Wednesday 25 February 2015

Twitching and High Tides

Last weekend was busier than usual on the reserve and to a degree, enlightening, as for the first time in many years the site suffered a major twitch. With Saturday morning being a tad damp and the wildfowling season ending the day before, I didn't bother with my customary early morning patrol and left it until better weather in the afternoon. A nice quiet stroll in the afternoon sun, a look at the high tide wader roost on The Flood and some photos of the High Spring Tide covering the saltings was my aim. However, the minute I climbed onto the top of the sea wall and looked along the saltings towards Shellness it was clear that things were definitely not going to be as solitary as I had hoped. Around a dozen twitchers/birders, whatever they might be called, were forming a large circle on the saltings with several more approaching along the sea wall from Shellness - obviously the bloody Richards Pipit was still attracting attention from near and far!

Walking along towards them, I couldn't work out why they needed to circle the bird on the saltings when presumably better views must of been available from the top of the sea wall a couple of yards away and when I walked out to speak to them they admitted that they couldn't see the bird in the long vegetation, so why were they there? Perhaps they have different ways of doing things when twitching rare birds, who knows, but anyway I only stayed briefly. I tried to advise them that a deep gulley between them and the sea wall was fast filling with water, a record Spring Tide was beginning to fill the saltings and  they might want to avoid "bootfuls" by moving back  to the safety of the sea wall. With the odd grunt and much still staring at clumps of grass in the vain hope that a pipit's head might pop up, they mostly ignored me until eventually, as you can see below, the tide did begin to prove me right and the gulley I was talking about shows as a straight line of deep water.

 So, back to the sea wall they all came, and many began to disperse back to the Shellness car park and  the various counties that they had driven from but as they went, more came. It was like a continuous sea wall, conveyor belt of twitchers like someone was organising "see the pipit" bus trips. All these people hurriedly rushing along the sea wall, laden with scopes, tripods, binoculars, cameras, pagers, phones to inform Birdguides with and in some cases, assorted camouflage clothing to somehow make themselves invisible when standing on top of the sea wall. Bemused, I stood with the dogs and listened to the much repeated comment of "is it still there", as some went and many still came and mused on what a stressful hobby twitching must be, to drive from counties north of London as some had, and possibly not even see the bird.
And in the meantime, the Spring Tide was flooding across the saltings fast and the pipit, not being of the web-footed variety, had left the saltings and somehow managed to disappear on the landward side of the sea wall, some new arrivals looked like being disappointed and I drifted off, not wanting to see grown men and women cry and wrists become slashed.

But finally before I left, I took this last photo of the now flooded saltings, (compare it with the top one), and wandered back along the sea wall, noting several Water Rail scurrying along it's seaward base that had been pushed in from the saltings by the sea. I've seen that before during Spring Tides and have been surprised that the Rails spend their time out in such salty habitat.

 The following morning, Sunday, I returned to the reserve in my normal early morning fashion and guess what, despite the time of day, there they all were again, continually rotating as they came went and there was even a baby in a push chair.

Another long day of twitching was clearly unfolding and so after stopping to chat to a couple of birdwatching friends there, I pushed off across to the rear of the reserve and onto the RSPB fields alongside. From the farmland alongside the Capel Fleet reed beds below Muswell Manor several quad bikes driven by men with guns suddenly appeared, followed by an assorted pack of terriers and a couple of fox hounds, clearly a Kent terrier pack were out for the day trying to find foxes. They drove past me and headed across a rape field and down alongside the wide reed beds of Capel Fleet and pushed through the reed beds to end up at the Raptor Viewing Mound. As someone who walks the area with his own terriers I found it briefly entertaining, although it's clearly not everybody's cup of tea, but the more foxes that can be culled before the ground nesting birds' nesting season begins, the better.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Reserve News

Since before Christmas there has been a Richards Pipit along part of the sea wall of the reserve and all has been quiet until an eagle-eyed birdwatcher spotted it 3-4 weeks ago. This species is an uncommon visitor to Britain from Asia, mainly during the autumn/winter months. On the reserve it has spent most of it's time frequenting the long grass at the base of a half mile stretch of sea wall - the area to the left of the photo below.

