Monday 25 November 2013

Shellness Morning

With the daily walk round the main marsh part of the reserve becoming both a tad boring due to a general lack of birds and mucky lately due to a combination of wet weather, mud and cows hoof prints, I decided to drive down to Shellness Hamlet earlier this morning. I was hoping to catch up with a flock of 15 Snow Buntings that had been seen on the beach at the Point there over the weekend and with Shellness Point being part of The Swale NNR it meant that I wasn't also going off patch.
Despite being in their winter plumage these winter visitors to Kent still remain an attractive and fairly approachable bird to go and see as they seek out seeds among the vegetation along the shell beach. I thought that I was going to be unsuccessful when I couldn't immediately find them but eventually they flew in over my head with those lovely, almost budgie sounding calls that they have, and landed not far in front of me, although I only counted twelve birds. Although you can't see them in the photo above, they were on the very last stretch of beach to the right of the Point, where the gulley seperates the Point from the long expanse of saltings.
Turning immediately to my left from the photo above, I took the photo below, looking out into The Swale and with the beach of the Point running round the corner. Although it was 9.30 on a very bright and sunny morning, the low height of the sun made it look as though it was early evening.

 And once again, turning to the view behind me, I took this photo below looking back towards Shellness Hamlet itself. The line of posts marks the roped off section of the Shellbeach, important to protect against disturbance to both nesting birds and daily hide tide roosts.

And lastly, from the old concrete look-out post, I took the one below, looking back southwards along the beach to the Point. Along that stretch the beach has built up considerably again, with erosion and re-builds being a regular feature throughout the year as high tides and gales come and go. Likewise, it was notable how much of the soft, food rich mud of the mudflats had also disappeared to leave large slabs of the hard, base clay showing. Whether this was simply the natural result of strong tides or the actions of the regular visits from mussel dredgers close by, it's hard to know but numbers of some wader species, such as Oystercatcher and Dunlin, have been falling there in recent years. However, having said that, one species appears to be currently increasing in number, the Sanderling and I counted c.200 spread out across the mudflats this morning.

Walking back, I bumped into just one other birdwatcher, Mike Gould, who regularly watches his local patch in the Seasalter area. It was ironic that he'd probably had to drive around thirty odd miles to stand opposite Seasalter, just three miles or so, visible directly opposite Shellness across The Swale. Lastly, as I drove back along the Shellness track, I has a Great Skua fly in off the sea just ahead of me, which then carried on across the marshes before re-joining The Swale further on towards Oare.
I didn't see an awful lot but it was a lovely cold and sunny morning and it was enjoyable for a change being briefly away from the mud and the water of the marsh.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Harty Ducks

As you can see I was on Harty at dawn this morning for one of my early morning patrols around the reserve. The one above was taken from the top of Capel Hill, with a touch of mist swirling low across the fields, whilst the one below was from the reserve seawall just as the sun broke the horizon. One thing that always fascinates me as the winter progresses, is how far round below the horizon that the sun travels before it eventually comes into view. During the summer it rises behind the Shellness car park but by now it is right round behind Seasalter before it comes into view behind the hills in the distance.

And what an early morning it was, no wind, clear blue skies a moderate frost and then warming sunshine, quite spectacular and very refreshing after the mild dankness of recent weeks. It's just disappointing that the birdlife still continues to fail to match the conditions, wildfowl especially. Sure we have a resident flock of geese, with a combined total of c. 100 Greylags and c.20 Whitefronts, seen below as they began to move around this morning, but ducks remain the real mystery, a count of 50 is a rarety this autumn.

One thing's for sure, any that are seen aren't shot by the Kent Wildfowlers, those guys rarely shoot in front of the reserve these days because its so quiet. Even the inland duck-pond duck shooters on Harty seem to be having a quiet time. Despite regularly seeing their vehicles parked along the Harty road, I hear very little shooting taking place when I'm out and about and they even released several hundred Mallard for easy shooting. So perhaps Harty is finally reaching pay-back time for all that intensive duck pond shooting that has taken place in recent years, it was certainly an out-come that I and the genuine wildfowlers thought might happen. In conclusion I suppose it's tempting to think well at least it means that ducks aren't getting shot, but that's only because there's bugger all there to shoot and if there's bugger all there then us birdwatchers aren't seeing anything either, it's a double-edged sword.
So where are all the wildfowl, well those that actually are on Sheppey are to be found at the Elmley NNR and in very large numbers in some cases. The very wide and flat marshes and water there, allow the birds to feel secure from any danger and coupled with the un-shot waters of The Swale at Spitend Bay, just over the seawall, have the perfect refuge. Sheppey is very fortunate to have such a reserve as that one.
That little tale of woe aside, the Flood Field, in front of the Seawall Hide on The Swale NNR, is finally starting to wetten up quite well. There's still some way to go before we reach the excellent wet conditions of the early part of this year but waterlogging of the grassy areas is beginning to happen and with it yesterday came the first signs that waders are beginning to re-use it as a high tide roost, as small flocks of Dunlin came in.

