Wednesday 30 December 2015

The Year Ends

Walking along the reserve seawall into a gale force southerly wind, gusting to 50mph early today, was bloody hard work, I felt like I'd run a half-marathon at the end of it. It was quite a bit chillier than yesterday as well but then yesterday morning was quite exceptional. Yesterday was very mild, sunny and wind free and there was I and three wildfowlers, walking along the seawall chatting, with a cloud of mosquitoes swarming round our heads and biting us, ridiculous for the end of December!
But back to this morning and the sun-rise across The Swale was soon lost as the gale pushed in heavy grey skies, reversing the early morning brightness for much of the day.

As I walked round the reserve, this mixed flock of Greylag, White-fronted and Brent Geese all got up from the grazing marsh and circled round before re-settling again. Fortunately, the only wildfowler out this morning had already packed up and gone, otherwise I wouldn't of risked disturbing the birds.

The geese still remain the best of the wildfowl numbers, with ducks still in very short supply. The wildfowlers were telling me that even at the first glimpses of dawn light, the only ducks going out to The Swale are just very small numbers each of both Wigeon and Teal.

And how about this for showing how crazy and mild this winter is, I took this photo this morning of a wild dog rose with a newly blossomed flower amid the winter hips.

At last, our annual winter visitor the Hooded Crow has returned, a few weeks later than the average but at least it's back. We've had a single one each year for about ten years now, although whether it's the same bird is debatable and it always stays separate from the large flock of resident Carrion Crows, which makes it easier to find.
I had to go in the reserve barn this morning to get some rope to tie up a gate and was hoping to see at least one of the resident Barn Owls at roost, having not seen one out and about for a few weeks. Sadly, there were no owls present and only old, dry pellets, which indicated that it/them haven't been around for some time. They did this last winter but then returned to breed, so hopefully there isn't too much to fret about and we will see them back again.
This will be my last posting now until the New Year and just think, only around twelve weeks now until the first summer visitors start arriving.

Friday 25 December 2015

Christmas Day

After yesterday's beautiful day of blue skies and sunshine and a full moon at both ends, this morning was no where near as nice. It seemed to remain dark for much later into the morning today and in the end I set off for the reserve in complete darkness at 7.15. Driving along the Harty Road and past the Raptor Viewing Mound in the dark, the outside temperature was showing as 9 degrees and I thought back to the last snow that we had, the winter of 2011/12. Below you can see the entrance to the RVM in that winter......

 ....and here the sea wall on the reserve, looking towards Shellness.

I wonder if we are to see weather like that again in the future.

As it is Christmas Day, I decided to forego the usual painful trial of getting round the reserve in the ever increasing muddy areas churned up by the cattle, I decided to have a wander along the farm track between the Harty Road and Muswell Mannor. As well as being relatively dry, this "concrete road" as we know it, rises to a high point that gives a splendid view down across the reserve, although at first when I arrived this wasn't possible. So the dogs and I set off along the road, quietly so as not to set off the geese in Brewers Farm and slowly.slowly, the darkness began to lighten. As it did so, the geese on the reserve began to call, first the familiar farmyard goose calls of the Greylag Geese and then gradually the lovely higher pitched "wink-wink" calls of the White-fronted Geese. One or two Mallard also joined in and gradually this wildfowl dawn chorus began to take shape. Alongside me, in a copse on the top of the road, a Robin also began to sing and back at Brewers farm the inevitable cockerels also began to serenade the coming of the light.
We carried on and by now the darkness was lifting to become a grey gloom, which did at least improve the viewing distance, if not the spirits. It was time for the geese to think about food and gradually small parties of 10-20 began to lift up off the reserve roost and fly out to the farmland and it's winter corn growing in the fields, thankfully they were safe from any guns for this day at least. Despite the gloominess of the morning's weather it was a pleasant walk, the dogs were wandering along the hedgerow looking for mice or voles and it felt as they we had the whole world to ourselves, a rare thing these days.

We eventually began to re-trace our steps and in the distance a light came on in Brewers Farm, somebody was obviously getting up, Jackdaws in the spinney alongside the farm were cawing like mad and the wind began to freshen, time to re-join civilisation I suppose. Tomorrow it is Boxing Day, the day that those involved in countryside pursuits traditionally go out and kill things and so I will be on the reserve seawall just as it gets light. By doing that I can see how many wildfowlers are about and have a chat with them later and hopefully the fox hunt won't be on the farmland alongside, chasing foxes as they normally do.

Wednesday 23 December 2015


I was a tad amused to read in the Daily Telegraph today that because the BBC's Countryfile programme has become so popular, that the BBC is now commissioning a five day a week spin off to be called "Countryfile Diaries". Now there's no getting away from the fact that if you like your countryside presented to you in an English Tourist Board, Walt Disney manner, where no cute and fluffy things get killed and the presenters are attractive girls in shorts, then the programme will remain popular.
However, now that they are going to have more programme hours to fill, lets hope that they can now find time to show some real countryside events - shooting, hunting, fishing, ferreting, tying flies, making nets. Proper traditional, get your hands dirty stuff that still does happen in the real countryside. They could also have it presented by real country people with years of experience of their subject, who could talk about the countryside in the way that Jack Hargreaves did so well in his "Out of Town" series.
Somehow though, I rather expect that we will get more of the same format, where everybodies happy, nothing gets killed, the flowers always flower and the sun always shines.

Today has been a real beauty, clear blue skies, unbroken sunshine and some clean, cold air. It was so refreshing after the claggy and mild dampness, drizzle and gales of recent days. Being out on the marsh this morning was a real joy and a boost to the spirit. It was almost as if the weather was shrugging off yesterday's Shortest Day and giving us a taste of the Spring that is yet to come. It was good to see the flock of c.104 White-fronted Geese still happily feeding away on the lush, green grass in the Flood Field, their calls so much more musical than the farmyard honking of the Greylag variety. So far they appear to have evaded the shotguns that regularly wait on either side of the reserve for them, but they will come under intense pressure over the next two weeks as many wildfowlers and duck shooters have two weeks holiday.

