Tuesday 30 July 2013

Impressions and Images - things that helped me thru life.

High summer, it's hot and it's dry and it's a struggle to find something new to say about the reserve that I ain't said before and I got to thinking about impressions - people or things that have left deep impressions on me and were the constant shadows along the paths that I have taken through life.

Born in 1947 I spent most of my childhood growing up through the 1950's and in those early post-war years on Sheppey, with only the radio or library books to garner impressions from, books easily won the day and I have never stopped reading them to this day.
The two stand out candidates in those short-trousered, plimsolled and brylcreamed hair, childhood days, were Enid Blyton's Famous Five books and Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows. The continuing adventures of the Famous Five so easily captured the imagination of a child from a poor background and the back-streets and alleys of Sheerness. Those stories described so well the kind of climate that I was living in through the 1950's, where was fun achieved from simple pursuits and pleasures. When a tent, some sandwiches, a bottle of ginger beer and the countryside was all that one needed in order to have fun and adventure. The books encouraged me to escape out from the streets and alleys and to cross the Canal that bordered Sheerness and explore the marshes and fields of the big, wide world on the other side. After I retired I revisited the one Famous Five book that I owned and set about sourcing and buying all twenty-one of the adventures, as you see below.

Around the same time that I was reading the Famous Five books I also discovered the book that has pretty much stayed with me all of my life, a book that I still regularly dip into each year - The Wind in the Willows. Even today I can still get lost in the feelings that certain passages in that book provoke and readily identify with some of the experiences that Kenneth Graham describes. Like the Famous Five books it has the power to draw out the nostalgia in me and transport me back to an age of youth and innocence and also like the Famous Five books it encouraged me out into the countryside. We never had The Riverbank or the Wild Wood nearby but with a large dollop of a young child's imagination, ditches and hedgerows were capable substitutes.

When I was twelve at the end of the 1950's, we moved to a council house and had electricity for the first time and because of that were able to have and old black and white television. The television impressed me greatly and for the first time I was able to see wildlife how it actually was and not simply how I imagined it to be from reading books. As a result Peter Scott came into my life through the Look nature programmes that ran for countless years on BBC and after reading his 1961 autobiography "Eye of the Wind" he became my first hero and the countryside my natural home.

I was fortunate enough to become a teenager just as the 1960's unfolded and to experience the way that life and lifestyles changed just as dramatically as they probably did after the First World War. Just as the 1950's had illustrated my childhood, the 60's became the benchmark that I forever compared  the rest of my life against. It and events, changed so fast that many people and things impressed themselves upon me but two stand out and have stood the test of time until the present day. In 1964 I was introduced to and impressed by, the early music of Bob Dylan and through his adopted name, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Whilst listening to Bob Dylan I also began to read whatever I could about the life of Dylan Thomas (below) and became somewhat entranced by him and his ability to paint pictures with the written word. In real life I would probably have disliked him because he was an oft drunken slob that always owed money, stole from his friends and lied greatly but reading about his life and that of his wife Caitlin, I became entranced. I can't say that I like all of his poetry but those that I do are very good, as is Under Milk Wood and hearing him narrate A Child's Christmas in Wales is the finest thing I've ever heard. As a result and throughout my life, I have been inspired to write countless, mostly poor poems and other things, if nothing else getting great enjoyment from simply writing.


And so, while Dylan Thomas had died in 1953, Bob Dylan was there in my teenage years and even today is still there as probably my last real idol. He left a lasting impression on me by his ability to mix the visionary of William Blake with the word pictures style of Dylan Thomas and set it to really great music, or so I think.

In recent years I have become fascinated by the Bloomsbury Set in the 1920's and 30's and read much about the likes of Carrington, Lytton Strachey, Frances Partridge and Vanessa Bell. They shared a life-style that I can identify with.

Friday 26 July 2013

A Fine Summer's Day

We only have one small clump of Wild Migonette on the reserve but it never fails to re-appear each year. It grows alongside the gate that allows access from the seawall round to the Tower Hide.

A previous posting of mine mentioned the number of 6-Spot Burnet chrysalis's that there were in one special field on the reserve. A wander along there yesterday found that a mass hatch had obviously taken place because they were everywhere and yet there were still plenty of chrysalis still waiting to hatch, what a wonderful summer it is.

