Saturday 24 December 2022

After the drought - eventually.

 So, my last posting left us with the return of the wildfowlers, all set for another six month season shooting wildfowl alongside the reserve and a severe drought still in place.

With regards to the wildfowlers, who as I have mentioned before, only shoot over the saltings on the seaward side of the seawall, not on the main reserve - due to the reserve's dry ditches there were virtually no ducks flying around and so they had to contend themselves with just shooting at the resident feral Greylag Geese. But after a few weeks at being shot at even these geese learnt to avoid flying over that particular section of saltings and so visits from the wildfowlers also dwindled. The daily walks around the reserve during September were not the most inspiring due to it's lack of wildlife, even summer visitor birds such as Reed and Sedge Warblers and Yellow Wagtails had left earlier in August to make their way south, but there had been one addition. 

On a small farm field alongside the reserve a guy from the traveler community kept six quite nice horses. They were separated from the reserve by a wide ditch that acted as a wet fence but that ditch, like all the others, had gradually dried out and eventually the horses realised that there was now a way of joining the cattle grazing the reserve. One morning when I arrived, there were those six horses, looking quite chuffed with themselves, standing tall among the cattle. I rang their owner, who said that he would come and try and catch them up but with no realistic way of keeping them in their proper field, I suggested that he might like to leave them on the reserve in the short term. They are still there now, now feeding among sheep instead of cattle, doing no harm and thoroughly enjoying the reserve's wide open spaces.

As we progressed through October rain showers slowly became more frequent but made no impact on the drought, the dampness simply dried off the next day, but last month, November, at last saw a quite rapid reduction in the drought, almost overnight. Rainfall amounts became heavier and were more regular, it quickly greened up the grazing marsh as the grass began to grow again but at first only put an inch or so in the dry ditches. But then after one heavy spell of rain a dramatic event took place. The farmland alongside the reserve slopes down towards it and arriving there one morning it was clear that the farmland was draining it's rainfall into the reserve's boundary ditch by our entry gate. Over the next few days that ditch quickly re-filled to a depth of 3-4 feet, an amazing turn around, and the water in it flowed for about a quarter of a mile along it's length, also re-filling ancillary ditches that ran off of it. Further rain falls have continued that process and currently the reserve has now recovered to full normal winter water levels, indeed almost flooding, an amazing turn round in just a few weeks. 

Wednesday 21 December 2022

One dark winter's morning

As someone who sleeps badly and as a consequence rises early, nothing frustrates me more than these dark winter's mornings that seem to take forever to get light. Sad as it may be, I find myself wandering around the house constantly looking for signs of brightness in the gloomy eastern sky. So, I also tend to sit at my laptop trawling through all manner of things that wouldn't normally interest me and ended up this morning re-reading my last blog post. 

Well, it's been around ten months since that post and too be honest I'd intended it to be my last. I'd been struggling with finding both interest in it and new things to comment on and looking back at my very early postings, felt that it was clear that I was struggling to match their quality.Anyway, I've decided to give it another go and see if I can write something that might be of interest to those that find it as they wander around blogland.

With the departure for six months of the wildfowlers mentioned in my last posting I settled down to wait for Spring to arrive. As we moved through March and April, apart from the fact that it was clearly a mostly cold Spring, everything was progressing as normal, Lapwing, Redshanks and some of the waterfowl had all begun nesting, with Coots in particular doing well. In one week alone a systematic walk round the ditches and fleets of the reserve found a total of 35 nests with eggs and several broods of chicks. It wasn't until we moved through May that it became apparent that things were heading in the wrong direction, the amounts of rainfall were getting further and further apart and in my garden it was becoming increasingly difficult to plant things, with the clay soil rock hard and cracking up. On the reserve, the shallow scrapes across the grazing marsh were drying up daily, removing the insect life that would normally be found in the shallow water and mud on which Lapwing and Redshank chicks fed. Fledged Lapwing chicks became harder to find and it was apparent that it was going to be a bad year for Lapwing breeding numbers again. 

