Thursday 29 August 2013

Time Slips By

Last week I attended the funeral of the mother of an old girlfriend, I have known both since 1966 and the old girlfriend still remains a life-long friend and so it meant a lot to be there. The funeral was different, at the mother's request it was a "Natural Funeral", set among orchards, grassy fields and tiny lanes at the Deerton Natural Burial Site, nr. Teynham.
It was a very warm and sunny day and as the service took place in an open-sided marquee alongside the burial field, two Buzzards circled overhead mewing plaintively and Swallows sped by heading south - time, wildlife and people were slipping by together.

In keeping with the naturalness of the occasion, the coffin was of a bio-degradable material, coloured green and featured on both sides, beautiful paintings of Blackbirds, Goldfinches and Redpolls, it looked quite remarkable. The family took turns at quoting their memories of the lady and playing favourite songs and then we all followed the coffin into the burial site alongside, a field of wild flowers and grasses, dotted at various points with shrubs or young trees that marked the site of previous burials. Here, as we stood around the graveside in this almost overgrown meadow, butterflies, bees and wild birds moved around us under the blue skies and it all seemed so remarkably apt. A small tree will be planted on the grave and then apparently the site will be allowed to re-grass over, leaving just the tree as it's marker. Possibly not most people's idea of how a burial should be conducted or marked but the longer that I have thought about it the more I have warmed to the idea.

The farmland on Harty has been very busy this last week or so as crops have been harvested, straw baled and stacked and fields now harrowed ready to be sown with next year's crops. Summer is also slipping by now and with autumn approaching the signs are all around. Wheatears have begun appearing on the reserve as they make their way south, the swallows hardly tarry now and simply speed by and most of the butterflies have disappeared. In the corn stubble the Greylag Geese numbers continue to increase as they feast on the spilt corn and they in turn, remind me that Sunday will see the start of the shooting season, although wildfowl numbers are currently very low. Teal are the only ducks that are being recorded in +50 numbers on the reserve, a lot to do with the water levels I imagine, the ditches are very low, very stagnant and can be smelt all round the reserve. I will be out at first light on Sunday morning to evaluate what shooting interest that there is alongside the reserve and on Harty in general, but I'll be surprised if it amounts to much.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Shooting around

The above, really poor photo but it's the only one I have, shows me close to the old Ferry Bridge one late afternoon in November 1974, about to go along the seawall on to Elmley and try a bit of duck shooting. You can just make out the single-barrelled shotgun that I am holding. Since those shooting days (I was 27 at the time) I have yo-yo'd between supporting, loathing and now supporting, various forms of shooting, all a bit confusing really. At the time that this photo was taken I was into my second season of what was only really a half-hearted interest in duck shooting and beginning to realise that it just wasn't for me. Therefore it wasn't a lot longer before I had packed up shooting all together and have never wanted to shoot since, but why did I start in the first place?

As I have said many times, I had been interested in all things to do with outdoors and wildlife since my childhood and  between 1966 and 1972 had worked for the Kent River Authority throughout the marshes of Sheppey. Most of the people that I worked with on there were all of a similar age to me and several were also active in countryside sports such as shooting, fishing and rabbiting. One was also related to the Gransden family who were farming on Elmley at the time and that therefore gave me the opportunity to get to know some of them as well.
To have the opportunity to work along the seawalls, watercourses and marshes throughout Sheppey was exciting enough but to do it alongside people who actively practised many of the things that I had simply read about, made it even better. During the winter months we would often spend our lunch breaks walking the marshes alongside our workplace looking for rabbits to catch and I soon learnt how to quickly gut and skin them. In the summertime if we were working along The Swale seawalls we put out baited trot-lines on the mudflats and caught flounders, or we looked for partridge nests so that one of the guys could put the eggs under his broody hen at home and rear the birds for game bird shooting. At weekends in the winter I sometimes acted as a beater on the all day farm shoots held at Elmley by the Gransdens and learnt not only what it was like to skin and gut many dozens of rabbits in one go but also how geese and game birds were left to hang in a barn for a week or so in order to end up better flavoured. Seeing the condition some of those birds were in after a week or so could never tempt me to eat them but that's how they did things then.
I loved every minute of it and at the same time learnt many countryside ways and skills that have never left me, and many of them did not involve simply killing things.

