Monday 25 February 2013

A cold look back

How cold it has been this last week on Sheppey's marshes. No woods and hedgerows there to shelter in or behind when one feels a tad cold and sorry for one's self, no, out on the marshes the wind hits you unchecked, all the way from the North Sea, it goes through you, rather than round. We all have our own opinions of how cold it has been, or indeed make our own choices about where we choose to visit but standing on an exposed marsh or sea wall at the moment - that's bloody cold, it eats into my bones and does me no good at all. Like many other people I'm looking forward to some warm and sunny weather but also like some others, you won't find me, a few weeks into that weather, complaining about it being too hot, or too sunny, oh no, guaranteed.

Anyway, whilst thawing myself out the other day after another session on the reserve that left me feeling like I was in training as an extra for another "Scott of the Antarctic" film, I sat indoors with a glass of warming sloe gin and looked at some old reserve records of mine. I had a look at my entries for 1990 and immediately, records for three, regularly seen bird species stood out.
In the winters at each end of the year, flocks of 20-30+ Eiders were regularly seen, likewise 30-40+ Twite and irregularly, small flocks of up to 20 Tree Sparrows.

Eiders had been a regular feature at the eastern end of Sheppey for many years, and were generally seen at three sites. The sea and shore line below Warden Point cliffs, the sea off of Shellness Point and the area in The Swale by some old barges set into the edge of the saltings in front of the Swale NNR. The first two sites were normally used during the winter months but by the spring and summer, as the flock dwindled in size, the remaining birds seemed to prefer to summer just inside the Swale, between the old barges and Horse Sands. Unfortunately, by the turn of the new century, regular sightings became less and less, although looking at the two most recent Kent Bird Reports it seems they are still being seen reasonably regularly in The Swale, so perhaps its just me.

Twite too, used to be a bird almost guaranteed to be found at Shellness Point and the saltings in front of the Swale NNR each winter, I even had one flock totaling 50 birds in 1990. I must admit that I've always had quite a soft spot for these nondescript little birds but these days you are lucky if you are able to pick out the odd bird in a Linnet flock.

The last species, Tree Sparrows, definitely appears to have gone for good, just as they have in many other places. For the first four or five years that I was a vol. warden on the reserve, there was a small breeding colony in some of the thickets on the adjoining farmland. It was my first ever encounter with Tree Sparrows and I loved them and made up some nest boxes for them that I placed in one of their favourite thickets, which they readily used. During the autumn/winter months a small flock of 15-20 birds would regularly come down onto the reserve to feed in the grass and the reed beds, it was a real joy to see them.  For me at the time, I assumed that they were simply part of the local bird scene, which I suppose that they always had been, I had no inkling that even then their numbers were on the slide and if I had done, I would of at least put up even more nest boxes. Then, after a couple of years of not seeing them at all I deliberately had a look around their regular haunts to try and find some but they were no more, it coincided with worries being expressed nationally about their demise.
It's a really hard to understand why they have been lost on Harty, the habitat that they used is still there, and is even better if anything. The food supply via game cover strips full of well seeded wild plants has improved greatly, but constant spraying of arable fields alongside has removed most of the supply of insect life needed for chick production. If I were to choose a location for Tree Sparrows to reside in, their previous haunt on Harty would fit the bill perfectly, so perhaps it does just come down to insect life, perhaps there are just too few Tree Sparrows moving around in Kent now for them to be able to find and re-colonise these old sites.

Wednesday 20 February 2013


After my pleasant little detour off on the subject of family history, it's back today to the more mundane subject of the reserve and birds.
Late afternoon on Monday, in beautiful sunny and calm weather, I carried out the fifth harrier roost count of this winter on the reserve. The afternoon gradually became a most beautiful sunset and early evening and apart from one wildfowler out on the far edge of the saltings, I had the place to myself and thoroughly enjoyed it. At last I could enjoy the comfort of the new Seawall Hide from which to watch, so much better than the exposure and cold wind of the top of the seawall, the hide has received much praise since it's been there. As is always the case with the harriers, they always leave it until pretty much the last of the good light and you are frozen cold, before they eventually drift along the saltings and drop into the Shellness saltings to roost. After a nil count in January I was pleased to record three ring-tail Hen Harriers go into roost, one of them even alighting on the sea wall, yards from me first.
Today, with it being February 20th and therefore the last day of this winter's wildfowling season, I arrived on the sea wall not long after first light this morning. There was just the one lone wildfowler freezing his bits off out on the saltings as the photo above shows. It's not a very well lit photo but he is the little black blob in the middle of the saltings, it's not a blackfly on the lenses. When he eventually came back to the sea wall we had a pleasant chat for a while about all things birds and shooting, when he could stop his teeth from chattering, that is. I have no real problem with those guys these days but it will be nice now until September to have the early mornings to myself.
The two photos below show the extent of the excellent conditions for both wildfowl and waders across The Flood on the reserve at the moment and the large numbers of both there are well worth coming and viewing from the Sea Wall Hide in front of them.

