Friday 26 December 2014

A Marshman's life

Yesterday morning, Christmas morning and with the weather being quite exceptional under clear blue skies and sunshine, I had a walk along the track between Elliotts farm and Muswell Manor on Harty. Some of us know it as the "concrete road" and it was a nice change to walk on firm ,dry ground rather than the flooded conditions of the reserve.
The unique feature of this track is that for part of it's length it runs along a ridge of high ground with views across the Swale NNR one side and the rest of Harty marshes the other and yesterday those green pastures could not of looked much better. No one about, total quietness, just the two dogs and me and for a while it was as though I owned a part of heaven.

 This morning was different all together, an overnight frost had begun to lift as high, grey cloud drifted in at dawn and it soon became a very cold but gloomy morning as the marsh was lit by the increasing light. Driving along the Harty Road I stopped at Capel Corner and checked out the various wildfowl sheltering along Capel Fleet, it pretty much amounted to just Mallard, Teal and Coot.

Mind you, the farmland either side of the Fleet is always worthy of a check, this week there have been reports of two flocks of geese along there. Around 80+ White-fronted Geese have been seen on the farmland to the left of the Fleet and a mixed flock of c. 50 Pink-footed and Bean Geese on the left. Short-eared Owls, Marsh and Hen Harriers, Peregrines and winter thrushes are also becoming more regular along the Harty Road it'self, so it's all looking pretty good at the moment.

Leaving Capel Corner behind, it was on to the reserve at first light, on with the wellies and another trek across the mud and water to the sea wall but at least the cattle have now been taken off till the Spring. It won't make the horrendous muddy areas any better but at least they won't increase now, it's a shame that the cattle are allowed to create so much damage to long into the winter. The cattle will now be in their Eastchurch stock pens, ready to calve over the next few months and not due back until the warmth and dryness of April. Given that it was Boxing Day and a traditional hunting/shooting day on the calendar, I made my way across to the sea wall expecting to see several wildfowlers out on the saltings but no, there was just the one, the same guy mentioned in my last post and still as bored at little shooting opportunity. He lives on Sheppey and we had a pleasant chat once he'd made his way back along the sea wall with his dogs, to where I was with mine. Apparently he's 60 tomorrow and was beginning to feel that perhaps sitting out in the mud, the frost, the cold and generally crap weather, was just beginning to lose it's appeal for him and at 67 I know just how he feels. In your 60's and soon, 70's, it takes a lot of determination with arthritic bones, to suffer the slog of so much water, mud and intense cold at dawn each winter - sometimes a later start in sheltered woodland places does seem an attractive proposition - but no, I'm a marshman through and through, it, like the aches, pains, mists, cold and damp, are in my blood, it's all I know. 

Sunday 21 December 2014

December Dawn

I arrived at the reserve barn just as it was getting light this morning, as you can see below.

The first obstacle is the barn gate onto the marsh, where the ditch either side has joined up across the track to create foot deep water.

Turning left onto the track I began the daily daunting task of wading my way through much mud and water to get to the sea wall hide, visible below as a tiny square on the horizon in the centre of the photo.

This is the gate-way, 50 yards past the photo above, and turning right, into the water.....

 I carried on through the cattle, (responsible for a lot of the mud), as the light gradually improved.......

and through even more water to eventually climb up onto the seawall and visit the hide.

For any birdwatcher viewing the reserve from the comfort of the sea wall, the reserve, with it's large areas of flooded grazing marsh, must look pretty much perfect for attracting birds at this time of year, which of course it is. For me, getting old and arthritic and entering via the management entrance to the rear of the reserve, the challenge of walking round in deep, clinging mud and water each day leaves me feeling like I've done a mini assault course each time.
And was it all worth it this morning, well no in all honesty. My early start was to hopefully have a chat with any wildfowlers that might be there but there was only the one and he packed up early through boredom and the failure to fire a shot. For whatever reason, the wildfowl numbers that have been steadily building over the last 3-4 weeks have dropped off this weekend to leave 1-200 Mallard, 20-30 Gadwall and the usual 100+ Greylag Geese. The White-fronted Goose flock was totalling 84 birds in mid-week but they have been absent for a couple of days and Wigeon, well, unless we get a severe cold spell, the days of counting them on the reserve by the thousands, have been consigned to history now. Sure there were birds about but not in the numbers that the conditions should be attracting, I could probably make out a list that was fairly long, but most of the birds featured would only be counted in totals of less than ten or twenty.
The biggest count of the morning was a herd of 117 Mute Swans, feeding pretty much undisturbed in a field of rape alongside the reserve. This same field had been ravaged for the last month by a large flock of Brent Geese but numerous gas gun bird scarers had finally scared them away and the gas guns had fallen silent, until that is, the swans had moved in, Now the swans are happily chomping their way through what I presume is an appetising and free green meal, the gas guns will soon be back!

In summary, if we get a nice clear and sunny, frosty day then the mood to enjoy the conditions will be enhanced considerably but at the moment, struggling through all that mud and water is not fun, it's just a necessary evil - today was the Shortest Day, roll on the Spring.

