Friday 24 December 2021

In the Beginning

 We're now in that fag end time of the year when if like me, you get no enjoyment out of all this Christmas stuff, life can get a tad tedious.. What's more, the weather tends to be cold and miry making most activities outside quite unattractive. I spent some of the time this last few days improving a 40-odd page document that I wrote a few years ago that detailed the daily life of myself and my friends during 1965 to 1968.

It is entitled "In the beginning - out of the shadows," because having experienced an unhappy childhood and a boring early teenage spell, it documents my discovery of a group of people of similar age and interests. I've always felt that my real life only begun it's life long trail from then on and many of the friendships still endue to this current day. To give you a flavour let's start at the start of that document:-

In the beginning, early 1965, there were two thirteen year old schoolgirls walking along Rose Street on their way home from school and as my workmates and I drove by there was something about one of them that made me take a longer look. It was her hair that stood out - later, it was always her hair - it was long and it tumbled in waves and curls down on to her young shoulders in the most wonderful deep, gingery red colour that flashed fire in the sun. Other than that she was just a skinny young schoolgirl and it was only a moment and then, still chattering to each other the two girls were gone. I guess that in that moment, although I wasn't aware of it at the time, my dice were thrown but the gamble still had to be made.

Shortly after that I stumbled on the group of people that I've mentioned, we all worked conventionly five days a week but we were folk music fans and so in the evenings, the weekends and holidays, we drifted around out town as it's resident hippies, long-haired and scruffy. It continued in that way for the next year, we drank too much, smoked pot, played guitars, we slept rough, had a few girlfriends and we hitch-hiked to London for long weekends. Fast forward to June 2nd 1966, I'd packed in my job because three of us were due to spend some time hitch-hiking between London and the south coast. That day was hot and sunny and a gang of us, including some old girlfriends, were sitting in a local park alongside the sea front sea wall. Because of the weather the sea front was very busy with people in swimming and suchlike and as we chatted, I casually looked along the people sheltering out of a slight breeze behind the sea wall. I was suddenly struck by the fact that of two young girls busy drying themselves, one was the gingery-haired girl that had caught my eye the previous year. Intrigued and attracted to her, I left my friends and walked over to the girls, who of course had no idea who I was but long-haired and dressed in denim I had some romantic notion that she might be awed by my appearance. What could I say by way of introduction and so I mumbled something about "I'd like a swim, could I borrow your towel to dry off after," to which she agreed and so in my jeans I had a quick dip and sat alongside them drying myself off. We chatted for some time, I told her about my plans to go hitch-hiking in a couple of days, my music interests, my friends and she told me that her name was Christine and she's had her fourteenth birthday just a few days previously. There was me, a month short of my nineteenth birthday becoming infatuated by the minute in this rather young looking girl with the ginger hair and we agreed to meet again the following day. Those moments by that sea wall saw our lives change directions from wherever they were naturally going, I went hitch-king, I came back, we re-connected, she grew up, we fell in love and four years later we got married.

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Year End

 At last we have now seen the passing of the Shortest Day of the year. Technically the length of each day will now increase, although in reality, little of that will be noticed much before the end of January, but if nothing else it encourages daily optimism. For me the most significant day of the winter is January 1st, when we cast off the shackles of the old year and can look forward with hope and inspiration at what a new year will bring.

After several days of continuous gloomy, damp and cold days when it rarely seemed to get fully light, we ended yesterday with an hour or two of sunshine. That led to a hard overnight frost and a beautiful morning today of white frost, blue skies and frozen ground that was a relief after trudging round in ankle deep mud at times. It might also help to nudge flower and fauna into accepting that we are actually in mid-winter, some flowers have been acting as though we are in either autumn or spring. 

Coinciding with this mini cold spell, this week has begun to see the arrival of the first White-fronted Geese of this winter - 64 on Monday had risen to 150 this morning. Unlike the large flock of feral Greylag Geese that are resident on the marshes here, these White-fronted Geese are truly wild birds that fly in to winter here, from their normal homes in the more remote areas of Northern Europe. A lot of their number are family groups, i.e. two adults with this year's bred juveniles. They are lovely geese and a great favourite of mine but unfortunately, because of their wildness, they are also a favourite quarry of the wildfowlers that shoot along the front of the reserve. Hopefully the geese will stay out of danger for much of their stay. 