Yesterday in The Flood alone, I had 60 White-fronted Geese, 70 Greylag Geese, 800 Brent Geese, 600 Wigeon, 500 Teal, 160 Mallard, 20 Gadwall, 40 Shoveler, 160 Shelduck, 40 Pintail, 1100 Lapwing, 80 Coot, 180 Black-headed Gull, plus numerous other waders. Today, I also spotted the Hooded Crow again and had 2 Bearded Tits alongside the hide.

Today, I estimated the Lapwing count across all the reserve to be c.1800 birds and the Shelduck number had increased to +200.
Another event, in the adjacent maize fields, as well as several thousand Wood Pigeons, there is now a daily Starling flock of close on a 1000 birds regularly performing all manner of aerial gyrations every time a raptor passes by. There is a lot to see on the reserve from the sea wall and its hide at the moment and it'd be nice to see people witness the birds before they disperse for the summer.

Thursday 14 February 2013

A Remarkable Lady

During the research into my family's history, which stretches from 1776 to the present day and is still on-going, I have always been greatly impressed by the contribution that one couple in particular made to the family's history, especially the strength of the wife. This is my attempt at a brief account of their story. (Apologies for repeating bits of a previous posting.)

Martha Thomas was born in a farm cottage at Parsonage Farm, Minster, Sheppey on 11th October 1851, the second of five children born to Isaiah and Margaret Thomas. Her father was a farm labourer, born on Sheppey and her mother, formerly Margaret McKey, had been born in Ballarmoney, Ireland. The only photos that I have of her are those above, the first in older life, looking quite formidable and the second, looking even more severe in black, in 1927 at a family wedding a few years before her eventual death.
Farm labourers in those days tended to move round the area quite regularly with their families as work opportunities came and went, usually living in pretty primitive cottages on the farm where they were working.
Therefore by the time that Martha had reached her tenth birthday in 1861 her family had moved and were living in a cottage just along the Harty Road, Sheppey, from Elliots Farm. This doesn't appear to have been exactly the case for young Martha though because in the 1861 Census that year, she was recorded as living in Elliotts farmhouse itself, with her status noted as Housemaid to the family there. Presumably she received some small payment for that but it was a very young age to be working, although not uncommon, and certainly would have restricted any schooling that was available to her.

In 1871 the family had once again moved and were now living at Newhouse Farm on the higher ground between Leysdown and the Harty Road and in clear sight of their previous cottage a couple of miles away. They were living in a small terrace of cottages at the farm, known as Till's Cottages after the owner, No.3 to be exact and this time, the soon to be 20 year old Martha was living at home with the remainder of the family. At No. 5 in the terrace, along with a family of seven and two other lodgers, my 22 year old great grandfather Adey Faulkner was living and clearly both he and Martha had been courting because on the 8th October that same year, they were married at nearby Leysdown Church.  A rather rushed affair it would seem because just six weeks later on the 20th December 1871 their first son Adey jnr was born!
Not only that, he was born at Wyburns Farm, part way down Wards Hill Road, Minster, the same road where ironically I now live.
Minster in the 1870's, was still the dominant parish on the Island and pretty much controlled what went on in the whole of Sheppey. It's hub was the tiny High Street by the Abbey, flanked on both sides by old wooden houses and a few pubs but the surrounding area was a big improvement on the conditions that existed out on the marshes of the eastern end of Sheppey, where Adey and Martha had just moved from. There at Wyburns, they had a farm cottage and a new son and Adey was employed as a Waggoner on the farm. According to some accounts of that time Waggoner on a farm was a fairly secure job with a few perks and so they appear to have begun married life perhaps better than others.

