Friday 30 November 2018

Happy Days

Joy of joys, a day to lift the heart strings, we are having clear blue skies, warming sun and light winds, it could of been early Spring. It was lovely to get up at 5.30 this morning, look out of the back door and see the moon and stars in the sky, rather than rain.
I arrived at the reserve just as the sun was rising from behind some distant clouds on the horizon and the effect that it had on the marsh was amazing, no more grey and gloom, oh no, the reserve looked green and sparkling. OK, it was still wet and muddy but it just felt better and the first bird that I saw, was a female Hen Harrier, gliding over the tops of a nearby reed bed. Ellie and I set off to walk round the whole of the reserve's grazing marsh, watching and listening to Curlews as they came off the arable fields alongside and made their way out to the nearby tidal mudflats, now becoming exposed as the tide ebbed away.
Next on my list were the grazing geese out on the marsh - 70 Greylag Geese (our resident birds) and 17 White-fronted Geese, truly wild birds that breed in the far north of Europe and visit us in the winter. As the winter progresses and especially if cold weather on the Continent gets bad, the flock will normally build up to c. 200-300 birds, they are lovely birds. Yesterday there was a lone Barnacle Goose with them but I couldn't find it today. We carried on through the 40 strong herd of young cows, next year's breeding stock and Ellie and they normally manage to ignore each other. It was then that my spirits really rose, I spotted the male Hen Harrier gliding across the reserve. I knew that there was one about but it had been evading me up till now. Seeing the male bird in flight with it's silvery grey plumage looking almost ghostly is a spectacular sight.

We carried on as the sun became warmer and brighter, Skylarks were springing up from everywhere, some resident, some winter visitors, and one or two even climbed into the sky to sing, now that really did make it seem like Spring! Two Buzzards, mewing like lost kittens, joined the raptor list, while several Herons and a couple of Little Egrets rose from the ditches. 
We walked up on to the top of the sea wall and begun to follow that for almost a mile, with the saltings and the tide to the left and all of the reserve's grazing marsh to the right. That stretch of sea wall has on it's landward side, the sea wall fleet, or Delph, thick with tall phragmites reed beds. As we carried on a couple of Bearded Tits "pinged" away with out showing themselves but I did eventually get a count of 22 Reed Buntings along that same stretch. Coming to the end of the sea wall we cut back on to the reserve and followed the reserve boundary ditch the mile back to the barn where I had left the car. On the farmland side of this ditch there is thick line of mostly hawthorn bushes and it is a magnet for smaller birds at this time of year and today was no exception. Feeding on the berries were several dozen Fieldfares, as they have been for a couple of weeks, also there were Linnets, Chaffinches, a few more Reed Buntings and the odd Wren and Robin.
That's been just a few of the birds that I saw today as we wandered round and boy, did the whole walk in that weather make me feel good.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Wet and Miserable.

Since my last post, going on about the damp and gloomy weather, we are currently enduring our fifth day since then, of wet and gloomy weather. It has rained for part of every day and night, sometimes heavily but often light and drizzly and it has been cold. Everywhere and everything seems damp, even indoors when the heating isn't on.
Now I know that I've spent most of the last year or so praying for rain, just as the Librarian is in Germany at the moment, but with any type of weather there comes a time after enduring it endlessly, that you scream enough is enough. One day of blue skies and sunshine would be so uplifting after all this depressing damp but it seems like a dream at the moment.
And the reserve, is it now getting wetter?, well on the surface it is. Walking round is fast becoming hard work in the mud and the splashes of water, especially if one is getting soaked through by the constant rain at the same time. It doesn't bother Ellie my dog though and there she shows her perversity. At home, when it's wet or rainy, she has to be almost shoved out of the door for a pee. She will then go to absurd lengths to avoid walking on the wet lawn and when she finally does, it is by gingerly lifting one foot at a time as though she is walking on hot coals. Take her to a wet and muddy marsh and she'd gambol about on there all day if you let her.
But incredibly, so far, water levels in the ditches and fleets have barely risen, although they look much refreshed. It takes a surprising amount of constantly heavy rain to water-log the marsh after a prolonged dry spell and earlier this year it was only a heavy snow fall, slowly melting, that cured last year's drought.
So, as I sit here looking out at wet roads, wet gardens, a pond that is lapping over on to the lawn and heavy grey skies, I find myself looking very much forward to the Spring.

Friday 23 November 2018

A Winter's Day

This early morning on the reserve was simply a repeat of yesterday - low cloud, gloomy, slightly misty and  drizzly damp. In summary, everything I hate about this time of year and a good reason why I become easily depressed in the winter.
I guess that there are people that like short hours of daylight, damp, cold and dreary days, but I'm not one of them. How that they can like such days is beyond me, what can be better than getting up in daylight at 5.00 in the morning to be greeted by a warm sunrise and to know that that would continue through a warm and sunny day until gone 9.30 at night. No thick and heavy winter clothes, no head and neck recoiled down into your coat to keep out the cold, no every hardship going in order to battle the elements of winter. I took this photo this morning in black and white because by doing so it emphasised the bleak greyness that met me there when I arrived.

