Monday 26 December 2016

Boxing Day Traditions

Boxing Day, that day of various traditions and today has been one of blue skies and sunshine and a cold wind, just right for getting out and about. Below is the view across The Swale NNR as I arrived at first light and it would be another three quarters of an hour before the sun finally appeared.

But what of traditions, well as anybody who has long history in the countryside will know that it's traditionally a morning when people will get out hunting, shooting, birdwatching and simply walking here and there discovering the countryside. The fox hunts will be out chasing foxes in the time-honoured way while denying that they do and the wildfowlers will be out after geese and ducks to add to their fridges overflowing with Christmas meat. For me, armed with just binoculars and camera, it always means a dawn start at the reserve to see how many wildfowlers have turned up and to have a chat with those that have. Below are part of a flock of around 115 White-fronted Geese, a variety of wild goose that traditionally visit the Island each winter and are much sought after by the wildfowlers. Fortunately so far, the geese are going no where near the wildfowlers and are sticking mostly to the reserve and the surrounding farmland.

This morning the increasing light eventually revealed three wildfowlers out on the saltings and when they packed up and stopped for a nice chat they revealed that none of them had had a single shot. Pretty much how it's been for much of the winter so far. with little water and few birds but despite that they enjoy watching each dawn rise and the solitude that goes with it. I have experienced thirty odd such Boxing Day mornings out there and the days of twenty-odd wildfowlers being there at dawn are now well gone as dry and mild winters have pushed their quarry birds elsewhere, it's unlikely to improve. 
Of course not everybody has such countryside habits and pursuits, some are happy to queue in the traffic jams of cars trying to get in or out of the car parks of large stores, or freeze half to death in pavement queues, desperately seeking their own personal bargain. And lastly, the streets and roads are very busy with the multi-coloured bodies of joggers and cyclists, all neurotically pounding away and determined to lose that extra couple of calories that they were forced to eat as Christmas Day dinner. Next comes New Years Eve, fireworks, drinking and holding hands on the stroke of midnight with people you don't really like but what the hell. 

Sunday 18 December 2016

What happened to Winter?

Here we are at the end of December 2016 and no sign of any really cold weather, in fact it's not unlike the December of last year, predominantly mild and basically an extended autumn. The only really difference between this December and last December is how dank and gloomy it has been.
The photo below shows the Harty Road (it runs across the marshes to the reserve), in December 2011 and it was the last time that we had snow of any seriousness. To the left is a very deep, near empty ditch that concentrated the mind on not going to fast in the car and sliding off the road. But are winters such as this, now a thing of the past, have four or five autumn months now taken their place?

I had a 4x4 vehicle when I took the photo above and so the challenge of getting along the road wasn't too bad. Since then, after a serious of non-snowy winters, I have reverted to a normal two-wheel drive car again and wouldn't want to risk such conditions in that. Up until ten years or so ago, some snow of varying depths was still guaranteed in most winters but then we still had real winters then, not lengthy autumns. Those were the days when it was not possible to get the car off of the drive and so a lengthy walk through deep snow to the pet shop for bird food supplies and household supplies was necessary, or endured. The splendid effect of those days was the fact that many other people were doing the same and the trudge through the snow became a community thing. A time whereby all of a sudden people from the same road shared experiences rather than simple nods in passing.
With bird food purchased it was then back home, sweep 6 inches of snow off of the bird tables and to sit back in the warmth and watch the birds gratefully accepting the life-lines that you'd given them.

Going back to these last two winters, the other event that has not been happening, is normal amounts of rainfall, as I have regularly mentioned this year. Walking away from my car at the reserve barn, this is the sight that I would have seen in many January/February's up until a couple of years ago. Wall to wall flooding that created an arduous walk round for me in wellington boots that were sometimes not high enough and a lot of swimming for my two dogs, but boy, did it attract in many thousands of birds. Ducks, geese, plovers and waders were in such large flocks that it was difficult to count them at times and the wildfowlers waiting on the other side of the sea wall were regularly spoilt for choice when it came to shooting. This morning, and last December, that same view is of unbroken green grass, just some geese and a few ducks, etc. and the ditch water level to the left and right of that gate is three feet below the track.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Things ain't changed