Another bird that always puts in an appearance in the winter is the Stonechat. They are a resident breeding bird in the British Isles but for a couple of months in the winter they leave their favoured heathlands and wander around the hedgerows and reed beds of the coastal marshes. We have 2-3 pairs of these dapper little birds on the reserve at the moment and I love to watch them rise up above the tops of the reed beds and briefly hover there like a puppet on a string.

There's not much else to say really, both the reserve and the surrounding farmland are looking quite bleak at the moment but I shall be out on the reserve with little Ellie, early every morning over Christmas and the New Year, hoping for that something different to occur.

Monday 13 December 2021

Been a Long Time

 Gawd, August since I last posted, how far away that now seems. Then I was hoping for a decent spell of possibly hot and sunny weather, well we did get some but overall, this summer has been pretty average. Now, it's December 13th and one of those gloomy, never getting fully light sort of days and as I start this it's 3.30 pm, the afternoon is closing down and passing cars already have the headlights on. In another hour it'll be fully dark and another fourteen hour, long night of darkness will begin. Dear me, how do some people love winters?

The nature reserve approaches the New Year with continuing low water levels and as a consequence the wildfowl numbers are also very low, in fact bird numbers there generally are very low. Few winter thrushes have arrived, only immigrant Blackbirds and Chaffinches are about in noticeable numbers. That's not to say that the reserve is totally dry, the heifer flock has seen to that. We've had enough rain to soften the ground and their obsession with pressing against any gateway that is holding them in, in whole flock loads, has seen those gateways turn into areas of a combination of liquid mud and cow poo. All the heifers are pregnant and due to calve in two/three months time and so this week, I'm assured, they're due to be taken off the reserve to calving sheds and pens - can't wait, they make access round the reserve so difficult. In their place we already have 200 of this year's ewe lambs. Lovely looking, sturdy animals and happily supplied by a local farmer in order that we can keep the sward levels of the grass at a low enough level throughout the winter, and therefore benefit the Lapwings next Spring as they begin to breed.

The farmland alongside the reserve now sits pretty much cultivated for the rest of the year. Next year's rape is now over a foot high and the winter corn a few inches high. Any fields now lying fallow will do so until next Spring and then almost certainly be sown with maize to feed the local bio-digester plant with. The only thing that disturbs the farmland tranquility now is the odd crop sprayer and the weekly game shoots. 

The weather patterns these days are all quite crazy really, a few mild days next month will already see the catkin buds on the willows starting to swell and even burst and currently in my garden some daffodil tips are just beginning to push through the soil. But Covid permitting, we'll carry on carrying on and soon the dark days of winter will be behind us.

Tuesday 10 August 2021

Here Comes The Sun

Well - the end of May since I last posted a blog account and to be honest, over the time that has elapsed  I've struggled to find both the enthusiasm, or indeed the need, to write another. I've daily read a few other blogs but to be honest they mainly seem to concentrate on what they eat, bake, dust and wash each day, I haven't been able to do much better and so I've stayed quiet.

April was a bone dry, frosty and cold month, May seemed to just rain everyday, resolving April's dryness, and so my last posting hoped for summer in June. Well, for the first half of June that's exactly what we got, we had a couple of separate mini heatwaves of a week or so long, each. People came alive again after the crap Spring. Shorts and T shirts were donned, beaches and the countryside were remembered, re-visited and enjoyed., life began to be enjoyed again, the dark days of Covid receded. Sadly, some people couldn't enjoy that few weeks out of a long and fifty-two week year - oh no, it was too hot, please let it cool down - well unfortunately they got their bloody wish. Much of July and the beginning of August has, here on Sheppey at least, been constantly wet and windy. That weather, combined with the nights drawing in, has made it feel like Autumn has come early.

But joy of joys, after several days of heavy rain and strong winds, today has been very warm and sunny, the raincoats and umbrellas have been discarded, the shorts and T shirts are back on, the beach is busy again. Even better, several days of this weather are forecast, the clock is now ticking, counting down to the first miserable git who complains about summer happening.

