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