Wednesday 30 October 2013

Railway Gates

The gate pictured below is one along the reserve boundary, nothing special about it except that it used to be part of the Sheppey Light Railway line years ago.
It apparently came from Harty Halt, a small, short platform station, with a small hut as it's Waiting Room, that was situated just before the Harty Road turn off along the Leysdown Road.

All that remains to indicate where the station used to be is this short line of hedgerow running into the wheat field just before you turn off onto the Harty Road. You can see the direction that the railway line took by following the line of telegraph poles that make their way across the field back towards the now Eastchurch Prison, the poles closely followed the railway line for much of it's route across Sheppey.

 Below, you can see another one of these identical railway gates, this time a few hundred yards past what would of been the Sheerness East station. It is still in it's original position along the road that leads to the Sheerness Golf Club and was a crossing point on the line between Danley Farm and Danley marshes below the golf club. The old bed of the railway line is immediately behind the gate and the crossing would probably of been used to move livestock between the farm and the marshes.
The Sheppey Light Railway closed in 1950 when I was just three years old, but apart from removing the tracks and sleepers the line was left as it always had been with its bed of stone chippings and fences and hedgerows. For the next ten years or so, as the line gradually began to re-colonise with all manner of wild flowers and shrubbery, it became quite a mecca for us youngsters who were interested in wildlife and were always out and about doing such things as collecting birds eggs. The section between the Scrapsgate Road in Minster and the Halfway Road is very overgrown these days but is still used as an unofficial shortcut to Sheerness, as it always has been, by those locals who know of it.

On the Harty Road, at Capel Farm this week, the rams have been put out to enjoy their brief annual sojourn with the ewes. Below you can see one of the rams in the middle of the flock with the harness round him that holds the coloured marker crayon in place on his lower chest so that each ewe that has been "served" can be identified. If rams have such a thing as pride it must be quite nice to look round the ever increasing number of coloured backsides and think, "mmm, not bad for an old ram".
Normally, after a week or so, the farmer will change the colour of the crayon so that he can see which sheep will start lambing first and gauge the expected lambing dates of the sheep. The traditional date that sheep farmers normally introduce the rams has always been November 5th but possibly this farmer has an eye on having the lambs ready for the spring market a tad earlier and perhaps having a better chance of a good price. Certainly, after some poor lamb sale years, this last two years have seen prices holding up very well and its surprising that this appears to be the last remaining serious flock of sheep on the whole of Sheppey, cattle have completely taken over as the livestock of choice.  

Tuesday 22 October 2013

How warm it is

The weather remains incredibly warm at the moment, even when its cloudy and rainy, although Sheppey seems to have had a lot less rain than other areas in Kent. Walking round the reserve is certainly an enjoyable experience at the moment, rather than being in cold winds, but as a gardener, a nice hard frost would be lovely, if only to slow down the still fast growing lawns.
The first Harrier Roost Count took place on Sunday evening, unfortunately because it was the result of being postponed from the previous Sunday, I was unavailable due to being in Surrey, spending some time in the heathland and woods of Hawley Woods, as per below.

Getting back to the Roost Count, I haven't seen the various count totals yet but do know that the guy who counts the harriers going in to roost in the extensive reed beds along Capel Fleet eastwards from the Raptor Viewing Mound, had a nil count. This was not because Marsh Harriers weren't around but because they were regularly disturbed from attempting to roost by duck shooters shooting along the same reed beds. I say "duck shooters" and not wildfowlers, because there is a world of difference between these pampered guys and the true wildfowlers who experience the extreme conditions of the mudflats and saltings of the estuaries.
The fact that the duck shooters still shoot and disturb the Capel Fleet reed beds is a bit of a joke really when one considers that the whole of Capel Fleet is covered by SSSI status, but I have been told in the past that where such things were taking place before classification then they can't be stopped!! To be honest there have also been odd occasions in recent years where a digger has been used to create small pools in or close to the reed beds as well, but when I've mentioned it to Natural England they've always accepted the land owner's explanation that it was reed bed improvement work. The fact that corn then gets regularly thrown into these pools to attract ducks and that men with guns just happen to hide around these pools on a Sunday night, seems to have passed NE by.
Having said all that, I saw the reserve's first Hen Harrier of this autumn this morning, a ringtail and a really welcome sight.

One of the reserve's, years old ditch crossing planks, is starting to show it's age now and part rotting. It's been there for much longer than the 28 years that I've been wandering around there and I still use it most weeks. When you've walked the length of one long field on the marsh and there is a ditch between that field and the next one these planks are invaluable to avoid having to retrace your steps. In the old days when livestock "lookers" still walked around the fields rather than as now, using quad bikes, these planks would of been a vital part of the marsh infrastructure, sadly few get replaced these days.
I should also add that in a normal winter the water level in that ditch will normally be close to touching that plank and in a wet one, the plank will be submerged, so we have some way to go yet.

And at the same time as walking round checking on the livestock the "looker" would also have time to notice all manner of wildlife events going on around him as the seasons changed. One such event would the autumn arrival of field mushrooms, ripe and free for the picking. I photographed these yesterday morning before taking them home for my dinner and boy were they delicious to eat, a few more tonight in an ommlette is on the cards, topped off with a large glass of good Pinot Noir, me thinks .
So far this year I've made two litres of Slow Gin, ate some blackberries and now the mushrooms, all from the countryside, I'm now pondering over the use of rose hips.