I came across the little fellow above, on the reserve yesterday as I wondered around. It wasn't much bigger than a grapefruit and I imagine that it's chances of surviving the winter must be pretty slim.
Anybody travelling along the Harty Road recently cannot fail to have noticed the intensive ditch digging that has taken place alongside the road as the farmer tries to prevent the annual waterlogging of his arable fields each winter. It's easily the deepest that I've seen those ditches dug and I certainly wouldn't want to slide off the road this winter, a coach would barely be higher than the ditch top. It also makes one wonder, given the unstable nature of the road itself, if perhaps it might now begin to slowly slide towards the ditch, time and wet weather will tell.

I've had numerous comments recently made to me about those two hideous blots on the Sheppey landscape, the wind turbines at Eastchurch Prison. Close to them and seen from the Harty Road, is the huge purple field of solar panels and as you drive along the Lower Road at Minster you pass the near town-sized development of houses that continues to expand. Now we have news of a second 55 acre solar panel farm that is seeking planning permission (at Southlees Farm, facing the Elmley Track), 4 more wind turbines at the Prison and 4 more wind turbines on a farm close to the Prison. How glad I am that at 66 I will drop off the perch before having to witness the complete rape of what's left of Sheppey's countryside.

And finally and happily, as someone who has a weakness for too much red wine and the eating of good quality bread, let me recommend one of several jewels in Sheppey's crown, the excellent Leysdown Bakery. Their fresh bread and cakes are second to none and any birdwatchers passing through to Shellness should make a point of stocking up in there, the earlier in the day the better. Oh, and they also do very good take-away food and hot drinks - give them a try - yum yum!

Thursday 14 November 2013

It was a green and pleasant land.

Once apon a time, before Sheppey's countryside became covered in huge housing estates, caravan parks and green energy farms, it was a green and pleasant land. I suppose it still is if you visit from some of the poorer areas of London but as somone who has lived here all of his 66 years the loss of countryside has been immense.
Countless small farms were still to be found and sheep were the predominant livestock, there were still pleasant and narrow lanes to be walked and perhaps, to some people's surprise, there were market gardens and many small orchards. One such pear orchard was still to be found along the Harty Road as recently as the 1970's, it stood alongside the last bend on the road before you turn to take the last few hundred yards drive down to the Ferry House Inn. Prior to that and close by, there had also been another small orchard between the church and Park Farm out there. It ran right down to the edge of the saltings alongside the Swale and it's site now, is still surrounded by the tall hedging that always was there to shelter the trees from the cold winds. Orchard Close along the Minster Road, is a small cul-de-sac that as it name implies, was built on the site of an old orchard.

Walking was another feature of my childhood, very few families that I knew had cars. When my father and I visited my grandparents in the Halfway, we always walked from Sheerness, we had neither a car or the bus fare. Likewise when my mother took us blackberrying in Minster, it was reached by a long walk along the sea front. The beauty of all that though was that you absorbed and stored away all manner of wildlife sightings and memories of the open countryside as you grew up, because of that it is now possible to make comparisons with how it once was and nowadays. The only comparisons that the youth of today will be able to make are between the insides of the various cars that their parents drove them around in.

I acquired my first bicycle when I was around 10 or 11, an old bone-shaker left by my uncle when he died. It was an embarrassment to be seen on and no match against my friends' posh Raleighs, but if nothing else it gave me the opportunity to get to Minster that much easier. Minster was an absolute paradise of open fields and hedgerows in those days, everything a young lad interested in collecting butterflies and bird's eggs, etc. would be interested in and I would have given my right arm to live there. One of my favourite walks then was that along the length of Oak Lane, a very narrow and quaint lane that must of been still unchanged from a hundred years before. It was bordered and boxed in by tall elm trees and hedgerows that made the lane seem even narrower and behind the hedgerows there were great meadows that ran for miles and down to the edge of the cliffs. Ah yes, and at the end of the lane, it abruptly ended at the cliff edge, indeed regularly collapsed down it, the great high cliffs that looked out into the Thames Estuary and the remains of the ex-WW2 Boom Defence running out into the sea. The cliffs that were very dangerous and where we were warned not to go to but we did because that made them more exciting. Large spinneys of silver birch, willow and morello cherry that had once grown along the cliff's edge before slipping downwards with erosion now blanketed the various levels of the cliff's downward track. In the sheer, sandy face of the topmost part of the cliffs Sand Martins nested in short tunnels that they dug into the soil each year on their return from wintering in South Africa.
Standing on the top of the cliffs as a youngster the challenge and excitement in trying to find a way down these cliffs to the beach below was irresistible and probably still is today, given the rescues that still take place. The first challenge was to get around and down past the sheer face at parts of the top of the cliff, sometimes we did it very dangerously by absailing down on old bits of rope that we found. Sometimes where the drop wasn't quite so sheer there were secret paths down that weren't quite as dangerous to fleet-footed youngsters. Below the sheer face of the cliff the surface then gradually tumbled down to the sea through all kinds of levels and hazards. There were the thickets, overgrown grassy areas and wet areas fed by springs from above and worst of all, the quicksand bogs that caught out most first-time youngster to the area. Stepping into these meant that the very least that happened was that you eventually struggled out without wellies if you was wearing them, the worst and most frequent incident saw you getting stuck up to your waist and needing to be rescued by the police or coastguards. I was lucky, my one time getting stuck there as a 12 yr old only saw me lose my wellies, although re-climbing the cliffs in bare feet wasn't that pleasant.