 Field "topping" has been taking place in the grazing meadows on the reserve this week. It still leaves the vegetation around a foot high but takes away the raggedness of the fields and at the same time tops the thistles before they begin to seed. Its hard to believe that the Delph fleet is alongside the tractor but it is hidden by the tall reed beds in the foreground and yesterday there was a family party of Bearded Tits working their way along the reed tops.

During my walk round this morning I sat for a while on the steps to the Seawall Hide and under blue skies and hot sunshine, took in the peacefulness of the reserve on a summer's day, watching cows grazing has that effect. Sitting there with the song of a few still energetic Skylarks tumbling down to me and the tall grass either side of me full of the buzzing of flies and bees and great clouds of assorted butterflies, it was indeed a fine and classic summer's day.

Perhaps it was the water of the Delph sparkling in front of me, perhaps it was just me being a romantic old fool, but I found myself recalling a passage in the Wind in the Willows.
"the Willow Wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden in the dark selvedge of the river bank. Though it was past ten o'clock at night, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night. Mole lay stretched on the bank, still panting from the stress of the fierce day that had been cloudless from dawn to late sunset.........it was still too hot to think of staying indoors, so he lay on some cool dock-leaves, and thought over the past day and it's doings, and how very good they had all been."
Aren't those long summer evenings, when being outside in the cool of the garden until after dark is far better than being in an over-hot house, so much better than the long, dark nights of winter. Well they are for me anyway. A glass of chilled white wine in the garden as dusk comes down at 9 o'clock and the bats come out, is much preferable than a cup of tea at 5 o'clock at the start of a long dark evening in winter. If nothing else, it also shows that our little mini-heatwave this last two weeks was a perfectly normal chapter of high summer, experienced just the same a hundred odd years ago, and not the result of some global warming phenomenon as the media would have us believe.

I eventually awoke from my mid-morning daydream to find that there was no Mole or Ratty in front of me, just a sky full of young Swallows and House Martins, feeding frantically as they gradually drifted southwards across The Swale, surely the ebb of summer hasn't begun already.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

A Golden Year

This year on the Swale NNR we seem to be experiencing one of those golden years whereby everything is going right and everything is looking good. It has been achieved by a combination of much better hands-on management and a lot of the right kind of weather at the right time.
We begun the year with a wet winter that flooded up the "Flood Field" in particular, much better than it has done for several years, causing it to become very attractive to large numbers of both wildfowl and waders. In February the erection of two much needed new hides, the Seawall one overlooking the Flood Field and the Tower one to the rear of the reserve, both added to the attraction of visiting the reserve. Although the "never-ending winter", as it became known, continued on its cold and wet way pretty much throughout the Spring, if nothing else it allowed water levels to be maintained for much longer this summer. throughout the marsh. In the Flood Field, breeding conditions were about as ideal as they could be and resulted in it being used by a wide variety of breeding birds but in particular, around 30 pairs of Avocets. Intensive crow and fox controls this year seem to have paid off and we estimate that the Avocets fledged around 40 chicks successfully, if not more. Redshanks and Lapwings have also fledged far higher numbers of chicks than in recent years and wildfowl duckling numbers are also up - the reserve has done well.
And now as we have passed in to some good old traditional, hot and sunny summer weather, I make no apologies for mentioning once again, this year's success story, the return of the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly. The photo of the Tower Hide above, looks ordinary until you are standing alongside the thistles at the foot of the steps on a sunny day like today. It is then that you are surrounded by 50-60 Small Tortoiseshell butterflies feeding on the flowers, joined at the same time by Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Small Skippers and some Whites - and what's more, they barely move. Unfortunately my little camera couldn't capture the width of the butterfly numbers but give you some idea of what I was standing alongside.

Yesterday whilst walking round to the hide, I counted in total with those at the hide, c.80 Small Tortoiseshells and given that they are seen in good numbers throughout the reserve, there has to be in total some 2-300 Small Tortoiseshells on the reserve. This morning whilst walking round I was disturbing Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Small Tortoiseshells, Small/Essex Skippers and Green-veined Whites in such large numbers that it reminded me of how it used to be in my youth. What is a mystery is that these high numbers follow last year's cold wet summer and the "never-ending winter", so where have they all come from?

The ditch lilies were also well behind this year because of the weather but have now caught up splendidly.

But water levels are now dropping fast and many of the ditches have deeper black mud than surface water, as a hot and bothered Ellie can testify when going in for a drink and cooling swim. The result is a two-tone dog that smells quite badly.

