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!