Other than that it was a generally quiet day bird-wise, just the usual stuff, but it was nice to see that this brood of five swan cygnets, hatched on the reserve this year, have all survived OK so far.

Friday 18 December 2015

Back to Normal

Well, after the travels back in time to hippy hedonism of the 1960's, it's back to the far less exciting or energetic, current day. I must say I found writing those accounts of my life fifty years ago, very enjoyable. It involved much reading of old diaries, looking through old photograph albums and aided by the odd glass of red wine, lots of nostalgia.  Lots of memories are the only good thing about being old, there's bugger all else good about it.

So. for early risers such as myself, we're in that awful time of year where it gets light late and dark early, the daylight is so depressingly short. By 7.00 I've had my breakfast, read the paper and I'm pacing the house waiting for some reasonable daylight to appear.
Eventually I arrived at the reserve under some blue sky, which only lasted an hour before darker, grey skies flooded back in but it was very mild. The warm temperatures of recent days are certainly creating some unusual sights, yesterday, mid-December and I had a bumblebee feeding from primrose flowers in my garden, neither should be about until the Spring.
Over on the seawall, looking back across The Flood field, you can see that inch by inch we are now beginning to fill it up with water, we just need to get the two strips of water to join up and create one large body of water and it'll look quite good. But with the green areas quite waterlogged it is already starting to attract many wading birds when the high tides push them off the nearby mudflats.

 Something else that is increasing day by day is the flock of White-fronted Geese. Counts this last two weeks has since their numbers increase from 65 to 85 and this morning to 104. For true wild geese they are far less timid than you would expect and this morning I was able to circle round them at only 80yds distance as they fed on the grass in one of the grazing meadows. Unfortunately the reserve only offers them a narrow avenue of safety from harm, the wildfowlers are not far away just over the seawall and farmland duck shooters in the opposite direction.

Other than that, there were very few other birds to be seen this morning, just the one's and two's of the usual species - Greylag and Brent Geese,  Marsh Harriers, Buzzards, Bearded Tits and a few Mallard and Teal. That was in contrast with the Monday just gone, when a team of three of us re-instated the monthly Wetland Bird Surveys (WEBS) on the reserve after a gap of two years. The WEBS counts are carried out nationally around the high tide and normally on the same day utilizing the fact that the high tide has pushed many birds off of the mudflats where they feed, up onto nearby beaches and farmland. Our co-ordinated count with the three of us having three separate counting stations, came up with some surprisingly good numbers of birds and a lot more than we have been used to seeing the recently.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Further on up the road

Having slept the night in the damp Falconwood woods (see previous blog "The Open Road"), we awoke early the next morning to bird song, numerous mosquito bites peppering some of our faces and bursting for a pee. The pee bit was easily solved, as any dog will tell you, that's what trees are for. After that we were starving, apart from a packet of crisps with our beers, those ones with a little blue bag of salt in, we hadn't eaten since the previous afternoon.
So, sleeping bags rolled up and back in their dustbin bags, we emerged from the woods like four raggedy cavemen out for a day's dinosaur hunting and set off along the A2 again into increasingly built up areas. Traffic for London was building up at that time of the morning and as at times we were going faster than the traffic, lifts were out of the question and so we headed for Eltham and then down on to the Woolwich Ferry to get across the Thames. Along the way the major priority was a cafe, I had a mouth like postman's socks and needed to swill a nice cup of tea around it. Not surprisingly, rough hitch-hiking travellers such as we temporarily were, didn't carry toiletry bags with them and so personal hygiene touches such as teeth cleaning and washing tended to get overlooked. There were occasions, if we were in Central London, that we could get a wash of sorts. The Gents toilets in those days often had an attendant in them and from him for just 3d old money, you could hire a bar of soap and a towel. So there we would be, a sink each, down with the underpants and lathering up the "meat and two veg" and other bits in case we got lucky on our travels, which surprisingly did happen a few times. Though clearly, with no toothbrush, I seem to recall that we by-passed the snogging bit.

But I digress, and so with a cup of tea and a fry-up eagerly disposed of, we crossed the Thames and continued the long walk through the various boroughs of London heading for the area around Walthamstow, Leytonstone and and good old Epping Forest, which tended to be our hotel most nights. We had been there previously because the very attractive cousin of one of my best friends lived in Walthamstow and when she had been on Sheppey the previous year we had swapped addresses. So we would hang around the area by day and sometimes drink with her in her local pubs by night, retiring to the woods without her to sleep. Sometimes if we got bored with that then we would travel on into London and hang around in Trafalgar Square with other road weary travellers and listening to the various guitarists that were playing there. If we had our own guitars then we used it as an opportunity to learn new songs and better techniques. Eventually our friendship with my friends cousin, fizzled out after I upset one of my travelling mates, though he's still a best friend to this day.
It came about because on a couple of occasions later that year she invited a couple of us up to her house two weekends running and she and her mother made up a double bed for us in their front room. She then took us out with her to a couple of dances on the Saturday evenings, it was good fun and with her looking very much like Cher of Sonny and Cher, not without temptation and that's where it ended up going wrong. The first night back at her house, my friend and I had settled down in the double bed and my friend was doing his best to suck the light down from the ceiling with his snoring. Consequently, I was still awake when the door opened and to my delighted amazement, my friend's cousin, wearing very little, crept in and quickly got under the sheets alongside me. Now, despite having a girlfriend back home, there are some opportunities in life that just can't be overlooked and that was certainly one of them. Unfortunately, after a little time getting to know each other, so to speak, our movements got a little too vigorous and despite my friend seeming as tho he could sleep through WW3, he did eventually wake up to find that some form of unarmed combat was going on alongside him - he was not amused!
The second weekend I left my friend in the double bed and de-camped to our host's bedroom for a night of fun but he later made it quite clear that things were getting a tad unfair and so despite us all hitch-hiking back to that area the following Spring, we never visited her again.