As we moved into June, it became obvious that we were heading into another drought summer again, the temperatures were increasing and the rainfall very patchy. What made things worse was the fact that if it did rain at all, it was immediately followed by a day of sunshine and blustery winds that quickly negated the effects of the rain. July arrived and I was beginning give up in the garden, the lawn was turning yellow and new plants that I'd planted were either not growing or dying through lack of water, plus there were cracks I could put my hand down. On the reserve, I'd noticed for a few weeks that duck broods were few and far between, they were obviously having a bad year as well. As the July heat increased it was almost possible to visibly watch the ditch and fleet water levels dropping by the day and a new feeding frenzy. Once the water levels dropped to a foot or so, the aquatic life such as fresh water shrimps, sticklebacks, rudd, etc. all became easier for the bird life to catch and they took full advantage. For a couple of weeks my early morning walks round the reserve were enhanced by up to 80 Black-headed Gulls, 60 plus Little Egrets and a dozen Herons, all feeding on the aquatic life in the shallow water of the ditches. But as the water continued to decrease and lose it's oxygen it began to look and smell awful, the aquatic life died and the birds dispersed away again.  The drought and the temperatures continued to intensify until on the 19th July the whole country saw new, all time record temperatures of up to 40 degrees recorded. Here on Sheppey it got as high as 38 degrees and many people just sat indoors with all windows shut, curtains pulled and tried to sweat it out. By 4pm I'd had enough and set a new personal record by taking a ten minute walk to the packed beach nearby and enjoying my first swim in the sea there for over 20 years - boy was it nice!

Throughout August we had more heatwave weather, I had more swims and all the ditches and fleets on the reserve dried up so much that their bottoms cracked up and I could, if I'd wanted to, walk all round the reserve in the ditch bottoms, something never heard of before! The unfortunate down-side of that however, was the fact that not only had all the water dried up and disappeared, so had the aquatic life. Even when the ditches eventually re-filled it was probably going to take several years for that aquatic life to re-establish itself and spread back around the reserve.

September 1st arrived and with it came the return of the wildfowlers that I'd last seen depart back in February. Talking to them on the seawall they were aghast at the state of the reserve, it looked like a yellow desert across it's whole length and where was the water and the wildfowl that it normally attracted - it was a sad sight. 

Sunday 20 February 2022

Season Crossroads

 Today was the last day of this winter's wildfowling season and it will not resume now until the 1st September.  That now means that my favourite winter birds, the White-fronted Geese, can safely fly around the area close to the reserve  until they fly back to their northern European breeding areas as Spring approaches.

As a result I was along the sea wall of the reserve not long after first light, to see how many wildfowlers were present on this last morning, enduring the gusty strong winds and grey, poor light. The answer was five and as they begun to regretfully pack up and set off for home, I walked along with a couple of them for a while, chatting about their shooting season and what will happen on the reserve during the Spring and Summer months. I realise it's only natural for many birdwatchers to abhor the fact that the wildfowlers get enjoyment from shooting the wildfowl but their actual bags throughout the season are surprisingly low and achieved from many hours of sitting in intense cold weather in muddy conditions. To talk to these guys, as I do on a regular basis, is to realise that they get a perverse pleasure from enduring the harsh weather conditions in order to kill their next dinner and that many have long experience of wildlife and the countryside in general. So, apart from odd birdwatchers and walkers, my dog and I now have the reserve to ourselves for six months, Spring beckons and with it, the excitement of the first returning Wheatear.

In a few weeks time the sheep will leave the reserve and be replaced soon after by cattle with their recently born calves, Lapwings will begin their courtship displays, the grass in the grazing meadows will begin to green up, the catkins on the willows will burst forth and a whole new season will begin - I can't wait.

Monday 31 January 2022

Coming up to date

 After the recent couple of postings that have seen me looking backwards to very earlier times, it is now the last day of January and time perhaps, to come back up to date with the nature reserve that I look after as it's Voluntary Warden.