Saturday 20 December 2014

In Memorium

Yesterday at Harty Church, the funeral took place of one life's really nice guys - Steve Gordon from Elmley. Steve had been at Elmley for around 30 years, for many of them working for Kent Wool Growers and just helping out on the reserve but in recent years as the Elmley National Nature Reserve's farm manager, living in the bungalow to the right of the car park.
I first met Steve in 1984 when he joined the same badminton club as myself in Sheerness and together one weekend we won the Men's Doubles Plate in an all day badminton tournament that year. For many years after that we only bumped into each other occasionally when our paths between Elmley and The Swale NNR crossed. But for the last 10 years or so, once he had taken on the mantle of reserve manager at Elmley, and the Elmley Conservation Trust had also taken on responsibility for managing The Swale NNR, we got to see each other quite a bit again and worked together in the best interests of The Swale NNR.
Steve was a very fit guy who loved being fit and playing tennis, cycling and ski-ing and who had a wide circle of friends around Europe and it was a great tragedy last year when out of the blue, he was diagnosed with a tumour on the brain. Over the last year and a bit, despite an operation and intensive and sickening treatment Steve never gave in to the illness and pain and was out most days on the quad bike with Max his dog, until the last few months. His combined knowledge of reserve management, animal husbandry and wildlife, will be greatly missed at Elmley and hard to replace, and presumably, with his passing the reserve will now move on into a new era.

"he walked abroad in a shower of all his days" ..........dylan thomas

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Not Quite So Glorious Mud

After even more heavy rain during the night and with it being an awful, misty, murky day with poor visibility, it's hard to believe that the great outdoors can get any damper. Water runs off or out of every field and along every road, and every tree, bush or patch of vegetation seems to be dripping like a permanently running shower. As someone who is very much a warm and sunny weather person, it's my personal nightmare, especially now that the reserve has already attained water levels not reached until January last winter. The cattle are not helping things on the reserve either, when not wading through large lakes of standing water, I'm having to negotiate gateways that they have reduced to large areas of foot deep, muddy bogs. I've also lost count of the times that I've stood in a flooded cow's hoof print and had muddy water squelch up the front of my trousers and coat. Two hours walking round there at the moment leaves me with all the aches and pains of not only doing an assault course but looking as if I also rolled in it - but if nothing else, the birds love it and are starting to turn up in better numbers.
Water, water, everywhere is also starting to mean birds everywhere as well. Yesterday there were 30 White-fronted Geese on the reserve, plus 180 Mallard, 38 Gadwall and small numbers of Teal. At high tide, waders have re-established their high tide roosts on the reserve as well, especially in the Flood Field in front of the Sea Wall Hide, Bearded Tits and Water Rails are in the reed beds alongside the hide and Marsh Harriers, a ring-tail Hen Harrier and occasional Short-eared Owls are seen most days hunting throughout the marsh. The only thing I would say, is that unless you are wearing wellies and have strong legs, don't bother trying to go round to the Tower Hide, the gateways are awful.

Now, regular readers of my blog will be familiar with my occasional rants about the visits by one of the local Fox Hunts to the Harty farmland and how they still hunt in the normal, pre Hunting Ban way, causing all manner of disturbance. I've always thought that it was something that only happened, tucked out of too many people's view, on Sheppey but it appears not. Reading another excellent blog from Kent yesterday, see - you will see that he witnessed just the same thing happening on the Walland Marsh, where once again it was proper hunting, not scent trailing that was taking place.
In all probability fox hunting in the traditional way still continues throughout England on a regular basis and the Hunting Ban only really exists on paper and in the minds of those silly enough to believe that it was ever a victory for the anti-cruelty campaign. It was a win-win situation really, the Hunts still carry on hunting and the antis are happy to believe that they got it stopped - sorted!

Lastly, while I'm having a moan, at one end of the reserve sea wall this morning, I could see three birdwatchers watching the geese on the marsh, so I spent half an hour walking towards them thinking that I could share a bit of reserve bird knowledge with them. Imagine my surprise, or should I say disgust, that when only about 100yds from them, they picked up their scopes and sped off away from me - miserable, unsociable gits!

Thursday 20 November 2014

Pebbles from my Childhood

Throughout my childhood in Sheerness in the 1950's the one place that was always constant was the nearby beach. Through the long, hot sunny days of summer or the wild, stormy days of winter, it was a regular playground, a place where to us children you seemed to stand on the very edge of a big, wide world that stretched to eternity.
We lived four, small, terraced streets back from it but could stand at the end of our alley, look along Richmond Street, that linked our side streets and roads and there, 3-4 hundred yards away was the sea wall and beyond it the wide and pebbly beach. On those hot summer weekends when package holidays were still being invented, it overflowed with people of all ages, swimming, picnicking, walking in their Sunday bests, and escaping from the hot and dusty streets and dog-shit alleys behind. On the promenade there were three, tile-roofed and open-sided shelters where people could sit out of the hot sun or cool wind and watch people watching them. At those shelters as we grew older we met and courted our girlfriends, or on rainy summer days, left our clothes, while we swam because we had this notion that the water was always warmer when it was raining.
The stretch at the end of Richmond Street, our stretch, was about a quarter of a mile long, it's eastern end featured the old Cheyne Rock Coal Pier, leading to the beaches and green countryside of Minster. It's western end had a short row of beach-side houses known aptly as Neptune Terrace, a couple of arcades and a short jetty where we sometimes fished with our hand lines and caught crabs and "boot-lace" eels. Beyond there was the further beach that led past the large Catholic Church, fairground and onto Garrison Point and the naval dockyard.  As we grew older and more confident in our childhood we occasionally made excursions to the east and west, particularly the fairground, but at first we stuck to our beach and the arcades.
There, on calm and early winter's evenings, well before my teenage years, I would stand on the promenade in the dark and look across the wide and sloping beach, lit dimly by the street lights behind me. I would stare out at at the inky blackness of the sea beyond and dream about where it's seagull, porpoised and fish-filled expanse went, well beyond the winking lights of the distant ships at anchor. I would listen to the tiny, silvery wavelets lapping on the shoreline, leaving just a whisper of sound before the sea reclaimed them back again.

