Friday 15 August 2014

Ploughing returns

There's a surprising change to the regular farming methods taking place on parts of Harty at the moment, it's called ploughing, yes, good old-fashioned deep ploughing. Talking to the farmer responsible it's all due to a weed called Black Grass that is spreading pretty much unchecked through arable crops in this country due to it's resistance to current weedkillers.

I rather suspect that modern arable cultivation methods must have helped in the successful spread of this weed as well. 80% of the plants of this weed emerge between August and October and the plants emerge from seed within 5cm of the surface. These days farmers rarely plough their arable fields, they simply scratch over the surface immediately after the crops are harvested and then re-sow for the following year. In this way they are creating perfect conditions for the Black Grass and other weeds to emerge and grow on during the winter.

So, as a last resort, the farmer has turned to old-fashioned ploughing in the hope that he will bury the weed seeds deep enough so that they will fail to germinate and at the same time he will break up the hard surface crust of the soil and improve drainage and aeration - clever people those old time farmers, they knew what they were doing!
Below, I came across this clump of recently hatched Peacock butterfly caterpillars this morning, I've not seen them this late before.

For a few weeks now, most times when I leave the reserve my boots are covered in a fine orange dust, sometimes much thicker than this - it's grass pollen. No wonder my terriers, who are down at grass level, spend the first few hours back home sneezing and snuffling.

Is it just me, but it seems as if we are already in autumn. The weather already has a cooler autumn feel, sloes are ripening fast and the first mushrooms are beginning to appear on the marsh.

On a different note, the sea wall hide is beginning to collect people's unwanted rubbish. Why they feel that we should clear up after them I don't know.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Catching Rabbits

I continue to be exasperated at Countryfile's weekly portrayal of the British Countryside - why, we must have a whole generation of youngsters now that have been "educated" about the countryside by watching that programme. A whole generation that haven't been made aware of so many things that occur out there such as fishing, shooting, hunting, pest controls, ferreting, ditch cleaning, sea wall repairing, building hay stacks, etc, etc. The fairy tale version of the countryside that the BBC present is nothing like the one that I experience on my daily visits and merely seems to pander to local bloggers here that refer to shooters as halfwits and who complain about people who shout and whistle at their dogs in the countryside. Can you imagine - "why is that nasty shepherd whistling and shouting at his sheepdog, can't he do it quietly to round up the sheep!"
Anyway, below is a glimpse of real and normal life in the countryside.

I first learnt about, and participated in, the catching of rabbits when I joined the Kent River Authority's Sheppey work gang in 1966, aged 19. The core of the gang was only around six or seven strong but added to from time to time by others, who rarely stayed longer than the summer once the archaic outside work conditions that we suffered through the winter took hold.
For me, as someone who had always been interested in wildlife and the countryside since a child, it was a real joy to be working in the more remote parts of the Sheppey countryside, places that I didn't know existed and were often inaccessible to the public. To experience these places throughout the seasons and among people of a similar age but who already had practical experience of countryside ways and skills, made going to work each day a real delight.
Foremost among the gang was one of the Gransden family, who had been farming on Elmley for over thirty years and he was therefore well versed in hunting and shooting skills. Another guy spent all his spare time helping the local shoot and when he left the KRA after a couple of years, spent the rest of his life as a gamekeeper. Another, who became a good friend, did quite a bit of shooting and the odd bit of poaching around Sheppey and lastly, one who stayed on the KRA all his working life. That particular guy is still one of my best friends and is probably Sheppey's last true countryman in the Jack Hargreaves mould and is still practising his skills in all weathers in his 70's.
So I quickly settled in to the groove with these guys and began to absorb all manner of knowledge about countryside ways, combined of course, with the long established but now out-dated skills used in sea wall and ditch management. Skills such as hand scything ditch banks, repairing groynes along beaches and the art of chipping and shaping rocks and then laying them as a level surface on the sides of sea walls to prevent erosion from the sea. But in the winter especially, we would often use our lunch breaks and later, weekends, to wander out into the marsh wherever we were and catch and kill rabbits., rabbits will sit out