Yesterday however, in my local supermarket, I bumped into a special friend who I hadn't seen for a couple of years. She has an unpleasant illness that results in too many bad days and nights, but yesterday was one of her "good" days. We chatted at length about various things but in the main, about her illness and she so inspired me with how she faces it, how she stays remarkably cheerful about it and above all, how she has retained her sense of humour.  It kind of put my depression at having arthritic bones and a dislike of grey winter's days into perspective.
Lastly, I have to apologise for resorting to "Wind in the Willows" again and the following, an extract from the Toad's imprisonment in gaol and the kindness of the gaoler's daughter. 

"When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, of the purring of contended cats and the twitter of sleeping canaries.

I guess most of us can identify with such moments.

Monday 19 November 2018

Winter begins

I'm sitting here writing this in my south facing conservatory. Today it is far from warm in here, I haven't got the central heating on and outside heavy grey clouds race across the sky, pushed along by a gusty and cold ENE wind. Added to that are frequent light showers of icy rain, it's the 19th November and winter is finally beginning to appear on the horizon, made all the more obvious by flocks of Fieldfares, fresh in from Scandinavia and feasting on the hedgerow berries.
I've been out in the garden briefly today, digging a piece of border and pruning a Cotoneaster shrub, but as a whole, the garden is almost pruned, dug and mulched as I want it and ready for it's winter sleep. Let's face it, today is one of those days when it's simply better being inside, looking out, drinking a glass of something, reading something or just just mulling over what the last eleven months have been like. 
So I've been sitting here,  reading a newly published book by Matthew Dennison entitled "Eternal Boy - The life of Kenneth Grahame " who of course wrote "Wind in the Willows, and was captivated by a passage in it that seemed to express the way that days such as today, should end.
Kenneth Grahame and a friend had been walking in the countryside on one cold weekend. "we came home happy and tired, bought some chops and fetched a huge jug of beer from the pub. We cooked our dinner over the open wood fire, then great chunks of cheese, new bread, great swills of beer, pipes, bed and heavenly sleep". Oh yes, the summer is a time of very long and busy days, with short, hot nights, but the winter offers the reverse - rising late, a brief day and the snugness of giving in to lethargy, early darkness and the comfort of a long winter's night wrapped in blankets, planning next year and re-living this year.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

All Quiet on the Reserve Front

It was a wet, muddy and windy walk round the reserve earlier today after a couple of hours of rain. We've has several rainy days over the last month or so and they've certainly done a good job of making the gardens wetter and the surface of the reserve, it is muddier and greener. There isn't, however, still any surface water showing across the reserve, nothing in the still dry rills and ditches still a few feet below decent levels, but it's not looking as dry as it did this time last year, yet.

All of the cattle were taken off the reserve last Friday, which is earlier than usual, but really good news because as it starts to wetten up on these rainy days it means that they cattle won't churn gate-ways, etc, into boggy and difficult areas to walk through. The grazier has taken both the calves and their mothers back to his stock yards a few miles away and there the calves will be separated from their mothers for weaning. The adult cows have reached the end of their reproductive lives now  and will therefore be fattened up in the yards for a while before being sent for culling and presumably turned into various meat products - tough but all part of the livestock cycle of things. Next Spring we will presumably have a new and younger herd on the reserve, grazing and eventually entertaining the bulls.
It has also been noticeable over the last week, on a smaller farm near the reserve, that the rams have been put out with the ewe sheep. This always takes place around November 5th and it's always easy to spot because the ewes that have been impregnated will each have a coloured mark on their rear end, left by the coloured block that is strapped across the ram's chest.
So, going back to the reserve and without the livestock now, it seems quiet out there walking round. The cattle can be a pain at times but they do add to the sights and the sounds of the place.

The other noticeable feature of the place as vegetation starts to die down for the winter, is the lack of rabbits. They were always a normal part of the reserve and indeed much of Sheppey, but not any more. When I first became a Volunteer Warden there in 1986 and for many years afterwards, every earth bund  salt-working mound and even the flat ground, was inundated with them in their thousands. They conformed to the old-time photographs that we used to see of rabbits in plague proportion and most people who lived in and off of the countryside, carried out rabbit shooting, trapping or ferreting at some stage. Then around twenty years ago a combination of myxomatosis and a new disease that cause them to haemorrhage, began to see their numbers plummet. At first it was seen as a blessing because of the damage that rabbits do to crops and infrastructure and controls by shooting ferreting continued in the same old way. But gradually, as numbers dropped to really low levels, controls became both unnecessary and unattractive to those who enjoyed such sport.
At first some places on Sheppey still hung on to really good numbers of rabbits but now even they have seen a massive drop in numbers and these days the traditional sight of rabbits sitting out in fields or along hedgerows at dusk is becoming rarer. These days as I enjoy my daily walks around the reserve I would estimate the population of rabbits over the whole reserve, to me no more than about fifty rabbits. It's a real shame because rabbits have always been an iconic part of the countryside and more importantly, a vital part of the natural food chain. Without an easy and widespread choice of young rabbits to feed on the likes of birds of prey, foxes, stoats, etc., are forced to become a nuisance by turning to other food items such as ground nesting birds and game birds for example. Hard to believe but we need to leave rabbits alone to replenish their stocks.