Marine Town, as that part of Sheerness was grandly known then, had two sides. Neither was really the back or the front, it was just the beach one way or the Canal and the fields and marshes the other, with our dingy streets stuck in between. But for the first twelve years of my life it was all I knew and we made our fun and adventures from what there was and the beach was one of those places. When I wasn't standing in the dark dreaming about far off places, there was the day time. Always there were naval warships and sometimes submarines passing by out to sea, en-route to the the Sheerness and Chatham dockyards. Out to sea, the masts and bodywork of "The Wreck" were always visible and we loved the stories about the vessel, an American Liberty ship the "Richard Montgomery". While at anchor one night during WW2 it had broke it's back on a sand bank and sunk with it's full cargo of bombs and explosives still on board. Half the cargo was removed soon after but the rest still remain there today and the exciting stories that we were fed as children, that their explosion could wipe out half of Sheppey, still re-surface, unlike the cargo, annually today. Even better for many years, throughout my childhood and beyond, there used to be two small motor boats, the "Silver Star" was one, that waited on the beach near the Fairground to take a load of the paying public out on trips every hour or so. There were two sailing options, a "trip past Sheerness Harbour" (boring), to look at the boats there or "a trip round the Wreck". The Wreck one was always the most fun, when at a safe distance of several hundred yards you could circle the sunken vessel and marvel at the masts and funnel, etc. that was still showing above the surface and as children, be both excited and frightened that it might suddenly blow up.

There was always something to do along the beach, regardless of the height of the tide, High tide in the summer meant mainly swimming, or, if I wasn't getting up to mischief with my school mates there, simply sitting on the beach with my mother and much younger siblings. There on hot, sunny weekends, among hundreds of other like-minded people, my mother would lay out an old blanket and provide us with Shipams paste sandwiches and tea from thermos flasks. Sandwiches for us in those days always seemed to have contained either Shipams paste or Spam and I can still see those little paste jars with a brass ring round to keep the lid sealed on. It's quite amazing to see photos of those days in the late 1950's/early 1960's and see the beach and promenade as densely packed as modern day Benidorm and yet nowadays, even on hot weekends, there will be barely a dozen or so people along there.
In the winter, high tide and it's stormy seas often meant beach-combing, wondering along the tide-line picking up and perusing the wide variety of objects that had been washed up. It became a form of treasure hunting for us kids as we mooched along the tide line, competing with the Turnstone birds, kicking over the sea weed and uncovering hundreds of little shrimp-like insects that we knew as "toe-biters". How they got that name I don't know because they never bit any toes that I recall but the Turnstones enjoyed eating them. There were cuttlefish bones that we took home for the lonely pet budgerigar in it's cage, there was bladder wrack sea weed whose every mini bladder we popped by squeezing it between our fingers. Best of all there were bottles, of all shapes and sizes and sometimes with labels on with foreign writing, and always we hoped that one would have a mysterious message in it, but they never did. They were cold and windy days as we competed with each other to find that special piece of sea-tossed treasure, looking like mini burglars with balaclavas on our heads, itchy things knitted by mothers who had unpicked old jumpers and re-used the wool.
And at low tide, winter or summer, the low tide exposed a whole new playground from under the sea, flat and sandy mudflats.  There rock pools held crabs hiding under small rocks and small darting fish and shrimps, there were worm casts in the sandy mud that sometimes we would dig at to produce the rag and lug worms for our mediocre fishing days on the nearby jetty. And there were also the wooden groynes or breakwaters that ran in lines down the beach and out onto the mudflats and these sometimes provided part of our Sunday tea. Small shellfish called Winkles attached themselves in large numbers to these breakwaters and I was often sent out on a Sunday morning by my father to collect several dozen of these, what looked like small snails. During the afternoon he would briefly cook the winkles and then my reward for collecting them was to sit there with a small sewing needle and pick out from each shell what looked like a tiny curled and white-grey slug and put them in a bowl. Later we would then eat them with a slice of bread and butter and some vinegar, not exactly filling or terribly nice but in those days of regular poverty they were both sold in fishmongers and commonly eaten. I thought that eating them had been consigned to history but this week while watching Masterchef on the TV, contestants were asked to prepare a dish of winkles and whelks, so clearly not.

