamlet.
The two below were taken by my partner at Capel Corner along the Harty Road as she captured the sun setting behind Eastchurch Prison.

An interesting observation as we sat at Capel Corner waiting for the sun to set, was the sight of hundreds of Starling continually flying in and perching along the overhead power cables there. Eventually they stretched for several hundred yards along the cables and numbering a 1000+ I wondered where they would eventually roost. That question was soon answered immediately the sun dropped below the horizon, in a small reed bed in Capel Fleet. This small clump of tall phragmites was about a 100yds from the road and could only of been around 30yds in diameter and yet in they all poured and I was amazed that the tall stems could of taken such a weight of birds without collapsing.

On both Saturday and Sunday mornings I visited the reserve at dawn, just as the sky was starting to lighten in the east, and mainly to check out the wildfowler situation on the saltings. Not because there were any problems with them, more a case of were any bothering to still come given the dearth of ducks at the moment. On both mornings it was very obvious that the duck shortage continues, with Saturday being the best morning when I saw 14 Mallard and 2 Teal, quite dire to be honest, but if you ain't got water, you won't get ducks, or anything else that likes wet ground in fact. What continues to tempt the wildfowlers however, are the Greylag Geese, around 300 of them at the moment. Generally the geese stay on the reserve or surrounding farmland, although on the farmland they are being picked off at a regular rate by shooters, but they have formed the habit of going out to The Swale mudflats in the dark in order to pick up grit from the mud. At first light, this results in a huge flock of geese flying very low and slow, back across the saltings to get to the reserve and if a wildfowler is fortunate enough to be under such a flight path the results are quite predictable. On Saturday morning a solitary wildfowler had just the one shot over three hours and bagged one goose but two guys on Sunday morning were in totally the wrong place, and spent around three hours supplying blood to huge swarms of mosquitoes and midges without firing a shot.
We sat on the seawall having a chat once they'd given up, and given it was their first visit to The Swale they too were surprised to see how dust dry and bird-free the reserve and surrounding area was. Although to my surprise, we did hear four seperate Water Rails calling in the Delph reed beds as we chatted but of course never, ever saw them, but that became my highest count of Water Rails in one go on the reserve.

Going back to just after dawn on Saturday morning, I suddenly heard at around 06.30, the sound of a lot of dogs barking coming from the Harty church direction. It seemed early in the day for the Hunt to be out but it was confirmed when a little later I could hear hunting horns being blown in the far distance. Given the early time of day and the time of year, I suspect that they could of been looking for fox cubs to train the young hounds after. Unfortunately the Hunt is meeting more and more regularly on Harty these days, I suspect because there are a lot of areas on the marsh where they can't easily be seen by the public as they carry out their normal hunting activities, presumably with the blessing of the two landowners there.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon, in lovely warm and sunny weather, we walked out to the very edge of Shellness Point and sat on the beach of solid cockle shells there, facing the bay. The sun was sparkling across the wavelets, small yachts were taking part in what looked like a race and Curlews were flighting in to the saltings to roost.  Just round the corner from us a large roost of a thousand or so Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers and a few Turnstones sat on the beach at high-tide roost, totally undisturbed by us or anybody else. If you stick to the permissive path going out there to the Point, it works really well in that the further out you go, the more you become hidden by the height of the beach, from the roosting birds. And what a beautiful, quiet and isolated spot the Point there can be at high tide on such a sunny day, its hard at times to believe that eastern Sheppey can be so different to the industry and towns of the western end.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Geese and Seawalls

 For the first since they moved inland in the Spring, we have a flock of Greylag geese building up on the reserve again. This morning the flock totaled around 190 birds and being feral they are quite approachable. Unfortunately that reasonable tameness also means that one can normally get really close to them, which is not ideal where shooting is concerned. These birds come from a large flock of over 5-600 Greylag and Canada geese that has been in the western end of Capel Fleet during the summer and which have been shot at fairly intensively this last couple of weeks. As a result the birds have dispersed around Harty looking for safety, with many arriving on the reserve. Given the way that these birds continue to increase both on Sheppey and in the South in general, I suppose it could reasonably be argued that a degree of thinning out won't do too much harm.