One time in I believe 1967, three of us took a week off work, the fourth never worked, and we hitch-hiked first to London and then all the way down to Brighton. Apparently the place was a mecca for hitch-hiking guitarists who sat around on the beach all day playing guitar and generally having a good time. The main thing that I recall from that trip was the fact that we walked all of the way, incredibly we never got an offer of one single lift, but it was OK and the weather was fine. Like many other people around that time, I'd just finished reading Jack Kerouc's "On the Road" and so imagined myself as being of that ilk, what were a few extra miles on the road to excess and freedom.
By the time we walked into Brighton after a day and half on the road, we certainly looked like seasoned travellers, unwashed and dirty and sleeping bags and guitars over our shoulders. Unfortunately it was also a cold and windy day, there were no guitarists practising on the beach or hippy chicks anxious to throw themselves at our feet in adoration. We were deflated, the excesses and occasional obliging girls that we had found on some of our London trips were not to be found and after a cold night sleeping under boats on the beach we headed back round the South Coast for home.

Back home we spent most of the summer weekends doing what the 1960's were famous for. We wandered around Sheppey with our guitars, attended drunken and sometimes hedonistic parties and slept rough most weekends in old two-man tents along the canal bank, where our girlfriends would sometimes sneak out in the early hours and join us in our sleeping bags. And 1967 became 1968 but by the Spring of that year the winds of change were beginning to blow through our gang of four. We still spent most of our time together but two of us were paying more attention to our girlfriends and the other two were beginning to spend time with other friends.
For me, the final change came on the Whitsun Bank Holiday in 1968. A few weeks before that, on the Easter Bank Holiday, three of us had, for the third year running, resumed our hitch-hiking to London and back, a pretty boring trip that saw us walking back along the A2 one night in a storm and pouring rain. Despite that, soon after on the Whitsun Bank Holiday, the same three of us were on the road again, sleeping over night at Dartford in some bushes. The next morning we walked all the way to Leytonstone and spent a hot, sunny day lounging around in Epping Forest but something was nagging away at me. In the evening we went over to the "Green Man" pub for a drink but I soon became overwhelmed by that feeling again, I really didn't want to be there anymore, I was missing my girlfriend of two years back home. "That's it", I suddenly announced to the other two, "I'm going back home" and I was away.
I caught a bus to Victoria train station and then the last train down as far as Gillingham. I walked along the A2 to Rainham and slept there behind some bushes at a lay by - even now I can't pass that lay by without glancing towards it and remembering that night. Early the next morning I walked all the way to Kemsley and caught a train to Sheerness and went straight to my girlfriend's house.

Two years later that girl became my first wife and I wrote the following about her.

"oh the beauty of her hair
that fell in a thousand curls
down to her shoulders bare;
fired in flaming colour,
lit in reds and gold,
it fell from her shoulders
to her breasts tight folds.

oh the beauty of those breasts,
tickled by her flaming hair
and swollen by every breath,
that no one else could touch,
that fought to be free
and jostled in their cups,
like ships on a stormy sea"........................Derek Faulkner

Monday 14 December 2015

The Two Seasons

If Mr. Vivaldi was alive today and living anywhere south of the north of England, he'd have to re-write his Four Seasons masterpiece as the Two Seasons, because that's all we seem to get here these days. Spring when it arrives, seems to last for six months, rarely changing into what could be called a long, hot summer. Then sometime around October, autumn begins and drags on with it's mild, gloomy, damp, and ever shortening days for the next six months. Traditional winter with it's frosts and snow seems to becoming an ever distant memory, consigned nowadays to just Christmas cards and television Christmas advertisements. I always groan when sitting at home watching those advertisements now, still seeing people turning up at warm, snowbound houses in coats, scarves and gloves when in reality these days, it should be an umbrella and summer clothes.
Today, and by the look of it all this week, the days are not going to be any different. Grey skies, poor light and a mild dampness look set to continue the trend of the last few months. I imagine that the best and most useful Christmas present many people could receive this year, before they slit their wrists, is one of those daylight lamps that are advertised for SAD sufferers.

Personally, I have loathed this time of the year and Christmas in particular, for the last 50+ years, it does nothing for me, I don't know why. I assume that I liked it when I was a child but I had an unhappy childhood and much is locked away and forgotten as a result. I spend most of it these days looking forward to those first, warm Spring days and that whole plethora of wonderment that Spring always brings. Christmas Day this year will mean, as it does every year, having Christmas dinner at my wife's house with her and her parents, (we've been separated fourteen years but still remain firm friends) and then, a fortunate and happy event for the last four years, off to my girlfriend's house for Boxing Day and the New Year. That might seem odd but then my tangled, confusing, amusing and at times sad, love life over the last fifty years would merit a whole blog on it's own, but it's unlikely to happen. What I do do, is to often look at this photo of me, taken about 64 years ago, and with 68 years hindsight, mull over the lifetime that that innocent face had yet to experience and all the different directions that it might have taken, but didn't.

Friday 11 December 2015

The Open Road

"There's real life for you.......the open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling down! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow!"

So spoke The Toad in the Wind in the Willows before his ill-fated caravan journey with Ratty and Mole.

6 o'clock on a Friday evening in the summer of 1966 and the landlord of the "Queens Head" public house in Sheerness is unbolting the doors to allow entry to four scruffy teenagers, each carrying a rolled sleeping bag encased in a black dustbin bag.
There was then nothing worse than being first into a cold and empty pub, just it's smell of cigarette smoke and spilt beer reminding you of how it might be later on, but never mind, these guys were on a mission. "Two pints of Stout and Mild and two pints of Light and Bitter" were ordered at the bar and soon carried to the old settee by the window. "So whose going first", was spoken and discussed between mouthfuls of best Courage beer. People passed by outside the window, it was a warm summer's evening, it wouldn't get dark until gone 10 o'clock that evening. "Well last time John went with Henry", said one, "this time it should be John and Del and Mick and Henry", "OK" was the answer, "so who's going first, we'll toss". John won the toss and he and Del would leave first.