Of course, as is the way with all birds rare or uncommon, it has attracted regular groups of birdwatchers from near and far, who presumably needed to see such a bird, although to be honest it's a pretty non-descript little brown job.
Being out there most mornings it's been interesting to see how the various birdwatchers separate into various factions. There are the guys that simply walk along the top of the sea wall, stopping at regular intervals, in the hope that it puts in an appearance and if it doesn't then simply walking on, looking at what else might be about. I had some pleasant chats with a few of those guys, they were all about common sense and enjoying the birds and the day.
Some others however, not happy at not seeing it, walk up and down in the long grass determined to flush it up from where it might be hiding and if they do, the bird can be quite flighty, it will fly some 20 yds and drop down in the vegetation again. There then unfolds a scenario whereby, especially if they have cameras, where the bird is continuously re-flushed/disturbed until it runs out of grass or patience and flies into an adjacent rape field for some peace and quiet.
Several hundred yards past where the Richards Pipit hangs out there is a fairly new hide with views over a large area of part flooded marsh that we know as "The Flood". In recent weeks several hundred various duck and geese species and at high tide, many hundreds, if not thousands, of roosting waders have been using it. Most days it is a spectacular sight and yet to my surprise, many of these "birdwatchers", having seen the Pipit, simply ignore "The Flood" and retreat back along the sea wall, seems odd to me,  I can only guess that a one-bird tick is more important than a whole plethora of every day birds.
The Richards Pipit aside, quite close to them in an adjacent field, a pair of Black Swans have teamed up with a herd of Mute Swans just lately and look quite impressive when they take flight. They briefly appeared this time last year and presumably take a late-winter wander from a private collection somewhere. I wonder if they've appeared on any "tick" lists?

Moving on, there was an interesting article on the front page of the Daily Telegraph today that caught my eye. Apparently under laws passed yesterday, pest control services will now be allowed on to private land without permission from the owner, to eradicate plants or animals that pose a "significant threat" to the surrounding environment. Landowners who fail to comply with these incursions onto their land will be committing a criminal offence. And what are these pest officers looking for and removing, well "invasive and non-native species" such a Japanese Knotweed, Ring-necked Parakeets, and Ruddy Ducks are the stand out examples. So it looks as though some of the Parakeet colonies around the country could well be on borrowed times now, regardless of whether the landowner enjoys them being there or not.  Ruddy Ducks should be OK, if the people that still find the odd one or two left, stop reporting them blogs, bird forums, etc. I used to love watching the courtship displays of those ducks when they still bred on The Swale NNR and was never convinced that the males had any interest in flying south regularly and shagging White-headed Duck females.

Lastly, the lone Hooded Crow was still about on the reserve yesterday and as it has been all winter, on it's own. Despite a huge corvid flock nearby on Harty, I've not seen the Hoodie mixing with them at all, I wonder if crows have a prejudice thing and have told it to clear off back to Scotland, which it will presumably do anyway before long.
So that's it for the moment, in a few weeks time some lucky person will spot the first Sand Martin or Wheatear and the rest of us will get both excited and jealous at the same time.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

The Elmley Schoolhouse

Some time ago I posted a blog about the early days of the old Elmley schoolhouse - see my posting dated 26th December 2013. Unfortunately since then the shell of the building has continued to become more fragile and can't be far away from total collapse. I have the somewhat romantic photograph below in my collection but have no record of where it came from and so I hope that whoever did produce it will forgive me for using it.
Since then I have found more documentation about how the school came about, written a number of years ago by a Les Howard, the detail is very interesting and I quote some of it here.

In 1884 the whole of Elmley was owned by the Oxford University and so on the 1st of January that year the vicar responsible for Elmley church, the Rev. Scott Robertson, wrote to the University Curators pointing out that the Education Authorities were likely to force the building of a school at Elmley. This came about because the church vestry was being used to teach up to 45 children there- in and the Government Inspector had certified the vestry as suitable for only 35. The Rector pointed out that in reality some 60 children ought to be at school at the time and that a school to accommodate some 70-80 children should be built during that year. This was particularly relevant as eight new cottages were being built by the Cement Company nearby that coming Spring which would imply the addition of another twenty four children.
At a Vestry meeting on the 28th March 1884 Scott Robertson was directed to write again to the University Curators pointing out that there were currently 61 children above five years of age on Elmley. To date admission to infants between three and five had been refused but must be taken into consideration in planning for a new school and thus allowance for 90 children would be necessary. It was also pointed out that when one proprietor owned a whole parish it was necessary for them to erect a school. Having consulted a local architect and seen his proposed plan they advised that building costs would amount to £495 and to get a certified teacher to reside on the spot it was considered advisable to erect a teacher's cottage adjacent to the schoolroom at an additional cost of £220-£250. Further fixtures and fixings brought the estimated costs to a total of £800. The University was asked to provide a site for the new school just to the east of the churchyard on the space that was currently being used as the current school playground. Finally, the Vestry submitted that four courses were open to the University; to erect a school and give it to the parish; to erect a school and rent it to the parish at a small rental; ratepayers might build by School Board rate, but cost would be heavy and rates burdensome, or the University to give a larger contribution and the Rector to raise the balance of the £800 by subscription.