As I later morphed into a teenager then that short section of beach became swallowed up amid much wider horizons and interests but now, as I cycle along there in my old age, I can never resist stopping for a while and re-visiting my memories of it.

Monday 17 November 2014

It's getting wetter

Continuing the wet theme that I started in my last posting, the photos below show how it's now pretty certain that we are going to repeat last winter's flooding of the marsh and several hour's of more rain overnight added to that certainty. But at least it was a clear and sunny morning as I begun my walk/wade round.
Underneath this water is the main track round the reserve and Midge didn't look as keen as Ellie at having to enter it.

 But she soldiered on, there was a lot more to come, but I guess her twelve year old bones feel it now just as mine do.

Below I'm looking back down the track we'd just waded through.

With the grazing marsh to the side looking just as wet.

 Like I said, there was more to come, after going through this gateway......... turn left into another section of flooded track, which just about remained below the top of my wellies and here the dogs took the sensible option.

 Looking back through the gateway. It's gonna be another long and arduous winter of wellies, water and mud.

 Below is the Flood Field, taken from the Sea Wall Hide, and awaiting some wildfowl.

Despite near perfect conditions the wildfowl, especially ducks, still remain scarce. At dawn on both Saturday and Sunday there was just the one wildfowler out on the saltings each day and they spent most of the time, like me, staring at an empty sky, although I couldn't be as bored as they probably were. But at least there are the resident Greylag Geese to keep the numbers up and today 150 of them were joined in the Flood by 12 White-fronted Geese - lovely to hear them calling again.
The euphoria of the blue skies and sunshine didn't last long though, after an hour or so a large and ominous dark grey cloud began to drop rain over the mainland hills and head my way. The weatherman on Countryfile last night promised a mild and dry week ahead but it was raining as I later left the reserve, why do they get paid for such inaccuracies!
What else did I see as I waded and slithered round, well not a great deal but then a lot of time is spent looking downwards, avoiding deep water, deep mud and cow shit. But I added a ringtail Hen Harrier, 4 Marsh Harriers, 1 Peregrine, 1 Kestrel, 1 Buzzard, 14 Meadow Pipits, 2 Stonechat, 300 Starling and around a dozen or so Skylarks.

Monday 10 November 2014

Harriers and water.

Well, in my last post I mentioned that the "S Bend Ditch" was still holding onto some water this autumn, a week later and things have changed dramatically. After several days of often heavy rain, the reserve's water levels are now pretty much back to how they would normally look in January in an average winter. Ditches and rills are almost full, and in some cases ditches have flooded across tracks, and many splashes of water are showing across the grazing fields. It's some years since I saw it this wet by early November and it leaves me wondering if we're heading for a repeat of last winter's flooding.
This was the sight that greeted me yesterday afternoon (Sunday) as I arrived at the reserve to carry out my part in the second Harrier Roost count. Three days earlier this gateway had been dry but heavy overnight rain had caused the ditch to overflow across and onto the track and the dogs are back to swimming across it just like last winter. The water was flowing so fast in fact that they were almost swept off their feet. Without anymore rain these levels will continue to rise for a few days as water drains off the higher farmland alongside.

 On the grazing marsh the shallow rills have all re-filled and spread into the surrounding grass and beginning to attract increasing numbers of wildfowl and among them the 40+ Pink-footed Geese were back this afternoon with the Greylag Geese.

It was a gloriously clear and sunny afternoon as I made my way across to the sea wall but it quickly turned very cold once the sun had set behind Harty church. There were no wildfowlers on the saltings for the evening flight, but then clear skies are not the best conditions for their sport so it wasn't surprising. I had the place to myself then and as the sun began to set I was entertained for a while by a Short-eared Owl that hunted the reserve not to far in front of me. The dogs were busy snuffling about in the grass, trying to find with out any success any voles or mice, and as the dusk began to settle and grow cold, I wished for my gloves that I'd left in the car. It's a really great place to be at that time of day, Curlews called from the mudflats along the Swale, large flocks of Brent Geese were noisily "barking" to each other as they tucked in to the rape alongside the Shellness track and the wind turbine farm out to sea looked almost ghostly. I watched two duck shooters on the farmland at the back of the reserve, work their way along a bund until close to the reserve's boundary fence and eventually a couple of hundred yards short of the Pinkfeet geese flock at roost on the reserve. Hopefully the geese would stay where they were and remain safe for the night. I rang a colleague who was watching the eastern section of Capel Fleet from the hillside behind the Leysdown holiday camps, who stated that thankfully, the regular duck shooters weren't along there this month to mar the harrier roost there.
It was getting darker and finally, repeated scanning of the saltings close to Shellness hamlet brought dividends, a ringtail Hen Harrier suddenly appeared and quickly dropped down and disappeared into the vegetation to roost. Just the one bird but this year's counts were up and running and it was one more Hen Harrier than I had for the whole of last winter. Elsewhere eventually, the Kemsley roost near Sittingbourne, had 26 Marsh Harriers, the western section of Capel Fleet had 50 Marsh Harriers but unfortunately, despite the absence of no duck shooters, Capel Fleet east still only recorded 3 Marsh Harriers.
there was nothing else to do then but make my back across an almost dark, cold and watery marsh as the last rays of light fast diminished in the western sky.

