Friday 30 November 2012

Sunny and Serene

After a week of rain, cold winds and cloudy conditions, what a joy it was to be on the reserve this morning. The ground white with frost, clear blue skies and the sun hitting me in the face as I drove down to the barn, it was fantastic.

 Even the flooded areas looked better with a blue sky reflected in them, they weren't any less hard to negotiate but they looked better. The Delph Fleet alongside the seawall (below) had barely a ripple on it and Bearded Tits "pinged" as they made their way along the reed tops.

The whole area had a real feel of warming sun and serenity about it and even the cows seemed to be grazing quieter - mmm, think I'm getting silly now.

One thing was for sure, with the ground made firmer by the frost for a while, I was able to forsake the 'orrible wellies and wear my walking boots for a change, so much more comfortable for the old arthritic feet. So by picking a route that avoided the worst of the deep water, deep mud and fresh cow shit, I had a really enjoyable walk round. (Reading one local blog this week where the guy's patch is mostly woodland and hedgerows, I was amused to see him saying how depressing it was because the ground had puddles and it was squelchy. (Try a day on the North Kent marshes at the moment you poor darling and you'll find out what proper squelchy is!)

Anyway it all began really well because the first birds that I clapped eyes on were six Brent Geese feeding in winter corn alongside the reserve and one of them was my first ever Black Brant, which considering I saw my first ever Pale-breasted Brant yesterday, quite made the week. (I came over all Twitchery then but hopefully it'll soon pass).
The next thing that quickly became apparent was that at long last birds are beginning to move in and utilize what we've painstakingly spread out before them - lots of water, lots of boggy ground, even some fly-covered cow pats, nothing like it for wildfowl and waders! They were all mostly in and alongside the "S Bend Ditch", where a grazing field was part flooded, but with the sun behind them I was mostly looking at several hundred dark shapes. But my cunning plan of simply walking the long way round behind them worked, well cunning except for the fact that I stood in a cow hoof print full of water and had liquid mud squelch all the way up a trouser leg to my crutch.

But anyway, apart from being wet I was now able to identify all the birds in that one field and flooded Ditch. It amounted to c.500 Lapwing, 200 Brent Geese, 120 Teal, 70 Mallard, 8 Snipe, 12 Mute Swan. Best of all though was the fact that what at first I assumed to be simply c.20 Greylag Geese grazing, turned out to be 12 Greylags and my first 10 White-fronted Geese of the winter, which promptly took flight. Once again I had to rub the old hanky across the brow as those feelings of being Twitchy rose to the surface again.
That was pretty much all the excitement for the day, the rest of the walk round was spent enjoying the increasing warmth of the sun, mulling over the poetic things I was gonna write on my blog when I got home, and looking at the current Wood Pigeon spectacle. The farm fields between the reserve and Shellness Hamlet, a huge acreage, still retain most of the maize crop that was sown earlier this year. A brief attempt to harvest the crop a couple of weeks ago but it quickly became evident that the ground was too wet to take the weight of the combine harvester and so the crop has been pretty much abandoned. This has seen many thousands of the maize cobs dropping their corn onto the ground below, with the result that we seem to have every Wood Pigeon in Kent out there feeding in the fields. The flock has gradually built up as pigeon-post gets around and it currently stands at around 3,000 birds, a spectacular sight every time they take flight as something disturbs them.
Yesterday that disturbance came in the form of the weekly farmland game shoot, which decided that the first drive should be through the maize fields at the rather opportune and easy targets of several thousand massed pigeons. For a brief spell the shooters did spectacularly well as the birds kept getting up in front of them and I imagine much pigeon pie will be eaten this weekend.

So with a bit of luck, we'll get a nice hard frost again tonight and I'll get out at first light tomorrow morning and get some nice views of a big, orange sun, climbing up above Seasalter as dawn breaks.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Water, Water, Everywhere and yellow fungi.