At first, all appears to have gone well for the two of them and as was generally the norm in those days, children began to follow at almost yearly intervals. William was born in 1873 and then James John in 1874 but the next child, George, born in 1876, was born at Black Cottages along the Minster Road. An explanation for the birth site is pretty much impossible to find now, perhaps Martha was staying with friends or family or perhaps Adey had moved to another place of work. If it was the latter then it must of only been temporary because the next child, Thomas Alfred, was born back at Wyburns cottages in 1877, as were the subsequent children, but he became the first of the couple's tragedies. He was born on the 9th June 1877 but survived just three months before dying on the 24th September 1877, the cause on his death certificate being given as Marasmus.
Googling Marasmus I found that it is a severe form of malnutrition brought about by poor protein-energy intake and is most frequently associated with acute infections such as measles, gastroenteritis, etc. Given the poor health conditions and food supply in those times it was a fairly common cause of death in infants and still is in Third World countries today. It was a harrowing time for Adey and Martha and Martha signed the death certificate as witness to her son's death - she signed with an X, testament to the education that she lost in her youth.
The sadness however was not to go away because their first daughter, Alice Emily, was next born, on the 28th August 1878. Just eight months later on the 24th May 1879 she died at home, once again Martha had to witness the death of a child and this time the death certificate recorded the death as from convulsions. Once again a Google search found the answer, convulsions appear to be another name for epilepsy, tragic in one so young and presumably an illness with little understanding in those days.
My granddad Albert was the next and seventh child to be born, on the 24th March 1880 and fortunately for his parents, did not succumb to any fatal illness in infancy, going on to live a full and healthy life. I guess that it would of been easy for the parents to forgo having any more children after that but Martha was still only 29 and there was still the spur of having a surviving daughter. That prayer was answered twice over eighteen months later when on the 30th August 1881 Martha gave birth to twin girls, Elizabeth Francis at 14.00 and Catherine Rosa at 14.05. Despite this raising the number of surviving children in the cottage to seven, Adey and Martha were hopefully over-joyed at having two girls at last, but perhaps the struggle to feed all the children once again caught up with them. Eighteen months later the twins both died, just fifteen days apart. On the 10th February 1883 Elisabeth Francis died and its hard to imagine the heartbreak that Martha must have gone through, first with that death and then struggling to keep Catherine Rosa alive until she eventually died on the 25th February 1883 - both had died from the same cause, the dreadful Marasmus. On both their death certificates Martha was recorded as the witness to their deaths and having experienced this for a fourth time she must have been in an emotionally awful state but unfortunately it was not the end of her suffering.
In October 1884, Frederick Charles, their tenth and final child was born, but sadly he also died, just three months later on the 28th January 1885 - he died of convulsions. Interestingly, granddad Albert, the last of Martha's children to survive to old age, also had a daughter, my auntie, who suffered with epilepsy the whole of her life.

Martha was still only 33 years old and yet had given birth to ten children and witnessed five of then die in infancy, it was a sad reflection on the hardships endured in parenthood in those times and she probably looked and felt very much older than she actually was. After Frederick there is no record that they had anymore children and who could blame them,  it was time to move on!
How soon that the couple did that is not recorded but by the time of the 1891 Census the whole family were living in a cottage at nearby Ripney Hill Farm, with both Adey and his four eldest sons all recorded as working as farm labourers. It was important that the family stayed in employment because Minster Workhouse was never far away at the top of Wards Hill Road and it was always full with the poor of Minster. To their credit, the family never succumbed to this fate, they always stayed in employment by moving around but it must of been hard. Local farm records for around that time show that people who did manage to remain in farm work struggled by on an average wage of less than three shillings a day. In an attempt to improve conditions for both themselves and their workers, in 1894 the majority of Sheppey's farmers formed local branches of the National Agricultural Union, a large number of farm workers joined in the hope that it would bring better security but there's little evidence to suggest that it did.

The turn of the new Century came and went and 1901 found the Faulkner family now living in Minster High Street. The short High Street was not as grand as it may sound, a couple of pubs and shops but mostly old, wooden houses in poor condition, many of which eventually burnt down in a fire that broke out in the 1920's.
Basics such as water and oil for lamps still often had to be bought from the daily horse and cart rounds, although water could sometimes be carried from local wells. Adey and the three youngest sons continued to work in the area as farm labourers but the two oldest had by now left home. Interestingly one of them, George, was now lodging in Queenborough and working locally as a railway plate-layer, a new century, a new type of occupation!