Sunday 2 November 2014

Indian Summer

The last two days of October on the reserve were exceptional for the weather that we experienced, weather that would not be amiss in mid-summer, it was sunny, still and very warm with a record temp. of 24 degrees reached in Kent. The early morning of Friday the 31st, was particularly exceptional in being able to walk around at 8.00 in just a jumper and trousers and be almost sweating as the sun began to climb above the distant hills. Below you can see the mainland hills beyond Seasalter as the sun first began to appear.

As the sun began to strengthen you can see it shining down one side of this Kestrel on a seawall bush. A little later, whilst standing by the reserve's boundary hedge line, my delight at the beauty of the weather was compounded when I had the amazing sight of a newly hatched male Orange Tip butterfly fluttering towards me, that has to be a record sighting for the time of the year!

This morning at dawn, the weather was a whole different proposition, as you can see below looking across the reserve from the sea wall. A strong SW wind was blowing and increasingly darkening skies threatened imminent rain, which shortly after duly arrived.

But it's been nice this autumn to have the "S Bend Ditch" retaining some water and this reserve-bred brood of swans have been enjoying it with their parents. Snipe too have been fairly regular along there in good numbers.

Bird numbers still remain fairly low, apart from a flock of 600+ Brent Geese that are daily stripping large quantities of the young rape leaves from fields alongside the Shellness track, despite having shots fired over their heads to scare them off. That could become a problem for both the farmer and the geese if they continue to ravage the crop in such a way.
The flock of Pink-footed Geese are still seen on the reserve most days, with the latest count being 48 birds and yesterday I had the first of this autumn's Hen Harriers there, a nice adult female.
Lastly, just recently we have had a profusion of delicious field mushrooms spring up all over the reserve, great to eat and my girlfriend made a soup out of one lot, which went down very well.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Pinkfeet Morning

Well the general wetness of a week or so ago has soon disappeared after a week of sunshine and strong drying winds and the ground has hardened up again. It's not all bad news and dryness though, the ditches remain freshened up and the grazing marsh looks much greener than it did, and with rain forecast for the whole day tomorrow (Friday), things should soon dampen down again.
What's more, we have the Pink-feet Geese back again, there were 44 this morning, alongside but staying seperate from 160 Greylag Geese. The Pinkfeet were on the reserve quite a bit during September but then spent a week or so along Capel Fleet before returning. How long that they and the Greylags will survive in those numbers is unknown but every day they make flights from the reserve and across the neighbouring farmland, crossing low over ditches regularly shot by duck shooters who lease the opportunity from the farmers.
Below you can see some of the dark-headed Pinkfeet, with, in the middle photograph, Greylags in the background.

Other than the geese, the bird numbers still remain a case of bits and pieces. Most days I see a couple of Stonechats and several Bearded Tits. One or two Water Rails can sometimes be heard "mewing" in the larger reed beds and yesterday I even had a Cettis Warbler in the reed bed alongside the sea wall. One species that does cross the reserve every day in good numbers but without stopping, is the Black-tailed Godwit. This morning over a hundred went by heading to Oare from their daily feeding grounds on the mudflats at Leysdown.
Now that the two RSPB fields alongside the reserve have been cattle grazed down very short I had a walk across them this morning in the hope of finding a Lapland Bunting but a few Skylarks amd Meadow Pipits were the best I could record, the glorious winter of a couple of three ago when we had a flock of up to 60 Laplands, is unlikely to be repeated.
This afternoon for a change, I went to Warden Point, where other birdwatchers having been having some success recently, but even there it was deathly quiet, a small flock of Long-tailed Tits was the best I could do.
Whilst mild winters are more comfortable to walk about in it would be nice to get a brief cold snap this year - several hard frosts and a short snowy spell would go down well and liven up the bird scene.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Water returns

At last, the recent rain has begun to make a slight difference to the reserve. Some of the shallow rills that we dug across the grazing marsh are now showing an inch or two of water in their base, the ditches are losing their stagnant look as fresh water begins to re-oxygenate them, and the grass is beginning to re-grow. There;s still a long way to go in respect of water levels but at least things are looking fresher and I'll refrain from saying we need a lot more rain, after saying that last October and incurring the wettest winter for a hundred years!
The last couple of weekends have also seen some beautiful dawn skies, around 6.30 time. The first was taken as I drove along the Harty Road and the second 20 mins. later as I began to walk across the reserve towards the Sea Wall hide. It's always the best time of day to be out, any time of the year.

 Bird-wise however, the reserve has remained frustratingly quiet and if it wasn't for the daily to and fro flights of the resident Greylag Geese (seen below), it would be very boring.

Their numbers flucuate between 100 and 300 at times and they tend to roost overnight in the "Flood Field" in front of the Sea Wall hide, fly from there at first light to the marshes below Leysdown, presumably to feed, and return a couple of hours later. For around a month they have had three White-fronted Geese with them, which like the Greylags are very approachable, making their origins a bit dubious and also for a couple of weeks, 40 Pink-footed Geese. They disappeared a week or so ago but were re-located on Sunday along Capel Fleet, presumably the wide, open stretch between "Capel Corner" and Windmill Creek, a favourite area for a lot of wildfowl due to copious amounts of corn being spread along there on a regular basis. This of course makes the Pinkfeets increasingly vunerable to being shot as that stretch of water is heavily shot by the neighbouring farmers, hence the corn as bait.