Well, as is to be expected after the rain of the last week, the reserve is now starting to flood up quite well now, although we still have some way to go before we reach the levels, or should I say depths, of the 2008/9 winter. The view above greeted me today as I pulled up to park at the reserve barn, entry on to the grazing marsh now requires the wearing of wellie boots. The ditch either side of the gate is fed by all the water draining off the farmland alongside and has now flooded across the gateway. It's bad enough having to wear wellies but when you only have short legs like the dogs its all a bit much and although Midge was having second thoughts, Ellie showed us how to do it.

However we all got through OK and the view below shows that the water is now creeping back up the track to the front of the barn. Although the water near to the barn is only a few inches deep at the moment I was amazed as I approached it, to see minnows zipping about in it, that far away from the ditch proper.

Turning 180 degrees to begin walking round the reserve, the photo below shows what faced us (the straight lines in the middle are the track). You can just make out the white shapes of the sheep in the distance on ground that is only slightly higher and in the 2008/9 winter even that was all under water, but we're getting there.

This ditch is just behind the sheep above and runs across to the sea wall. As you can see it has now begun to flood out onto the grazing marsh. Incidentally, the bund to the left-hand side of it is where the Desert Wheatear was seen a couple of weeks ago, its obvious why it never hung around!

Getting across that ditch entailed going through this raised but still flooded gateway, which my wellies only just cleared in the middle. Midge seems to be having second thoughts, the way back looks far more appealing!

Below is the start of the "S Bend Ditch", which you can see has flooded outwards in all directions. This time last year, right through until this April, that ditch, or Stone Fleet to give its proper name, was bone dry. If previous years are anything to go by, that gateway and track will now be inaccessible until at least May next year. Oddly enough though, and despite a lengthy walk round, expectations of seeing large numbers of Lapwings and Golden Plovers on the waterlogged grazing fields, came to nothing. Clearly with the whole of Harty equally waterlogged the birds are spoilt for choice but one would of expected far larger numbers than the few dozens that we are currently experiencing. A few curlews fed in the grass while the tide was high and around 200 Brent Geese grazed alongside some Mute Swans in a flooded section but really, a dozen newly arrived Gadwall were the best thing on offer apart from Hen and Marsh Harriers.

Lastly, you might recall my photo of a bright purple fungus a few weeks ago, well today on the sea wall I found this bright orangey-yellow one, which remains unidentified as yet.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Childhood Natural History in the 1950's

The comments I made about twitchers in my last post, which often see me classified as odd by that particular type of some-time birdwatchers, have evolved I suppose, as a result of several meetings with some of them over many years. Perhaps I have just been unfortunate in coming across the odd bad apples each time but on the whole I have always found them an arrogant and cliquey bunch of people who often abandon established codes of practice in their determination to see what somebody else has found for them.
I suppose it also comes from a degree of contempt for the fact that it is easy these days to be an expert naturalist simply from the comfort of an armchair - want to always know where the latest uncommon/rare birds are, don't find them yourself, buy a Pager - want to know what that bird looks like, study it in depth on the internet - buy telescopes, binoculars and long-range cameras - buy good bird books - watch how best to go about your hobby on TV. The one thing missing from that long list of easy and convenient steps to being a modern day successful birdwatcher are the countless years of learning fieldcraft in all weathers and every season. When I look at the twitcher, rushing along the seawall, who has just zipped out from the comfort of home to answer the call of a pager, I do wonder at just what time and experience that they actually put into finding any kind of bird life for themselves, or am I simply bleating away like many old codgers, with the "you've never had it so good or easy" mantra.

As a child born in 1947, who spent his formative years growing up through the 1950's in very basic living conditions, with no electricity and just one cold water tap in the whole house, our only form of communication with the outside world was by radio. That radio was powered by an accumalator, of the type seen below, which was bigger and heavier than it looks. It was a square glass container full of acid, that often, us kids would have to lug round to the local radio shop, or back-yard supplier each week to swap for a re-charged one. Not something a child would be allowed to do today but like everything else in those times, you learned by experiencing it rather than reading about it.