Most children of today aren't allowed to, or even want to, have such adventures but back then, in that green and pleasant land, it was our idea of fun, it was how we learnt about life - would love to do it all again.  

Sunday 3 November 2013

More About the Sheppey Light Railway

After my last post mentioning the Sheppey Light Railway, it stirred me to re-read the excellent little booklet by Peter A. Harding entitled "The Sheppey Light Railway".
From the booklet, I noted that preliminary discussions over the Line's route across Sheppey decided that the route would take it across the southern marshes of Sheppey from Queenborough to Leysdown, with few actual stations en-route.  However at an Enquiry to discuss this that took place in Queenborough town hall in 1898, it was stated that the Line would now start at Queenborough and it's first stop would be at Sheerness East, a mile outside Sheerness along the Halfway Road. It would then travel through the middle of Sheppey before re-joining the originally planned route at Eastchurch.
This still didn't satisfy the Sheerness Chamber of Commerce and incredibly, they wanted the Line to start at a point near Sheerness Dockyard, not Queenborough, and then run through Sheerness High Street to the Halfway Road's Sheerness East station, before turning east for Leysdown. Imagine that, the railway line running down Sheerness High Street, how bizarre! The Light Railway Commissioners over-ruled that objection however and so in August 1901, the railway, with a top speed set at 25mph, was officially opened.
Stations were built at Sheerness East, East Minster, Minster-on-Sea, Eastchurch and Leysdown, with a few minor "halts" such as Harty Halt and other sidings featuring where necessary for farm trade. During the First World War, with the Royal Naval Air Station becoming established just below Eastchurch Station, a spur from the line was also run into the Air Station in order to benefit operations there.

That is just a brief look at how the railway came into being but I was tickled by one mention in the booklet that illustrates the sedate and rural nature of the Line. Apparently a local farmer was travelling on the Line back to his farm at Brambledown when, after stopping for the guard to close the gates after the train had crossed the Scrapsgate Road, it stopped again a hundred yards down the track. The farmer put his head out of the window and asked the guard (who was walking alongside the train) what the trouble was - "cow on the line" was the answer. The train continued but stopped again after another two hundred yards and once again the guard descended from the train. "Is it another cow" the farmer asked, "no" was the guard's reply, "it's the same one, caught us up and passed us" - priceless!

Yesterday morning, not long after dawn, I had the opportunity to have a chat on the reserve's seawall with a couple of the local wildfowlers - I haven't seen any out there for several weeks. Among several local wildlife issues that we discussed, the point paramount in their thoughts was how lacking in wildfowl the reserve was, it made their visits pretty pointless. Well, OK, so they had little to shoot at, but that fact aside, I had to agree with them, there is bugger all being seen on the reserve - and there should be. Standing on the sea wall this morning under blue and sunny skies, the reserve looked pretty damm good - a few hundred acres of prime grazing marsh, with it's ditches and rills gradually re-filling after recent rains and a mosaic of habitat types and yet so few waders and wildfowl. Just along The Swale, west of Harty Ferry, wildfowl are being seen in their thousands and yet we remain pretty much empty, it's so frustrating 6 days a week. Just last week there was a report of 2,000 Wigeon being seen leaving the reservoir at Mocketts, just behind the Ferry House Inn on Harty, but of course that's simply the result of daily loads of corn being spread round the water's edge in order that large numbers of the duck can be easily shot at regular intervals - the bad effect of inland duck shooting for you. Of course, if the rain continues to be as regular as it at the moment then presumably things will eventually change on the reserve and come the New Year we will get our couple of months of avian glory but till then it all looks good but looks aren't everything.
The three week mushroom bonanza on the reserve now looks like it is coming to and end and less and less new ones appear each day but they were good while they lasted. I'm down in Surrey at the girlfriend's again this coming weekend and so I'll have to re-visit the chestnut trees in Hawley Woods to continue my quest for autumn foods for free in the countryside.