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.