To emphasis how quiet the reserve has been recently, let's compare some of it's wildfowl tallies with the old RSPB part of the Elmley NNR last weekend, (Elmley figures in brackets).
Greylags, inc. 3 Whitefronts - 100 (700)
Canada Geese 0 - (400)
Shelduck 0 - (61)
Wigeon 0 - (2000)
Teal 10 - (1500)
Little Egret 2 - (28) 
Little Grebe 4 - (50)
Pintail 0 - (5)
and Lapwing 50 - (1500)  
Clearly there are obvious reasons for those differences, Elmley has the advantage of a huge acreage with better water levels and the large, sheltered and un-shot Spitend Bay at high tide but despite it's smallness the Swale NNR could and should, do better if it wasn't so dry.

Throughout some of Kent, our annual winter Harrier Roost counts begun last weekend. These counts that are carried out once a month on a Sunday evening, through the six winter months, have given valuable information on favoured roost sites over the years. Most importantly they have highlighted the sad decline of wintering Hen Harriers in this area. On Sheppey, their traditional roost site has always been the saltings close to Shellness Hamlet and last winter, for the first time, I never recorded a single bird on any of the six counts. This autumn we are still waiting to sight a Hen Harrier anywhere so far and the beautiful painting of a male Hen Harrier at the Shellness blockhouse could soon be seen as the headstone marking the death of such a beautiful bird.

On the subject of shooting and harriers (not at harriers I hasten to say), the attempt at counting roosting harriers along the wide reed beds of Capel Fleet between the Raptor Viewing Mound and Muswell Manor, was thwarted on Sunday night by heavy rain and duck shooting alongside the reed beds. I mentioned this disturbance problem last year and it is clearly now a regular Sunday night occurrence in the winter which means that counts along that stretch will now have to be done on Monday nights. Quite ridiculous when you consider that the whole length of Capel Fleet has SSSI, SPA and Ramsar status and should be free of such disturbance but I'm reliably informed that as shooting was already taking place before the designations, it couldn't be included in the list of factors listed as damaging to that particular site. Should that be the case it makes the designations a tad pointless, especially when you consider the shooting improvements that regularly take place along there and the fact that the Hunt always push their pack of hounds through the whole length of the reed beds in order to flush out foxes. 
Mind you, Natural England, who administer these designations, have been so stripped to the bone, staff and authority-wise, that I imagine that they're now having to share the pens that they push, let alone go out into the field and witness such protection shortcomings.

Thursday 25 September 2014

From the Aviation files

Just for a change, a few snippets from the Sheppey's aviation history that I compiled some years ago, with the addition of a lot of photos that ex-servicemen sent to me with their memories of serving there.
By the time that WW1 started, Eastchurch was the home of Sheppey's only airfield and remained that way until it finally closed in 1946.However, throughout that time, the MOD still retained the original Leysdown landing ground and it's few buildings, that had once been the home of the Aero Club and Shorts Bros. aircraft factory. It covered most of the land that now forms Leysdown Coastal Park, the stables and out into the farmland alongside. Through the middle of the Landing Ground ran the narrow Wing Road that ran from the back of Leysdown almost to Muswell Manor. Two thirds of Wing Road is now mostly a grassy track used by dog walkers.
Charlie Ward began his Service life at Eastchurch in 1916 and after his initial training he began his service career proper by working in the Coppersmith's shop at Eastchurch airfield. When I spoke to him in 1984 he was in his 70's and still living in Kent and recalled being sent to the Leysdown ranges during WW1 in order to carry out two particular tasks. Many old and un-airworthy aircraft had been lined up on the landing strip there to form a large cross at which practising bomber aircraft would drop their dummy bombs. It was Charlie's job to briefly mark the dropped bomb with a white flag in order to give the bomb aimer or pilot an idea of his accuracy - real high tech. stuff.
Secondly, he was also responsible for a team of men who recovered pebbles and the like from the adjacent Leysdown beach to build what became Wing Road.

During 1922 an Air Armament and Gunnery School was set up at the Eastchurch airfield and a lot of their training in the use of machine guns and bombs in aircraft was to take place at the Leysdown Ranges. As a result, more buildings were quickly built there including Officers bungalows, airmens' quarters and various other ancillary buildings and there was also an attendant Ambulance and Fire Tender. These were all supervised by a Range Warden who lived in a specially built house on the Ranges. About a mile off shore there was a line of coloured buoys and these were also used as targets by the aircraft as they carried out their practice flights. These targets were maintained and patrolled by an RAF launch, the "Adstral", which was moored overnight at Harty Ferry.
These ranges were still providing the same training function to aircraft in WW2 and during 1944 saw several Typhoon squadrons attend for rocket-projectile practise.
Below you can see an ariel photo of the Leysdown Ranges prior to 1930, with the sea in the top LH corner. The large shed in the middle of the photo held a number of observation balloons at one time and in 1930 was dismantled and sent to Hendon. Unfortunately the original was of poor quality but if you click on it once it should come up marginally better.