The last couple of months have been very quiet weather-wise. December saw us suffer endless days of grey, very damp and gloomy weather that, despite little actual rain, rarely saw anything outside actually dry up. January started off in a similar vein but we did at least get some frosty and sunny interludes but it has changed today, with a combination of strong N.W. winds and sunshine, something we haven't experienced for a couple of months. As a result the ground is drying out and there is some relief from roaming round the nature reserve each day in large areas of soft, clinging mud, left behind by the heaviness of the cattle before they were taken off before Christmas. In their place came the flock of 200 ewe lambs and they haven't churned up the soft ground anywhere near as like as the cattle did. They were brought in to graze the grass over several of the reserve's fields, down to the tight, short sward that will give ideal breeding conditions for the Lapwings in a couple of months time. They will probably be taken off the reserve at the beginning of march.

My little Jack Russell terrier was a puppy when she last saw sheep on the reserve and so I was initially worried at how she might react to encountering them now at ten years old. Many dogs are notorious for chasing them and it might of meant that all walks would have to be done with her on a lead. But no, the very first morning that we walked into the field where they were, she looked up and then carried on sniffing along the ditch bank that she was following and completely ignored them all and that's how it has continued. 

To go back to the weather, while the reserve for the last couple of months has been soft underfoot and always wet and muddy, rainfall has been pretty much absent, apart from the odd bout of drizzle. That means that as we start February tomorrow the water levels in the ditches and fleets on the reserve are at best, average. At this time of the year they should be brimming or overflowing and their should be large areas of floodwater across the grazing meadows, making it ideal for wading birds and wildfowl. March is normally a drying month, with regular dry easterly winds combining with sunshine to dry up wet winter conditions. Should that be the case this year then it's looking very likely that we will be heading into another drought summer as far as the reserve goes.

So, that's enough of meteorological matters, what else is happening on the reserve apart from enduring the cold and the damp and telling myself that Spring will eventually happen, and knowing that some summer birds have already begun their long journeys back to here from Africa. Those winter favourites of mine, the White-fronted Geese that I reported on before Christmas, disappeared for a few weeks but then came back to eventually total their current counts of around 360 birds. The calls of those beautiful birds on a frosty and sunny winter's morning as they fly around the reserve are just so magical and equal easily that first Swallow sighting of the Spring. To date, as far as I know, very few have succumbed to the guns of the wildfowlers that await them on the seaward side of the reserve's sea wall, and hopefully the majority will return to their northern European breeding sites before returning again next winter.

Other than that, little else is happening and I walk the reserve most early mornings, through damp and murky conditions. But there are some dawns when the sky is blue and when from behind the hills over on the mainland, the very first edge of the sun begins to climb above those hills and in literally minutes becomes a great orange ball of fire in a dawn sky - magical. This morning as I left the reserve, in the small farmland copse that I have to drive through, the buds on the crack willows are just starting to burst and the a glimpse of the catkins to come are evident. February can be a  particularly harsh month  but those bursting buds and the Snowdrops in my garden tells me we haven't got long to wait for Spring now.  


Saturday 22 January 2022

The Library

 From a very early age a place of both refuge and information for me was the local library. From either of the two places that I lived in in Sheerness up until my early twenties, it was never more than fifteen minutes away.

Books did not exist in our household when I first became aware of them when I was around six or seven, we were a poor household with numerous tensions and unhappiness and so once I discovered the library I spent quite a lot of time there in it's sheltering warmth. It began a literary thirst for knowledge that has never diminished to this, my 75th year, despite all the other internet options. The only thing that has changed in recent years is the source of those books, these days I always buy them. As my age increased into nine, ten, eleven, twelve, so the amount of time that I could be found there also increased. I discovered and devoured Enid Blyton's the Famous Five and my all time favourite book, the "Wind in the Willows". By accident I discovered the early books of David Attenborough, where as a young man, he described his early excursions abroad to foreign countries to catch and cage and bring back to England many unseen birds and animals. By the time that I was around twelve years old I was already exploring the marshes near to my house and regularly looked to the library for natural history books that identified and described the kind of wildlife that I was seeing. As a result, in 1959, I came across information in their well thumbed Natural History section, about the Kent Ornithological Society and joined it as an under-18 member and remain a member to this day. Around that time I also came across "The Eye of the Wind" Peter Scott's early autobiography and I was hooked, I wanted so much to be able to emulate the kind of naturalist that he was at that time, and subsequently continued to be, he was easily my first hero.