It's been some time since I last wrote about the reserve and to be honest, it's been some time since anything worth writing about, happened. Here we are almost at the end of December and the main talking point, surprisingly, remains that of the lack of water. After this summer's prolonged drought we finally got a few days of rain several weeks ago and things began to look as though they might catch up water-wise. Since then however it has been either dry and frosty, damp and drizzly, or just plain grey and damp, but certainly not very wet. Sure, when I go out to the reserve each morning the grass is always wringing wet from dew, drizzle or mist, and the bare areas are soft and a tad muddy, but the shallow rills are bone dry and the ditches are barely any deeper than they were in July. I was talking to a birdwatcher out there a couple of weeks ago who hadn't been there for some time and he was amazed at the lack of water and as a result, the lack of wildfowl. It is blindingly obvious therefore, that unless we get a high amount of rainfall during the next three months, we will have serious water problems out there by the end of the Spring once drying winds and warm sunshine come along.
Mind you, both the cattle and their owner are enjoying the current conditions. It's mostly mild, the grass is ticking over nicely, the gateways, etc., haven't become impassable due to cattle damage from excessively wet conditions and no doubt they will be taken off for calving much later than is normal.

Bird-wise, well things aren't too bad in respect of variety, it's mainly the wildfowl numbers however that are well below what would be expected there in a normal wet winter. The very low water levels in the fleets and ditches and a bone dry Flood Field, have meant that numbers of Teal, Mallard and Shoveler are well below what used to be recorded 10-15 years ago, only Gadwall are present in reasonable numbers. The 300+ feral Greylag Geese  are surviving the shooting that is going on all round the reserve well though, they always seem to find the safest routes in and out of the reserve on a regular basis. Their numbers are regularly boosted as well by 48-50 truly wild White-fronted Geese, always a joy to see and hear.
What else, well the day-time roost of Short-eared Owls out on the saltings seems to be holding their own at around 10-12 birds and encouragingly, they are regularly joined for a night-time roost, by two female and one male, Hen Harriers, a far better number than in recent years. The only other birds of note are a long stay Crane and a Richards Pipit. This Skylark sized and rather plain Pipit, an autumn/winter vagrant from Asia, is back to the exact same spot along the reserve sea wall for it's third winter running. Other than that, on a day to day basis, the reserve can be pretty boring at times due to the low numbers of birds.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Goodbye Midge

In February 2003 I took receipt of a seven week old Jack Russell puppy to be named Midge. She had been bought to replace the previous Jacko that had just died and to become the new companion of my then, seven year old Beagle, Nana. This photo, taken a day or two after she'd arrived, makes her look a lot bigger than she actually was, she was tiny.

Despite Midge's tiny size, Nana was at first, petrified of her, a supremacy that Midge was quick to exploit but they eventually enjoyed countless hours of playful wrestling.

And when the big day came and a very timid Midge was introduced to the big wide and scary world of the marsh and all it's mysterious sights and smells, it was Nana that showed her round and looked after her.

And after a hard day on the marsh, learning all the things that a young dog has to learn, it would be time for a nap on my bed, protected still by Nana's comforting arm. (This was not posed, they often slept like this)

 And gradually she grew up......

and turned into the wonderful and trouble-free dog that she always was.

And five years ago, when Nana eventually died, I replaced her with little Ellie and it became Midge's turn to be the matriarch and show the latest young up-start the proper way to to things.
But a few days ago, an amazingly fit, near fourteen year old Midge, suddenly developed an aggressive cancer and we had to say goodbye to her - I'll miss her greatly, it's just Ellie and me now.

