Sunday 28 February 2016

Mules and things

I wonder how many people, looking at the bird below, will know what it is.

It's known as a Goldfinch mule, one of six that I bred last year in my aviary. I also bred a Siskin mule.
Mules are the offspring that result from crossing a British finch with a canary, in most cases using a cock finch and a canary hen. This the commonest colour that emerges but by using different types of canaries surprising colours can be the outcome, I have seen pure white Goldfinch mules with an orange facial blaze. My Siskin mule simply looks like a green canary with some Siskin markings but sings very loud and beautifully in the canary style as do the Goldfinch mules.
I have bred canaries for a number of years now, not in cages but in sectioned shed and outside flights but inevitably at some stage, breeders will try their hand at either these crosses or hybrids such as Goldfinch x Siskin, etc.. They are bred for the challenge of achieving it and the hope that an uncommon colour type emerges and of course, the beautiful song of the cock birds. Unfortunately the offspring of both mules and hybrids are almost always sterile and so cannot breed on and so where hens are bred and also cannot sing, they do tend to be surplus to requirements.
It's not unknown for some breeders to release these surplus hens into the wild rather than cull them and I often chuckle to think of what some birdwatchers would make of it, coming across a bird such as the above, sitting in a bush somewhere. Probably most would guess what it was but I wonder if some would try and turn it into some new rare bird, as they do, "channel wagtail comes to mind.

I had an hour on the reserve this morning, stopping at the Raptor Viewing Mound as I went by, to speak to an RSPB group who were assembling for a walk around the reserve and Shellness. They had a leader and I left them to it after giving a bit of info. on where the birds might be found. But walking across the grazing marsh this morning was a bit of an ordeal in a bitter cold E. wind coming straight in off the North Sea, which became even worse when there was a 20 min. horizontal, heavy shower of rain and sleet.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Cold Thoughts

At last, this awful February is drawing to a close, although it looks like March might start off in the same vein. As a fellow blogger said to me the other day, "you go right through a mild winter, get to the end of February and begin to dream of Spring and then winter proper starts". See below, the reserve in all it's early morning, frosty glory.

Mind you, just saying the word March somehow makes the month see better, after all it is the first Spring month, flowers spring up and summer migrants begin coming back.
On the reserve we're inching towards Spring, the water levels are continuing to drop, possibly a bit to quickly, many wildfowl are noticeably in pairs and Chaffinch song is now coming from some of the hedgerows and thickets. The Richards Pipit still commands a daily audience of one's and two's who haven't seen it after three months, just as the Shorelark at Minster Shingle Bank does. The Shorelark must be the single most photographed bird in the UK this winter but then it is remarkably tame. In my garden pond, frog spawn has appeared, only for the pond to ice over the next night, so probably that will be a failure this year.

Reading an article the other day about somebodies memories of school in the 1950's quite stirred me. Going to school when I started, aged five, in 1952, was quite a simple process. Having stayed home with my mother until I was five (normal school starting age - mothers rarely worked in those days), in the September I was taken up the long alley that ran along the bottom of several local side streets and deposited in the school playground. I was terrified and immediately beat my mother back home, whereupon I was given several slaps and dragged back up the alley again and told to stay there. After that, until I left school in 1962, I loved every minute of the three schools that I went to. 
In the winters of those early years, when we still had proper winters, my mother would un-pick old jumpers and re-use the wool to knit me balaclavas. Off I would trudge in those awful itchy and stretchy items of head gear to brave what the winter could throw at me, which in those days was a lot of snow! But the classroom in my infant school at least, was a joy to enter. There would be a large coke fire burning, surrounded by a high wire fire guard, on which we would place all our wet and soggy clothing to dry for home time. At break time the teacher would sit us round the warming fire and while we ate the sandwiches that we had taken, in my case marmite ones, would read us a story.

In the winter when it had snowed and built up like a deep white blanket on the roofs of houses and covered all the back yards and gardens as one, we would bound out of the house like wanderers suddenly coming upon an oasis in the desert. The alley outside our back gates was a deep, white, unspoilt surface marred only by the tracks of passing dogs and cats. We became great game hunters and followed the tracks of these animals as though we were hunting lions and tigers from the books that we had read. But they inevitably ended up disappearing over the high wooden fence of the mysterious old lady that kept lots of animals, had long growths of hair on her chin and shouted at us when we climbed up the fence. We lost interest, and donning old pairs of socks as our gloves, set about making snowballs to throw at the next cat that we saw and when none appeared, threw them at each other.
At lunchtime my father, fresh back from collecting driftwood from the nearby beach to keep the one fire in the house burning, threw more on the fire and it burnt with blue, salty flames. Outside, the day was losing light already and warmed, by the fire and the soup, I stayed indoors and read my books. 