As I progressed into my early teens, my association with the library never diminished, it always remained a comforting place where I could hide for several hours each week. My books to lend might of expanded to include detective and mystery ones but they also rarely deviated from my two constant hobbies, natural history and gardening. Then, as I approached and entered my early twenties, I discovered the library's upstairs Reading Room, until then the place that I associated as the place where only senior members sat around, talking in whispers and looking very knowing. There I first tried to emulate them by reading "posh" papers like The Times and The Guardian, papers that reported things in depth that I never saw in my Daily Mirror, oh yes, I was smugly moving ahead of my peers, or so I thought. Finally, that led me to explore the contents of the locked glass cabinets, where a great treasure trove of local history literature was stored, I was enthralled, places that I passed by every day now took on new meanings. 

Today, I buy all the books that I read, I haven't lent a book from the library for probably thirty odd years but I still visit it for my family and historical research, it still has that special place in my heart.

Thursday 13 January 2022

Retrospective times

 Since my last post we have now entered into another new year, one that will be my 75th and I guess that, as I have lived here on Sheppey all of my life, it makes me someone with a quite full memory bank of how things have changed over the years.

My first New Year was that of 1950, a new decade and I was just two and half years old and not celebrating my third birthday until the July of that year. That year and indeed for much of the decade, we were to struggle to rise up from the austerity and poverty of the previous decade and it's World War, I believe that we still had food rationing until around 1953.

I'm always fascinated when old black and white photos from those times appear on on our local Sheppey History Facebook Page, and people comment jealously at how clean and tidy the town's roads were. An easy answer to that is the fact that councils employed teams of local road sweepers in those days, people who conscientiously walked the streets with a barrow, broom and shovel and were aided by the fact that there was none of the throw-away packing and litter that we have nowadays. But it wasn't all the Shangri-La, that those photos made it look, yes life was much simpler but in the side streets and roads behind the High Streets, there was a lot of poverty. In my childhood in the 1950's food  there was only enough food each day because of the invention of mothers who never wasted a scrap. They would shop in local shops each day, buying food that was fresh, in small quantities because there were no fridges and often in ounces rather than pounds. In the butchers the cheapest cuts were always bought and often included ox-tails, hearts, brawn, belly linings, pig's trotters. Chicken was a luxury that we sometimes had at Christmas  and often came from the few scraggy birds that we kept in the back yard for our eggs. The carcass of those birds was used the following day to boil in a large pan with vegetables and turn into a broth. Likewise, a rabbit in a small hutch was also kept each year for the purpose of a Sunday or Christmas dinner and I recall that my grandparents wasted nothing from those animals, even the head was cooked and the brains eaten afterwards!

To continue the non-waste of food, there was bubble and squeak. In my house it was usually left over food items from the Sunday roast such as vegetables and scraps of meat, all fried in a pan the next day to create another belly filling meal.

And what of puddings, or "sweet" as we knew it because it was normally just that, sweet. A common one was suet pudding. Those puddings were a staple of the Sunday Roast, created on the day by mother cooking the ingredients in the well used pudding cloth and then sliced and added to the roast as a typical stodgy belly filler. Any that was not used in the roast was served afterwards for "sweet," coated in sugar, jam or treacle. Other stodgy belly fillers were rice or macaroni, or in the summer months, home-made fruit pie and custard.

And so it went on, nothing was wasted, nothing came ready packaged with use by dates and vegetables and fruit were seasonal, sprouts and parsnips for instance only appeared in winter and when they did were seized on for the seasonal treat that they were.

So, younger generations might look at those old black and white photographs and wish themselves back in those times but in reality they wouldn't know where to start.