During the late 1970's/early 1980's the foundations of most of the buildings on the farmland were dug up and the land ploughed over for crops but in 1983, on what was soon to become the Coastal Park, I found the last Stanton-type air raid shelter left there and the base of the large shed removed in 1930.

One last photo from the Leysdown Ranges was taken in 1939. Armourer Richard Moss, who was stationed at Eastchurch before and during WW2, sent it to me. It shows him at the Leysdown Ranges alongside a prototype armoured car known as the "Armadillo", which was at the ranges for tests. We clearly still had some way to go ahead of a possible German invasion!

And so, both between the wars and during WW2, the Leysdown ranges remained a busy and restricted military area as various squadrons used them for aircrew training purposes and at least two fatal accidents took place there.
On the 15th August 1933 a Jean Chesterton and some friends had rowed out among the floating targets and she was killed when a flight of aircraft began firing at the targets.On the 16th June 1938, Gloster Gladiators of No.54 Sqd had come across from Hornchurch for gunnery practise. At midday, as Sgt. Pilot R.M. Marsh approached the targets and began firing, his aircraft was seen to dive into the sea, throwing him out. By the time that rescuers had reached him he had unfortunately died and he was buried with military honours in Leysdown cemetery. An inquest later said that he had probably shot his propeller blades off himself due to faulty synchronisation.I
In 1960 Short Bros & Harland were given permission to use 77 acres just behind the old Ranges site to use as an airstrip. This was to accomodate a small flying club and during the summer months operate 15 min. tourist flights around parts of Sheppey for 12/6 a time. It soon petered out though and now, as you stand by the tea kiosk there looking at the Coastal Park and stables, it's hard to visualise it all.
And so to a few Eastchurch airfield snippets, starting with the aircraft below. Throughout WW2 aircraft crashing on and around Sheppey were a regular occurence but this one became quite a celebrity and featured in national newspapers.

It crash-landed at Eastchurch in January 1944 and Flying Officer Spencer, who was serving there at the time, begins the story.
" we first heard the early morning noise of an approaching aircraft, which was unusual for Eastchurch at that stage of the war.Soon after a Flying Fortress came into view, so low that we knew it was in trouble and would be landing quickly. When it did eventually land we noticed that it had a large part of the tail missing and no tail-gunner".
The aircraft turned out to be a B-17 Bomber nicknamed "Hang the Expense", on its way back home from the crew's 13th mission to bomb Frankfurt.It was from the American 8th Air Force's 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbot, East Anglia, piloted by Frank Valesh. Apparently, coming back over Ostend an 88mm shell from an ack-ack battery had exploded in the fuselage, opposite the escape door. The left elevator was shattered, the right one damaged and a large part of the rudder was missing. At the same time the rear gunner's compartment had been completely blown off and with it had gone the gunner, Sgt. Roy Urich. He was assumed to be dead but amazingly, turned up in a POW camp at the end of the war and was still alive in 2009! Valesh had put out a Mayday call and two American P-47's turned up and escorted him back to the nearest airfield, which turned out to be Eastchurch. To add to his problems, the grass runway was waterlogged but although the wheels sunk into the ground he and the remainder of his crew managed to land safely. The aircraft was eventually repaired and returned to operations with the 100th.

Below I have this original envelope, given to me by Bill Drayton, which contained a letter sent to him while serving at Eastchurch in 1942-3, by his brother who was serving in the Navy.

As the war came to an end in 1945, people began to relax and here we see Flt. Lt. A.C.L. Hutchinson getting the loudspeaker car ready for a fair on the airfield.

The photos below were given to me by a Philippa Butt-Gow, who was living in Oslo in 1984 but had served at Eastchurch as a WAAF during 1944-46.
This first one shows an the sides from an RAF Officers v WAAF's football match at the airfield.

This one is of the WAAF's hockey team with their PT Officer Flt. Hutchinson.

A group of WAAF's at the airfield in 1945.

Sunday 21 September 2014

A Change of Weather

Arriving at the reserve at 6.30 this morning it was soon clear that the weather had changed, there was a fresh to strong N wind blowing and it was noticeably cooler under the grey clouds, for the first time in ages a coat was needed.
Whilst I'm always loathe to see the end of guaranteed warm weather, even early mornings this last week or so have been very uncomfortable in very humid and murky conditions and being accompanied by a continuous cloud of hungry mosquitoes all the way round has been intolerable, there was none of that this morning.
Climbing on top of the sea wall I immediately noticed that the wind was bringing with it the awful stench of the reserve's stagnant ditches and fleets. Virtually no rain for several weeks has seen both the water and oxygen levels in them to drop away quite dramatically and what water that is left in them is either a puce or blue-grey colour. As you can see below, the weed is starting to decompose on the surface and sulphurous bubbles regularly come to the surface.


It typifies how the reserve is at the moment, it's very dry and pretty much devoid of bird life, one reason I imagine, that even the wildfowlers have been absent this last week, the Greylags have moved somewhere else and ducks are counted in ones or twos. So many autumns have been like this on the reserve in recent years that it's pretty much become the norm but it makes for some pretty uninspiring walks round, feeling great if you total more than ten of any particular species. Mind you I recall asking for lots of rain this time last year and it really came back to bite me as we had the wettest winter for a hundred years, it's always the same in North Kent, either too dry or too wet.