Sunday 30 October 2016

Clocking Back

The frustrations of being a bad sleeper and a naturally early waker-upper came home to roost badly this morning. No matter how badly I sleep I always wake up at around 5am and get up shortly after. Last night the clocks went back an hour to bring us into British winter time, that meant when I woke up at my normal 5am, a glance at the clock showed that it was now actually 4am. Great, most normal people will say, turn over and go back to sleep for an extra hour, unfortunately once I'm awake that's it, I can't fall back to sleep again, I get up. So I laid there and thought oh well, if everything's gone backwards by an hour that means instead of having to wait for it to get light at 7.15, this morning it'll be 6.15 and I get to the reserve earlier in the day - wrong!! As I lay there in the darkness I could hear the constant mournful sound of the fog horns out in the Thames Estuary, a couple of miles away. Oh no, and a glance out of the window showed that the fog was so thick I could barely see across the road, I'd only been awake a few minutes and my day had already got off to a bad start.
Normally I quite like being out on the marsh in the fog, it has a real Dickensian feel about it, sounds carry, birds appear from nowhere, but this morning I wanted to be there just as the first glimmer of light appeared in order to see what standard of shooting the wildfowlers produced re. the geese again. Now that wasn't going to happen and so I hung around indoors until the paper shop opened, got the papers, read one, and then by 8.00 the fog was beginning to lift and so I set off. By the time I got to the reserve we briefly had a glimpse of the sun before the fog began to slowly thicken again. I wandered across to the sea wall hide and joined two birdwatchers in there for a chat. They advised that they had passed the wildfowlers as they made their way to the hide and that they were carrying dead geese and so it looks as though the geese are going to take a daily pasting all the time that they continue taking the flight line that they do.
Meanwhile the birdwatchers were hoping for a glimpse of the Crane that has been frequenting the reserve for a few weeks, though not while I was talking to them, and were carrying two of those huge long lenses for photography that are popular these days. They looked terribly heavy and it must be a labour of love to carry them around for any length of distance, although I guess the results make it all worthwhile. As I came round the back of the reserve a while later I could hear the Crane calling and amazingly it had flown in and landed in a field quite close to the photographers and so they must of been very happy in the end.
Going past Capel Corner along the Harty Road the Great White Egret was walking about among the Mallards in the now shallow Fleet there and I pulled up to snatch a photo. On lifting the camera it immediately flew off and so I was left with just the Mallards and behind them a load of Coot. It's still only 11.45, I feel like I've already been up for a whole day, the fog has lifted to leave grey skies and I think it is going to be a long day.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Another Day

It was one of those mornings this morning, pitch dark when I rose at 5.30 and no matter how many times I paced the house, looking for a hint of dawn breaking out to the east, it just stayed heavily gloomy. Eventually, at 7.00 with the dark sky turning slightly lighter grey in colour, I gave in and headed for the reserve with the dogs anyway. By the time that I got there it was a kind of gloomy half light, just right for the Barn Owl that was hunting ahead of me.
Halfway across the marsh, heading for the sea wall, I heard the clamouring of the Greylag Geese before I could vaguely make them out in the distant gloom, a wide number of dark shapes lumbering slow and low across the saltings from the mudflats of The Swale. I stopped and held my breath, would they make it to the reserve, would there be wildfowlers waiting to intercept them. All hell broke loose, shots and more shots echoed round the sky, some birds dropped from the sky, some possibly injured, made a long and struggling glide towards the safety of the reserve, before suddenly dropping from view. As sudden as the shots had been it went quiet again, the remaining geese went inland to the stubble fields and myself and the dogs climbed up on to the top of the seawall.  Four wildfowlers were easily identifiable, they were walking the saltings hunting with their dogs for geese that had dropped and were as yet un-found. Two others remained tucked down and half-hidden, clearly they had been unsuccessful in what had gone on. Much walking and shouting at dogs ensued and eventually three dead geese were found and the wildfowlers began to pack up and I had a chat with four of them as they made their back along the sea wall, carrying their dead geese. It transpired that a total of six geese were shot but one remained un-found out on the saltings, as were the two that were last seen dropping into the reserve, did they die, are they out there somewhere injured, not a good result and one heavily regretted by all sides.

Two weeks ago I hastily predicted, after a brief flirtation with some rain, that the drought here on Sheppey was now over. No, that brief spell of dampness that saw grass begin to turn green and crops in the fields begin to germinate, has been followed by non-stop drying winds and some sunshine. In short, the moisture that fell on that gloriously wet weekend was gone within 24 hours and we haven't seen any since. Today as I write this, the sky may be grey but it's almost warm and walking the reserve is no different to walking a concrete road, it's bone hard and dust dry. Looking at the Met. Office long range forecast well into December, it is set to stay mostly dry and increasingly cold and so the drought goes on.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Reading the Paper

Reading my Daily Telegraph today I came across the photo below, used as an advert by some company or other. It was of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin in c.1938 in his regular watering hole of Brown's Hotel, Laugharne in Wales. It is one of my favourite photos of Dylan Thomas.