Lastly, the solar panel farm that I featured recently is now nearing completion just outside Eastchurch. This photo was taken from Capel Corner on the Harty Road. The purpleness of the field is not flax or something growing, it is several thousand solar panels all facing south across Harty marshes. It's a huge acreage used up but to be honest, if we must have green energy then these look far less ugly and intrusive than wind turbines that can be seen for miles around.

This is what they look like when you get much closer.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Fings Move On

Despite a nagging NE wind that just won't stop blowing, this last week has been consistently hot and sunny and a real joy to experience, summer on Sheppey as it used to be.
Having said that, travelling along the Harty Road this last few days has been a bit of a drag, thanks to the work of one of the two major farming families on Harty, who never seem to have much regard for those around them. They are currently transporting trailer loads of the huge white gypsum heap by the Raptor Viewing mound to various parts of Harty via the road. The result is that the road by the RVM is now becoming increasingly covered in a layer of the gypsum and every vehicle that drives through it draws up a white storm of dust. Imagine the white and possibly corrosive paste that will adhere to every car should it rain in the next few days.

While we're talking depression in respect of Harty, the two wind turbines above, recently installed at Eastchurch Prison, can be clearly seen from as far away as the Sheppey Bridge and remind us of how bad it could get if regular gossip is true. Gossip that suggests that many more wind turbines are being considered/touted for Eastchurch and even Harty marshes in the near future. The photo below shows the latest development at Eastchurch facing on to Harty, that is taking place. It shows the stands that have just been put in place to take a huge Solar Panel Farm that will no doubt shine brightly in any sunshine that we get.

But, having highlighted all the efforts of a few local farmers to increase their wealth at the expense of Sheppey's heritage, lets return to the Swale NNR. Here the continuing dry weather (we haven't had serious rain for around 6 weeks), has seen the water levels plummet, as the photo below shows. As recently as mid- May this gateway sat in the middle of a area of flooding that was impassible, now look at it and nothing will change this side of Christmas.

Below you see one of this summer's great success stories so far, the return of the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly in numbers not seen for several years, in fact it the reserves's commonest butterfly at the moment. It has been a real joy to see so many of these colourful butterflies about and hopefully they are recovering from the mite attacks that have decimated their numbers in recent years. And if you want to find them, where's best, well on good old Ragwort plants, a magnet to so many butterflies and moths, although no Cinnabar moth caterpillars are being found on them just yet, hopefully there is time left.

I know that Ragwort has a bad press when it comes to it's ability to poison livestock, especially horses, but we have no horses on the reserve and I've never known a cow or sheep die as a result of it being there, so hopefully some plants will remain to continue to attract all manner of insects.

And on the subject of butterflies, many stinging nettle patches on the reserve are now home to large clusters of Peacock butterfly caterpillars as can be seen below. Hopefully the Small Tortoiseshells are repeating this elsewhere on the reserve.

In the middle of the grazing marsh there is one small hut, home to the borehole and recently the pump that served it. Plans are afoot to upgrade it but in the meantime a pair of Swallows have taken it over as a nest site. This is the second nest there this year, as the first is laying on the ground below this one, presumably it came unstuck from the beam but hopefully this one will survive better.

A few flowers now.  Water Plantain below.

Sea Lavender on the saltings.

And along the seawall, the flower and seed heads of Goatsbeard.

The cattle and their calves continue to do well, although the length of the grass shows that they are fighting a losing battle with the grazing this year.

The bull that I featured in my last posting has been causing problems. Despite having a harem of several dozen fine cows, all desperate to be mated with him, he has a couple of times, done a runner towards another small herd in the field next door, a herd that is not to be mated this year, ahead of being sold. Despite a wide and deep fleet and metal gate between the two fields, the lure of the forbidden fruit next door has been to much for him and so an electric fence has needed to be erected as a barrier. Poor thing, I'm sure that many of us have had the same lustful thoughts in our energetic youth about the lady down the road, no - oh dear perhaps I'd better stay quiet.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Fings About Today

After the lovely hot and sunny recent few days it was somewhat disappointing to walk the marsh this morning in overcast and cooler weather and I could feel that my mood had become a tad depressed as a result. How much happier I was at the weekend being able to experience sunsets such as above, taken on Sunday evening from my front door step. It was taken at around 9.15 and it was much lighter than the photo suggests - how different from the winter when that would of been occurring some five hours earlier - how do people like the winter?