It was the onset of one of our regular hitch-hiking trips to London - Mick, Henry, John and myself Derek (Del). We did this regularly during 1965/66 and 67, sometimes for a long weekend, sometimes for a week or more. Just the clothes that we stood up in, always denims, a sleeping bag and sometimes a guitar, though carrying the latter could be a pain in the arse and in my case one time, it got stolen.

Above you can see both John and I - c.1966 (I'm on the right with a hair style that looked like a helmet, gawd).
So, the beers were drunk and John and I set out into the warmth of the early evening and began walking the several hundred yards to the "Canal", the waterway that formed the outer limit of the town. The Halfway Road then stretched ahead across the Sheerness marshes, until about a mile away it ran through the then small Halfway village. The "Canal" had never been a true canal, it was basically a wide stretch of water about three miles long, dug in Napoleonic times as a defensive moat that helped protect the army and naval sites in Sheerness from any enemy attacks.
We stood with our backs to the "Canal", watching clouds of mosquitoes swarming in the early evening sun and begun thumbing for lifts, it was an easy and regular practise in those days. We had two immediate targets, first to get a lift off of Sheppey, closer to or along the main roads leading to London, and to do so before the other two stood a chance of overtaking us. Mick and Henry meanwhile, stayed in the pub and ordered another round of beers, the two pairs always set off an hour apart, a bit of fun to see if the latter two could overtake those going first and reach the destination ahead of them.

Quite quickly we were offered our first lift, an oldish guy was going to Gillingham, we could hop in, a good start of about fifteen miles. The route that we was on was the old A2, the traditional road that had run from Dover to London for countless years and was heavily used in those days. The new M2 motorway had been recently built nearby but pedestrians couldn't walk along that and so we stuck with the A2 where we knew we could get lifts. Walking through the sprawl of the Medway Towns was never a pleasant option and so we hung around for a while at the outskirts of Gillingham until a lift was offered that took us well past the Towns and back out on to the open stretches of the A2. There the road was long and with countryside either side of it until the outer reaches of London began to appear and there for a while another lift failed to materialise. We found ourselves simply walking, backs to the on-coming traffic, thumbing as we walked, into the fast approaching dusk of that evening. After several of such hitch-hiking trips, we had become students, if that's the right word, of roadside debris. One of us would be thumbing while the other wandered along ahead picking up the various objects thrown or lost alongside the road, car wing mirrors, broken of in some collision, empty match boxes with all manner of different labels on. Even used condoms, which always prompted wild suggestions as to, why there? alongside a fast moving main road, but we never worked out the answer.

Anyway, it was never pleasant thumbing in the dark, the evening light, after walking several miles, was fading fast. After dark always seemed to bring out the idiots, which I suppose we could be classed as for being there in the first place. With our backs to on-coming traffic the first we became aware of a car too close was when it's wing mirror deliberately thumped an out-stretched hand to the merriment of the occupants. There were also the cars that sounded their horns and stopped several yards further on as though suggesting a lift and then as we ran towards it, would suddenly roar off again. We plodded on, at least it was a warm and dry evening, on a previous trip I'd had to walk, with no offer of a lift, for around ten miles in pouring rain and that's bad news for two reasons. Sympathy from motorists would easily disappear when they weighed up the thought of having two wet through, scruffy types sitting on their nice dry car seats, which then meant that we had to suffer climbing into sleeping bags somewhere, in wet clothes for a few hours very uncomfortable sleep. The second worst fate was to hear a car horn sounding madly and to see the other two's grinning faces pressed against a window as they sped past to overtake us.

But neither of those things happened that evening, another lift materialised and with the dark now descending fast we were dropped off at a place called Falconwood, not far from the outskirts of London. That small cluster of houses alongside the main road had been an overnight stopping off place a few times before for us, mainly because it had a great pub called "The Falcon". Buoyed by the idea of a last couple of beers for the night, we offered the motorist a drink, which he refused, and rushed inside, it was 10.30, half an hour's drinking time!  Twenty minutes later, as the landlord was about to shout "last orders" the door burst open and our other two friends rushed in, straight to the bar and ordered themselves some drinks. Apparently they'd picked up one lift, all the way from Sheerness to around five miles back down the road and had been walking as fast as possible with the pub as a magnet!
Beers drunk, there was nothing else left to do but walk into a large wood alongside the pub, unroll the sleeping bags, tomorrow the walk into London, tonight sleep with the squirrels and the mice. Hard to believe that just 3-4 hours earlier we had been sitting in the "Queens Head" on a warm and sunny evening.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Buzzard Controls

I was interested this week to read in the Shooting Times, that after a four year legal battle, the High Court have granted a gamekeeper the right to control buzzards in order to stop them causing a high degree of predation of his pheasant poults.
His initial application four years ago to Natural England for a licence to carry out controls (live-trapping) was turned down and with financial support from the National Gamekeepers Organisation, he has been fighting that decision ever since. In overturning NE's refusal of a licence the High Court concluded that NE has taken public opinion into account, which was unlawful when judging a wildlife licence application. This was despite NE's experts accepting that the buzzards were heavily predating the pheasants and that every effort had been made to dissuade them from doing so.
One has to hope that by being found guilty of taking an unlawful approach to a licence application that NE haven't now left us with the possibility of a flood of similar applications from numerous game shooting interests - to protect birds that are simply bred by the millions to be shot!

Moving on and this morning at dawn (06.30) I was on the reserve in near freezing conditions to enjoy watching the dawn sky light up and to see if any wildfowlers were about. The answer to the latter was none but below you can see the dawn sky over at the mainland just beginning to brighten as I arrived.

 Once brightness had arrived I took this photo across the reserve's saltings, out towards The Swale and the background mainland.

Here the wind pump that keeps one corner of the reserve well waterlogged is silhouetted against the first appearance of the rising sun.

And with the sun behind me you can just see the full moon fast fading away above the middle bush.

The flat marsh looking back south west towards the wind pump.

And eastwards to the sea wall hide - a pretty exposed and tree-less habitat that I walk every day, no shelter here when the bitter winds blow.