Suppose I ought to mention the reserve, not that much is happening, it's very overgrown, worst I've seen it, the cattle are making little impression on the long grass, trampling it more than eating it. The tractor driven mowers have begun to mow the grazing meadows but they are struggling to get under the flattened grass. Bird life is minimal with just a few autumn waders coming through and wildfowl numbers very low, which will disappoint the wildfowlers when they start their shooting season in a few weeks time on the 1st September.

The arable fields surrounding the reserve have all been harvested, with straw baled and taken away and the stubble manured and tilled to leave it ready for the autumn seed sowing. The next event in a week or so will be the arrival of several thousand game bird poults for the winter shooting season - the circle turns really fast at times.

Friday 21 May 2021

Looking Forward To Summer

 Looking at my previous post this morning I was gob-smacked to see that it was posted two months ago!

Since then we have had a Spring, if you could call it that, like none that I can recall in recent memory. 

Pretty much the whole of April was dominated by sunshine, cold and strong N.E. winds and a long spell of morning frosts. The combined effect of the cold, drying winds and the sunshine saw the reserve dry out at a remarkable rate and by the end of the month it was hard to imagine that it had been so flooded over the winter. Ditch water levels dropped to near summer levels, the water-logged meadows dried out and the ground was cracking up. One of the down sides of all this dryness was the effect it had on the thousands of cattle hoof prints that they had left behind before being taken off the reserve by Christmas. Every hoof  pushing down into the soft, muddy ground, squashed the mud upwards round the print and when these all dried out during April we were left to walk over hard ground that resembled cobbles. It was tiring and painful on arthritic feet and ankles!

So, April ended up as being one of the coldest April's on record and we began May hoping to see a change in the weather and hoping for some rain, amazingly after the wetness of February and March, and some warm Springlike weather. Well, they say, watch what you wish for and boy have we had it. In the three weeks of this month so far it is looking like May could be one of the wettest on record and we still haven't had at least one proper hot and sunny day that has exceeded 20 degrees. It seems like it has rained every day, or part of day, since we began the month. Ditches have recovered to normal water levels for the time of year and with the meadows becoming damp again the grass has been growing like mad, which will please the cattle as they begin returning today.

Another feature of May has been a couple of spells of unseasonable gales. Two days of severe gales a couple of weeks ago had a probable disastrous effect on the local rookeries. With all the rooks nests being placed at the tops of the trees you can imagine how many eggs or chicks that must have been thrown out as the upper-most branches swayed violently in the gusts of wind. This morning as I write this we have endured a night of gale force winds and today, severe gales are forecast. Trees, shrubs and flowers in the garden are being smashed about violently and it's cold. Perhaps if I wish for a calmer and hotter June we'll get a mini heatwave, it's needed.

The breeding season on Sheppey's three main nature reserves has also seen a mixed bag as well. Lapwings, the most important ground nesting bird on the marshes here, got off to a very successful start with large numbers of breeding pairs and very good numbers of chicks hatched. However, throughout April, the increasingly dry ground made sourcing food difficult for the chicks, plus and more importantly, the predation was intense. Gulls, harriers, crows, hawks, all queued up to take a heavy toll of the Lapwing chicks. It has to be hoped that second broods from these  birds during May will go some way to restoring the balance.

So, that's it - will it be a hot June, I hope so. 

Friday 19 March 2021

Nearly There

 My last two blogs have made mention of  hints of Spring and yet this long cold, very wet and windy winter has continued to win the day.

But, it may only be the one day but Spring has been around again today. Cloudless blue skies and unbroken sunshine have dominated the day and an almost warm, gentleness has taken over the garden. Bumblebees have been visiting the helleborus, daffodil and heather flowers to feed up. A Robin sang for much of the day from a naked Elderflower bush and the pond sparkled in the sunshine.

The newts have returned from winter hibernation and looked thinner as a result and so I spent an hour digging up earthworms to feed them with. I'd drop the worm segments in front of each of the newts and watched events. Surprisingly, despite having eyes, the newts seemed very short-sighted and it would take several attempts to pounce on the worm but then mass shaking would take place, just like a dog does with a rat. Amazing how many newts that there are in the pond and I so love to see and watch them.