I don't recall learning much at all about wildlife or nature from the radio and with ownership of bird books, etc. almost unheard of, or they were in my circle of friends, the only place to find out anything was by borrowing books from the public library. Imagine a modern day birdwatcher having nothing else but the Observers books of Birds or Birds Eggs to learn from and not even a pair of binoculars, would their interest still be there, would their blogs have any content?
What many of us old'ns now know, was learnt from many, many hours as a child wandering fields, hedgerows and marshes armed with nothing but a simple determination to learn everything one could about the countryside around you. Whatever you learned, it was done the hard way - trees were climbed, bushes and ditches were fell in, eggs collected and specimens brought home. I lost count of the number of times that I brought home caterpillars or butterflies in a jar and then had to traipse down to the library and borrow a book, often with only black and white illustrations, before I could try to identify them. Many a library book got returned with muddy pages inside where I had taken it out into the field with me.
For far too many years, until well into my 20's when I bought my first pair of cheap RSPB binoculars, I could only identify birds by eyesight alone. But those years weren't wasted years, they gave you experience in being able to identify birds by their calls and their wing and flight movements, rather than simply sticking a telescope on them. You still got joy from discovering, by actually looking on your own, the simple things, such as Song Thrushes line their nests with mud but that Blackbirds go on to cover the mud in their nests with hay, etc. You still got great enjoyment from spending a whole day among common wildlife and learning its habits, rather than the need to find that rarer specimen. How many times do bloggers these days reel off a long list of ordinary birds seen each day and then complain that there's not much about or long for something "decent" to come by. Why does it only have to be something rare these days to create enjoyment or excitement.
Above all, I recall, it was a time when nature still adhered to four clearly defined seasons, when wildlife still worked to those seasons by clockwork and by getting out and experiencing those seasons you learned more than you ever could from the internet.  

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Twitching and Harrier Roost Counts

The Sunday just gone saw this winter's second Harrier Roost Count (HRC) taking place at various parts of Kent. If we're fortunate the weather is as it was on Sunday afternoon, clear blue skies, sunshine and no wind, although it got a tad cold once the sun had set, as it was below, behind Harty Church.

On my way out to the reserve at 15.15, I briefly stopped off at the Raptor Viewing Mound along the Harty Road, where around fourteen birdwatchers were enjoying the good weather. Several harriers had already been seen from there, including both male and female Hen Harriers, and so with the Shellness saltings in front of the Swale NNR, the favourite Hen Harrier roost site, I had high expectations for my count. I was also advised/warned, that a twitch had been going on along the reserve's seawall during the afternoon due to the appearance of a male Desert Wheatear - gawd, twitchers!
Parking up at the reserve barn and letting the dogs out of the car, I could see the group of twitchers standing on the seawall, right where I normally do the HRC but fortunately there were only half a dozen, others were already making their way back along the seawall. So the dogs and I set off across the marsh towards the seawall, bathed in the orange glow of the sun, now low in the sky, and rejoicing in the beauty of such a late afternoon.
Walking up to the group it was obvious where the bird was, by the direction that their scopes were pointing and I asked if they were looking at the Desert Wheatear. Fortunately one of the group could be bothered to reply, the others looked at me as though I was the village idiot, and continued talking among themselves - my lowly opinion of twitchers became even more entrenched! Anyway, the guy who did reply let me have a look at the bird through his scope, yes Desert Wheatear and five seconds later it was history. I wondered how far and how long these guys had travelled and rushed to spend such a short time making a tick and so asked the one who was being friendly, to my surprise he said he came from California! No, he hadn't jetted over at the speed at light at the beep of his pager, he currently now lives in Edenbridge but I guess that's far enough to come on a whim. We walked a short distance away from the other group and he carried on along the seawall home while I began looking for Harriers that might be coming into roost on the saltings, as the light was ebbing fast. As I did so, the remaining group began walking past and I made a second attempt at conversation by asking if they had far to go for home and all I got was a curt "no" as they all trundled past in silence - methinks I'll stick at being the village idiot and leave the twitching to those that feel that they know better!
By now it was getting colder and darker and yet still no harriers had appeared to roost, quite surprising as I'd seen two male and single female Hen Harriers regularly over the last few weeks on the reserve. Finally in the increasing gloom, I did spot a pair of Marsh Harriers drop into the reed beds alongside the seawall and then, briefly, in swept a female Hen Harrier. However, with a high tide part flooding some of the saltings, it clearly wasn't to her liking and she eventually made her way across the reserve and dropped into a reed bed by the barn, which is unusual.  
So, my count of just three harriers was pretty poor for mid-November but several other roosts were being counted on Sheppey and the two whose counts I've already seen had credible numbers, all in reed beds - one on Harty had 24 Marsh Harriers and one from Elmley had 14 Marsh Harriers and 2,500 Starlings.