Early morning on Wednesday saw the first visit this autumn by one of the local hunts and they spent most of the morning working their way round the farmland of Harty looking for foxes. I believe at this time of the year it's called "cubbing", where the young hounds learn from the older ones how to go about fox hunting. Yes, I know that hunting with dogs is banned but that has never bothered the hunts that visit Harty a few times each year and you can hear them actively encouraging the hounds to work through the thickets and reed beds. They are also accompanied by a terrier man on a quad bike, who presumably has the terriers available should any foxes go to ground and need digging out.
Now I'm not going to turn hypocritical and say that I don't agree with killing foxes, because both the NNR's on Sheppey, control foxes throughout the year and I accept that it is a necessary fact of successful reserve management. My only real problem with the hunts is their attitude towards land that they don't have permission to be on, they quite often charge across that without a thought and even get stroppy when challenged. They also, as they did on Wednesday, regularly work the hounds through the whole length of the Capel Fleet reed beds, which have SSSI, SPA and Ramsar status and protection, in order to flush out any foxes, disturbing everything else in the process.

On a far happier note, the Kent Field Club have just published Vol.18 of their regular booklets about various aspects of Kentish flora and Fauna and it is entitled "The Natural History of the Isle of Sheppey". For anybody interested in Sheppey's geology, animals, birds, moths, butterflies, insects, flowers, ditch systems, etc. etc, it is a 270 page booklet packed with colour photographs, maps and numerous chapters written by very knowledgeable people.
It can be bought for £12 + £2 pp by sending a cheque made out to Kent Field Club to Ms. K. Friend, 2, West End Cottages, The Street, Doddington, Kent. ME9 0BZ

Friday 12 September 2014

Grass Pollen?

Further to my posting a few weeks ago where I posted a photo of one of my shoes mildly covered in orange dust from the grass on the reserve, well this morning it had increased considerably, as the photos below illustrate. It had even spread onto my trousers.

If indeed it is grass pollen, then it's no wonder that people get hay fever and a probable reason why even my eyes have been sore this year. Can anybody confirm that it is indeed pollen and not simply some kind of dust. Incidentally, my two white terriers, who are at boot height in the grass, always return home as white as they left, why are they not being stained by the dust?
N.B. I have now found out that it is a rust disease of grassland caused by poor growing conditions and the onset of cooler nights.

As for the reserve in general, well it's pretty dire bird wise at the moment as we endure our usual bone dry September conditions and lovely wet Oare is the centre of attention for local bird life. The only real activity on the Swale NNR at the moment is between the wildfowlers and the Greylag geese and Shellness Point, where a few winter birds such as Wigeon and Brent Geese are straggling in. 

Monday 1 September 2014

A New Shooting Season Begins

As is my custom every year, I was on the reserve at 5.15, just as dawn was starting to brighten the eastern sky, to see in the start of the wildfowl shooting season and make my self known and have a chat with, the wildfowlers on the first morning out there.
And what a dawn it was, the sky was split in two, with brightness just showing in the east and stars still out to the west. Gradually however the sky turned to full and blue brightness until, with some speed, a beautiful orange sun rose alongside Shellness and briefly turned the sky a blend of pinks and oranges. It was a perfect September morning.

 As I made my way across the marsh towards the sea wall in the half light, shots were already beginning to echo round the farmland with increased regularity, as the dawn light prompted the wildfowl into taking their regular flight lines between roosts and feeding areas. Unless the farmland duck shoots have released Mallard for shooting purposes, ducks are normally at a premium at this time of the year, the main shooting interest is the ever increasing number of Greylag Geese on Harty, especially while they're attracted to the corn stubbles, as below. These photos were taken yesterday on the farmland alongside the reserve and this morning two "duck shooters" were hidden up ready to ambush the geese as they dropped in as normal. Unfortunately for them somebody must of tipped off the geese because not one showed any interest in that particular field today, despite the shooters regularly using their goose call thingy which is supposed to sound like a Greylag Goose but in this case sounded like somebody standing on a cat's tail.

However, despite these two guy's bad luck, that was obviously not the case further out behind them on the marsh. The corn fed ditches and Capel Fleet below Muswell Manor were being heavily shot, something that carried on for an hour or so and at one stage some geese began to circle round and move further inland. Three however, broke away from the flock and as I climbed up on to the sea wall they headed out across the saltings to the tide where the wildfowlers, who had had no shots at all till then, bagged them.

That does tend to be the big difference between the true coastal wildfowlers and the inland "duck shooters", the wildfowlers, as you can see below, tend to prefer a solitary existence out on the saltings, often standing in deep tidal mud and getting the odd shot at what few wildfowl fly out that way.
Not for them the comfort and limited challenge of sitting round corn fed duck ponds and fleets inland, shooting large and unnecessary bags of wildfowl every visit.
When the wildfowlers eventually finished and came back to the sea wall we sat in the warm sunshine of a beautiful morning, listening to curlews and other waders out in the estuary and swapped chat about shooting, conservation and the countryside in general, it was great.