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Frost, mist and memories

There was a hard frost on the reserve this morning as I arrived and mist was beginning to drift across the marsh. This was the view as I began walking away from the barn.

Footprints in the frost.

And a rather bleak view looking towards the rising sun and the sea wall.

 I had hoped to get closer to these White-fronted Geese but they took flight before that was possible.

An hour later and this was the visibility along the sea wall.......

......and across the marsh, but blue skies and warm sunshine did arrive later on.

Yesterday I was talking to the owner of our local Farm Shop, who is the same age as me and also like me, spent his earlier years working on Sheppey's marshes. We got talking about my time working for the old Kent River Authority and the fact that the old ways of doing things just aren't there anymore. The KRA itself doesn't exist either, it's just a few unskilled men working as part of the Environment Agency now. Below you can see me in 1969, aged 22, somewhere on the Sheppey marshes.

I've posted most of these photos before but they're worth repeating to show how things have changed.
In those days, in early summer, a gang of around six of us, would spend a couple of months walking right round the Sheppey coastline mowing and raking the sea wall grass as we went. Today it's done by one guy on a tractor with an extending arm. Oh to be that young and fit again.

After the mowing had been completed we would then turn our attention to the cleaning of two of the main drainage ditches on Sheppey,  below you can see that I am busy cutting through the club rush alongside one of them. The ditches were all cleaned the hard way, by hand. After cutting the reeds we would then pull out the stuff growing in the ditch with long handled grabs. Despite how hard it was I always found it to be very satisfying looking back at the finished result and it was my favourite job. Today one man with a tractor and an extending arm does it.

The winter would see us either repairing groynes (breakwaters) along the beaches, or repairing eroded sections of sea walls, normally in some remote part of the Sheppey marshes. Once again it was done in about as hard a way as was possible. We used rocks of various sizes to re-fill the erosion and they arrived by barge that was floated as close as possible to the sea wall and we would then un-load the rocks literally by hand and by throwing them over the side into the water. The hold of this barge would of been full to the top and we would un-load around a 90-100 tons in a day. The rocks were placed onto wooden planking hooked on the inside of the hold and then we would climb onto it and throw them overboard. That's me at the front. Archaic and bloody hard work but boy did we have muscles!

At low tide we would then recover the rocks from the mud, chip them to a rough square with hammers and then drive them into the sea wall with wooden "pummers", basically something akin to a wooden log with two handles, as you can see me using here. There was a surprising skill involved here because not only were the rocks shaped in a certain way with the hammer but the section of repair would be left as level and tight as any crazy paving. Today the rocks arrive by lorry, are not shaped and simply tipped onto the eroded part of the sea wall and left.

One last memory from those days was of a farm bailiff on one of the Harty farms, who would still ride round the farm and it's marshes on a horse. In that way he missed very little to do with the farm and it's livestock. Today, it's normally done by a farmer charging about on a quad bike!

Monday 15 February 2016


February, what an awful month it is, I always consider it to be the last month of my year. Wouldn't it be nice if we could re-position the New Year and make it the 1st March instead of the 1st January. March is the month when everything is re-born - lambs and Spring flowers appear, trees burst into leaf and blossom, summer migrants begin arriving from the South. That is the logical start of the New Year, not halfway through the winter!
February is a grotty, in-between month when at times, Spring seems further away than it did in January, when one warm and sunny day can be followed by snow and ice.

I had high hopes for BBC Countryfile becoming an actual, proper, countryside programme last night
when it was announced that it would feature the training of young gamekeepers. After watching it, it was clear that it was little more than a nod towards people like myself who regularly criticise the programme's lack of proper countryside pursuits and issues. Apart from a few trainees firing shotguns at clays and another firing at an imitation deer target, the only other highlight was the covering of hazel stumps with brushwood sticks. The feature was a perfect opportunity for the BBC to feature the trainees learning pest control methods such as trapping and shooting, etc., and currents attacks on gamekeepering practises on the moors, but no, clearly subjects far to strong and controversial for the BBC and it's soft-hearted audience. Amusingly, it came on the same day that some of the Countryside presenting team were featured in the Sunday Mail colour supplement taking part in a glamour fashion shoot with not a pair of wellies or a Barbour coat to be seen, just posh frocks and shirts and claims that they do feature controversial subjects. Bring back Jack Hargreaves!