I first discovered Thomas in the mid 1960's, curious to see who it was that Bob Dylan had allegedly named himself after. I began with his poetry, wrote poetry in a similar vein and becoming hooked, looked deeper into his life and found someone that I could easily admire and identify with. All these years later, looking back through the various books that I have collected about his life, it is clear that in many ways the facts of his life were falsely presented, although he did work hard at times to give people the image that they expected. And oh to have the balls to do what he did, aged 39, and literally drink himself to death one night because he couldn't face being forty. I can't say I like a lot of his poetry, just a dozen or so exceptional ones, but his stories, including the great Under Milk Wood, are fantastic, but for me there is one outright winner. Dylan reciting his "A Child's Christmas in Wales". To listen to that, in his beautiful Welsh voice, reminds me so much of how my childhood winters were.
In the same paper, a female columnist was going off about the fact that the Pope has decreed that the practice of keeping a loved one's ashes at home should be forbidden, or scattering them somewhere for that matter. I have no interest in religion at all and was moving on until one thing in her column caught my eye and made me chuckle. Did you know that there are some companies who will happily bake your loved one's ashes into a drinking mug, that's taking having a drink with your dad a bit too far! 
On the subject of loved one's ashes as well, I've always been intrigued as to what exactly is in those urns that people have on their mantle-piece or wherever. Are they really the ashes of a loved one, or the ashes from a coffin, or a mixture of the two - anybody know?

Saturday 15 October 2016

We Had Rain

Well, I said in my last post, it was getting colder and indeed it did, with every day until this morning having North East or Easterly winds creating quite a drop in temperatures. Not only that, we also had rain at last, several early mornings and late evenings were wet. It was never enough to make a zilch of difference to the water levels on the reserve but it has penetrated the soil to an inch or two, causing the grass to begin growing again. Not only that, it has wet the soil on the neighbouring arable fields and rape and winter wheat seed that has sat in bone dry ground for six weeks, has finally begun to germinate and grow.
This morning however, the wind had swung round to a milder SW direction overnight and it was a beautiful and mild autumnal start to the day. Below you can see my view across the marsh as I arrived at first light today, with a light mist rising and the sea wall in the distance.

 Looking westwards you can see some of the cattle and the wind pump.

 and here this calf was busy trotting through the mist, anxious to catch up with it's mother.

This direction sign at the foot of the seawall looked like some biblical cross against the dawn sky.

and the sea wall hide and the various colours of the brightening sky. I was tempted to enhance the colours but decided to leave them as they naturally occurred.

Getting on top of the sea wall I easily spotted this wildfowler out on the saltings, one of four, that was just packing up for the morning. Bird-wise it was a very quiet morning in the calm and warm setting, as the wildfowlers confirmed when I chatted with them. Very few ducks were seen and certainly none shot but their biggest concern was the hoards of mosquitoes that bit them non-stop as they sat out there.

Monday 10 October 2016

It's Getting Colder

Well the weather remains very dry here and looks set to remain so for a while yet but one thing that is changing is the temperature, it has taken a noticeable move downwards. North Easterlies have set in and freshening winds are bringing in the cold from Scandinavia and Poland. On the marsh early today, under the customary clear blue skies it was cold enough to need the winter coat and jumper and my fleece lined winter trousers will be next to be worn. However once the sun began to climb in the sky it turned a fair bit warmer, it was a pleasant walk round. Now, as I sit in my study mid-afternoon and looking across the Thames Estuary to the distant Essex shore, heavy grey clouds are starting to flood across the sky in the moderate ENE wind, might it rain - doubtful. But the clear signs of Autumn are there and I always approach every autumn with a sense of foreboding. I hate those long dark nights and short dreary days of winter that follows, the severe gales and the damage that they cause.
But back to the reserve and while there may be a lack of water, it has been turning up a wide range of birds this last couple of weeks, especially birds of prey. After the excitement of the Osprey and Pallid Harrier it has been the turn of both a male and female Hen Harriers, both adult birds and down from the north of England for their customary winter stay here on Sheppey. White-fronted Geese and Short-eared Owls have begun appearing, no doubt coming in from the Continent on the Easterly winds. The largish owls look quite delightful as they make their all day hunting flights across the fields and saltings of the reserve. On Sunday while walking round the reserve, I not only saw a pair of Ravens, still an uncommon bird here, but also a Common Crane which has been around for a few days. The rather naff photo, taken at some distance in poor, early morning light, shows the Crane in a stubble field alongside the reserve.
Going back to the Easterly winds, elsewhere here in Kent they have also started to push over from Scandinavia the first winter thrushes, Redwings and Fieldfares. Bramblings, Yellow-browed Warblers and Shorelarks have also appeared and so we kiss the summer goodbye for another year.

