Wednesday 31 October 2012

Old Age

Reading some of the local birding blogs these days I often get sharp reminders of how far I'm getting left behind by modern bird watching methods, i.e a telescope, binoculars and a note-pad are still the extent of my bird watching tools.
I've stood next to people whose pockets bleeped every five minutes as their pagers announced almost every bird rarer than a sparrow as it was seen in Kent - they must live permanently frustrated lives, being told but not being able to get there. So I haven't considered a pager, prefering not to sound like a Dalek as I go about my daily business.

Photography is another branch of bird watching that seems to have developed into a race to outdo each other with better and better and closer and closer photographs. Here, in order to guarantee praise sometimes, the blogger will sometimes post what to the ordinary person is a quite superb photo, but add the comment "its a bit blurred" or "a bit dark", so that we comment "oh no, it looks fantastic".  In their frustrations to get rare bird photos, because they have never seen one, or someone else might photograph it first, they sometimes admit on a blog that they resorted to good old fashioned "bush-bashing". This is the old-fashioned  method of sending someone into the bushes to deliberately scare out a secretive bird that is not playing ball - it might not do the bird much good but it sure helps promote one in the photography stakes. But it now appears that some people have modernized that technique, although even here I might be late on the scene.

I was reading a blog this morning whereby a rarish bird was known to be in some reed beds but had still to be seen by some bird watchers desperate to see it. No probs. there, out with the mobile phone, play the bird's call notes and hey presto, out pops the bird for all to see! Clearly that's where us archaic souls who regularly patrol The Swale NNR are going wrong when we keep recording a lack of birds. I wonder, should we be standing on the reserve playing Wigeon and Teal sounds on our mobiles, will it bring in those birds we aren't seeing.
But if it doesn't, simple, blame it on a poor signal!

Tuesday 30 October 2012

A Good Life

First off, crossing the reserve on Saturday morning I came across a tiny clump of this strikingly purple fungus. In 26 years on the reserve I've never seen it before and so I assume that it is a new arrival - but what is it, any ideas anyone, it's certainly quite spectacular.

October this year has been a really good month, we started it suffering with a drought on the reserve and are ending it with all the ditches, rills and scrapes nicely full, a sight not seen for several years. On the whole the temperatures have also been fairly warm as well and the combination of the two has seen everything growing away quite nicely and most of Harty looks quite superb at the moment. A couple of weeks ago, as I carried out the first Harrier Roost Count, I watched a tractor on the farmland alongside drilling winter wheat until well after dark. That same field today is fast turning green as the wheat shoots hastily force their way upwards before the first frosts arrive.
On a warm and sunny day such as today, everywhere looks and feels so good, both next year's rape and wheat crops are growing at a rate of knots and the reserve's cattle have an infinite supply of fresh grass on which to graze. This year as well, we've had quantities of mushrooms in the fields the like I haven't seen for some years, and so I've picked and eaten them, I've collected sloes and made sloe gin and I've picked and scattered rose hips and hawthorn haws along the seawall in the hope of starting off more bushes. We've has Jays on the farmland alongside the reserve, a rare treat, odd winter thrushes are starting to appear and very gradually the wildfowl are starting to increase in numbers. Its a good life on the reserve at the moment and hopefully November, with hopefully the addition of a few hard frosts, will continue in the same vein and then before we know it, the New Year and the dreams and hopes for 2013 will be apon us - can't wait!

Monday 22 October 2012

Foggy Perambulations

Over Saturday night and throughout Sunday, we had virtually 24 hours of non-stop rain of varying degrees of intensity. As a result I gave the reserve a miss yesterday, with seven days a week always available to me I can't see the point of getting soaked for the sake of it.
This morning I got up to thick fog and drizzle and a forecast that suggested it would be stuck like that for three days unchanged, which, put politely, was a tad depressing. But neither I nor the two dogs were to be denied a walk for a second day running and so off we set for the reserve, arriving as you can see above, to a view across the reserve that clearly indicated that birdwatching was out of the window, or to be more accurate, even bird seeing! Visibility at best was a 100 yds and for a lot of the time, 50yds, coupled with regular bouts of light drizzle, although funnily enough, or perhaps perversely, I quite like walking round the marsh in the fog. It also helps of course, if you can find your way round it without getting lost, as I'm confident I can after 26 years of walking the reserve in all weathers. However there were three Chiffchaffs calling in the willows alongside the gate and so bird identification by calls alone was going to a fun challenge for my birding knowledge today.