Scott Robertson sent the Curators a further letter on the 16th April 1884 quoting the population of Elmley on that very day as;-
Adults over 13 years - 148; children over 3 and under 13 years - 95; infants under 3 years - 34, making a total of 277 persons. There were now 62 children in the Vestry schoolroom (fit for 35 he once again emphasised) and all over 5 years of age despite many parents demanding that under fives should also be there. He also made it clear that it was only his influence with the school inspectors that was stopping the education authorities from taking further action, something presumably, that could not be held back for much longer. The Curators responded quite quickly to this letter from the Rev. and their letter appeared to saddle Scott Robertson with an "obligation," one that saw him setting out to raise £300 (implying that the Curators had offered £500 towards the building costs). 

The next few months saw further letters exchanged between Scott Robertson and the University Curators where firstly Scott Robertson suggested that the Curators might consider a Deed conveying the site for the school to the Diocesan Education Board. The Curators responded with various questions on funding, including income made from charging the children pence for their education. On the 13th May 1884 Scott Robertson sent a letter to the Curators stating that due to the London clay that the school was to be built on it would be necessary to have a strong foundation of concrete and facilities for storing every drop of rainwater. He went on to explain that the house currently being occupied by the teacher (one of the cottages in the Kingshill farmyard), had no backdoor, no pump or well (all the water being fetched from the Kingshill farmhouse) and no closet, there being just one at the end of the row of five cottages, common to all five. 
That month the Curators also opened talks with Levett & Co. of the nearby cement works to sound them out about possible funding for the new school, only to be told that such consideration would only be given if the University were prepared to extend the factory's lease for a further 40 years. However by June 1884 Scott Robertson announced rather bitterly that the Curators had taken the matter out of his hands and that he was obliged to withdraw applications made to Societies and individuals for funding as the University prefers to build the school themselves and retain the buildings on site in it's own hands. He also announced that he had been transferred to Throwley Vicarage but would continue to reside in Sittingbourne for several weeks in order that he could assist in every way possible at getting a start made on building the school before bad weather made the carriage of materials across the clay soil tracks very difficult. 

On the 14th November 1884 the new vicar, Rev. G. H. Mason, paid a visit to Elmley church and reported that the school attendance was so large that half the children were were being taught in the open porch of the church. Shortly after, a visit to Elmley by the University's Agents, saw them render a report to the Curators entitled "Recommendations as to New School". In that report they confirmed that the Education Department would insist on the erection of a proper school building on the site next to the church, which was halfway between the children from the cement works cottages and those from the farm looker's cottages. They also considered that it was not suitable to provide residence on that site for a single women schoolmistress. Besides being very lonely, it was only half a mile from the cement works where "men of a very rough and often intemperate character are occasionally employed". The site of the school building would be a quarter of a mile from several cottages at Kingshill farm homestead and it was suggested that one be re-furbished for the schoolmistress and that rubbish from the cement works be used to provide dry, clean path alongside the "plantation" (the name for the line of trees that ran, and still do), from the farmyard down to the church. Looking at the original 1884 ground plans for the school and the architect's plans that later became the actual blueprints for the new school, it is clear that the schoolhouse was eventually built to a smaller size after omitting the rooms that would have been for the schoolmistress's personal use. It became a simple and plain schoolhouse about 28-30 feet by 16-18 feet wide, with a classroom, sitting room for the mistress, together with sanitary offices and all at an estimated cost of £500. If the idea for a smaller building was adopted, the University's agents pointed out, it would keep it as the private property of the University. Clearly it was because not long after, five tenders ranging from £576 to £720, were received for building the school and the laying of two sections of path. 
The two sections of path were named as from the the churchyard gate to the Old Engine House (presumably at the cement works) and from the Old Engine House to Rutland Garden gate. With the Rutlands living in a cottage in Kingshill farm at the time, I suspect this meant that the path also went in the other direction, from the churchyard to Kingshill farm and in that way keeping all attendees at the school from getting wet and muddy feet. Surprisingly, the part of the tender that covered the cost of building the school, also included seats and desks and paved foot-ways to offices and approaches.