My best friend on the KRA at the time did quite a bit of duck shooting on his own and so it was only natural that I would ultimately have a go at that myself, let's face it, most guys do get some kind of thrill from holding and discharging a gun at some stage in their life. My problem with this at the time, was the fact that I hadn't long before re-read Peter Scott's excellent 1961 autobiography "The Eye of the Wind". In there he had described how his long involvement in wildfowling had begun to wane one winter when, after shooting and wounding two geese, he had captured them and then found himself hoping that they wouldn't die. (They didn't die and he kept them for many years at his lighthouse home).
So although I had joined WAGBI - the Wildfowling Association of Great Britain and Ireland, (now BASC the British Association for Shooting and Conservation), and enthusiastically thrown myself into shooting for a while, Peter Scott's words always haunted me in the background. But I was intent of doing it and so having joined WAGBI and read a few articles in the Shooting Times about the romance of being out on the marsh under the moonlight, pitting your wits against wild birds, I then needed a gun. I didn't have the money or the inclination to spend a lot on one and fortunately my uncle, Albert Williams, came up with the solution. He had an old, single barrelled 12-bore that he never used anymore and  I could buy it from him for £10  - problem solved, or so I thought. The gun was in pretty good condition and I cleaned and oiled it after every session but it had no safety catch or anything and to fire it you had to cock the hammer back with your thumb before pulling the trigger. How I never blew my feet off I'll never know, twice, with the gun pointing downwards, my thumb slipped off the hammer as I was cocking it and it discharged into the ground alongside me.
So, the final problem to overcome was where to do this shooting - no problem my shooting mate said, anywhere on Sheppey after dark, no one'll catch us and fortunately they never did, in fact we got chased more times during daylight when trespassing on rabbiting expeditions, but that's another story.  A few times, using our knowledge of where and where not that the Gransdens shot on Elmley, we found it was easy to drive along the remains of the old Ferry Road and park up alongside the seawall. From there we could walk along the sea wall to opposite Ridham Dock and there the Dray fleet ran back into Elmley, nice and wide and attractive to wildfowl and more importantly, we were very unlikely to be discovered there. After a couple of visits there at dusk and darkness I quickly found out that all the waffle that the experienced shooting types put out about first learning how to handle a gun, etc, does make sound sense, I couldn't of hit a duck if it was on the end of my barrel. Could of been the naff old gun I was using I suppose but I think it was more a case of me not having a 100% enthusiasm for what I was doing as much as anything, plus Peter Scott was haunting me, I desperately didn't want to wound a bird.

 Another place that was popular with many duck shooters with no official place to go at the time, was Rushenden marshes between the old Coal Washer and the Ferry Bridge. During the 1960's the Westminster Dredging Company had pumped millions of tons of sandy dredgings onto these marshes until they were level with the top of the sea wall. This had created a huge area of dead flat, almost desert like conditions which were home to a large colony of nesting Little Terns in the summer and many duck shooters in the winter. There wasn't an enormous amount of open water out there, I think it was more a case of wildfowl flighting across it from The Swale to get to the wetter part of the marshes, that made it attractive to us shooting types who were limited to where we could go.
Once again my shooting skills were at best, pretty useless and my main recollection of several visits there is of sitting out there one night in one of the worst blizzards I've sat out in. The snowflakes were enormous and I could see bugger all even if anything was moving, which it wasn't and most of my time there was spent in wiping off an inch deep layer of snow that kept building up along my gun barrel. It was a long and cold trudge back to the car in knee deep snow and my shooting trips became very few and far between after that.
I think the very last outing came in the following September 1975. I had decided to try an evening flight out at Shellness, on the saltings in front of what is now The Swale NNR, once again probably without permission. I didn't have a car at the time and so had to catch a bus to Leysdown with my gun in a case and walk the 2-3 miles along the sea wall to where I intended to shoot. It was a hot and sunny early September evening and clearly I had arrived far too early for the light to start going. I sat on the seawall for an hour in the sun with no apparent change in the light, got totally fed up, walked all the way back to Leysdown, caught the bus home, eventually gave my gun away and have never shot again. I turned to rabbiting and eel netting and other minor things until in 1987 I became a Vol. Warden on the Swale NNR.

