Thursday 31 December 2020

New Years Eve


The Year

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

What can be said in New Year rhymes, 

That’s not been said a thousand times? 

The new years come, the old years go, 

We know we dream, we dream we know. 

We rise up laughing with the light, 

We lie down weeping with the night. 

We hug the world until it stings, 

We curse it then and sigh for wings. 

We live, we love, we woo, we wed, 

We wreathe our prides, we sheet our dead. 

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear, 

And that’s the burden of a year.

Good New Year to you all, my blog has not been that prolific this year, but it's been a difficult year and I've struggled to find both enthusiasm and inspiration for a lot of it. I think it's gonna take till Spring to come out from this Covid shadow, but anyway, carry on doing the best that you can.

Friday 4 December 2020

Way Down the Road

Last night was a very wet night, it rained so hard and for so long and early this morning , it was pouring out of people's drives, part flooding the roads and water-logging the farm land. With some degree of trepidation I drove out to the reserve this morning along a Harty Road that was full of large puddles of water.

The reserve was as I expected it would be, the grazing meadows were water-logged and muddy, the ditches had at last got more than a few inches of water in them and the wind was icily cold. Looking across The Swale to the mainland, the top fields of the North Downs were covered in snow, yes, it was indeed a cold and wet morning. Gun shots briefly rung out, followed immediately by the sound of the "barking" calls of over a thousand Brent Geese rising up from the neighbouring farmland's winter corn - clearly the farmer was attempting to scare the geese away from their daily breakfast of his next year's crop.

It was bitterly cold, wet and muddy and I really wasn't enjoying it and so I left for home after a rare short visit. I hate giving in to the weather but as basically a warm weather person, there are some days when the weather wins the battle. I plonked myself down in the conservatory, put on the heating, put on some Joni Mitchell and gradually became lost in idle thoughts of, once upon a time. 

 Way back in my teenage and early twenties years, Bob Dylan sang about how "tomorrow is a long time" and throughout those years that was the kind of mantra that I lived by. I was young, the life ahead of me was an endless highway, and old age was a lifetime away - tomorrow is a long time and always to be enjoyed, what did I care. Buoyed by those thought I set out into my adult life - loves and disappointments, marriages and divorces, wealth and poverty - too many crossroads. And now, at 73, the highway that I've already traveled is the longest one, and the one still ahead gets shorter every day, the tomorrows slip by too fast, the bend in the road is the final one.

Friday 20 November 2020

A Short November day

 We had a hard frost this morning and the early few hours of the morning saw blue skies and sunshine that made a walk around the reserve very pleasant, especially now that the White-fronted Goose numbers have increased to sixty birds - they really are such delightful birds and it's so hard to think of them being shot.

This afternoon has been a typical November afternoon, the blue skies were soon covered by grey cloud that drifted in, it became colder and here on Sheppey, we have the second highest Covid-19 figures in the country - it's like simply waiting for that inevitable bony hand to tap you on the shoulder and say you're next!

Darkness will come early this afternoon, the sparrows on the bird table are snatching their last mouthfuls of food before they settle down in the bushes alongside for the night, twittering to each other until darkness descends. Just think, if this was 3.00 on a July afternoon, the sun and the heat would just be reaching their peak and there would be seven more hours to go before darkness was complete - oh how I wish!

The garden outside, that spent all summer bursting with colour and wildlife, now looks so drab and green, some leaves still cling on to the crab apple tree - soon frosts will freeze the ground - blackbirds feed on the pyracantha berries - life will soon get tough. The pond, where this summer, I fed newts with earthworms I'd dug up, is just a cold expanse of empty water, untouched by the sun that sits low in the sky.

Too many afternoon hours now get spent musing over the summer that has been and gone - the Covid virus that restricted life and bought premature death to so many people - the brief couple of hot and sunny months when life almost seemed normal - the week long holiday spent in a farm cottage in Devon - the bees, the butterflies, the birds in the garden.