The reserve's barn being warmed by the first rays of the dawn sunshine, with the dogs heading back towards my car.

 A reserve track heading east.

 Farmland behind the reserve - Elliotts Farm.

 With ditches winding there away for long distances across the marsh, short cuts are necessary, one of several is shown below. Crossing these when the ditch water has covered them by several inches can be tricky!

 Finally, my little pest controller Ellie, insisted on getting in on the photo call.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

A Shepherd's Tale

Well, after two days of what for me, were perfect winter weather - frost, blue skies, sunshine and dry underfoot, we're back to rain, gloom and mud today. However, if nothing else, it will help with our attempts to get the Flood Field on the reserve to live up to it's name and provide perfect conditions to attract more and more wildfowl and roosting waders. Aiding the rain, we now have the large distributor pump alongside the field repaired and can begin pumping water onto the field from neighbouring ditches as well, in a few weeks time it should look pretty good.
For this morning, or until the rain ceases and I can find the enthusiasm to to revert to walking the reserve under dark skies, a chilly wind and lots of mud churned up by the cattle, it's back to writing. I guess that'll please Midge, the older dog, after two days of double daily visits, her old legs are looking a bit stiff this morning, as are my arthritic feet.

So writing. Over the last year or so, my girlfriend Diane and I have been researching and writing up the history of a distant relative of our joint families. Edwin Williams was born here on Sheppey in 1853 and spent all of his life here as a farm worker and lately as a shepherd. From 1885 until his retirement, aged 74, he and his family lived on Elmley and our subsequent research has thrown up a lot of interesting facts and old photographs of life there. With the help of Diane's brother, who has written four books, we recently had our efforts printed up as an A4 booklet (just ten copies for interested relatives), containing both colour and black and white photographs and our lengthy research narrative. For the booklet's front cover and immediately inside, we adapted both the frontpiece of the original old family bible and it's second page.

Above you can see Edwin and his wife Martha.

This morning, as it's still raining, I'm now working on researching a brief history of one of my uncles, who was born in Eastchurch, Sheppey in 1895 - Fred Southfield. He died in 1960 when I was 13 but I have some memories of time spent with him as a child and look forward to finding out about his early life.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Cold at Last

After yesterday's appalling weather, it was a real joy this morning to get up at 5.30 and see clear, star-lit skies and no wind! I say appalling weather because severe gales, rain and bitter cold temps. are my idea of hell, but judging from some bloggers yesterday, who clearly love watching distant birds skipping over mountainous seas, yesterday was almost orgasmic - we are all different!
I arrived at the reserve barn at 06.30 in two thirds darkness, a temperature of minus three degrees, our first frost of this winter and only the distant eastern sky was showing some brightness, note the twinkling lights on the mainland and how dark the marsh ahead was.

 As I began to walk away from the barn and the willows around it, about a dozen Teal sprung up from the ditch under the willows, they have a thing about being under those willows and are there every year. After that, as I wound my way across a darkened marsh, heading towards the sea wall and the quickly increasing light, the geese in the Flood Field, several hundred yards way, knew I was about and began to call urgently. Arriving on the sea wall, a scan as best as I could in the poor light, showed that there were no wildfowlers out on the saltings, perhaps the clear sky had deterred them, not the best for that activity apparently.
That turned out to be a godsend though, because for some reason today, birds were more numerous, especially wildfowl. The eastern sky continued to brighten and the gloom decreased, birds were calling, including the "squealing" of Water Rails in the reed beds alongside the sea wall. Waders, led by Curlews, were calling like mad along the mudflats of The Swale and Reed Buntings flitted out of my path on the sea wall and disappeared into the reed beds between the wall and the marsh.The 150 Greylag Geese and 5 White-fronted Geese suddenly lifted up off of their overnight roost in the Flood Field and began to drift out over the saltings, thank gawd there were no wildfowlers about this morning. As I made my way across and around the back of the reserve, it was obvious that there were more wildfowl about than have been for some time, not huge numbers but a good variety - from the "S - Bend Ditch" came the following:-
10 Teal, 30 Wigeon, 10 Shoveler, 70 Mallard and 2 Snipe, the most ducks I've seen for ages! And by then, an hour after I'd arrived, the sun peaked out from the hills of the mainland. Other birds seen were Fieldfare, Pied Wagtail, Lapwing, Peregrine Falcon, Wren and Blackbirds - nothing spectacular but all enjoyable to me.

Here you can see the frost in the foreground as I arrived back at the barn at 07.45, it had been a really enjoyable early morning walk round.

This afternoon, the weather was so good that I went back to the reserve and below you can see the willows next to the barn that the Teal like to get under.

The geese were still there, as they are most days, and by getting no closer than a hundred yards I managed to walk round them and not disturb them, guess they get used to seeing me and the dogs.

It was much quieter bird-wise this afternoon, than this morning ,but it was a lovely time to be out and about and I stopped to talk to a couple of walkers and then a birdwatcher. Apparently there was another mini-seawatch going on down at Shellness this afternoon, well at least the weather was nicer than yesterday!
As I returned home along the Harty Road, the first of those most least likeable shooting types were beginning to arrive, the duck pond shooters! These are the people that pay to walk a very short distance from their cars, sit round large, man-made ponds on the marsh and shoot ducks being lured to the ponds at twilight by huge quantities of regularly spread corn - people that give shooting a bad name!

Tuesday 10 November 2015

A bit of reserve and much wildfowling

On one of the gloomy and damp days that we've had recently I was looking through some old diaries for the date of a particular event when I came across the entry that recorded my start as a Volunteer Warden at The Swale National Nature Reserve. Next year it will be thirty years since my involvement with the Swale reserve began. Not a momentous event for anybody other than myself, I'm no one of any importance, but the place very quickly became a major part of my life. Somewhere to escape to, a place to de-stress and to level out all the ups and downs that twenty nine years of life contains and there were many, especially personal ones. But throughout that time there were always my constant and most reliable companions, the ones that never failed me, unlike some humans, my dogs. Together we sat and baked in the sun on summer's days, disturbed by nothing but the whispering in the reeds, or shivered to the bone in winter as snowflakes blew horizontally across the marsh, straight off the sea.