tonight a great orange moon came up
it came up above the trees
and hung there in a cloudless sky.
I tried t write more about you
but it kept on hanging there
makin the words seem like a lie.

tonight I had t ring you up
t tell you about the moon
and had you seen it as well.
because it wasn't just the wine
or the heat outside
makin it feel I was under a spell.

tonight the moon was my friend
because you came over
and we drank a bottle or two.
but it wasn't just the moon
that made it what it was,
it had a lot t do with you.

Friday 7 October 2016

Green and Yellow

It seems like the only thing that I have to write about this last few months is our never ending dry spell and it still goes on, to the degree that people probably believe that I'm making it up! I was down in Surrey at my partner's house for a few days this week and could only look in envy at her nice green lawns. We had a pleasant walk on Wednesday along the nearby River Blackwater, it's not a very wide river and it is surrounded in places by great, large oaks and other trees as it winds it's way gently through the water meadows. But it entrances me to see lovely clean water continually flowing past and seeing the water weeds all straining to go with it to wherever it is going. I found myself comparing it with the current ditches and dykes back here on Sheppey, now either dry or just a simple inch of stagnant water and black mud that have lost all semblance of what they should represent on the marshland habitat.
As I drove back on to Sheppey yesterday morning it was like driving into the dry, arid countryside of southern Spain in mid-summer, none of the green meadows of Surrey here, just endless fields of whitish yellow dryness and baked and cracked ground. My garden was just as depressing, 50% of the lawns are dead and cracked and half of the patio slabs are visibly sloping downwards due to the ground shrinking beneath them. For the last couple of weeks I have been trying to dig over and prepare a new rose border ready for roses that should arrive next month and that became almost comical. I was having to jump up and down on the spade in order to just get it to penetrate the soil before turning huge clods of clay that wouldn't break up. Eventually I resorted to watering the soil for several nights in order to soften it up to a reasonable degree and then had another go at digging it.
But despite the dryness and lack of most things wildfowl, there were some rays of light last week. At the extreme western end of the reserve, on the saltings below Harty Church, an Osprey on passage back to Africa, stopped off for a few days. Several times it was seen to go out over the tidal Swale and return with a fish that it ate on a post on the saltings. Just before it departed for good it was replaced by a much rarer juvenile Pallid Harrier, which replaced it at almost the same spot. Seen best from the rear of the tiny Harty Church, the bird attracted a largish number of twitchers, an external congregation worshipping a bird rather than the Man Above. The bird finally flew across The Swale on Sunday afternoon and didn't return, taking with it the twitchers, who have no time for ordinary things.

See the dry and dusty track across the marsh (sorry about the light quality, it was a gloomy morning)

 The cattle looking for some nourishment in the dusty and yellow conditions.

 The view across the grazing marsh

and the start of the seawall and it's yellow adjoining field.

 One of the reserve's ditches, reduced to an inch of stinking water in the bottom of it.

Saturday 24 September 2016

Reserve Dawn

I was on the reserve just as the dawn sky was beginning to brighten and look quite beautiful in it's various colours. Here see the sky behind farm buildings in the distance.

Gradually getting lighter

The sea wall fleet in the dawn light, looks like a lot of water but only a few inches deep now.

The sky continues to brighten as the sun climbs.

 and at last the sun appears on the horizon.

I reach the sea wall top and look along the saltings for any wildfowlers, ah yes, there's one easily spotted, why don't they use camouflage netting of a lighter colour?

Anyway, after we all had a jovial chat they all made their way back along the sea wall in the dawn light.

Here Ellie has her eyes fixed firmly on a rabbit that was several yards in front of her and is poised to strike.

This the end of what is normally our largest and longest fleet, now showing the results of our continuing drought.

As is this ditch, reduced to a shallow puddle at one end. In the winter this will be full of water to the top of the bare soil on the bank side, meaning it is around four foot lower than normal in winter, that's a lot of rain needed.

Cattle at the calf feeder bins, notice how yellow the grazing marsh is.