Monday 12 November 2012

Martha Dodd - Elmley's Longest Resident?

A couple of weeks ago, a local historian, G. Turner, kindly sent me some photographs in response to my previous blog posting re. Seaview Cottages at Elmley. Among them was a copy of a newspaper picture (above), from c.1938 showing who I presumed to be Mrs. Martha Dodd, receiving post from a postman at Elmley. I knew that the Dodd family had lived on Elmley and although they were not related to me in any way, I was intrigued that she appeared to have lived on Elmley continuously for at least 87 years and I  decided to see what I could find out about her.

Martha was born in a cottage on the Elmley marshes in 1851. Her parents were William and Elizabeth Flood and she was the last and youngest of their eight children. Her father was born across The Swale at Lynsted and her mother at Ospringe and by the time of her birth in 1851 her parents had been living at Elmley since 1838, with William employed there as a shepherd.
Looking at the wide expanse of Elmley today it would be easily to imagine that, all those years ago, Martha had been born into a pretty bleak landscape, but that wasn't necessarily the case. Sure the conditions in the cottages were very basic but with numerous cottages dotted around the marshes and a row of cottages in Kingshill farmyard itself, plus a church nearby, there was a modicum of social life. Between 1857 and 1987 the whole of Elmley was owned by the Oxford University Chest and the tenancy quite often changed hands. When the tenancy of the whole of Elmley was advertised in the Kent Gazette in 1853, two years after Martha's birth, listed alongside the various buildings, grazing marshes, etc, was a brickworks. These works, covering some 25 acres alongside The Swale, included "an inexhaustible supply of brick earth, newly built cottages, drying sheds and kilns." It seems that the brick works began life in the late 1840's and only lasted for around ten years, because in c.1860 a cement producing factory was built on the site. Included in the same advertisment was the Ferry House pub and Ferryman's cottage on the Murston side of Elmley Ferry, this 10 acre site also belonged to the Elmley estate.

 Anyway, despite the employment offered by this nearby industry, Martha's father remained working as a shepherd and by 1861 the family were found to be living at Rose Cottages on the flat marsh north of Kingshill Farm. By this time, two of Martha's brothers were also employed, one as a farm labourer and the other as a Cooper. A 1946 sketch of the buildings show a largish L-shaped cottage close to a second building with cattle stalls below and rooms above. Today, only the second building remains.
A second family of three, the Rutlands, are also shown as living at the cottages at the same time but whether they all shared the larger cottage or were split between the two buildings is not indicated.

In 1868, the 17yr old Martha married 25yr old shepherd James Dodd. He and his family were living in a cottage elsewhere on Elmley after moving from Little Bells Farm, near Eastchurch, some years before. That's pretty much how it was in those days, it was a pretty solitary life and unless you was lucky, you simply married somebody who lived close by, had children and spent a life mirroring that of your parents before you. The harsh facts of this were obviously clear to Martha just three years later in 1871 when she was just 20 yrs of age. Both she and James were living in an un-named cottage on Elmley, she already had a 1yr old daughter Ann and they were sharing the cottage with three of her husband's relatives, his 60yr old grandmother, his 18yr old sister and a 14yr old nephew.