By 1907 Adey and Martha, now on their own, were living in Back Lane, a short road running parallel with the High Street. They were living in Swale View Terrace, an old terrace of cottages that once stood at the top of Scocles Road and here sadly, the 57 year old Adey died. His death certificate records his death as being caused by malignant disease of the stomach and exhaustion, the exhaustion being particularly relevant in those hard times I imagine.
Despite witnessing yet another death in her family, the dauntless Martha was not to be held back from life and just eighteen months later, herself then 57, she re-married. On the 9th December 1908, at Minster Abbey, she married a 60yr old widower by the name of Edward Kennett. Although he been born in Sheppey, at the time of their marriage Edward was employed as a scavenger (possibly street cleaner) by Bermondsey Council in London and also living in Bermondsey. I wonder how the two of them found each other, an interesting story never to be discovered. Anyway, Martha now starts an entirely new and unlikely episode in her life and spends a number of years living in Bermondsey with her council worker husband and his elderly brother William.

Her story goes cold then until 1922 when Edward and her were clearly back on Sheppey, possibly in retirement, because during that year Edward died on Sheppey, aged 73. Martha appears to have continued to live on her own in the Halfway, Sheppey and in 1927 appears in the wedding photograph of her granddaughter.

Finally, on the 3rd January 1934, Martha died of Cerebral Haemorrhage, arthritis and senility in Cliff House, Minster, the name under which the Minster Workhouse was known by. Given that her home address on the death certificate was still in the Halfway, I rather imagine and hope, that she was only in the Workhouse being treated in it's Infirmary. The Infirmary there had been for many years the nearest thing that Sheppey had to a hospital and medical treatment for both inmates and outsiders and over the next couple of years the Workhouse did close down and the buildings became the old Sheppey General Hospital.
Martha was 82 years old when she died and despite being badly saddened by death and pretty much worn out at 33, she went on to live a long life that was the bedrock of the Faulkner family that came after. I am proud of her.

Sunday 10 February 2013

February WEBS

The usual three of us carried out the reserve WEBS count yesterday morning and in good spells of sunshine it was almost warm as I walked round the main marsh part of the reserve that is my section to count. For the first time for a year, it was also nice to be able to sit in the comfort of the sea wall hide and count the large number of birds that were spending the high tide period either feeding or roosting in the "Flood field" in front of the hide.
A little way past the hide is the last field at the eastern end of the reserve, we know it as Compartment 55. It lies alongside the field of harvested maize and because of its part flooded nature it has been recently attracting large numbers of Brent Geese, Shelducks and gulls. Many of these birds feed on the spilled maize next door and then come onto the reserve for a wash and brush up in the wet areas. Above you can see some of the Shelducks and gulls that were spread across it.

To the left of Comp.55 is Comp. 54, which also includes the top end of the "S Bend Ditch," and here there were Whitefronted, Barnacle and Greylag Geese, all sharing the water with Wigeon, Mallard, Teal, Pintail and Shoveler ducks. In the background you can see the top of the new, lower, Tower Hide peeping over the salt-working mound. Incidentally, on Friday afternoon a black rabbit was seen on top of this mound, a really heartening sighting.  Rabbits of this naturally occurring colour type used to be widespread across the reserve, but like their normal coloured cousins, they have virtually disappeared on the reserve in recent years. Below you can see more Shelducks  and Brent Geese beginning to drop in, behind them is the brown stubble of the maize field.

The Brent Geese were very mobile for a while with several flocks along the reserve being scared up by regular over-flights by a low flying light aircraft. Eventually they all combined into one flock in and around Comp. 55, where a single Black Brant was eventually located. A large flock of Carrion Crows also moved between the geese and among them I also picked out the single Hooded Crow that has been around for a couple of weeks. A single Hoodie has been a feature on and around the reserve for several winters now, whether its always the same bird is open to question but its strange that only the one bird bothers to travel south each year. Hardly a mega-rarity, its only a bloody crow after all, but combined with the Black Brant it added a bit of "colour" to yesterday's report.