Mother and son. In a few weeks time all the calves will be taken away from their mothers to be weaned off.

 Midge and Ellie.

Discing on the farm field alongside the reserve, ready to sow winter corn. Notice the dust rising from the bone dry soil. And below that, a field of bulls in their winter quarters, 25 in all. Once again note the parched grazing.

Friday 23 September 2016

Blogging Oscars

I don't have a side bar of long lists of blogs that I follow, mainly because I don't follow that many, probably around half a dozen. Too many these days have become very cliquey and having captured an audience of devoted, sycophantic even, daily readers, reject totally and in one case, using foul language, any person that dares to disagree with a particular posting.
That said, there is one blog that I have become very fond of lately and it written by a charming lady in her eighties who describes brilliantly her day to day life living in the Yorkshire Dales. Despite some physical pain and problems this lady still goes to her exercise classes and does everything that she can to stay young. Her and her husband, written of as "The Farmer", live on a small farm in the Dales and her blog daily describes the kind of rural life that most of us don't think exists any more. The trips into the small local villages for shopping and the weekly meetings in small cafes with regular lady friends to discuss books and poetry over well described items of delicious sounding food. Seasonal life on the farm is described and pictured in beautiful detail as are recipes of food that she has cooked ( as a lousy cook, she has even sent me a couple of easy recipes to help me out).
Reading the blog it is like going back in time to when much of England was like that rather than just isolated patches, have a look at the latest posting at

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Who knows where the time goes?

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it's time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thoughts of time

For who knows where the time goes?.........Sandy Denny

Summer is doing it's best to hang on as long as it can, despite the lengthening nights and the overnight nip in the air, it's not going anywhere just yet. Walking round reserve at 7.30 this morning it was distinctly warm since the sun has been up for an hour. Some Swallows and Martins still skimmed fast across the grass but they're not tarrying to think about it any more, the few that are left are in a hurry, South is calling, it's whispering gently on the breeze, "hurry up." Red Admiral butterflies were hurrying in their fluttering way in the same direction, the reed beds are quiet, everything is leaving. I stood and watched and wistfully hummed the above song to myself and thought, who knows where the time goes?
Back home in the garden this afternoon, summer still played tricks with me, sitting there in my shorts it became almost hot under clear blue skies. Bees and Large White butterflies were as busy as ever, feeding hungrily on the purple flowers of Verbena bonariensis and the white flowered Alliums. No they were saying, we don't think summer is over yet and it certainly felt like that was the case.

Saturday 17 September 2016

What happened to our rain?

Wow! it's a long time since I can recall such an immediate transformation from one season to another. Just two days ago I was still walking round the reserve early in the morning in just a polo shirt and trousers after over two months of doing the same, every day has been so hot and humid. This morning at 7.00 along the reserve seawall I had on almost my normal winter clothes, with a thick sweater and my winter coat and needed them. There was a strong and chilly NW wind gusting to 40 mph, heavy grey skies and brief showers of light rain, a day not un-typical of early winter and a change in the weather being celebrated by the one wildfowler present. It really was hard to comprehend such a rapid change.
The one thing that hasn't changed though, is how dry it remains. I took the photos below a couple of days ago, once again to emphasis the degree of drought that the reserve is suffering and despite the weather of the last 24 hrs they are still factual. The first below is the Flood Field and what is normally one of the large splashes of water in it, now bone dry and cracked up.

Alongside the Flood Field is the main distributor pump house. When ditches are full this can pump water in three directions, though we mostly use it to pump water into the Flood Field. Below the reeds you can see the end of the pump's suction pipe and it's square filter box. That is sitting just above the last inch or two of water that is left in the ditch, normally it is under three feet of water, or more!
Amazingly, despite being surrounded quite closely by areas on Thursday night that suffered violent thunderstorms and torrential rain, our little island got none of it. We eventually got 3-4 hours of rain yesterday afternoon but in the strong winds overnight and this morning, that has done no more than wet the ground to about a centimetre's depth, basically we're just as dry as we have been for the last three months.