A short November day.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

A slow descent into dampness

 Since my last post, some four weeks ago, we have continued to experience regular rainy days, with sometimes heavy rain and yet the reserve and it's neighbouring Harty marshes are still far from showing any sign of water-logging or flood. There is still a considerable way to go before the reserve will be showing the large areas of flood water that will attract the great numbers of wildfowl and waders that we would like to see and became used to up until recent years. It really does illustrate how dry the summer has been and to a degree, how much the reserve has changed in respect of water levels in recent years. The reserve was opened in c.1976, the infamous year of an incredible summer drought, and has suffered several dry summers since, but it has been the winters that have seen the most dramatic change. Until several years ago, the winter water levels on the reserve could be relied on to be at least average and very often, excessively wet. I have experienced many winters there where the grazing marsh was 50 - 70% waterlogged or flooded. Indeed, I can recall one October in the late 1980's when the field in front of the Sea Wall Hide was one large lake from bund to bund. Because of that and because it's the one field that we always try to pump water on to each winter, we know it as "The Flood Field". 

Those waterlogged winter conditions lasting into the Spring, created ideal habitat for a large variety of birds and it was normal for Lapwing, Golden Plover and Wigeon numbers, for example, to be in the plus thousands. Sadly, for several years now, those numbers have plummeted to just a few hundred and in the case of Wigeon, to just several dozens if we're lucky. Unfortunately, before you ask, there is no satisfactory way of trapping any substantial amounts of as a form of reservoir. We have a large diesel pump in a brick housing at the end of The Flood Field and that can pump substantial amounts of water onto three different fields, pumping from the ditch system alongside it. That however, is dependent on regular rainfall re-filling the ditches and so in a dry winter, spring and summer that method is quickly lost. We also have a wind pump that draws up fresh water from the underground aquifer but that can only keep the ditch alongside it topped up.

So to go back to the present day, we may not have any floods but at least the current rainy conditions have seen the grass in the grazing meadows re-grow at some speed and green up, something the cattle are now appreciating. Likewise, the arable fields across Harty are now green with the young growth of rape and winter corn and so quickly, the dusty yellow of the summer drought is now but a memory. 

As far as bird life goes, little has changed since my last posting, apart from the one exception. While taking part in last week's monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WEBS) on the reserve, I recorded the first visiting White-fronted Geese of this autumn. There was a group of 10 adults and 8 juveniles feeding alongside the resident Greylag Geese. This is a few weeks earlier than normal for these regular wintering visitors from northern Europe and during the week the flock increased to 25 birds and they still remain there today.

Friday 2 October 2020

Raining weather

As I sit here writing this today we're experiencing our umpteenth hour of continuous rain and a cold NE wind. Apparently, we still have a round fifteen hours more of this same weather to come - all given the name of "Storm Alex" - although it's hardly a storm, but I guess it looks more dramatic in the media.

Two days into October and it suddenly feels like winter, outside it is wet, windy and cold and the central heating had a brief start up to take the chill off the bungalow. The endless dry weather of the recent summer - the dust, the heat, the dry and cracked ground, the dry and yellow grass, are no more - the drought is over. Perhaps soon I'll be writing about the endless wet and muddy conditions, such are the cycles and complaints of an outdoors person's life. The thing is, here, when we get a spell of a particular type of weather, it seems to get stuck, hence the long, dry and rain-less summer.

My garden, after a couple of spells of rain this week and today's continuing deluge, is now suitably re-watered and the lawns are beginning to re-green again, no more a dead yellow and dry grass stalks. The bird table drips water from it's waterlogged surface and the sparrows look bedraggled in the hawthorn hedge, crane flies pepper my windows with their long-legged, prehistoric looks. The bird feeders swing violently from their hooks in the wind, scattering sunflower hearts across the lawn, food for the pigeons and doves later.

I doubt that much difference will be apparent on the reserve tomorrow, perhaps a film of water over the mud that was showing in the ditches. Until the marshland alongside has sponged up enough water to soak down to a sufficient depth, little will escape into the ditches, ditches that are three feet or more below average depth. Odd Chiffchaffs still call from the boundary bushes before departing south but the reed beds are now empty of their warbler cousins, only Bearded Tits now call there, swaying to the rhythm of the windy reed stems, calling to the passing season.

The bottle of red wine on the work surface holds my attention, it speaks of memories and warmth on this cold and watery day. Perhaps just a glass, perhaps two, and to take the time to recall summer's best memories - yes, that's what I'll do. 

Saturday 19 September 2020

One for The Weaver

 Walking the reserve each morning at the moment is the same as the morning before. It's dry, it's yellow, it's like walking round some foreign savanna.