While standing there looking at Brents and assorted wildfowl, I suddenly found myself instinctively ducking as I seemed to be surrounded by the loud rushing noise of hundreds of birds. Looking up, I was just in time to see a large flock of Starlings plunging downwards in a tight ball of birds that suddenly exploded outwards as a Peregrine Falcon dropped through them like a thunderbolt. The falcon was unsuccessful and the Starlings sped off across the reserve, while the Pergrine briefly circled above me, perhaps watching the dogs and then disappeared off at speed across the maize fields. With several thousand Wood Pigeons feeding on the maize there the Peregrine once again caused a major panic as it no doubt struggled to pick exactly the right one for dinner from such a choice.
There were certainly a lot of birds about during the count and mine alone out of the three of us was very encouraging after the quiet winter. Highlights were as following:-

5 G C Grebe and 110 Shelduck on The Swale.

50 Greylag Geese, 32 White-fronted Geese, 800 Brent Geese, 5 Barnacle Geese, 180 Shelduck, 14 Pintail, 40 Teal, 70 Mallard, 40 Wigeon, 24 Shoveler, 110 Coot, 20 Avocet, 120 Golden Plover, 1000 Lapwing, 90 Grey Plover, 200 Curlew, 700 Dunlin, 30 Redshank, 240 BH Gull, 110 Herring Gull.

The large number of Dunlin using the Flood Field as a high tide roost is an unusual but welcome sight and duck numbers were down but at high tide many fly out to The Swale and drift up and down on the tide. It was a busy morning's count but very enjoyable after the relative boredom of the previous months on the reserve this winter. Now we just need some warm and sunny weather.

Monday 4 February 2013

Sunshine at Last

 Its was a real pleasure both Saturday morning and today to walk round the reserve not only under clear blue skies but with the sun so increasing in strength so that it was warm on the back of my jacket and head. The photo above was taken by my girlfriend Di Gardner from the new Tower Hide on Saturday and shows the sun being reflected off the flooding in the aptly named Flood Field.

This morning, if it wasn't for a strong and cold NW wind it could of been almost Spring-like and indeed was in sheltered spots out of the wind. Mind you, the benefit of the drying wind and sun combination, which is forecast to last all week, is that the ground surface will quickly dry out and make walking round so much more pleasant, what a joy that will be!
The photos above and below show the reserve this morning under the blue skies and sunshine and looking a lot dryer than it actually was. It seems silently waiting for the Spring that is hopefully just a few weeks away, like the first Lapwing's nest and the first Wheatear along the boundary fence. It's the time that we we wish our life away wishing that we could simply jump over the drag of February and be straight into March.

The reed beds and the willows wait patiently as well, soon to be turning green and welcoming back Reed and Sedge Warblers, all the way from Africa to nest again. The Greylag Geese also seem to sense something and have begun pairing up and squabbling is taking place in the flocks as males chase away other interested males from their chosen mates.

Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself and for sure there will be more cold weather yet to spoil the mood but even the reserve's only two gorse bushes had flowered for the party today.

On Friday the inland shooting season finished for another season and by all accounts has been pretty poor, with, as I have mentioned before, wild ducks being very much at a premium and a cause for some concern locally, especially Mallard. Perhaps that's the reason why the last-day shoot across a marsh in N. Kent last Thursday saw fit to shoot and kill 50+ Coots, for no other reason than it is legal to do so and they provided extra targets. To justify this, luckily, uncommon form of shooting these days, those doing it will cite the fact that the birds eat corn put round ponds to attract in wildfowl for shooting. While I have been openly supportive of some forms of shooting in recent years, this form takes shooting down to despicable levels and leaves those doing it deserving of the condemnation that they get. Once again it highlights the gung-ho and large bag nature of the inland commercial shoots - such a different outlook to that of the lone and discreet wildfowler along the shoreline.
I have brought the subject of shooting both Coot and Moorhen up before and still find it hard to accept why, in this day and age, conservation groups still find it acceptable for those two birds to remain on the legal shooting lists and haven't lobbied for their removal. Lets face it, I doubt that many of those that have shot those birds have thought seriously about trying to eat them, they hardly look a tasty treat.

That aside, it just leaves wildfowling still able to take place below the high water mark on the seaward side of the seawall until the night of February 20th. Yesterday morning at first light I stopped to have a customary chat to three wildfowlers as they came back to the sea wall from off the saltings in front of the reserve. They had sat out in the mud for almost three hours, were frozen stiff and between them had shot just one Teal, something that exemplifies the huge difference between wildfowling and the type of shooting described above. OK, it was still one Teal too many if you are one of the "ban all forms of hunting" types that regularly hug each other on this topic in local blogs these days, but me, I see it as proof that wildfowling in most cases, is easily the hardest and least productive form of shooting in the countryside.