So off we set and almost immediately it was clear that yesterday's rain had had an enormous impact on the reserve, with some ditches almost overflowing and in the grazing marsh itself, large areas of standing water that wasn't always obvious in the longer grass until you started splashing through it. The reserve is now experiencing water levels that we wouldn't normally expect to see until around January and I imagine on the next sunny day it is going to look quite fantastic. A Wheatear was the next bird recorded and this time seen, as it perched on a gate post just ahead of me, will this be the last of this year I wondered as it disappeared into the gloom. Then the bird calls began to sound proper, I could hear Greylag Geese and Mallard somewhere to my right, a curlew passed somewhere overhead, leaving it's eirie call behind, Lapwings "peewitted" in the fog and I was reminded of an event in The Wind in the Willows. The part where one cold winter's afternoon the Mole set off into The Wild Wood and as the darkness set in he could hear and sense the scampering of rabbits and weasels close by and threatening him, but he never saw them. OK, I wasn't scared from hearing a few bird calls but the thick fog can have that sort of spooky feel about it, especially as sounds carry over longer distances and can seem nearer to you than they actually are.
The cattle had turned some of the muddy areas into very muddy areas and poor old mini-legged Ellie soon had the appearance of a fast moving clod of mud with white bits on top - so different to the longer-legged Midge who simply ambled through such morass without even getting her belly dirty, a bit Lady and the Tramp like.
The dark shape of a hawthorn bush began to take shape in the fog and from its top a Buzzard slowly flapped away from me, soon lost in the gloom as it headed across one of the arable fields. Last week I watched a tractor sowing wheat in that same field so it won't be long before it begins to turn green as the first fresh shoots begin to break free of the soil, encouraged by the wet, mild conditions. Those same conditions had also encouraged the growth of the field mushrooms and in just one small field alone I counted 150+ of them, loads of white dots growing in circles, in lines, or just dotted about. Many years ago when my Sunday morning marsh walks were followed by lunchtime pints in the local Workingman's Club,we used to fill up a bread basket with such a mushroom profusion and take it in the Club for everybody to help themselves to. It of course often saw the drinking of extra pints, supplied in gratitude, and a less than straight walk home.

We ambled on, be-jeweled spiders webs adorning just about every bit of vegetation that we passed, and came suddenly upon the small cattle herd, black shapes suddenly appearing from the fog and the drizzle. No matter what time of day or night that you visit they are rarely seem not eating, it must be a tad boring, a bit like us permanently eating just egg and chips for breakfast, dinner and tea, although I suppose we would get the choice of vinegar or tomato ketchup with it. I do recall that as a fussy eater as a young child, that many of  my dinners were egg and chips because I didn't like vegetables and such like, so I guess it can't be too bad. And that's how the walk in the fog went on, the fog got thicker, the drizzle got heavier, I got wetter and silly thoughts and recollections were pondered over, until at last, like some great ship appearing before us, the barn hove into view and it was time to just clamber into the car and disappear off home.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Autumn Fruits

It rained early this morning but by 8.00 it had been replaced by blue skies and sunshine and despite a moderate wind it was quite a mild day. I began the day with a visit to Elmley to pick the sloes that I needed for this winter's sloe gin. My usual supply from a hedge at Harty had already been harvested by somebody and so I had to look further afield, but the Elmley ones were plentiful and nicely softened and so a late winter walk will be warmed by the odd snifter of that when its ready.
A couple of weeks ago the reserve cattle and their calves were taken away to the stock yards, the calves for weaning and the parents for later auctioning. They've now been replaced by these Red Devon/Aberdeen Angus cross cattle which are apparently in-calf and will stay on the reserve until being taken away to the stock yards in the New Year in order to calve in sheltered conditions. Unlike this time last year when the reserve was already grazed out, this year there is plenty of grass for the 70 odd cattle that have arrived.