The weather is stuck in a rut that has lasted months - seems like a lifetime. I wake up, I get up I look out the window, the eastern sky is just dawning. Yes, it's gonna be another day like yesterday and the day before - dry, sunny, warm or hot, we've had almost five months of such days. Life is parched - the gardens, the horse paddocks, the grazing meadows, the soil in the arable fields. Everybody is waiting, waiting for the rain, for it to rain properly and not just shower and be gone. Proper soaking in rain, rain that keeps you indoors rain, rain that will need to last for several days and still not be enough.

On the reserve the visits have become boring, so few birds in the arid conditions - a wet land reserve needs wet areas to entice the wildlife and be interesting! The poor old cattle spend every day looking for real and fulfilling grazing and good fresh water but they find little of either. They have taken to eating the sedge along the ditch edges and the tall phragmites reeds from the sea wall fleet, neither is terribly palatable or nourishing but they are at least green. The wildfowlers still turn up, sit out on the saltings and go home a while later empty handed, no wildfowl to see or shoot at. 

Ducks, geese and waders look for wet areas in which to feed, wash and drink - none are available. Starlings and plovers look for soft ground to probe for fat insects that sustain them - none is available.

Just a Barn Owl quartering the meadows in the early morning half-light, fortunately little changes for them, except heavy snow and every morning the swallows flitting south across the meadows in fond farewells, decrease.

The arable fields on the neighbouring farmland have been harvested, the soil lightly turned over and broken down ready for seed sowing but sit dry and dusty. Some rape was sown a month ago, as it normally is for next year, we had a heavy shower of rain, it germinated but hot dry weather saw it shrivel up, an expensive loss that will have to repeated when the rain eventually comes.    

In my garden, the half of the front lawn that I turned into a wild flower meadow this year, was only a 50% success. I begun it last October by mowing the grass down as low as I could and then raking and scarifying the surface soil into a rough tilth. Unfortunately the wild seed mix that I spread over it also contained meadow grass seed and so the combination of the lawn grass re-growing and the wild grss, tended to swamp the wild flowers. This week I have worked hard at preparing the meadow's surface and reducing the grass ready for a new sowing of wild meadow flowers. As soon as it rains the seed will be sown and my wild meadow will begin it's life ahead of next year.

And for The Weaver, well I'll always be in your footprints, you'll always be leading the way.

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Early Autumn

Since I wrote my last "It's a Scorcher" posting, the weather has taken a dramatic turn and seemed to have rushed head-long into autumn, despite it still being August. Over the last seven days we have had two Atlantic storms come rushing in, both the subject of now giving them silly names, in this case Storm Ellen and  now, Storm Francis. In the old days we were simply told to expect some stormy weather, which in autumn was normally par for the course, but now they have to be hyped up with name calling, presumably to make them sound more dramatic.
At the onset of Storm Francis yesterday morning, we had 4-5 hours of decent and much needed rain for the parched countryside round here. However, as seems to happen every time at the moment, immediately the rain stopped the afternoon became one of warm sunshine and severe gales - the result being much evaporation of that rain again.
Anyway, enough of that, what else has been occurring, well not a lot to be honest, thanks to the parched conditions, bird-life on the marshes and the reserve here, has been somewhat at a premium. Until that is, last Friday. I was walking across the reserve early in the morning, a tad bored because parched grass and almost dry ditches create very little interest to look at, when a different coloured heron, fast disappearing into a ditch, caught my eye. I slowly walked along the ditch until up sprung the heron in front of me. Yes, certainly a heron species and certainly different. It had a long and heavy, bright yellow bill and was basically a combination of light and brown colours with an almost gingery effect. It was also slightly slimmer and smaller than the normal Grey Heron. Although I'd never seen one before I had a fairly good idea what it was and went home to consult my bird books.
The next morning I walked along the same ditch and up it popped again to confirm what I suspected, it was a juvenile Purple Heron, an uncommon to almost rare bird in this country. Since then it has remained on the reserve.
In anticipation of the rain that was due yesterday and did briefly appear, the farmer next door to the reserve was out a couple of days ago, sowing the wheat stubble with rape seed for next years crop.  Driving across the marsh this morning it was clear that germination of the seed would take a while yet, the fields were dust dry and unless you live round here, it's hard to explain to people just how much rain we need to bring things back to normal.
The next main event in the reserve calendar occurs early morning next Tuesday 1st September, when the new wildfowling season begins. Before dawn on Tuesday wildfowlers will be in position the other side of the reserve sea wall, eagerly hoping for the chance to shoot any goose or duck that might fly over the sea wall towards them. I will be there at first light to watch events and to have a chat with them afterwards.