That opportunity saw my opinions on wildfowling change markedly. I was involved with the management and protection of a nature reserve and on the other side of the sea wall were Kent Wildfowlers trying their hardest to kill the very birds that we were attracting. I adopted the same blinkered and traditional attitude that many birdwatchers still do, anybody that shoots is the enemy of wildlife and must be treated as such and I spent the next twenty years entrenched in those beliefs. Unlike my brief shooting period, these guys were fully entitled to be where they were and what they were doing but I was having none of it and spent a lot of time making my presence as awkward as I legally could.
Throughout that period I could see a justification in supporting game shooting purely because of the habitat that it maintained for all wildlife but like most who still oppose it today, I hadn't taken the time to research what the Kent Wildfowlers also did for conservation by owning and managing huge tracts of wetlands in Kent and elsewhere. Finally, around three years ago, a local and lifelong Kent Wildfowler took me to task over my constant criticism of the wildfowlers and I for once took my hands away from my ears and listened to his side of things. Through many long conversations it has transpired that we had a lot of common interest in wildlife, in fact most wildfowlers do, because you enjoy shooting a few wildfowl each year it doesn't make you the cretin that some would believe, Peter Scott proved that.
The result has been a new friendship, a shared enthusiasm for the countryside and all things wildlife, I have returned to the same open-minded person that I always used to be in respect of countryside pursuits and my new friend, through no urging of mine, now spends most of his time shooting wildlife with a camera.  Good results all round.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Horsing About

 It was low tide in The Swale as I wandered along the banks below Harty Church on the reserve early yesterday morning, a tad grey and gloomy as well. Looking across The Swale to the mainland and the general direction of Faversham, Horse Sands always stand out well, creating a low-tide island several hundred yards long. The main channel of The Swale is behind the Sands but there is still a deepish channel close to the Sheppey shore and although the Sands disappear completely at high tide the top cannot be far below the water, creating a navigational problem for larger boats. The photo below, taken further to the right of the one above, show the Sands as they start to peter out just before Harty Ferry. There were still a couple of old sailing barges moored there yesterday, left over from last weekend's annual sailing barge race and in the background you can see a white van parked on the Harty Ferry slipway alongside Oare nature reserve.

Back in the mid-1980's, when a mixed bag of us locals, reserve workers and farmhands regularly met up most weekends for drinking sessions that often went on well into the night at the Ferry House Inn at Harty, one of us issued a challenge. The challenge was made to the regulars in the Shipwrights Arms, a lovely little pub on the mainland opposite with the quaint address of Hollowshore, nr. Faversham, to play us in a game of football on Horse Sands on Boxing Day. A novel idea in summer but mid-winter - quite daft, but the challenge was accepted and so late morning on the Boxing Day over they came in their fishing boats to collect our less than hardy team. The boats pulled up against the Sands and we all waded ashore with some wives and girlfriends and a few cases of beer, to generally chase a football about in sloppy mud in what turned pretty much into more of a rugby match. The photo below shows me, full stretch in the mud, having just been tripped up by one of the Shipwrights team.
It was cold, muddy and wet but good and genial fun and afterwards, we all went back to the Ferry House Inn, had a rough wash off in the back yard and change of clothes and then were treated to a roast dinner and more beer by the landlords - happy days!

Anyway, back to the reserve and the dozen or so Greylag Geese that remained on the reserve this spring managed to rear around thirty goslings this year and now they are starting to be joined by other greylags from the surrounding Harty farmland.

