One of our barn owls is missing

one of the Minster birds being ringed in the summer

one of the Minster birds being ringed in the summer

Received some sad news yesterday from Jan Pritchard, bird ringer extraordinaire and all round feisty girl. One of the barn owls I ringed earlier in the year has been killed after being hit by a car near Ramsgate. Why had it flown to Ramsgate? The weather has been mild, why did it feel the need to go so far in search of food?

Every year I turn down requests from farmers who wish to put up a barn owl box on their land as they are too close to either major roads or railways. Barn Owls are drawn to such places to hunt because of the rough grassland along the verges which makes an ideal site for voles and mice. The birds then become dazzled by oncoming car headlights. Such large eyes are not meant for the glare of the modern world.

I know this, barn owls get killed on roads. A few times of year Jan sends me a grim list of  ‘recoveries,’ birds who have been found dead and the details extracted from the ring placed around their leg. Among the list of birds drowned in water butts and found starved in boxes their are always a smattering of ‘road casualties’. But this time I felt differently. I wanted to go to Ramsgate and search the streets for a car with suspicious feathers attached to its radiator grill and say “why didn’t you see this bird, you moron? Why didn’t you brake in time?”

In a year when barn owl numbers have plummeted to their lowest in 50 years, casualties of a late cold spring, then my barn owls in Minster were one of the success stories. They had chosen a box I had put up myself (along with my band of volunteers). A box that everyone told me would never be accepted by barn owls, and yet this feisty pair of survivors had bred five healthy chicks there, which had all safely fledged.

In this there is some consolation. This barn owl had done it’s job. It had raised five healthy chicks and, with luck, they are out there now,  hopefully stuffing their bellies full of voles in preparation for the winter ahead and maybe next year I will meet one of them again, in the same box, on the tree, on the marshes.

The time is only ever now

Anthony Albright

Anthony Albright

It’s been one of those weeks, both exciting and terrifying and potentially life changing. Finally, after months of toying with an idea of writing about a book based on a journey across the estuary landscape of the North Kent Marshes documenting my own experiences of living in a caravan on the marshes and meeting others who have chosen to live in similar ramshackle, alternative, edge of society dwellings, I sent off my proposal to a tiny selection of London literary agents and was most surprised to receive an e-mail from one the same day.

The e-mail began. Thank you for your material, which I enjoyed. That would have been nice enough but I was expecting  the next sentence to be either;

A) but it’s not right for us.

B) But I don’t see a market for it or

C) But our lists are currently full.

Anyone who has ever written and sent their stuff off to agents and publishers will be all too familiar with these replies. What I didn’t expect to see was some glowing praise followed by

D) I would be interested to see more chapters if you have them available.

“whoooooeeeeeeeee,” but also, “BUGGER.”

I don’t have more chapters, the thing isn’t written, the journey hasn’t begun.

I was forced to e-mail back and confess that this is only a proposal and receive a reply along the lines of.

Well, go away and write it and come back to me when you have as I am interested.

A reply which made me want to weep with frustration on how I was ever going to find the time to research and write this book while working full time, driving hundreds of miles for work every week and trying to keep my house from falling down round my ears.

Two sleepless nights followed as my head swirled with how it could be done. how I could find the time to write and find the money to find the time to write. Should I give up everything, work and holidays, and men and family and DIY and friends and become a hermit. It is the age old writing dilemma, the age old life dilemma. An opportunity presents itself and if you don’t grab it, whatever, whatever the risks, then you will forever regret it. Something has to give, but what and how?

Then, the inkling of an idea was given to me, a way it could be done, not easy, not without sacrifice, but then is anything of real worth in life ever gained with ease.

Another friend stopped by for tea and gave me this good advice. “Get A Plan.”

and so a plan is forming which might transform 2014, if only I have the courage to take that first step.

but when that door opens you just have to step through it and not hesitate and tell yourself the timing is all wrong because after all, the time is only ever now.

I get by with a little help from my friends

1st annual gardening garden party team

1st annual gardening garden party team

crew in garden

The title of this Beatles song has swum through my head all week following the 4th annual gardening garden party, which saw 15 people cram into my tiny house and garden in order to paint fence panels, weave willow fences, construct little hurdles around the flower beds, put up bird boxes, prune everything in sight and, blessed be, fix my garden gate (technically belonging to my neighbour) which has hung off it’s hinges in various states of disrepair ever since I moved in and collapsed all together in the spring. Now my gate is swinging freely and my garden looks lovely, lovely, lovely once again.

We finished the day by cracking open a bottle of champagne, cutting a ribbon to officially open the gate and cramming into my kitchen to eat baked potatoes and chilli, standing shoulder to shoulder.

On days like these when a bunch of lovely people are willing to turn up my house and spend the day working in my garden on the promise of a baked potato and a glass of mulled wine I feel that I am a very lucky girl indeed when it comes to friends.

musings on peelings

Another attempt to turn my Lithuanian housemate into an environmentalist leads to more confusion when I show her the list of tasks I am hoping will be tackled tomorrow as part of my gardening garden party.

The gardening garden party is a fabulous idea dreamt up by my solicitor when I first bought my house. The idea is that a bunch of people come to your home and do the gardening and, in turn, you feed them. It works like a dream and has been running now for four years, the first year my solicitor came too.

This year, as well as weaving a willow fence panel, fixing bird boxes and cleaning the pond I have written ‘turn the compost’ on the list.

“What is this compost?” Erika says

I show her the bin of peelings. “You keep your old vegetables and tea bags and it all rots down. Then you spread it on the soil.”

She looks suspicious. “You are putting rotten food on the garden?”

“Yes,” I say, “but it’s not disgusting. It’s like food for the plants. It will help us get more flowers.”

“More flowers means more bees,” Erika says. Erika is allergic to bees and is, understandably, not a fan.

Still, she has taken to recycling with gusto, even keeping a graveyard of old shoes in the garden.

“You can grow plants in them,” she tells me.

Poor defenceless creatures!!

Carol and a water vole square up to each other

Carol and a water vole square up to each other

Spent the last week wrestling with water voles down in Devon on a course run by Derek Gow Consultancy to learn the right way to trap and handle these feisty rodents, which have seen there numbers plummet across Britain, mainly as a consequence of loss of wetland habitat and the ditches and riverbanks they inhabit, but also due to the introduction of American Mink who were released from fur farms and, unlike our native wildlife, could follow water voles into their burrows and through the water.

Still, as I learnt, water voles are not without their defences which included weeing in my eye as I tried to sex them and turning somersaults in order to bite me as I attempted to stuff them head first down a pringles tube (the man made equivalent of a water vole burrow it seems)

Nowadays, water voles in Britain are protected by a myriad of laws which prevent their burrows being destroyed. This protection is a blessing but can sometimes cause problems when work needs to be done to improve rivers and ditches for other wildlife by narrowing channels, installing trees or creating new ponds. The solution is to temporarily catch the water voles while the work is taking place and then release them at a later date into a, hopefully, improved wetland.

After a few days of mucking out water vole pens and learning the ins and outs of the law then Derek Gow proclaimed I had earnt my stripes and could be considered competent enough to go out and tackle the beasties in the field.

water vole held by tail