Despite the sun and blue skies on the reserve early this morning, it was bitterly cold in the moderate and rare NE wind, but if nothing else it's drying the ground out. The Greylag Geese below were part of a hundred strong flock content to keep on just walking away from me and the dogs.

The regular flock of Brent Geese continued to expand as I walked round, up to c.600 strong...........

 ........until eventually they decided that The Flood field would be a better option and they took flight.

They've been constantly harrased this winter by the neighbouring farmer as he constantly tries keep them from grazing his winter corn and have become a lot more jittery than the Greylags nearby.

Back on the sea wall I sat for a while talking to one of the local wildfowlers, who had just completed an unsuccessful attempt for a last duck or two of this season. This coming Saturday finally sees the end of this shooting season for the wildfowlers and for a while we chatted through how the winter had been. It's always nice to get their perspective on how the shooting has been, how the wildfowl numbers continue to drop and how people who have such little understanding of what they do, perceive them.

Friday 12 February 2016

A Fine Morning

It was nice to get back on the reserve again this morning after a week off due to my oldest dog having to wait for a burst abscess on her foot to heal. Marsh water, mud and cow poo are not best allowed to get into an open wound! But now it has healed and so we were champing at the bit to get back out, it's funny how being there every day can get a tad boring but have a few days away and you miss it like mad. Arriving at the barn at 07.30 a magnificent orange sun had just come up above the sea wall and we set off, out into the grazing marsh.

It all looked quite magnificent - a white frost, blue skies and a bright sun that is increasing in strength with every day. The sounds of birds were everywhere, with the geese being especially vocal as Canadas, Greylags, Brents and c.170 White-fronted Geese all regularly whirled about in the sky around me. Many of them were now in pairs and with Skylarks also serenading from above, the morning had a real feel that Spring is just around the corner.
Making my way across the marsh, I stopped a while on top of one of the old salt-working mounds and looked east across the reserve towards the distant Shellness Hamlet (see below).

Slightly to the right of the above view the marsh ends at the sea wall reed beds - they are the pale band just behind the splash of water. The darker band behind them is the sea wall with the square blob that is the sea wall hide and behind them are the saltings on which the wildfowlers shoot.

The particular mound that I was standing on is Ellie's favourite place on the whole reserve and she was dashing about all over the place.................

............the reason being, it's the home to a couple of dozen rabbits. They run her ragged, disappearing down holes and then re-appearing behind her before running off to disappear down other holes. It's a kind of animal version of the teasing, "chase me charlie" but as much as they usually leave her breathless, they sometimes do pick the wrong hole, one that's quite short, with the obvious consequences. If you look hard below, you can see the rabbits sitting outside their burrows.

We carried on and it was nice to see that the Hooded Crow was still on the marsh, enjoying it's holiday down from Scotland. Last Friday, crow shooting was taking place on the farmland alongside the reserve, an unfortunate but necessary pest control ahead of the breeding season, and I thought that it might of got caught out by that. While many of us see something special in a Hooded Crow being this far south, I guess to a guy shooting crows, a crow is a crow, which of course it is.

On the subject of shooting, a thought came to me this week while reading the latest British Trust for Ornithology news magazine. An article in there mentioned the fact that the fourth Birds of Conservation Concern report was published in December last year. Apparently Woodcock and White-fronted Geese have now joined Grey Partridge on the Red List, the highest level of concern about various birds breeding, wintering numbers and rarity status. In respect of the above three species, it beggars the question, if there is a high level of concern over their diminishing numbers, why are they still allowed to be shot each winter in un-limited numbers, surely that's like throwing petrol on the fire.
Now clearly the shooting fraternity, driven to a high level of paranoia in recent times by various attacks on their past-time, (hen harrier deaths, using lead shot, buzzard controls), will defend to the hilt maintaining these birds as quarry species, scared to give an inch in case it becomes a mile. Now, whatever their answer is, I'm not expert enough to answer either for or against it, but as a simple layman, defending the un-restricted killing of birds that are diminishing in numbers does seem a tad odd.