As I said at the beginning, this winter has been loathe to relinquish it's hold on the countryside this year but today has been a pleasant taste of  what's soon to come. Out on the reserve the marsh still has large areas of surface water across the grazing meadows and what isn't covered, is water-logged. Lapwings have begun their happy courtship displays and nesting on any dry parts of the marsh can't be far away. Likewise, the Marsh Harriers high above the reed beds, are courting, high in the sky and their plaintive calls cascade down as they tumble up and down in their "dancing" displays. Skylarks are the avian chorus line, endlessly singing in the background and a constant reminder of how the countryside used to sound for so many people - we are lucky to still have them here.

But it's not all move over winter, Spring is here, the last few weeks have been very cold and grey with icy winds. It's been difficult at times just lately, to find the enthusiasm to plod round the reserve each day. The saving grace has been the winter wildfowl numbers, many still reluctant to spread their wings and fly north, heading home to breed. The reserve this winter has seen wildfowl numbers not seen for many years, the result of the flooding and the cold. Chief among these have been the White-fronted Geese, spreading out across much of Kent but concentrated mostly here on the reserve  to peak at 850 last month but still this week, totaling 590, and a joyous sight to seen and hear. Lately they seem to be spending all day on the reserve's grassland bur roosting somewhere well west of the reserve. This means that each morning around 08.30 they suddenly appear, high in the sky in their V formations and calling with their beautiful "winkling" notes to suddenly break formation and tumble down onto the reserve. There they feed, they wash and pairs split away to court and renew their bond-ships - life can suddenly seem a wonderful place!

Tuesday 23 February 2021

Spring is now about

 It has been three quite different weeks. First we had the snow and ice, then the rain and the floodwaters and now this week, a feeling of Spring in the sunshine. With dryer, sunnier weather, the floodwaters have already started to subside but the "Flood Field" in front of the Sea Wall Hide is still looking great.

The photo below, taken from the Sea Wall Hide, shows only half of the Flood and this last week most days, it been full of around 1200 mixed duck species and several hundred Lapwings, quite an impressive sight. The water-logged surrounding fields of the reserve have also had their share of birds - Curlews, Redshank, Brent Geese, Greylag Geese, to name just a few and yesterday in the sun a few Lapwing were also doing their courtship displays over the marsh. Lastly, the White-fronted Goose flock that last week totaled 850 birds, has this week shrunk to c.140 birds and so many of them have possibly departed for their northern breeding grounds already.

Obviously, we will probably still have some colder, wetter days to come but at the moment, all is looking and feeling good.

Monday 15 February 2021

A Milder Feel

 Today it is Monday, a week since the second "Beast from the East" buried our countryside and gardens here in snow and ice.

But overnight the temperature has risen dramatically and that, combined with light rain, has seen the daylight expose a much more familiar landscape to our eyes. Large areas of grass in the gardens and meadows across the road, are already exposed and the pavements, so long dangerously cobbled with footprints frozen into ice, have already softened and are melting into the gutters.  Birds, so long deprived of soft ground and waterways from which to source their food supplies, can hopefully begin to find some food again. Although this will probably not be the case for birds such as Herons and Egrets, they could still end up partially starving as waterways, flooded to twice or three times their width and depth, do not allow access to the fish within.

Yesterday, I risked driving along the narrow road across the marsh. It was indeed risky, covered along much of it's length in hard-packed ice and with a very deep ditch alongside it's whole length, not a lot of room for error there! I managed to get on to parts of the reserve and endured an arduous walk through snow drifts and across frozen areas of water. Because of the frozen conditions there were no waterfowl present, just small flocks of Skylarks, struggling to find any sustenance from grassland buried under snow, and an odd Snipe flying up from the inner parts of reed beds. It was a pretty bleak scenario but if nothing else, it gave me and little Ellie some much needed exercise.