Monday 10 August 2020

It's a Scorcher

It's scorching hot, (the now daily 30 degrees plus), it's been bloody hot for weeks and shows little chance of not being bloody hot for the foreseeable future. It's not only hot, it's very humid with it and every bit of effort makes you break into a sweat and lastly, rain, proper soaking rain, just seems like something that other countries get.
As I look out of my bungalow window this afternoon, I'm looking at a distant heat haze that looks like a mist hanging over a grazing marsh that contains horses. Those poor animals are grazing their way across fields that are bright yellow, almost white, with no grass at all, just dry grass stalks.
In my garden, the regular dropping of apples from water starved apple bushes, is giving the Blackbirds something to feed from, there's very little else on offer. Their dreams of fat worms must be pretty much like ours of rain and plenty of it. And what of hedgehogs - no fat slugs, snails or worms in this dusty heat, things must be so hard for them.
The Swale National Nature reserve, on which I carry out my Volunteer Wardening, is just the same. It's official description is that of "an example of North Kent grazing marshes" - one that brings to mind  murky, boggy places, full of mists and wildfowl and Darwinian characters. At the moment it resembles a photo from some sun-baked African plain, with near dry and stinking ditches and cattle so desperate for sustenance that they are now plundering the tall reed beds of phragmites and with very little water that is drinkable.
On the surrounding farmland, everything but the maize has been harvested and it's straw baled and carted away. All the fields have then been tickled over for a few inches depth by tractors towing discs and everything sits dry and dusty waiting for rain that has to come one day.
Bird-life on the reserve continues to be disappointing, some morning we get shorts bursts of Swallows and Sand Martins hastily making their way south and a few ducks struggle on in ditches with very rancid water. Some passing waders such as Green Sandpipers stop off to probe the widening muddy fringes of the ditches but basically, it's only the Greylag Geese that are present in any numbers. During the day they feed in the neighbouring stubble fields and then fly into the reserve's sea wall fleet, the only one with any proper water, in order to drink and wash.
It's all a pretty depressing scene but it'll change, of course it will, but till then it's simply a matter of going out very early in the morning to beat the heat and waiting for the rain to come.

Thursday 23 July 2020

Harvest Time

Well it's been around seven weeks since my last post and I have been minded to scrap the blog all together. I have said this before but have carried on but it does get hard with every month to think of things worthy of filling a blog with.
The weather certainly hasn't changed at all. Apart from the odd showery day, with the resultant brief rain drying within an hour or so, we remain in a continuous drought situation. It is getting a tad tedious walking round the reserve now in such continually dry conditions, the ground is rock hard, the grass dry and brittle and the muddy fringes to the ditches getting wider as the water in the middle decreases almost daily. With the breeding season pretty much over and the moult now replacing it, bird life has become pretty quiet and numbers are lower. Along what is left of one fleet we do have a daily early morning roost of c.24 Little Egret and 1 Great White Egret, all looking quite magnificent as they rise up into the air together. The muddy ditch fringes will also act as stopping off places to grab a quick snack by passing individual wading birds as they make their way south. Green Sandpipers, Common Sandpipers, Greenshank are slowly being seen.
And of course, the southerly rush of Swallows and Sand Martins is starting, at the moment mostly by juvenile birds, all of that way with no adults leading the way! I came across one gate on the reserve yesterday morning with dozens of those birds crowded on to it and also on the ground around it, all twittering away. I wondered if they might be discussing the route and it's best feeding stops, but how could they know, they've never done it before.
The only real noticeable birds at the moment are the Greylag Geese and there are around 140 on the reserve, made up of adult birds and near full grown goslings. Once they finish their moult they will soon cross over on to the farmland and spend a lot of their time picking up spilled grain in the stubble fields. Hard to believe that in just five weeks on the 1st September, the wildfowling season will begin again and those geese will become targets once again. On drought days like we are currently experiencing it's hard to imagine those wildfowlers sitting out there with their guns ready, bitter cold and dark mornings yes, but not hot, dry and sunny.
On the surrounding farmland the rape was cut, baled and stacked away some weeks ago and the activity now is all concentrated on harvesting the wheat and barley and taking the straw bales away for stacking elsewhere.