By 1881 the Turkey Cement Works down by The Swale were in full flow and even employing some people from off of Sheppey - new blood was beginning to appear on Elmley!. As a result, several short terraces of houses had been built, also one or two larger houses and there was even a pub-come shop, "The Globe" - a small community was forming. Four years later in 1885, a new school was also built alongside the church, a school mistress employed and an average attendance of 49 children attended.
In the 1881 Census Martha and James were recorded as now living in that community, in one of the Jobs Hole Cottages, (they later became Seaview Cottages), at No.4. This move very likely came about becase James had changed jobs, he was now working as a second Wallman and it was custom in the district that regular Wallmen were allowed the use of a cottage and a certain quantity of coals, with their wages fixed on that basis. It was an important job because with high tides regularly occurring in The Swale, as they still do, upkeep of the sea walls was vital in order to prevent the marsh and its buildings from becoming flooded. By that time as well, they were sharing their cottage with their now five children - Harriet b.1872, Esther b.1873, Alfred J. b.1875, Jane E. b.1877 and Alice E. b.1880. Curiously, there was no mention of their first-born, Ann, who would of been 11 that year, had she died? Fortunately as well, the relatives were gone, Martha would of been glad of the room, the cottages were always pretty cramped affairs in those days.

Jumping forward to 1891, the cement works was at the busiest point in it's short history and was employing labourers from as far away as Birmingham. James and Martha were still living in the same cottage and James was still employed as a Wallman. Their 19 year old daughter Harriet was not recorded as living there however and had probably married or was working away somewhere, whilst 16 year old son Alfred was working as a labourer in the cement works. However the loss of Harriet from the household hadn't resulted in anymore room in the cottage, or any less work for Martha, for they now had three lodgers, all bargees working out of the cements work's small dock.
Martha was now 40 years of age and presumably life wasn't getting much easier, a husband, four children and now three lodgers all packed into the one cottage. Its easy to speculate, despite her age, whether Martha had yet ever been anywhere else away from Elmley.
The likes of Sheerness, Minster or Eastchurch would of all involved long walks along rough footpaths across fields and marshes, or possibly by horse and cart. Presumably the shortest route would of been via the Elmley Ferry, just half a mile away and a walk into Murston or Sittingbourne. Whichever route was taken would probably involve the best part of a day out and it would be easy not to bother, providing enough food could be achieved from their garden and the surrounding estate. Water was obtained from a wind pump close to the cottages and was stored in iron bound water casks outside the cottages. Likewise, coal was provided as part of their employment agreement, I wonder how it got there, was it brought there by a coalman on a horse and cart, or by other means. And finally to add to their problems, an inventory of all the buildings on Elmley that year noted that in respect of Seaview Cottages, "a good deal of work was necessary...not only to cottage occupied by Dodd but to the other three, for the labour of which the tenant is no doubt responsible".

1901 brought about the second year of a new century and with it came a rapid drop in Elmley's population figures. The cement works had closed in 1900 and with the urgent need to find other work, a lot of the community there had begun to drift away, with many ending up in London. The population figures for Elmley around that time demonstrate what I mean: in 1891 - 201, 1907 - 146, 1911 - 50. Children attending the Elmley schoolhouse had also dropped, with average attendances in 1907 of only 14 children.
For Martha and James, little had changed, they were still at No.4 Seaview Cottages, although James had now reverted back to a job as an Agricultural Labourer (farmhand) and the children had all left home. With the girls presumably getting married and therefore changing their surnames it has not been possible to track their whereabouts, except the youngest. 23yr old Alice was now working as a servant for an old lady in Dover. As for Alfred, well with the demise of the cement works he had obviously joined the exodus to London and in the autumn of 1900 had married a wife called Jane and was living in Greenwich and working in the local gas works there.