Something that did fascinate me as I made my down the track that led to the reserve's barn, was dozens and dozens of empty snail shells. The grass alongside this track was quite thick and springy and the snow hadn't completely covered it, presumably allowing a member of the thrush family to gain access to the small, yellow snails hidden within, bring them out to the frozen ground and hammer them open.

This morning, now that the early rain has finished, I'm about to depart for the reserve again and with a mild and rainy week ahead forecast, guess it'll soon be a return to the more familiar territory of too much water and too much mud and hopefully, the return of many hundreds of wildfowl and waders.

Just returned and the good news was the sight of 850 White-fronted Geese and 520 Wigeon on the reserve, among other birds.

Thursday 11 February 2021


 After the rain came the snow. "Beast from the East 2" turned up during Sunday. It snowed quite heavily for a lot of the day and covered the garden and drive to a depth of several inches. By Monday morning we were not only in Lockdown but also Housebound due to the snow. During Monday we cleared drives and paths and watched it snow and cover them again. The road outside, on the bottom of a hill was entertaining, as cars convinced that they could drive up it on compacted ice and snow, slid back down sideways and often got stuck in awkward places.

On Tuesday the sun came out, the roads thawed and dried out and I was able to drive the 50 miles to have my first Covid vaccination at a mass vaccination centre. But a thaw was not on the cards, it snowed lightly overnight and also froze and during Weds we had some very heavy snow showers that covered all my diligent drive clearing again.

Weds night saw it snow for a lot of the time and we awoke to another 2-3 inches on top of what was already there in the gardens but luckily the salt on the roads kept them clear - I cleared the drive and the pavement outside again. Through today (Thurs), the sun has shone from blue skies and despite the temperature outside side only being around one degree, a slight thaw seems to have set in. It encouraged me to try and reach the reserve, it must of been heaving in un-counted wildfowl and other birds - birds that I've missed seeing since Saturday. Unfortunately, the one narrow road across the marsh  was still covered in compacted ice and snow and with a deep ditch to one side of it, the risks were too great - perhaps tomorrow.

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Flooding and Ticks

 As readers will have read in my last couple of postings, it has been getting progressively wetter by the week here on Sheppey this week is the third consecutive week with rain almost daily and often heavy. As a result the reserve that I spend most of my year wandering about on and carrying out my Voluntary Warden duties, has now reached the point where it is not really enjoyable to try and get round it. The photo above was taken a few years ago and currently we're beginning to approach those kind of water levels again. As you can imagine, wading through large areas of such water and soft, clinging mud that almost sucks one's wellies off, is none to enjoyable. Twenty years ago, when these scenes were almost annual, I was in my fifties and it wasn't too much of a problem, almost a challenge, but not now. Plus, when you're a little, short-legged Jack Russell, like the one that always accompanies me, it becomes quite aquatic and grim. So at the moment my daily visits are limited to walking the farmland perimeter as best as I can. 

The other problem that the reserve faces in such times of flooding is the fact that the reserve not only receives all the water that drains off the higher arable farmland alongside but that the whole reserve itself  has to drain across it's whole length to just one 12in. pipe at one end, so it's a slow process. One winner in this situation though is the attraction that it is presenting to the wildfowl in the area, especially now that the wildfowlers that would normally be alongside the reserve trying to harvest some of these ducks and geese, have been stopped by the Kent Wildfowlers Association in order to comply with Covid regulations. 

Moving to an entirely different subject, I was reading an account the other day of a person's experience with ticks on dogs and it got me thinking of my experiences. In the years running up until the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak, ticks used to be real problem on my dogs, mainly because the marshes that I frequented here on Sheppey, were always holding large numbers of grazing sheep, something that Sheppey (Sheepey) has been noted for over many centuries. Sheep ticks were the constant reason why many forms of wildlife on the Sheppey marshes were often covered in the awful blood-sucking pests, my dogs included, although curiously, rabbits never seemed to carry them. Many were the time that my dogs would catch a stoat or ferret gone wild and I'd find that the animal's head was covered in many large ticks, all sucking the life out of them. Adult ticks would drop off the sheep and literally sit on the grass or any other vegetation and then simply wait for a warm blooded animal to brush past and then crawl on, lay it's eggs and look for a top up from the animal's blood. Fortunately, apart from one Beagle, all the dogs that I've had over the last fifty years, have been smooth haired, mostly white, Jack Russells and so it was relatively easy to find the ticks in their coats. It was necessary though, to regularly sit down and search through the dog's fur and seek out any ticks that might be using the dog as a meal. Mostly it was the odd one or two but there were occasions when it was possible to find many dozens of newly hatched ticks, all no bigger than a pin head and all in need of picking off before they grew any bigger, luckily, I got a perverse pleasure from squashing each one.
However, after the mass culling of livestock during the F&M outbreak, the livestock farmers on Sheppey re-stocked with mostly cattle and so the tick problem has mostly gone away.