Sunday 7 June 2020

Five weeks later

It has been around five weeks since my last post and little of any great importance has happened in my orderly kind of life.
I was rejoicing in my last post at the fact that at last we had had some rain to ease the dry conditions that we were experiencing and that has just happened again. After that last post we had several fairly hot and very sunny weeks, which while enjoyable for me as a warm to hot weather lover, saw pretty much drought conditions set in across much of the country. This week, literally overnight, we went from July like weather, to that of March/April. It has been cold, with grey skies and strong cold winds and occasional rain, though rarely enough to soften up the hard, dry ground.
I have to say, that getting up every morning to cloudless blue skies and the knowledge that shorts and light shirts were all that were going to be needed throughout the day, was quite enjoyable, as were the warm and sunny evenings sitting in the garden. Not so this week, some people have even put their central heating back on - in June, what's going on with this weather!
Still the dry and sunny weather did encourage my sempervivum collections. I have three of these collections and the ones in this sink-like container have just started to flower.

One thing that I have been doing during the last five weeks, is reading a lot. Not because the lockdown due to the Corvid-19 virus has restricted what I get up to, in fact I have not been restricted in any way. No, because I get up very early each day (5am) and start the day with a patrol round the nature reserve and then other jobs in the garden, etc., I find that most afternoons I have little to do and so do quite a bit of reading.
I have found a series of books by a quite brilliant biographer, Mary S. Lovell. Her books are terrifically well researched, contain many pages and yet are easy to read. I came across her latest one first - "The Riviera Set: 1920-1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess" and then went backwards to "The Churchills" and I'm currently reading "The Mitford Girls: The biography of an Extraordinary Family." They are very worth well reading.

On the reserve, we are just beginning to emerge from the main rush of the breeding season and so far it hasn't been that spectacular, the several weeks of dry weather has affected birds like the Lapwings. Their chicks depend on insect life to feed on, the type that you get around the muddy fringes of bodies of water and such areas dried up with considerable speed as the near drought progressed. I have however, seen a number of broods of geese and various duck youngsters and the Sedge and Reed Warblers are busy in the reed beds, so all is not lost. A few grassland butterflies are also starting to emerge - Small Heaths and Meadow Browns are a tad early and there are Peacock caterpillars feeding on the stinging nettles. 

So far it has been a funny old year - a very wet winter, followed immediately by a bone dry Spring, what weather surprises has the summer in store as we approach the Longest Day in a couple of weeks. 


Wednesday 29 April 2020

Rain at Last

After around 5-6 weeks of rain-less days, when almost every day seemed to be cloudless, sunny and very warm in the afternoons, leading to the comments in my last couple of posts about almost drought conditions, things changed dramatically yesterday.
After a very warm Monday afternoon when people were as usual, out walking in their summer clothes, shorts and T shirts even, we got up yesterday to dark skies, steady rain and a big drop in temperature. That remained the case for most of the day and at times even, a burst of the central heating was needed to take the chill off of the house. Lawns and flower beds that had been rock hard and cracking up begun to ooze water by the evening. Garden water butts re-filled and over-flowed and the poor Blackbirds, that had been struggling for a few weeks to get any worms out of the ground for their chicks, suddenly looked rejuvenated.
Early this Wednesday morning as I write this, we still have dark skies, light rain and cold temperatures, with heavier rain forecast during the day. Unfortunately this year's weather seems to be coming in binges - we had the endless and record wet winter, followed by this recent endless dry spell, hopefully it won't mean that this current wet weather isn't set in for a month or so now.