Sunday 11 September 2016

More hot weather

After another hot, sunny and bone dry week, last week, there was much hope and expectation shown on Friday when the weather forecast predicted a spell of rain, often heavy, moving from west to east across the south of the country on Saturday. I drove to my partner's house in Surrey yesterday morning (Sat), 80 miles by road by not that far in a straight line. There it rained, not always heavily, from late morning to early evening and bearing in mind that this was going east towards Sheppey on the Kent coast where I live, I was quite jubilant, until I rang a friend there in the evening and found out that once again, Sheppey had remained very cloudy, but dry. So we enter our third month of bone dry weather and this week's weather is once again predicted to be hot and sunny and possibly breaking September records for temperatures. Being made of a clay soil, some of the flower borders and lawns in my garden now have cracks opened up in them that you can put your hand down and watering them is just an expensive waste of time.
The farmers on Sheppey are split into two schools of thought. The livestock ones are becoming quite concerned at not only the extreme lack of grass but the quality of the water in the fleets and ditches that the cattle and sheep normally drink from, it's quite stagnant and rank. The arable farmers have had an excellent harvest and after cultivations in the sunny and bone dry conditions and everything that needs to be done has been done and all next year's crops in the ground as seed. The slight  nagging worry there is that we might get a few days of rain and then it turns hot and dry again, in the past this has seen the seed germinate and then the seedlings wilt and die, bringing the need to completely re-sow whole fields again at some expense.
Going back to the livestock, the cattle on the reserve were driven into the pens one day this week and the three bulls, in the hope that all the cows were now pregnant, were separated and taken away until next year again. At the same time, all the cattle were given a dosage of copper, a mineral that Sheppey's grazing marshes are deficient in and one that is vital for the good health of the cattle. Next month all the calves will be taken away from their mothers for weaning.
So, here we go again for another hot and dry week in North Kent.

Saturday 3 September 2016

A Time of Change

"The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why. To all appearances the summer's pomp was still at fullest height, and although in the tilled acres green had given way to gold, though rowans were reddening, and the woods were dashed here and there with a tawny fierceness, yet light and warmth and colour were still present in undiminished measure, clean of any premonitions of the passing year. But the constant chorus of the orchards and hedges had shrunk to a casual evensong from a few yet un-wearied performers......" the Wind in the Willows.

Despite the fact that we have another hot, sunny and bone dry week ahead forecast, to add to the eight weeks of drought that have already occurred, there are signs that autumn is almost upon us. I feel like the Water Rat, no matter how hard I try to pretend it's not happening, the season is changing. The swallows and martins have sped though heading south for the last couple of weeks, Cuckoos and Swifts are distant memories and more than anything, the days are getting shorter.
The situation I seem to be obsessed with at the moment is the drought, almost ten weeks with just 2mm of rain has left the area looking very yellow and dust dry, (see below). The ditches stink with stagnated and inch deep water and are failing to act as wet fences to keep the cattle in and there are cracks on the sea wall that you could break your leg in. But it's the normal weather cycle that we come to accept on the North Kent marshes, I can guarantee that at some stage in the winter I will be complaining about how wet it is.

Normally at this time of the year I would be thinking about gathering in some sloes to make my annual bottle of sloe gin but this year the hedgerows look quite bare, it could be a struggle to find enough. I tried a sip of last year's the other day and it has turned out really well, how well a small glass goes down after returning in the dark from a bitter cold afternoon on the marsh!

I mentioned the wildfowlers in the last posting and have chatted with several over the last couple of days as they come back to the sea wall from dawn flights out on the saltings. Below, taken from the seawall, you can see a couple having a chat out on the saltings before packing up, notice how even the saltings are burnt yellow from the heat and sun this year. What you can't see in the photo are the deep and muddy gullies that meander through the vegetation, that are filled by the tide during high tides and can make it quite hazardous in the dark. Talking to the wildfowlers this morning it seems that the geese that I mentioned in my last blog have continued to frustrate the wildfowlers by flying the length of the reserve each morning, well inside the reserve - almost laughable.

Shopping in Morrisons at lunch-time I stopped to read a poster put up outside by a member of the public. It related to a small terrier type dog that had escaped from a car en-route to the vets for some treatment to some serious ailments. It was last seen running across a main road and into some farmland and has been missing for over a week. As a dog owner myself I have been constantly thinking about that poor, terrified dog out there somewhere and imagining how I would be if it were one of my two, don't bear thinking about!
Lastly, as an avid reader of anything to do with well known people who lived through the 1920's-1950's, especially the Bloomsbury group, I am thoroughly enjoying this new book about the six Mitford sisters.