This Pochard brood is the fourth that I have seen on the reserve this summer and is a delightful and very encouraging sight, most of the wildfowl species appear to have had a reasonable breeding season so far.

A moderate herd of cows and their calves have been on the reserve  for a while now and last week they were joined by two bulls in order to continue the breeding cycle. It's hard to believe it but the magnificent and powerful specimen below, which I was no more than 20yds from, has already been ousted by the other bull. He looks quite a sad sight spending most of his day well away from both the cows and the other bull, but although he has full access to the cows, the other more dominant bull clearly doesn't do sharing. After a couple of shows of strength and some fierce posturing, the other bull won the day and sent this one away to the other end of the marsh to gaze longingly at what might of been.

On the whole of the reserve it came as a bit of a surprise to find this small group of poppies growing, not surprising given the marshland habitat and they quite stood out in the never ending green-ness.

Which is not something that you can say about this very common but not easily noticed Grass Vetchling, with it's 1-2 crimson flowers per stem in among the long grass.

The pale yellow flower stems of Weld are also showing at the moment but once again, this unremarkable flower hardly sets the banks alight with colour.

Crossing the grazing marsh, underneath the constant cascade of Skylark song from above, I followed the Delph Fleet for some way, listening also to the constant singing of Reed Warblers and occasional "pinging" of Bearded Tits. Going back to the Skylarks, I estimate that we have around 20 breeding pairs on the reserve this year and hearing them singing almost every day of the year, it's easy to forget that many people don't hear them on their patches anymore. To lay on a sunlit grassy bank in summer and not hear Skylarks singing up above is unthinkable but I guess that some areas have suffered that fate, we're very lucky and I rate the Skylark song very highly.
Also, in the poorly lit photo of the Delph, look at the water marks on the reed stems and how much the water has dropped recently.

Further to my recent blog wherein I mentioned the number of Burnet Moth chrysalis's in one particular meadow, well I went back this morning and was amazed to find that the number of chrysalis has doubled to several hundreds. Not only that, the months have both begun hatching and breeding as this out of focus photo of two 6-spot Burnets shows.

Along one ditch in particular, the bank is dusted white with the numerous flowers of this Marsh Bedstraw.

And no, this is not the sea, but a nearby farm field full of the pale blue flowers of linseed. As a result of the very wet and cold winter, several fields had part of their autumn-sown crops either germinate patchily or simply rot away. So once it dried out a tad this Spring the barest areas were re-harrowed and the linseed sown in order to at least get some profit from the fields. It makes a pleasant reflection of the sky on sunny days and spillage should benefit many birds this coming winter.

Ellie is very much the live-wire of my two dogs now, with Midge approaching 11 and Ellie just short of 2 and here you see her this morning taking a breather after chasing several rabbits with no particular success. One of the salt-working mounds on the reserve has a reasonably healthy population of rabbits again now (until myxomatosis rears its ugly head soon) and there the rabbits lead her a merry and comical dance. They have many holes on the mound and sit outside them until Ellie almost reaches them and then bob down inside, causing her to chase after the next ones visible. After she has cleared the mound in this way, the rabbits all bob up from their holes again and the whole process begins all over and you can almost imagine the rabbits getting great fun leading her a merry dance, but she does win sometimes.
Midge and I in our senior years, simply sit and watch.

Talking of old age, I reach 66 on Thursday and still marvel that I'm still doing what I do each day. When I was 26 and 36, the age of 66 seemed as far away as the moon and was an age that you just couldn't imagine ever reaching and if you did, well then you'd have a walking stick or wheelchair. Now that I'm actually there, I can still do most of what I've always done, still feel pretty fit and in reality the mid 60's these days are more akin with the mid-50's, thirty odd years ago.
Obviously there are a few changes to your life-style and one will be apparent this November when my friend and I make our umpteenth trip to see Bob Dylan in concert. This year he is at the Royal Albert Hall which brings us full circle as it was there that we saw him for the very first time in 1966. That year however, aged 19, we hitch-hiked both up and back to see him, there'll be none of that this time and likewise in those days, we used to hope that searches on going in to the concert wouldn't find our concealed tins of beer and few cannabis smokes. Nowadays in our advanced years, it's tins of Red Bull and Sanatogen so we don't fall asleep halfway through and binoculars so our poor eyes can see when he's on stage!