In areas of rough grassland, individual rabbits will conceal themselves in what we used to call "seats", a rabbit sized depression in a clump of grass and usually the only time that you knew that they were there was when they suddenly bolted out of it. However I quickly learnt by walking across the marsh with these guys, that you become adept at just "knowing" which grass clump contained a rabbit in it's "seat". It might be just the particular shape of the clump or you might actually see an eye blink inside it, but the rabbit would sit tight and hope that you would simply walk past, not noticing it. However, if you had spotted it, the art was to not break your stride and suggest it had been seen but as you walked by, to suddenly strike it with the weighted stick that you was carrying or, in a really quick and skillful movement, suddenly throw out a leg and stand on it. In this way many a lunch break saw us providing a weekend roast rabbit for ourselves or others, especially once I'd honed the relatively easy art of cleaning and skinning a rabbit down to just a couple of minutes. A few years later in the early 1970's, when most of us had moved on to other jobs, four of us still met on a Sunday morning to spend a couple of hours walking in line abreast across a marsh, catching rabbits in that way and Spitend marsh at Elmley was our usual spot. Spitend in those pre-RSPB days was an ideal spot, a huge acreage of rough, poorly grazed marsh, absolutely teeming with rabbits and we had unrestricted access.
However, as other things in life became more important, the group split up and it was left to just two of us to maintain the rabbiting weekends at Spitend and we set about changing our catching methods. The obvious one was ferreting, which we sometimes carried out but it had drawbacks such as having to keep ferrets throughout the year, which neither of us fancied, especially as I hated handling the bloody things and losing them inside the rabbit warrens. So we devised and stuck with the method that we used for several years after, which involved utilising our Jack Russell terriers, spades and lots of hard work.
Basically, as we wandered around the Spitend marsh and nearby Windmill Creek saltings, the dogs would quickly indicate to us which of the countless rabbit holes had someone at home by digging furiously at them. We would then begin digging at the holes ourselves with the spades, following the direction that the tunnels were taking and often competing with the digging dogs at the same time. Sometimes the tunnels would take a deep direction but generally we found that they usually maintained a depth of a foot or two below the surface and could run for just a couple of yards or several yards. After every few spadefuls of soil we would then lay on the ground and extend an arm along the tunnel to see if we could feel the rabbit and once we did it would be pulled out and immediately dispatched. Below you can see both myself and my two dogs after one such successful dig.

It was easily the most strenuous and dirty way of catching rabbits that I have ever undertaken as you can see below but we thoroughly enjoyed it and we would usually reckon on catching a dozen or two at each visit and how wonderful to be out in such beautiful countryside.

It was while returning from one of these Spitend days in around 1975 that we eventually bumped in to the newly arrived RSPB manager Peter Makepeace who advised us that Spitend was about to be turned into a bird reserve. He not only encouraged us to continue with our rabbiting due to the fact that they could be counted in their thousands but would sometimes find the time to spend a Sunday with us and help carry the rabbits back.
Below I am once again pictured at the end of a successful Sunday, with nothing left but to take the rabbits to the local Workingman's Club and swap them for a few welcome pints of beer.

Saturday 2 August 2014

A Fishy Tale

Late 1970's and early autumn and my friend and I were at the Kingsferry Bridge at dusk, about to launch our boat down the ramp and into the fast ebbing Swale. It was the latest of our twice weekly forays down the Swale to check and empty our eel fyke nets, set in the fleets on Chetney marsh, directly opposite Rushenden on Sheppey. We had asked permission from the landowner to net the fleets and been refused, so nothing for it but to go after dark and it had been a productive couple of weeks with good catches of eels.
"Looks a bit misty" I said to my friend as we pushed the boat out into the tide and started the small outboard motor, "it'll be alright" he replied - famous last words!

The boat was little more than a large dingy with a tiny wheelhouse but it served the purpose of our short, after dark forays just right, just enough room for us and our large keep net and an old bread basket to carry the catch back in. A mile or so down the Swale we turned the boat towards the Chetney shore and run it on to the now exposed mud banks, securing it with a rope and anchor. Startled Redshanks and Oystercatchers noisily took off and disappeared into the increasing darkness as we disturbed their feeding place and only the distant lights of the Grain oil refinery across the estuary gave us a bit of help to see, although they were worryingly becoming less obvious as the mist increased. It was then, chest waders on and over the side into the gloopy mud and dark, carrying the bread basket and net between us. It was only about fifty yards to the base of the seawall but the deep and clinging mud made it very hard work but we soon got there and looked back at our footprint trail to the boat, how we'd be glad of that later on.
We swiftly waddled over the sea wall, because that's what you do in chest waders, you waddle with your legs apart, rather than actually walk properly, and then the fleet that we were netting was directly in front of us. There are two ways of fyke netting a fleet or ditch, you can row down it in a dingy, laying out the nets in a continuous line down the middle, or stake them across the fleet from bank to bank - we were obviously doing the latter. The nets themselves are about 15-20ft long and two thirds consists of a length of two foot high net attached to a series of ringed holding compartments, as you can see above. It would be stretched across a fleet or ditch, resting on the bottom and staked at each end to keep it taunt. As we were basically poaching the eels the stakes had to be pushed out of sight under the water and discreet markers left on the bank side to indicate to us where they were. Generally we would mark the first net and then set the rest at paced out thirty yard intervals.  As eels travel down the ditch the lead nets would hold them up and guide them towards the trapping end where non-return netting would prevent them from escaping again.