What it does mean is that the farmer close to the reserve, who last week was sowing peas into dust dry ground, causing me to comment on how does he expect them to germinate, will no doubt be feeling quite smug today. On the reserve itself, one piece of concern will be for any newly hatched Lapwing chicks. A cold and rainy day is not good for those small balls of fluff, if they remain wet and cold for long periods of time they will often die.
I'm just about to set off for the reserve and wellie boots and a coat were the last thing on my mind this time last week.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

The Sweet Dreams of Youth

"Now as I was young and easy" as Dylan Thomas so eloquently began his poem "Fern Hill" - as I was young and easy in my late teens in the 1960's, I discovered Dylan Thomas.
In 1965, in my 18th year, I was introduced to Bob Dylan for the first time by a friend'd suggestion that I watch him on a television programme. In doing that a light bulb came on, the Stones and the Beatles were relegated to second and third places of interest. A life time of devotion to Bob Dylan, his poetry and his music had begun.
Later, after a few months of sating myself on all things Bob Dylan, my interest also began to lean towards the man that Bob Dylan allegedly took his surname from - Dylan Thomas. I bought Dylan Thomas's Collected Poems, read and loved "Under Milk Wood" and begun collecting various autobiographies about both Dylan and his wife Caitlin. It soon became clear to me here was a man that wrote poetry brilliantly and in a style that I many times, badly tried to copy. Not only that, being in my late teens, I was ripe for idolising somebody that was also a rogue, a reprobate and somebody that regularly pissed people off. When you're that age nice people are only seen as boring, people bucking the system are always the ones most interesting. I also read that Dylan Thomas had often said to people that he didn't want to live past 40 and went on to die aged 39 at the height of his fame. He achieved that by going out one night in New York and after claiming to have drunk eighteen whiskies, against doctors orders, collapsed in a coma before dying in a hospital bed a week or so later, well I thought - way to go, who wants to get old. A few years later that thought was once again resurrected when in 1970 Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix all died young from drug overdoses.
So with that thought in the back of my mind, I moved further into adult life and marriage and work and buying houses and headed towards that magical cut off point, 40 years of age. Clearly, as I'm writing this aged 72, the romantic thought of dying at 40 like my heroes, was never full filled, life may have took some dark turns along the way but there was always a bright light shining up ahead.

Mind you, as I approach my 73rd birthday, that bright light seems to be flickering somewhat. We are in the depths of the Corvid-19 pandemic and people are dying by the thousands in this country and the normal feeling of safety and comfort from being in hospital is all of a sudden a scary prospect. It's really unsettling to wake up on a fine and sunny morning, with a good day in prospect, to suddenly have that dark cloud of remembering Corvid-19 descend upon you and will today be my turn to get it.
It's changing a lot of people's lives, possibly forever, and has brought about a lot of challenging restrictions to our daily life, which many of us interpret in different ways. For me, the only real restriction is not being able to visit my partner who lives 80 miles away in Surrey whenever I like. We remain separated by the government ruling that travel by car is only allowed for essential reasons and an 80 mile journey there and back would see me probably fined if caught doing it. It's even more frustrating watching some of my neighbours being visited by friends and relatives, visits that include going in their houses.

Other than that, the one topic in vogue at the moment among people that are gardeners or farmers, is how dry the ground has become. To be not that far away from one of the wettest winters on record and now in almost drought conditions, is hard to comprehend. In the gardens, flower borders are cracking up and lawns beginning to go yellow. On the marsh the water levels have dropped almost two feet in places and the field surfaces becoming rock hard, and I watched tractors drilling spring crops the other day, being followed by large dust clouds.
It's becoming a mad, mad world.

Thursday 19 March 2020

Everyone needs a father

In this crazy world at the moment, we're going into un-chartered territory for some months to come, with our lives, health and finances all at risk from the Coronavirus. We're all clearly going to have a lot of time on our hands for reflection and I've been doing that just recently in respect of my father. I show him below during WW2.
He died in 1969, when he was just 50 and I was 22. Up until his death I had always had a pretty poor relationship with him, he worked extremely hard to support the family, worked himself to death in all respects, but he was not a good family man. At 22 years old, I had a whole lifetime in front of me and so little time for a father that shared little with me, that, as far as I was concerned, could come later in my life, which of course it never did.