The two photos below show the results of what happens when the Environment Agency set about mowing the sea wall in front of the reserve. For the second year running, in recent times, they have carried out this environmental vandalism and in the process probably wiped out a large percentage of next year's butterflies and moth populations. The long, overgrown and green vegetation will have been home to any number of eggs, caterpillars and pupae that would of become next year's butterflies and moths, but now they have been cut down and destroyed to leave a length of sea wall that is no more than a mere 2in of straw. Clearly the words nature reserve (which it is), protection and wildlife do not appear in the E.A's glossary of terms, despite their title.

One bit of good news concerning the sea wall is the fact that Swale Borough Council have finally, after some wasted months, given the reserve management permission to replace two hides on the reserve. So sometime before the winter we should have a nice new one along the seawall, close to the existing derelict one, and a further one somewhere towards the middle of the reserve. Much needed protection from icy winter winds when carrying out Harrier Roost counts as it gets dark along the seawall, thank gawd.
Birds, certainly on the main grazing marsh part of the reserve, still remain very much at a premium, apart from the geese. Even the Green Sandpipers and Wheatears are seemingly giving us a miss now in the arid conditions. This morning whilst walking round it was pretty much just a few passing through Swallows, Sand and House Martins, although out of the wet mud that was supposed to be a ditch, a few Teal did get up. I imagine that when I survey that section as part of the reserve's WEBS count on Friday I shall hardly be taxed - if only we'd had a wet summer!
So that was pretty much it today, dry conditions, few birds, a ruined sea wall and some clumps of Spiney Rest-harrow still in flower.

Saturday 8 September 2012

September Serenity

The whole of Harty resembles a golden dust bowl at the moment with its mixture of yellow stubble, bare soil and little semblance of moisture anywhere. The above photo shows the reserve "Scrape" in the field that we call The Flood. Despite deepening and extending it last year and an alleged wettest summer for a 100 years, this is how it currently looks. It'll clearly take some degree of rain to re-fill it again this autumn.
But what a splendid month September is, as a stand alone month in the year it can have a real beauty and serenity with it's calm and sunny early mornings and evenings. If it were a drug it would be valium because you tend to go home much calmer than when you arrived, such is the peacefulness that it bathes you with.
I stood for a while by the Delph Fleet alongside the seawall early yesterday morning and watched as the sun began to increase in strength and cause wisps of vapour to swirl across the surface of the water. It was soon followed by the awakening insect life, the Water Boatmen, the flies, and a dragonfly that must of been in the path of the sun's rays, it all gradually came to life. In that overpowering warm silence I could hear two Water Rails calling, perhaps to each other, with those peculiar squealing sounds that they make deep inside the reed beds, because one rarely sees these birds. And then came the constant asdic-like "pinging" of a family party of Bearded Tits and I definitely saw these splendid and tropical looking birds as they worked their ways along the flower heads of the phragmites. A Reed Warbler began scolding me as it appeared from the depths of the reed bed to suddenly spot me, it quickly disappeared again - has it been here all summer or was it just passing through, one thing's for sure, even a warm and balmy September won't keep it here much longer. I doubt it realises how lucky it is to have a natural migratory instinct that means it never experiences the cold and the dankness of winter in England.
And lastly as I stood there, a small party of Coots made there way across the Fleet, these birds, always one of the commonest of  the reserve's water birds, have crashed in numbers this last year, although we don't really know why. They first disappeared, completely, in last winter's drought, and although water levels were very low, it's never seen the complete disappearance of the birds before. A few pairs began to drift back in the Spring but we only ended up with around ten pairs breeding this year, against an average of thirty pairs most years, and even then 50% of them lost their eggs to crows, so its been a real loss of an iconic water bird.  

So there you have it, twenty minutes stood along the Fleet in the increasing warmth of a September morning, big skies and long distances spread out in front of me which ever way I looked, and the overwhelming sense of calmness and quiet - magical.
I walked back into the grazing marsh, stepping over and around the countless ant-hills as I went and disturbed two hares that I hadn't spotted in my wistfullness. They sped off at some speed into the distance and I stood and watched them do what hares often do, discreetly circling back in the cover of the longer grass, almost to where they started from, but my continuing presence caused them to carry on past. Its good to see these on the reserve at the moment, it gives them protection and at the moment, food. With the arable fields bare of vegetation after the harvest cultivations, I guess the grasses of the reserve supply some food source, but you can bet your life that once the first tasty green shoots of emerging winter corn start to appear, they'll soon be gone again.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Wildfowling and Laplands