Thursday 1 September 2016

A New Season

This morning, an hour or so after dawn, I wandered along the reserve sea wall. It was a still, warm and sunny morning and large numbers of swallows and martins zipped past me, stopping now and then to snap up an insect, but generally, speeding south to their winter quarters. I stopped at the Sea Wall Hide and scanned along the saltings, nine wildfowler's heads were pretty obvious, peeping out from the rills and gullies. Today is the first of September, the first day of a new shooting season, the first day of meteorological autumn and for me at least, that awful gnawing feeling that summer is pretty much over. For a moment I was lost in thought, no more long, hot summer days, warm and balmy evenings and eighteen hours of daylight. Every day now darkness inches forward in the mornings and backwards in the evenings with ever increasing haste.
Three quick shots rang out and woke me from my daydream. A Mallard duck, clearly out of killing range, wheeled round in the sky and hastily made it back on to the reserve and dropped into the safety of a ditch. I continued along the top of the sea wall, wildlife-wise it was pretty quiet, just a few Reed Warblers and Bearded Tits in the reed beds, who were suddenly out-sung by a Cettis Warbler.  I felt confident that this first morning at least, was going to be a bit of a waste of time for the wildfowlers, although I know that for some of them, just being back out again is good enough. That was certainly not the case somewhere in the distance across Harty, probably the lower reaches of Capel Fleet and the stubble fields around it. From there could be heard periods of heavy shooting that went on at regular intervals over a couple of hours, clearly the comments that I made about the geese in my last posting was coming true!
Another two shots rang out across the saltings and two ducks fell from the sky, later confirmed by the guy that shot them, as a pair of Gadwall. The sun was getting warmer, the mosquitoes were beginning to bite and the wildfowlers began to pack up and walk in to the sea wall, two ducks among nine men was a pretty poor but acceptable return, unlike the numbers taken by the inland duck shooters this morning. For the last three weeks, at around 8.00 each morning, around 200+ Greylag Geese have risen from the stubble fields near to the reserve and flown the length of the reserve, on the inland, safe side of the sea wall to spend the day at one end of the reserve. Chatting with some of the wildfowlers this morning I explained this goose routine to them, stating that none of the geese fly out over the saltings where they might be shot. The wildfowlers had barely digested that disappointing news when six geese flew straight towards us and making me out to be completely untrustworthy, flew out over the saltings where the guys had just come from! That prompted an immediate return to the saltings by those guys, in the hope that more might follow and I, disgusted with the stupidity of the geese, left for home. I shall ask the wildfowlers tomorrow if the main flock of geese did as I said they would, later fly within the safety of the reserve.

Monday 22 August 2016

Dusty old Drought.

The drought here in North Kent continues to take hold. According to the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, many parts of E. England have had just 2mm of rainfall over the last couple of months. Strong drying winds and very warm sun have been the most dominant type of weather lately and you can spot tractors carrying out cultivations across the arable fields here by simply looking for the dust cloud that is following them. The rather poor photo below shows the bone dry, yellow stubble fields stretching as far as the eye can see.

Farmers are often regularly depicted as the next best thing to Satan, especially if they also combine farming with game shooting. One farmer here on Harty however, does do his bit for the wild birds on his land. The set-aside strip shown below is around 400 yds long and 12 yds wide and is typical of the sort of thing that he sows each year. The grasses below the sunflowers are an amazing mix of around six different varieties, each producing seed heads bursting with small seeds. With the grasses there are also seed producing plants such as Fat Hen and Redshank and I've taken mixed bunches home for my canaries and British birds and they love them, as do the finches and buntings there each winter. Last year winter a nearby strip, with chicory flowers instead of sunflowers, was attracting a flock of Linnets of up to 160 birds daily and that flock was often joined by Reed Buntings.

Unfortunately it's not all good news. The two photos below show the current wheat stubbles along the Harty Road and just a third of the several hundred Greylag and Canada geese that are feeding on the spilt grain each morning. This and another field alongside, are sandwiched between Capel Fleet on one side and the dark green mound in the background, the other side of which is a large pond dug to attract ducks for shooting. The wildfowl are also shot in Capel Fleet, often in large numbers. It's hard not to believe that in several days time (Sept 1st) when the shooting season commences, that those unsuspecting geese will fly in as usual to be met by a barrage of shot from the syndicates that ring and shoot the area.