In 1986 and for several years after, there was always the daily presence of a permanent reserve manager but by the late 1990's they had left and not been replaced and the reserve's management, under their various titles, currently the Elmley Conservation Trust, left the place to three of us Vol. Wardens to oversee. These days the Voluntary Warden titles have been dropped but I still have complete access to the reserve to act as it's eyes and ears and hope to for many more years. As I've always mostly been a very early in the morning user of the reserve it has always meant that I have been in the blissful situation whereby I have nearly always had the place to myself, an empty nature reserve as my patch, it's been bliss. Normally, only the very occasional birdwatcher and the winter-time wildfowlers have disturbed this general solitude.
That's not to say that there hasn't been problems, which I've found myself as a lone agent out there, not always wisely, getting involved with in the reserve's defence. There have been the people who ignore the signs and walk through the Little Tern nesting area at Shellness beach and argue that it's their right, and rarely now, but once a regular problem, the unsavoury men that would illegally run their lurcher dogs across the marsh after hare and rabbit. Quite often these men were of an aggressive nature and if I took it upon myself to go and ask them to leave I always tried to keep a ditch between us for safety's sake. I even found a dead lurcher laying along a ditch bank out there one morning. We also had problems for a while with a particular group of neighbouring farmland shooters who would insist on shooting, over the boundary fence, at wildfowl that were inside the reserve. That problem luckily went away when the area that they leased and shot was sold by the farmer owner and eventually ended up being owned by the RSPB. Fortunately, in recent years, most of those incidents have gone away, the reserve has no current problems and only the Kent Wildfowlers remain as constant winter-time visitors that I see on a regular basis.

My relationship with the active KWCA members alongside the reserve needs mentioning here because for over twenty years I took the same stance against them as many people involved with conservation still do, they killed birds and therefore they were the enemy. When I began life on the reserve in 1986 as a Vol. Warden, I chose to ignore my own credentials as someone who had been involved in catching and killing rabbits over a long period of time, trapping eels, (often by trespassing on farmland), in huge quantities and even for just two winters, doing some wildfowling. No, despite that fact and despite the fact that the wildfowlers had been legally shooting the saltings in front of the reserve for many years before the reserve even existed, I immediately positioned myself as a one-man anti-wildfowler campaigner. Ignoring the fact that they were there first, I simply could not accept the fact that they could happily use the reserve's Flood field as a constant supplier of wildfowl for them to shoot as they flew over the sea wall and out to the tide.

However, despite the letters written about my behaviour towards them, one thing that I never did, which formed the basis of a couple of complaints, was to run to and fro on top of the sea wall waving my arms about to divert the wildfowl. The only consistent course of action that I carried out over all those years was to walk along the top of the sea wall (a public footpath) whenever possible, at dawn. Clearly, from the abuse that I had spat at me as they later walked past (and one assault), many of them strongly felt that my being along the sea wall at dawn affected their shooting prospects and some went as far as to demand that I didn't arrive at the reserve until they had left. That of course was never going to happen and Natural England supported me in that stance and I also tried explaining to the wildfowlers that, being an early riser, I was there just as early after their shooting season had ended.
And so that's how it continued for twenty odd years, I fought my lone, early morning and sometimes evenings, battles with them, getting absolutely no where and suffering a lot of stress in doing so. In later years as blogging became fashionable I began this one and at regular intervals used it to berate the wildfowlers and their actions but that eventually, was responsible for daylight coming into my prejudiced world. After one particular stroppy rant about the shooting, a long time wildfowler and senior member of the KWCA E-Mailed me objecting to some of my criticism and explaining why. We swapped E-Mailed arguments for a while and it gradually became clear to me that he was making some valid points about the KWCA and their conservation credentials that I could only agree with. I invited him to the reserve and we spent a couple of hours walking round it and not only did he respect and enjoy what the reserve was trying to achieve but I also began to see that my no compromise approach to wildfowling, based purely on what occurred at The Swale NNR, was wrong. That meeting was in some ways a kind of crossroads event for both of us and since then we have become firm friends. Not only that, he shoots very little these days and has gone on to become a very good photographer, regularly visiting nature reserves to increase his portfolio of wildlife images. I at the same time, have realised the great value in the KWCA owning and managing large areas of our local countryside that other conservation bodies couldn't afford or obtain. Sure they still shoot most of those areas but it is controlled and without that shooting interest neither the organisation or much of the habitat they manage for all wildlife, would exist. As a result, as well as being a member of the Kent Ornithological Society, the RSPB and the Kent Wildlife Trust, I am also an Associate member of the KWCA and spend many pleasant chats with the members along the sea wall.

Clearly a lot of people will see that as a bit of a perverse change of attitude from me but I'm certainly never going to take up shooting and still find it difficult to see wildfowl being shot, but it has taught me that you can become too entrenched with your own opinions. The countryside is becoming ever smaller and the opportunity for people to carry out their chosen pursuits where they will not be seen or affect other people are also decreasing. Regularly now birdwatchers and photographers complain constantly about dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, invading and disturbing their space.  However by the same token there was a time when wildfowlers were probably rarely seen or heard of. They crept about in remote and muddy places that many of us didn't even know existed, or would want to go to, and often in the dark. These days few places are remote anymore and we're pushed towards them by the tsunami of development that is engulfing the countryside and wildfowlers increasingly find that their space is now being invaded by birdwatchers armed with telescopes.

Therefore, if nothing else, the last twenty-nine years involvement as part of a nature reserve management team has taught me an awful lot about wildlife and in the last few years, that true conservation management takes many forms and by a diverse range of people.