1911 is the last year that census returns are currently available on line and they once again show Martha and James still living on Elmley and although it isn't recorded, presumably still at Seaview Cottages. Martha was now 60 and poor old James 68 and still working as a farm labourer there. Interestingly, that was the first census where the householder was responsible for completing his/her own entry. In the relevant sections James has recorded that he and Martha had 7 children born alive, 6 were still alive in 1911 and one had died. That leaves a slight mystery in that I have only seen six children recorded as being born to the couple, perhaps James made a mistake with his entry. Of the children, once again only Alfred is traceable, still living in Greenwich, still working in the gas works and now with a 5yr old daughter.

And so, after that Martha's story goes cold, until that is, she re-appeared in a local paper in c.1938, pictured taking her post from the postman, who would of still come across from the mainland via the Elmley ferry. (I have another photo of the very same postman handing mail to a young Gransden actually at the ferry) The newspaper caption also indicates that she was living a few miles away from Kingshill Farm itself and so I'd be surprised if she hadn't spent all those intervening years still at Seaview Cottages - paperwork suggests that the cottages were still there as late as 1941. Was she living on her own when the photo was taken, I should think so, although it has not been possible to find an actual date of death for James.
Martha's is an incredible story, how amazing it would of been to be able to talk to her and compile all those memories into a real-life record of how Elmley had once been. It must of been so hard for her, well into her 80's, with the church and the schoolhouse falling into dis-repair and nothing but the ghosts of the brickfields community all around her.

Sometime between 1938 and her death in 1942, Martha was taken away from Elmley and removed to Farnborough Hospital in Kent where she died in Feb. 1942. None of her current family know the reason why she was hospitalised where she was, or what her illness was, but after her death she was brought back to Sheppey and buried at Queenborough Churchyard.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

How things change

 It was a very pleasant drive out to the reserve this morning along the Harty Road. The widespread overnight frost had thawed to leave the fields coated in a heavy dew, a slight mist was dispersing, the skies were unbroken blue and sunny and a flock of c.70 Fieldfare flew past overhead. The one thing that you can't miss now is the degree of visible water, Capel Fleet looks well full and even out in the winter wheat fields there are numerous areas of standing water, which will drown out the countless slugs if nothing else.
Arriving at the reserve it is also easy to see the results of the latest rainfall on Sunday morning, the ditch by the barn has now overflowed across the track to join the two sides into one. In March, after last winter's drought, this ditch was only a few inches deep, that'll certainly not be the case next March. Instead, with above average rainfall forecast for this winter, we'll possibly end up as we did 3-4 years ago, with 70% of the grazing marsh either water-logged or under water. It makes it very difficult to walk around the place but normally encourages the import of many thousands of waders and wildfowl, something we badly need at the moment.

Moving round to the "S Bend Ditch", the subject of numerous photos in blogs by me as I've charted its bone dry progress through two dry winters, it's also pleasing to be able to record that is now full and over-flowing, as you can see below.

 In fact it is so over-flowing that at one end it has completely flooded the access track and gate, putting them out of use.

The only thing missing now are the birds that should be enjoying these conditions. As I mentioned earlier, we would normally expect to see the waterlogged grazing meadows attracting large flocks of waders and wildfowl, but to date Golden Plovers aren't there at all and even the Lapwings have been slow to appear, only averaging a 100+ most days. It was not total doom and gloom this morning though, the weather conditions if nothing else, made it a real pleasure to be there and even the Mallard numbers had risen to the heady heights of c.100 birds this morning.
Some of the other birds that I saw were a Buzzard, several Marsh Harriers, a ring-tail Hen Harrier, Bearded Tits, a Water Rail, a mixed flock of c.80 Goldfinch, Linnet and Greenfinch - but best of all was a Whinchat atop an Elderberry bush, a late bird.

The huge acreage of maize both alongside the Shellness track and various other parts of Harty, now look pretty much like a lost cause. The farmer would normally expected to have combined it by now, shredding the whole plants and using the product for cattle feed, but the wet weather has made much of the ground to wet and soft for heavy plant now and in the meantime the crop has lost most of its goodness. I'm still surprised to find that people, on seeing the plants covered in large cobs of corn, mistake it for the sweet corn that they buy in the shops and think about taking some home, but its a hard and poorly flavoured thing.