The only problem with that method sometimes was the fact that it needed one of us on either side of the fleet/ditch and sometimes you had to walk long distances before finding a crossing point to enable you to get on the other bank. So there we were, in the middle of a dark evening with just a torch to help us and with the mist rapidly rushing across the marsh towards us, sleeves rolled up and feeling under the water for those first two stakes. I had the keep net and the trap end of the nets that night and so having finally located the stake and net, lifted it out of the water, terrific, several pound of wriggling eels in there. My friend on the other side tied a rope to his end and I pulled the net part of the way towards me in order to untie and empty the trapping end into the keep net. It was then a simple matter of pulling the fyke net back taunt across the fleet and re-staking it at each end, one wet arm and shoulder of my sweater, the first lot of eels and several nets yet to empty. An hour or so later and ten o'clock at night, we were finally back on the top of the sea wall, wet and rather smelly from ditch mud and eel slime but carrying a good poundage of live eels between us in the bread basket. There was just one major problem, while we had been busy the mist had become thick fog and we could see no further than a few yards in front of us and definitely not the boat out on the edge of the tide somewhere. However we managed to find the end of the footprint trail we'd left in the mud and with much effort, carrying a heavy basket between us, re-traced our footsteps until the boat re-appeared in the gloom. Finally sitting back aboard, out of breath and sweating, it was decision time - how the hell do we find our way back to the Kingsferry Bridge in fog that thick!
Easy we thought, if we're standing with our backs to Chetney, Sheppey is opposite and therefore the Bridge is right of us down channel, let's push off and head in that direction, stupidity indeed! Within minutes of pushing out into the fog and drifting round as we started the outboard motor, we had lost sight of the Chetney mudflat and therefore all sense of direction, we were sitting in the middle of the Swale in a really dense fog and lost, great, it could be a long and scary night. We switched off the motor and drifted for a little while and then got the oars out and rowed in no particular direction, slight panic setting in, being lost in fog can be so dis-orientating. But then I suddenly smelt sewerage, yes definitely sewerage - it was one of those eureka moments such as Mole and Ratty had in the Wind in the Willows, when lost in the Wild Wood in thick snow they suddenly stumbled on the foot scraper outside the entrance to the Badger's home.

" Yes, so what's so special about smelling sewerage", my friend said. "Think about it" I said, "where's the only sewerage outfall along here, the Rushenden one on the Sheppey side, head towards it". So we did, rowing slowly with much sniffing of the air, and eventually came against mudflats with the smell in front of us. "Well at least we know where we are" my friend said, "and safe from harm". "Yes" said I, "and I'm not going to sit here all night with my wife panicking when I don't return by midnight", (we had no mobile phones in those days), " so here's what I suggest, " clearly if we face the shore then the Bridge is a mile or so away to our right. If we head in that direction, making sure that we don't lose sight of the mudflats, then we should eventually end up at the bridge and the slipway." A great idea but with visibility down to a few yards we couldn't get in to water deep enough to use the outboard motor and with only one oar usable due to the mud being on one side, there was only one option becoming unfavourably clear, we would have to get and pull the bloody boat by it's anchor rope and that's what we did. I can still feel the pain and sweat now of pulling the boat along the water's edge while walking in soft and clinging mud in chest waders, it was excruciating and very few gym work-outs could compete with it.
Some time later, as our lungs felt like they were going to burst and legs were like jelly, we suddenly heard the sound of traffic passing across the invisible Bridge, we were almost there! Eventually when almost under the Bridge it's lights shone enough to guide us across the Swale and locate the slipway, it was past midnight but we'd made it, joy. A little later, after tipping the eels in to the holding tank in my garden, I fell in to bed, no doubt stinking of tidal mud and eel slime, mumbled "don't ask" to my wife and slept the few hours left before I was due to be at work.

We carried out those eel trapping expeditions for around ten years through the summer months, normally on Sheppey and often after dark where we shouldn't be, but that was easily the most scary of our trips.