"It's a restless hungry feeling
That don't mean no one no good
When ev'thing I'm a-saying
You can say it just as good
You're right from your side
I'm right from mine
We're both just one too many mornings
An a thousand miles behind".............Bob Dylan

Sunday 1 November 2015

A Touch of Great Expectations

Last night was that once a year night when many of us spend the first few hours of the evening sitting indoors with all the lights off - it's Halloween's "trick or treat" night and not all of us like having to keep answering the door to little children asking for treats of some kind. You sit there in the dark trying to identify what is on your dinner plate and feeling like some relic from a Dickensian novel when eventually a text comes through on your mobile - "is it safe to turn the lights on yet" asks a friend - suddenly you don't feel so alone and Scrooge like.

And that Dickensian feel leads me nicely into today's weather and how it's been. My normal weekend ritual of being on the reserve to see in the dawn was curtailed immediately I got up and looked out of the window - thick mist and the eerie wail of fog horns, somewhere out to sea. Eventually, with the Sunday papers read, porridge ate and frustration setting in, I left for the reserve at 9.00. Joni Mitchell's "Hejira" CD was in the car's player and listening to that was enough to make any day seem great. On arriving at the reserve the mist was even thicker, you can just make out the reserve's barn in the photo below.

In his "Great Expectations" Dickens captured the cold and misty nature of these North Kent marshes really well and as the bubbling call of some unseen Curlew rang through the eeriness of the mist this morning it was hard not to experience what he was writing about.

Here a lone crow sits atop an old willow, it's "cawing" calls like the forerunner to something evil about to happen, or was my imagination starting to run away with me.

Sometimes on morning like this, the sun appears, disappears, and then eventually  re-appears for good. It's like the curtains on a stage suddenly being pulled back to reveal the scenery in all it's glory. This morning that never happened and indeed, it remained, in varying degrees of thickness, very misty all day. What always amazes me on such days, is how much sounds travel and make who, or whatever made them, sound so much closer.  At one stage I could hear voices and on straining to hear what was being said, it became clear that it was some fishermen on an unseen boat out in The Swale, a risky business if they can't see the shore.
This morning the grass across the marsh was heavily covered in silvery droplets of water from the overnight dew and mist and it always serves as a handy way of identifying who or what has been about, such as me, below. I was sober, honest!

One of the benefits of the recent weeks of damp and warm weather has been the continuous growth of mushrooms, hundreds of them. Last week my girlfriend and I picked a large bag of them and she converted them into delicious mushroom soup, yet so few people seem to pick them these days.

So there we are, I heard a few birds but saw bugger all, not the sort of day to excite many of the plethora of modern day young birdwatchers, who need many, or rare birds, to make a day worthwhile. But for me it was different, it had atmosphere, I re-lived childhood days and books I'd read. Getting back to the car and switching on the engine, there was Joni again, singing "Song to Sharon" - today'll do for me!

Thursday 29 October 2015

Can't change, it's old age.

It has gradually become clear to me this last couple of years that modern bird watching has left me behind. There was a time that I kept up, I swapped my £10 RSPB binoculars for a better pair and then swapped again for some expensive Leica ones. I bought a posh Kowa scope and tripod and then bought a more expensive Opticron one, I was flying - if I couldn't identify every bird that I saw, I'd at least look the part as I staggered round under their weight. I'd been a member of the Kent Ornithological Society (KOS) since around 1959, which was a respectable stat. to quote some fifty years later, and I still go to the KOS AGM's but it's now clear that both the KOS and I have dropped into the old-fashioned category. Few members attend the KOS meetings, even fewer use it's Forum or Latest Sightings facility, it's creaking with old age just as I am.
It seems that the modern and youthful birdwatcher rarely attends meetings any more, it's doubtful that they even physically talk to each other that much, except of course when they herd together on a twitch. No, they tweet, facebook or page each other, technology has left the note book, pencil and us old codgers behind.

For some, even going out looking to find your own rare bird is old-fashioned - much better to sit dozing indoors with a pager on the arm of the chair. The pager beeps, makes you spill your wine, a rare bird is in bushes in your area, the location is given to the nearest bush, this is easy. Check your tick list, no, ain't got that one, grab your gear and off you rush. Join the mass crowd at the site, get seen by all the regulars and therefore acknowledged as one of the "top notch" in-crowd birders - just a matter then of trying to get the best photograph of the bird, even more recognition!
That's probably an unfair description of how most birders go about their bird watching but it's easy to come to that conclusion some times when you read some of their blogs. It's extraordinary the lengths that some of these twitchers will go to in order to get another bird on their list and what a pain in the arse that their behaviour can be while they're doing it.

So yes, bird watching, like life itself, has continued to evolve and this old curmudgeon at 68 has been left behind, unable to evolve with it - no facebook, no twitter, no pager, just my daily patch watching. I've always been an opinionated, anti-social old bastard, can't change now!

Sunday 25 October 2015

Things ain't changed much

I was surprised this morning to see that it's a month since I lasted posted but to be honest, I've struggled to find something new to blog about, bird numbers on the reserve still remain constantly low and inspiration seems to be passing me by.
However an inspiring few hours did occur on Friday evening when my friend and I made our regular trip to London to see Bob Dylan and his excellent band at the Royal Albert Hall for his standard bi-annual visit to the big city on his Never Ending Tour. A five night stay and sold out every night, the old boy still pulls them in. We've seen him so many times since the first time, ironically at the RAH in 1966, and yet this year, aged 74, he was incredibly better than he's been for years - just can't wait for the 2017 visit, it'll be my 70th birthday treat.

So, back to the reserve and this morning, with the clocks going back an hour overnight, I didn't have to pace around indoors waiting for daylight to arrive, I was out there at 06.15 just as dawn broke. It was beautiful and with clear blue skies, the sun eventually rose behind Whitstable and I had the whole place to myself, joy.

Here you can see the girls on top the sea wall with the first rays of the sun beginning to reflect off of them. Poor old Midge in the foreground will be thirteen on Boxing Day, she is still fully active but stiffens up a lot after every walk, it's hard to accept now that we're going into the final few years together. I say we, because for the time with a dog and at 68, I'm starting to find I suffer pretty much in the same way after most of the walks through the wet and the mud out there.