The reserve looks really quite splendid at the moment, its green and well grassed and the water levels are well up, as the Flood scrape shows in the picture above. Its just a real shame that such near perfect conditions aren't attracting any decent counts of waders or waterfowl. We carried out the monthly WEBS count on Monday afternoon and while the two guys counting the wader roosts at either end of the reserve had very good counts, my circuit round the main central part of the reserve, once again recorded another lowest monthly count. Likewise, the evening before saw me on the seawall till dark taking part in the first of this year's Harrier Roost counts, and I saw none at all, neither Marsh or Hen, although two other sites on Harty had good numbers of Marsh Harriers going into reed beds so all was not lost.

But as I've said before, its not all about birds and Ellie and Midge always find something to dig or sniff at, as you can see below, although this particular rabbit warren was empty to their frustration. Ellie was a year old recently - time flies, and looks to have grown to her full height now, although height seems the wrong word, I think Midge's toes are longer than Ellie's legs!
Also on that rabbit warren were several late flowering Ragwort plants, giving a bit of late colour and on one of them I was pleasantly surprised to find a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly both feeding and basking in the sun. After getting my knees wet several times trying to crawl close enough to photograph it, just to watch it fly off, I gave up and left it to it.
The lateness of the summer wildlife didn't end there either, as I walked past a couple of the ditches odd Marsh Frogs were still leaping into the water from the banks and some dragonflies still circled above. I guess we're right on the border-line now of summer and winter and it'll take just one sharp frost to tip the scales.

But until the frost does arrive we'll hopefully still get little feasts like these field mushrooms that have suddenly sprung up. Mushrooms with real flavour, that grow to make bacon and egg breakfasts taste so much better. Sloes for gin and mushrooms for breakfast - real autumn fruits.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Aha, we have water!

Wow, what a superb morning's weather on the reserve today, blue skies, very warm sun and no wind made it seem almost summery, it was a real joy to walk round out there.
That joy was heightened on seeing how much the water levels have increased since the overnight rain Friday into Saturday. The ditch above was half the width and two foot lower on Saturday morning but is now so full that it is flowing through a pipe under the track and re-filling a ditch alongside, as you can see below.

 The reason, thanks to all that rain, is that the neighbouring arable fields all slope towards the reserve and over the last three days all their water has been draining into the ditch above which is inside the reserve's boundary. Even better, this ditch then naturally flows from west to east and has been, and still is, taking all that water through those parts of the reserve that need it most, filling up side ditches and some rills (below), on its way.

 Even the "S bend ditch", about half a mile away (see below), has received this water and re-filled to the extent that it is over-flowing across a track alongside. It is the first October for several years that I can recall the "S bend ditch" having this amount of water in it and everything is looking really good for normal, if not wetter, levels of water on the reserve this winter. All we need now is the wetland birds to go with it, this morning's walk round the flat marsh produced just 20 Mallard, 8 Snipe,a Green Sandpiper and a couple of Herons from these wet areas.
Finches however seem to have had a good year and at present we are getting a flock of 150+ Linnets most days and this is often swollen by around 40-50 Greenfinches and the same amount of Goldfinches. Likewise Marsh Harriers seem to be showing wel lagain at the moment, I had six yesterday and five today, just a shame that the wetland birds don't like our wetland.

 One last item concerning the reserve this morning, is the fellow below. The reserve's grazier has utilized a quiet corner of the reserve as the winter quarters for his five bulls and this Aberdeen Angus looked in fine fettle as I passed by yesterday as he kept a wary eye on me. Perhaps surprisingly, I have no fear of passing close to and being in the same field as these bulls but if they had been five horses there would of been no way I'd of been in there, horses scare me greatly.

Whilst wandering round this morning on such an excellent morning for being out in the countryside, I mulled over the fact that over the last few days I have had a long chat with the farm next door's gamekeeper, a similar chat with a wildfowler on the seawall and even a brief chat with the Master of the fox hunt - but haven't seen or spoken to a single birdwatcher for some time. Perhaps those hunting types have a higher degree of optimism when looking for their quarry than birdwatchers and are prepared to put the time in. Perhaps its the early morning timescale or the fact that The Swale NNR just isn't fashionable in reserve terms these days.