Last Saturday, 1st September, I arrived on the seawall of the reserve just as a rather splendid dawn was breaking over Shellness Hamlet, as you can see above. Darkness was turning to half-light, Curlews were calling out on the mudflats, a few Swallows zipped by into the gloom, excitedly leaving England behind and all was September calm.
I arrived that early in order to monitor the first morning of the new wildfowling season, which in the reserve's case, takes place on and over the saltings in front of the reserve. The first few mornings can often see up to twenty odd Kent Wildfowling and Conservation Association (KWCA) members strung out along the saltings and  tucked down in the muddy, tidal gullies that dissect the saltings. Some may be regular members simply anxious to be out and about again, some may be new members completely new to the sport. At first on Saturday I thought that none had turned up as I scanned the saltings in the half light for the tell-tale heads sticking above the level of the vegetation, but eventually I spotted just three guys. That's one of the lowest first-morning turn outs that I've seen but I guess some may of done their homework and realising that both water and wildfowl on the reserve were in very short supply, had not bothered, or gone somewhere else.
From what I've seen and heard since, somewhere else could of been in front of the Oare nature reserve, just across the Swale. Here apparently, there were around twelve KWCA members shooting successfully in the morning, with others returning in the evening, and several Greylag Geese and some duck were witnessed being shot there by birdwatchers during the morning session.

Now, here's where I struggle with what side of the line that my feet should be placed in respect of wildfowling. Regular readers of my blog will know that in recent times I have shown some degree of support for the wildfowlers and what, in the overall picture of things, that they achieve for conservation. I believe that the ever-increasing portfolio of shooting areas under their ownership/management helps enormously in preserving vital habitat that others cannot themselves afford to buy, and that generally, their shooting has a minimal affect on wildfowl stocks. Unfortunately however, I think that in respect of Oare they're both getting it wrong and missing an opportunity to prove their conservation crudentials.
At Oare the wildfowlers are allowed to stand and shoot from the base of the seawall which brings them into extremely close contact with the rest of the visiting public using the footpath on top of the seawall, at the same time highlighting at very close range, the killing of wildfowl to many who are opposed to it. Talking to a daily birdwatcher at Oare after the weekend, who fortunately does not have the extreme views regarding wildfowling that many birdwatchers have, it appears that people such as a twice-daily group of lady dog walkers have already been forced to re-schedule their walks there because both they and their dogs get traumatised by shotguns being discharged close by. That really shouldn't be happening.
I'm not familiar with most of their shooting sites but imagine that Oare must be one of the worst for bringing the wildfowlers and the public into such close contact and given that they have been extending their portfolio by buying land in Cambs., Essex and Sussex I do wonder if they could be more relaxed in respect of Oare. An Association that purports to, and actually does, do a lot for the conservation of wildfowl stocks, does little to prove that fact to its detractors when its members stand within yards of a nature reserve and attempt to kill the wildfowl that the reserve is trying to attract and protect.

I was talking about the problem to a chum the other day, who has been a lifelong wildfowler and who ironically spends a lot of time at Oare photographing the birds and other wildlife. But while he can understand  and sympathise with the views of the public there he like most of the wildfowlers, still uses the argument that the wildfowlers were there first, long before it was a nature reserve. Fair enough and the Kent Trust would of been aware of that fact when they started up the reserve but I still feel that by continuing to take such a rigid stance at a site where it is possibly unique for both the KWCA and the public to be so closely intergrated, that the KWCA are missing a golden opportunity to raise their profile as conservationists. I doubt, despite having an ever expanding shooting portfolio, that they would everone give up the shooting rights there, but just reducing the amount of shooting available there would help enormously. Its all food for thought.
P.S. Since posting this blog I have been advised that allegedly, on returning to their cars in the reserve car park Saturday morning, a few of the wildfowlers found that their cars had been vandalised. If this is true, it is hardly going to encourage any kind of softening of their attitude towards their shooting there to be made, some people do have rather blinkered views  on how to go about things.

On an entirely different subject, I noticed this morning that the two RSPB fields below Muswell Manor at Leysdown, have now been cut for hay and that work is going on in a third field alongside. With much spilt wild seed laying in those fields now, lets hope that we get a repeat there again this winter, of the record flocks of Lapland Buntings that we had last winter.