I was the second child, born in 1947, a year after the first child, a girl, died just a week after birth. Therefore when my sister was born in 1950, I guess he always saw her as the replacement for the first one and favoured her at my expense for the rest of his short life. Later came three other children but my father had his favourite and so it was and so I spent my childhood and teenage years being somewhat withdrawn from normal family relationships. As a result I guess, I've struggled with relationships all of my life and still do to this day, always needing a great deal of time with just myself.
However, around ten years ago and after the death of my mother, I gradually found myself being drawn back into the family circle after a long time out of it. I guess as I plodded through my sixties and into my seventies, I was being looked upon as a father figure by my younger siblings, a funny kind of realisation. That led me, as the curiosity of old age often does, to begin researching my family history and in particular, the male line from myself backwards. That, while it has been very successful, rewarding and enlightening, has exposed a great and much regretted hole in my life, all  those missed bonding chats with my father. The missed opportunities to ask him what growing up on Sheppey in the 1920's was like, what the countryside and living conditions were like, what his parents and his aunties and uncles were like, why he went into the army in 1935, earlier than he should by saying that he was eighteen when he was really only sixteen.
I was lucky in that I managed to get hold of his complete army record in the Buffs until de-mob at the end of the War and seeing what he did and endured through that helped me realise that there was far more to him than the person that I thought that I knew, when I was just twenty two. 
I would dearly loved to have chatted with him over the last ten years or more, because everybody needs a father and I missed the opportunity to have one.

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Spring is waking up

After what seems like a whole winter of rain, heavy rain, gales and severe gales and of course storms, this week is giving a glimmer of hope that Spring is finally very close. No gales and little wind is forecast and indeed yesterday, we had the rare treat just lately, of blue skies and sunshine. Walking across the waterlogged reserve in sunshine made it all seem so much better and a couple of pairs of Lapwings were even doing their aerial courtship displays. Not to be outdone either, Skylarks were singing, high in the sky and from several parts around the marsh, we're so fortunate to still have a good population of them  - so things really did seem better.
With lengthening daylight hours, some birds are now being encouraged to begin nest building, Tits are taken material into nest boxes and the poor old Rooks, with tree tops battered by constant gales, have built and re-built their nests several times.
Just outside my conservatory I have a large rosemary bush which is currently covered in small, pale blue flowers and every day several bumble bees spend all the daylight hours visiting it for it's much needed early food source. Daffodils are in full flower, tulip flowers are beginning to show from among the leaves and my lawns have been cut several times, although they are a tad wet. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it's nice and warm and I'm now approaching the latest date that I've ever got my tortoises out of hibernation in the garage. I'll wait another week and then will have to bring them into the warm and see how they are, they might have to be left to wander about in my conservatory till it warms up in the garden.
Back on the reserve, large areas are still covered in water, or at best, water-logged and muddy and it's hard at the moment to see how ground nesting birds such as Lapwings and Skylarks will be able to make an early start to nesting, should they be so minded, but wildlife normally finds a way. Certainly one or two duck pairs have already begun because I've started to find the tell-tale signs of crow predation in the form of new duck eggs that have been pecked open.
What of the Harty farmland alongside - well the autumn sown crops of rape and wheat are doing OK despite much water-logged soil. Both rape and wheat plants are beginning to noticeably increase in size now and it will only take a couple of warm days to see a great spurt in growth. The one flock of sheep on the farmland should of begun lambing by the end of the month and I guess that the owner of them will also have his fingers crossed for some warm and sunny weather.
So all in all, Spring seems to be slowly waking up, the signs are all there - it can't come quick enough!

Thursday 20 February 2020

Another Season Ends

Walking across a part-flooded reserve early this morning was hard work. Negotiating the flooded parts wasn't too bad, it was the gale force wind and bouts of horizontal drizzle that made it worse. Plus it means that I have to wear wellies and I never find them comfortable at the best of times. Large areas of foot deep water are not exactly the kind of conditions that I imagine Ellie, my little Jack Russell, finds enjoyable either, but she gamely runs or swims her way through it all.