One disappointing feature on the Harty farmland this autumn is the fact that the food strips round the arable fields have been ploughed in. I'm told that the farmer has come out of whatever scheme that it was that paid him to sow these strips each year with seed bearing plants that were attractive to finches and buntings. It'll be interesting to see if this has any effect on Corn Bunting numbers along the Harty Road, which in recent years in the winter has seen flocks of c.100+ birds feeding in these strips.  

Saturday 6 October 2012

The Hunt Goes On

I rained for thirteen hours overnight and didn't stop here on Sheppey until about 8.00 this morning. It was much needed in order to cancel out the drought of the last three months and I arrived at the reserve shortly after to immediately notice that ditches and rills were well full at last, perhaps we will get a normal wet winter this year, that'll be nice.
As I drove down the farm track and on to the reserve, I saw that there were several women on horse back in front of me and making their way further along the track, mmm, thinks I, could that be the fox hunt out again. That fact was confirmed as I got out of the car at the reserve barn, in the distance towards Shellness Hamlet I could here the baying of hounds and the huntsman's horn. Birdwatching and checking on the wildfowlers went out of the window as I decided to hurridly make my way round the reserve boundary towards the sound of the hunt. Meanwhile, as I went, a dozen or so women horse riders made their way along the farm track above me, accompanied by two quad bikes on which were terrier men with their terriers in cages on the back. Mmmm, clearly a signal of intent then, not simply exercising the hounds, the hounds chase the fox to ground, the terrier men clean up.
As I made my round the reserve the Hunt Master, resplendent on horse back in his red coat, was controlling the twenty odd fox hounds really well as they made their way across the farmland towards me (the photo above was spoiled by poor light). I picked up my Jack Russells, not wanting them to end up as hound meat, which was a good idea as the pack of hounds easily cleared the boundary fence and briefly surrounded me before moving off along the reserve. They turned out to be of little threat and I asked the Hunt Master to call them back onto the farmland, which with a couple of toots of his horn he quickly did. I then made the Hunt Master aware of the extent of the reserve and the fact that he had briefly also hunted across two RSPB fields without permission, he apologised and the hunt moved away to carry on doing what they have always done.

The fox hunt visits Harty far more regularly these days than it used to do and makes a mockery of those people that think that such hunting is banned - not really, and I'm surprised that those opposed to it are so easily fooled. Me, well while I'm not opposed to the control of foxes, its necessary to successfully manage a reserve for the benefit of ground nesting birds, I need to see them killed instantly with a single shot, rather than chased half way round the countryside first.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Seaview Cottages at Elmley, Sheppey

 The area at Elmley known as "The Brickfields", lies just to the right of the small and rather mis-named Elmley Hills, and opposite the old Kemsley Mill jetty. I'm not sure how it got the "Brickfields" nick-name because I can find no record of any brick making happening but there was certainly a factory making cement there. Details have now been supplied to me that there was indeed a brick making industry there in the 1850's with many of the workers living in temporary dwellings.
Details of this factory, The Turkey Cement Works, I have written about before in a previous blog and so I will repeat very little of that other than to say that despite it being there for the latter half of the 1880's and into the first decade of the 1900's, all that is left of it's existence today is a small dock and to the right of it, the flooring and foundations of the factory. Perhaps the nick-name comes from the odd sections of brick wall that are still to be found in the grass there, the few remains of the various cottages that housed many of the factory workers there.
To get to the Brickfields you turn right at Kingshill Farm car park and follow the track along the line of trees towards and past the now derelict Elmley schoolhouse. Its impossible to go past the old schoolhouse without standing there for a moment and trying to visualise both it in it's hey-day and Elmley church that once stood a few yards away. Together, the two small buildings must of stood proudly, defying the windswept isolation to serve the cement works community and the out-lying farm cottages, but now sadly confined to history and sepia photographs.