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Where Have all the Birdies Gone

 After last week's 48 hour deluge of rain, we had several days of dryer weather, including a couple of severe frosts. Last night saw it rain throughout, although not heavily, and tomorrow and Thursday are forecast to see it rain for much of both days again, so back to square one with some possible flooding.

On the Swale NNR here in Sheppey, where I'm now entering my 34th year as a Voluntary Warden, the water levels look as good as they've been for several years. The ditches, fleets and shallow rills are full, and the grazing marsh is either waterlogged or covered in largish areas of surface water. It looks how it used to look most winters up until several years ago - a good example of a typical winter on the North Kent marshes. Sadly, that seems to be where the comparisons currently end, despite the perfect conditions, recent walks across the reserve have been noticeable for the lack of birds. 

In those "normal" years that I reflect back on, such conditions would of seen bird numbers, at times difficult to count, there were so many. Golden Plover would of been spread out as far as the eye could see across the waterlogged fields, several thousands at times and they would be joined by similar numbers of Lapwings and other wading birds.The large areas of surface water would of been inhabited by all manner of ducks - several hundred Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler and Pintail. The sounds when a passing Peregrine Falcon or Harrier went by, scaring the huge flocks up, was both deafening and visually spectacular.

Today, as it has been for some time, it was the sheer absence of birds that was so marked. There doesn't seem any reason for walking across deserted, waterlogged fields that once would of been swarming with birds, as I've described. In all honesty, apart from a few hundred Brent and Greylag Geese that feed daily on a neighbouring field of winter corn, alongside one end of the reserve and a couple of dozen Mallard, where are the birds. Where have all Golden Plover gone, everything's right for them. Even the wintering White-fronted Geese, that had been with us since well before Christmas and totaled 230 at the beginning of the month, haven't been seen or heard for the last week or so.

It's a worrying trend and it doesn't seem to end there, gardens around here seem to be suffering the same dearth of birds, unless you count House Sparrows, I had 72 on or around my bird table a couple of days ago and that's fairly normal. But no, I live in a very rural part of Sheppey, both mine and the gardens all round me are full of shrubs, trees and flowers and yet finches coming to bird feeders are a rarity and even Blue and Great Tits are mostly absent -  the count for my RSPB Garden Birdwatch will be sadly depleted this year!

Tuesday 5 January 2021

It's raining

 she's got everything she needs

she's an artist, she don't look back,

she's got everything she needs

she's an artist she don't look back,

she can take the dark out of the nighttime

and paint the daytime black... Bob Dylan

apart from that, well, here we are just a few days in to 2021 and already it feels like 2020 Part Two. Today sees us here in North Kent enduring our second day of non-stop rain and cold Northerly winds. Weather forecasts promise yet another 24 hours of this weather, in the meantime fields are starting to flood and gardens round here are leaking from every orifice.  Dark skies, the sun a forgotten spectacle, the buzzing of summer meadows, bees, butterflies and swallows like a distant planet and yet, in a long few months, I'll be talking of hard dry ground, praying for those precious few drops of rain to wet the dust. I guess, like birthdays, these things go round and round, they get better, they get worse.

In the mean-time the rain and the wind continue to batter the conservatory windows, I fall asleep, I wake up, I fall asleep, and the 70 odd sparrows around my bird table jostle for every last seed of budgie mix. 

15.30 and the light is fading fast, cars have their lights on, winter at it's extreme, two months to go until Spring peeks over the hill.