So finally, it seems that agreement had been made and by the July of 1885 building of the school was well underway. There were also plans in place to make better living accommodation for the schoolmistress and in October of that year, a local architect estimated the costs of the necessary repairs and alterations to the north portion of Kingshill farmhouse in order to convert it into her residence at £53.10.0. Other sundries required for the new path from the farmhouse to the church and schoolhouse, i.e. wicket gates, posts, etc., were estimated as £3.5.0. (Later, in 1891, it was noted that the rent paid to a Mr. Wilks for the part of the farmhouse allocated to the schoolmistress was £5 per annum).

On the 10th December 1885 the Rev. Mason wrote to the University thanking them for the new school, reporting a large increase in the number of children at the day school and that three Sunday school teachers had been enlisted. More interestingly, Wednesday evening reading classes were also being held for parents. Two of the Elmley ratepayers, Mr. Rutland and Mr. Wilks, wanted to form a school committee, to which the Rector had no objection but he did oppose their suggestion that the current schoolmistress be got rid of. He considered that she was very well conducted and considered that due to the number of infants now attending the school it would be best to assist the schoolmistress by employing one of Mr. Rutland's daughters (clever), as a monitor at one shilling a week. However, due to a rise in the number of infants it was thought that the pay should be made two shillings a week.   

Throughout the next year or so various balance sheets were discussed, showing the income and outgoings of the school and the fact that a healthy balance seemed to be being maintained. In September 1887 Mr. Atkinson, the Superintendent of the Sunday School, made an appeal to the University for a good library of books for the school, something not supported by the Rector. Within a month and after consultation with the schoolmistress and the people of the parish, the Curators arranged for Clarendon Press of Oxford to supply all the books requested at a trade price of £10.

Early in 1899, the schoolmistress Mrs Harris, decided to leave Elmley where she had been teacher for seven years and the Rector suggested a male replacement as, "some of the boys are big and need a firm hand", but he was ignored. Instead another mistress was appointed but then in March of 1902 she also resigned and so Mrs Harris was re-appointed but by then the cement works had closed and there were only 10 children on the books. The school hadn't been around that long and now it's future looked even shorter and over the next few years various views were expressed on it's ownership and viability.

In 1902 the Rector commented on the relatively healthy state of the school finances and observed that a new Education Bill that was going through Parliament would relieve the Church from maintaining the staff, or alternatively, the school will have become secularised so as to render it not worth retaining by the Church, With the 1902 Education Act now in force, in January 1903 the Rector sought the views of the Curators as to what course they proposed to take. He reported that there were around 37 persons on Elmley of which only 8 were of school age. Four belonged to the Williams family, one to the Fenners and three were boys from the Minster Union, boarded in Elmley. The schoolmistress Mrs. Harris, remained, on an annual salary of £60, plus the benefit of the house provided by the University. He went on to remark that he no longer had the right to carry on the school in what was the university premises (presumably as a result of conditions in the new Act), and he sought the Curators views as to what he saw as three courses open for the future:-
a) Form a Management Committee of four churchmen, provide a Trust Deed and hand over the school to the Education Dept.
b) close the school
c) the University to keep the school and relinquish Government aid.
In the Spring of 1903 the KCC Board of Education suggested that the University might find it convenient to make an Agreement for letting the school premises but finally decided that it should be continued as there was no other accommodation on the Isle. 

The opinions on what should happen to the school and it's now regular tiny attendance of schoolchildren rumbled on, but while they did it allowed the school to survive for a good number of years more. One last note on that was the fact that in late 1906 a Mr. Hallums painted both the school and it's fencing for the sum of £8.10s, using 100lbs of paint at £2.10s+ labour of £6.