This photo of the "S bend ditch", which is basically a fleet and which meanders it's way for a quarter of a mile to the sea wall, illustrates how empty of wildfowl it is, there was nothing along it's whole length. One of the best counts of ducks that we've had this spell so far is 60-70 Mallard, pretty pathetic really.

However Short-eared Owls are appearing most days down at the Shellness saltings with 2-3 reported almost daily during the late afternoon/early evening. And this morning I had my first Hen Harrier of this winter as an adult ring-tail sped across The Flood in a westerly direction, so a trickle of interest is beginning to appear.
Lastly, it's a real pain that people can't be bothered to take home their litter when using the Sea Wall hide, presumably they assume that we do it for them.

Saturday 26 September 2015

Where have all the birdies gone?

I've waited a week or so since my last blog to see if the bird numbers improved on the reserve but unfortunately they haven't. I have been thinking that perhaps I wasn't getting about enough, or looking hard enough but earlier this week I bumped into a birdwatcher from West Kent whose first words to me were "what have you done with all the birds". The answer was "nothing, there hasn't been any birds to do anything with." As I've said on numerous occasions, the reserve will only come briefly into it's own around New Year, when any serious rainfall has begun to flood it up. Even then though, we don't get anywhere near the number of wildfowl that we used to get, especially Wigeon. Over the last few years they, and many other ducks, are to be found further round The Swale, in huge numbers, enjoying the safety provided at the Elmley NNR. Here many years of hard work and expense are now paying dividends as the birds enjoy the huge acreage of marshland and nearby Spitend Bay.
So it's deathly quiet on The Swale NNR but I'd settle for that if it means avoiding the ridiculous scenes that took place at Dungeness this week where a very rare Acadian Warbler from America was found. At one stage that resulted in some 230 parked cars and over a thousand twitchers circling the poor weary bird and when it moved to a nearby garden, that and it's owners were also besieged. One thing's for sure, if I was to ever surpass myself and recognise such a rare bird, I wouldn't be rushing to any pager in order to attract such a stampede of oddballs to my patch.

Anyway, birds or no birds, in this tranquil, sunny and beautiful autumn weather that we are currently experiencing, the reserve looks quite stunning and it's a pleasure to be there just for that. I arrived there this morning at first light and with an air temperature of 4 degrees we were only marginally above the first frost, leaving the grass covered in a heavy dew. I made my way across to the sea wall hide and with no wildfowlers present, stood in complete solitude and watched the sunrise slowly evolve over Shellness Point.

As the sun eventually escaped the distant cloud and rose into a clear blue sky the temperature slowly began to rise and I begun to make my along the sea wall. Looking backwards, the Delph Fleet and it's reed beds stretched out and snaked their way for a mile or so along the base of the sea wall towards Harty church.

 I couldn't resist taking a photo of this lone dandelion seedhead on top of the sea wall, you can see the dew glistening on the grass stems behind it.

 I spent some time making my way across the reserve and then the adjoining RSPB fields, to eventually link up with the Public Footpath/track that runs between Muswell Manor and Elliotts farm. Although it isn't all covered in concrete, many of us locals know this track as "the concrete road" and by the time that I was walking along that in the shelter of the trees and bushes, it was really warm. It's not a regular walk of mine and so, as you can see, the dogs go on ahead, enjoying whatever new smells that they come across. The fox hunt were along here in the week and so they could probably detect where the pack of hounds had passed by. On the crest of the road in the distance, there is a large wooded area that was planted as game cover some years ago, here I had the pleasure of watching some birds at last. Several Chiffchaffs, plus Chaffinches, Robins and best of all, two Goldcrests, were all busily working their way through the bushes as I made my way past. Sheer bliss in the increasingly warm sun, if only we didn't have to have a winter.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Winter Approaches

It has been a long and wet day today with pretty much continuous rain throughout it. It began for me with my third morning on the trot getting soaked on the reserve and seeing very little bird life for my efforts. Even the large flock of Greylag Geese have moved away, although who can blame them, they were getting shot at twice a day. Birds really have been at a premium this last few weeks, numbers of ducks you can count on one hand and apart from the odd Chiffchaff moving through, the only substantial group pf birds has been a flock of around 110 Linnets feeding daily in a farmland cover strip of Chickory, etc., just over the fence. Clearly the summer is now receding behind us and autumn is well under way.

Although it'll still be some time before the rain makes any major impression on the reserve's water levels and we end up with scenes such as the one below, it's at least re-dressing the balance out there and the effects of the drought are fast diminishing.

The one down side of that is the fact that it is now become increasingly arduous walking round as the cattle do a good job of turning bone dry gateways and tracks into areas of deep, clinging mud, it's amazing how quickly they can churn up areas of wet soil. Mind you, whilst mentioning the cattle, one of the regular topics of conversation just lately has been the speed at which the grazing marsh has become lush and green again. It's been some years since so much grass has been available to the stock at this time of year. The lawns at home have gone the same way, all of a sudden it's a job to keep up with the mowing - a couple of nice frosts would help slow things down.

And so autumn takes over and people get all lyrical about what a wonderful season that it is, and so it can be, with all the wonderful colours in the woods and mists and dewy cobwebs, etc. etc., but for me it is spoiled by the fact that it heralds in the winter. I really cannot enjoy the winter season for a number of reasons but paramount among them is the short days and the long hours of darkness. Sorry, but for me there is nothing in winter that can compete with being on the marsh at 5.00 on a summer's morning when everything is fresh, the birds are active and the sun is just starting to warm the day up. And of course those late summer's evenings sitting in the garden as it cools down, watching the sun sink low in the western sky, swifts screaming in large gathering overhead and seeing the bats as they start to hawk the twilight for their prey. Being pitch dark and very cold by tea-time for months on end really is a depressing thought each year, some animals really have cracked it by hibernating through the winter. Every October when I pack my tortoises away for the winter I really do envy them the fact that when they next wake up it will be the Spring again, how great is that!

The warm sun is failing, the bleak wind is wailing,
The bare boughs are sighing, the pale flowers are dying,
And the year
On the earth her deathbed, in a shroud of leaves dead,
Is lying........................Percy Bysshe Shelley