But on you must walk, following the track towards it's end, towards the rusting framework of an old wind pump and the tidal Swale. Down past hayfields and reed-fringed ditches, past the heaps of old ragstones and there you are, finally among the ghosts of an old community that no longer exists. Go the edge of The Swale and find the factory's old dock with the rusting keels of two old vessels and standing with your back to it, look towards Elmley Hills and the old wind pump that once supplied the community's fresh water. The hills were once twice as long as they are now, but were reduced in length by a half in order to supply clay for the repair of some of Sheppey's seawalls in the 1960's. So ignore the artificially flat area in front of it now and imagine it's slopes being a few hundred yards closer to the old dock. And close to its base were two small terraces of cottages, the Globe Inn and Seaview Cottages.
On a warm and sunny day with nothing but an odd rabbit scampering around on the flat turf, its so hard to imagine the community and its cottages, gardens, shrubs and trees ever being there. Its made even more difficult by the lack of photographs as evidence, but we recently had a small breakthrough. My girlfriend Di Gardner has been researching her family history and several of her relatives used to live on Sheppey in the early 1900's. One in particular, was an Edwin Williams, who despite being employed as a cowkeeper for many years on the Elmley farm, lived with his family at Seaview Cottages, pretty much on the banks of The Swale at the foot of Elmley Hills.
But as I said before no photographs appeared to exist until by chance a few weeks ago, after visiting the Brickfields, we called in to see somebody who we felt could help us and various documents started to appear. There was a hand drawn map that showed the siting of the various buildings at the Brickfields in c.1900, although frustratingly without naming them, a kind of estate agent's description of various of the named buildings through the years, including Seaview Cottages, and even better, some photocopies of photographs named as of Seaview Cottages. One in particular, the one featured above, was a copy of one that Di Gardner had the original of from her father's collection and which had been unidentified until then. There were also a couple more that showed people in the garden of the same building and it was an exciting match for Di, not only to potentialy see where her relatives once lived at Elmley, but as far as we know, they are the only ones of any of the cement works community buildings.

Looking at the old black and white photo above we were intrigued and so recently visited the site to at least try and identify where the building once stood, and came to the conclusion photographed below. The old hand-drawn map clearly showed a building of the same shape at that spot and the other clincher might possibly be a bit of wistful thinking. The extreme right of the original photo shows some shrubs lower down by the edge of The Swale and our visit found some old tamarix and willow shrubs in exactly the same place, could they be the originals and a hundred odd years old, who knows, but there doesn't seem any other reason for them being there.

Alongside the shrubs were the remains of what must of been a building's footings or walls and we stood alongside them trying to visualize the thoughts and feelings of those relatives in 1900-1910 in such a beautiful but isolated spot. To that end we also had the descriptions of the cottages given in the documentation that I mentioned earlier, see below.

These descriptions of Seaview Cottages range through various dates, from 1850 through to as late as 1942, but the one I particularly like is as follows:-
"c.1850 - a block of four cottages built about this date and each comprising: oven and boiler range in each living room and one ten gallon cast iron pot fixed in each wash-house, five bar doors and frame to each, and one stove in each house in the upstairs room; also a shop and cellar attached to one of the cottages and used as a retailing place for beer, not to be drunk on the premises, and containing two beer stands, 12 feet long and 1 foot-10ins wide, in the cellar. In the bakehouse is a 2 bushel oven and door, one kneading trough...and outside, four iron bound water caskets".

In c.1904 there is a Directory entry that shows the occupants as - "No.1 Edwin Williams - No.2 empty - No.3 John Caryer - No.4 James Dodd - Empty - Empty".

This documentation that has come to light goes on to make mention of and briefly describe many of the other buildings to be found around Elmley and is really interesting but at the same time leaves me with a slight uneasiness about the black and white photo actually being of Seaview Cottages. There was definitely a building on that spot on the hand-drawn map and the photo confirms that fact, and although it could of been split into several "cottages", it looks like a stand-alone house to me. Given that there were also two short terraces of cottages a hundred yards or so away and for me, the description above seems to be describing them, but I'll leave it to readers to make their own minds up.