Monday 14 October 2013

More rain needed

After last Friday's 16 hour monsoon and then more rain yesterday, I was hoping to see a decrease in the dry conditions on the reserve when I visited there this morning. Well there was quite a bit of mud and some puddles along the paths and even a few puddles in some of the rills that weren't there before, but we're still a long way from having expanses of water attractive to ducks and waders.

However, having said all that, the large splash in the "Flood Field" had miraculously achieved a shallow covering of water over 75% of its width. The photo makes it look far better than it actually was, it's only an inch or two deep, but it's an encouraging start.

There are two arable fields along the Harty Road, not far past Capel Corner, that habitually have large splashes of water on their surfaces in wet winters, last winter was particularly bad and a lot of the young rape  plants simply rotted in them. Presumably in order to try and prevent this happening in future the landowner is currently deepening the ditches surrounding the fields and attempting to lay mole-drain piping across them, but I still feel that he is missing the point and wasting his money.
Now I'm no agricultural expert but I can't see how digging the ditches much deeper is going to prevent the water from laying on the surface, it's sitting there because after many years of non-ploughing and compaction from heavy plant a hard, compacted crust has formed making it almost impermeable. Even in gardens, anybody who works clay soil knows that it soil particles stick to each other like glue and that it regularly needs to be deep dug and exposed to the elements. I feel sure that if the farmer there was to actually plough the fields every 2-3 years and break up that crust, then the water would drain away far easier and he would avoid having to do what he is now is.

I was surprised to see the main headline of The Telegraph today boldly stating "Fox-hunting ban to be relaxed". Well as readers of this blog will know, people like myself, who visit Harty most days, have never seen any evidence that a hunting ban was actually in force anyway. The Hunt still visit on a regular basis, normally fox-hunting in the traditional way and we also get occasional visits from a Beagle pack that pursues the hares. Personally, I think that traditional fox-hunting still goes on a lot more than people think around the country and that the hunts simply make out that their really aggrieved by the "ban" just to pull the wool over the anti's eyes and to make them smugly feel that they've won some kind of victory. In that way every body's happy.
Despite my support for most traditional country ways and the fact that both the huntsmen and women and their hounds make a very picturesque sight in full flow, I don't buy into their usual claim that they are an effective form of fox control, I prefer and support other methods. Farmers in today's article (possibly hunt supporters) were claiming that a lot of lambs were lost last winter to hungry foxes and that they badly need the hunts back to control them, one reason for the potential easing of the ban apparently. Now the hunt may kill the odd fox or two during a day's hunting but the unnecessary disturbance that they can create to other wildlife during the course of it can be quite great. I watched the hunt on Harty a few weeks ago, working the pack of hounds through the wide reed beds of Capel Fleet and out were flying Marsh Harriers, Coots, Snipe and assorted ducks.
Send a guy in a 4x4 with long range spotlights and a high-powered rifle out at night onto farmland and he will almost certainly cull just as many foxes, or more, instantly and with the minimum of disturbance. That is serious and sensible fox controls by quiet and modest guys who are rarely seen and who don't need to gallop about noisily in a red coat to prove a point.  

And finally, Midge the older dog seems convinced that there's something still down that hole but Ellie seems to be saying "nah, it looks better over there".

Friday 4 October 2013

Footpaths and Food for Free

The two farmers that own and farm most of Harty, have in recent years done quite a bit towards improving the habitat out there both for wildlife and the public that enjoys watching it, but every now and then old habits creep back out.
At "Capel Corner" along the Harty Road the faded sign shown below points to a Bridleway/Public Footpath that runs from the Harty Road and across the farm land to Harty Hill in the distance.

The sign stands alongside the gate below, which is where the Bridleway begins, unfortunately however, it has been rendered inaccessible to the public due to the gate pictured below.

Not only is the gate chained and padlocked but it also has on it the warning sign shown below (there are in fact several bulls within yards of the gate). And then, for good measure, between the two wooden posts is stretched electric fencing which goes all round the bulls to keep them in. I think that it's safe to say that that Public Way is most definitely not open to the public at the moment!

Not far from there, alongside the footpath that runs from Elliotts Farm across to Muswell Manor, there are a short stretch of oak trees that currently form a loose hedge around 20ft high. They were beginning to impinge on the concrete track alongside and a degree of light trimming was possibly in order but of course, as many of us have witnessed in the countryside, farmers these days don't do light hedge trimming. The tractor-driven flail has been out and most of the bushes have been cut so severely that they have been left simply as one-sided bushes. An appalling illustration of how to vandalise the countryside without any comeback.

Moving away from such mayhem and depression, yesterday my partner and I were out in the Sheppey countryside picking sloes and despite what seems like a shortage of them this year, we managed to pick 4lb of them and below you can say me carrying the proof.

As they are every year, they will be used for making this winter's Sloe Gin, a real treat in a few months time after a bitter cold day out on the marsh. This year though, while I will be making a couple of bottles to my usual recipe, Diane will be trying a different one and we look forward to comparing flavours one cold winter's night when we're tucked up indoors. We had locally foraged blackberry and apple pie yesterday and the next thing I'll be looking for this week is the emergence of field mushrooms after rain yesterday and warm temperatures forecast for the next few days. All these things taste so much better when they've come free from the countryside and you've enjoyed fun picking them.