Below, a number of them were flighting past to nearby rape grattens (stubbles). The harvesting is a fortnight or so late this year because of the never ending winter but it won't be long before they will be able to feed up in the wheat grattens as well for masses of spilt corn. Seeing them is a reminder too that the shooting season is only three weeks away, although I've seen no sign of game bird poults being put out on Harty just yet.

This is something that you don't see mentioned much these days, or indeed see a lot of, bulrushes. We have a couple of ditches on the reserve that still feature them and they bring back memories from younger days. Some people used to cut them and put them in vases as a sort of long-lasting cut flower decoration but they must of done something to them because it never worked out that well in our house. A few weeks or months after my mother had cut them and put them in the front room as a taste of the countryside, the brown seed heads would suddenly explode and fill the room with loads of fluffiness and the vase was left with just a load of sticks in it.

Much more attractive are the flower heads of the Teasel, here with attendant Small Skipper butterflies. These and Ragwort form the main food plants for butterflies and bees on the marsh and are a pleasure to see and of course, in winter the Goldfinches plunder the cones for their seed.

Its that time of year now where most of the countryside is bone dry and yellow and has the tired look of late summer. The wheat fields have yet to be combined and re-sown with rape, the grazing meadows have little in the way of green grass and the fresh-water ditches hardly live up to their name, being shallow, fetid and smelly. Certainly eating and drinking cannot be that pleasurable for the livestock at this time of year, with the lushness of May a distant dream.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Summer Slips By

Well, dare I say it, after a good spell of very warm and sunny weather, it felt a tad autumnal this morning when I got to the reserve, a gusty NE wind was blowing under a grey sky and swallows weren't stopping as they sped by heading south west. Presumably we'll have some hot and sunny days yet before the autumn arrives, but this morning when I got up at 5.15 as usual and had to put the kitchen light on, the days are getting shorter, it feels like summer might be slipping away.
One thing that hasn't changed is the fact that here on Sheppey we have had our normal bone dry summer, no matter how wet the winter and spring were, no matter how much it has rained elsewhere, the Swale NNR is now bloody dry again. Above you can see the track that runs past the start of the "S Bend Ditch". Well into May that track and the reed beds alongside were still under water and impassable and the high water mark is still showing on the mound to the left.
We are still getting small numbers of passage waders springing out of the muddy ditches, this morning there were a dozen Green Sandpipers, plus some Little Egrets, a few fledgling Avocets with parents but best of all, my first Clouded Yellow butterfly for many, many years. A beautiful looking butterfly.
One last thing of note on the reserve, the moderate increase in the population of rabbits this year is now suffering its annual myxomatosis outbreak and so unfortunately we'll soon be back to square one, just as numbers were looking promising again.

Something a bit different, when ever I go down to girlfriend Diane's place near Camberly in Surrey, I always walk the dogs through an area called Hawley Woods. This site is huge and must cover a similar area to Harty, it is owned and used by the M.O.D for various exercises but at the same time is open and accessible to the public to walk round in most of the time. As you can see from the photos below it is a mixture of pine woods, with occasional oaks, birch and chestnuts and large open areas of gorse, broom, grass and heather. Its a beautiful place to walk round, especially in the recent sunny weather and a real novelty to me, given that I spend most of my time on the North Kent marshes. I first started walking round there about six months ago and over the ensuing months had high expectations of seeing all manner of wildlife that I don't normally see on Sheppey - Woodlarks, Tree Pipits, Dartford Warblers, Stonechats, Whinchats, etc, etc. To date I been immensely disappointed, yes I have seen a Goshawk and an Adder but little else, its quite amazing. I can see and hear more birds in the short walk from the reserve barn to the seawall than I ever can whilst walking round those woods and heath. Butterflies too have been in short supply and its all a bit weird, the habitat looks superb and I thought it would be a real wildlife fiesta to walk round but no, very quiet, just mainly Chiffchaffs and Greenfinches and the odd Willow Warbler. The marshes still do it for me!