I haven't been across to the sea wall for several days, simply in order to avoid having to cross the wet marsh, but today was the last day of the current wildfowling season. The wildfowlers put their guns away until September 1st, when it all starts again. As the reserve's Voluntary Warden and the only person the wildfowlers are likely to encounter from it's management, I always like to keep on friendly terms with them and have an end of season chat. Standing on the sea wall being buffeted by the wind and rain, it was surprising just how many wildfowl have returned, now, over the last couple of weeks, that we finally have the wet conditions that they so love.
It was an irony not lost on the wildfowlers as we chatted - all those wildfowl now that the shooting season has ended - a sod's law sort of event, which is not unusual in their pursuit. This morning, between the four of them, they had shot just the one duck, which was a pretty poor return for standing in deep, tidal mud and the wind and rain for several hours. We stood there comparing notes on how the two different types of season have gone for us all and it seemed a very long time ago since they sat out there with their guns on very warm and sunny September evenings, being bitten to death by mosquitoes.
But now they have finished for six months and apart from the odd birdwatcher or walker, I will have the place to myself again. Time to dream about sitting on the same sea wall on hot, sunny mornings, watching Ellie trying to catch voles in the long grass and being lulled into a lazy frame of mind by the drone of bees and the silent passage of butterflies - ah my kind of season.

Sunday 16 February 2020

Same Again

Well, almost a month has gone by since my last post and that post's title could just as easily apply to this one. There are a few subtle differences, the water levels have continued to increase in both depth and area and at last, duck numbers are also beginning to increase. Mallard, Teal, Pintail, Gadwall and Shoveler are all beginning to re-appear and combined with large numbers of Greylag, White-fronted and Brent Geese, it's all starting to look how it should do at this time of the year.

The photo below indicates the kind of access problems that we are now experiencing as a result of the rising water levels. The main track through the reserve runs through this gate and turns towards where I was standing on a raised bund. The ditch either side of the gate and track has flooded across them both and this is being repeated in many places around the reserve. It means that access/viewing, is pretty much limited to the boundary route at the rear of the reserve and the sea wall that you can see in the background distance. They say that you should be careful what you wish for and after four years of asking for decent rainfall to alleviate the reserve's dryness, we've now got a tad too much.

The other notable feature of this February so far, is the lack of any mild and sunny days, it been mostly cold, wet and windy, especially so during the two major storms, Ciara and now Dennis which we are enduring as I write this. Dennis is forecast to possibly dump a month's worth of rain today, so even wetter conditions will exist by tomorrow.
I have found it all so very depressing and cannot wait for us to climb out of this dark dampness and to feel a warm sun on my face.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Mud, Water and Winter

"I leant upon a coppice gate
When frost was spectre-gray
And Winter's dregs made desolate
the weakening eye of day"...............Thomas Hardy

The title pretty sums up this last month. So many days have been so grey, gloomy, rainy, windy and cold, that it's been a real challenge to walk round the reserve at times. I'm not a great lover of wearing wellie boots but so wet and muddy are parts of the reserve, that their wearing has been a necessary requisite in order to navigate some parts. No such comfort for my little Jack Russell, Ellie, she has spent a lot of her time swimming through flooded ditches or across lakes of flood water but she takes it all in her stride.
This month also saw us rid of the cattle herd, finally taken away to pens in the grazier's farm yard. They were left on the reserve far longer than the wet conditions allowed and now we have been left with a number of earth crossing points across ditches, that are almost non-traversable on foot due to the depth of the quagmire of mud churned up by their feet. They have now been replaced, for a couple of months, by a number of sheep. As well as being less damaging to the ground, their purpose is to graze the grass down to a very short sward and leave several of the fields perfect for Lapwing breeding this Spring.

But apart from the discomfort and pain of getting around the reserve on foot, it has quite clearly, looked better for wildfowl and waders than it has for the last 4-5 years. Frustratingly, however, we haven't seen a rapid rise in the numbers of either this winter so far. The flock of wintering White-fronted Geese rose to a maximum of 121 birds before they moved into the nearby Harty marshes and continuing to increase in numbers there. That left just the large flock of resident Greylag Geese and sometimes, odd Barnacle, Pink-footed and Tundra Bean Geese. As for ducks, well the days of flocks totalling hundreds, if not thousands, seem well behind us now and we're still only counting them in tens and twenties. My weekly chats with the wildfowlers on the sea wall only finds myself and them swapping the same frustrations - where are all the birds these days? They've had a lot of really cold and gloomy days hunkered down out on the saltings, waiting for wildfowl to shoot, just for nil returns.
It's been a pretty poor month all round and to be honest, I haven't enjoyed several of the visits but hey-ho, just the four weeks of February to endure and things will hopefully, slowly begin to improve - to much cold and wet does not do my old bones any good at all.