A sick magpie but not the one I rescued, who was feeling too poorly to pose for photos
Today I found a sick magpie in my garden. I hate these moments. You walk out for a breath of fresh air and there’s some bird with it’s head hanging low and half the feathers on its neck pecked away. What do you do?
As someone who spends a lot of time in the countryside I know the score. Things die , things attack other things. So do you let nature take it’s course? Nine times out of ten I do, survival of the fittest is there for a reason and is it really kinder to terrify an animal in its last moments?
Then there are the times you can do something and wish you had the stomach for it; a rabbit with myxomatosis, a fox that’s been hit by a car. My one reason to learn to shoot would be to put these animals out of there misery, if only I were strong enough to do it.
But, could I just go in, shut the door and let the magpie die? Of course I couldn’t. I threw a towel over it, bundled it into a box and gave it a bumpy ride to Sittingbourne to a kind lady who takes in injured wildlife. He survived the journey, she removed the ticks, she cleaned his manky eye and he perked up.
Many people hate magpies. They say they are viscous and cruel. I don’t think that any wild creature can be viscous and cruel. Magpies attack and kill other birds, they take birds eggs, they harass predators but all these things are done to survive, to eat, to reduce competition. Magpies are opportunists and carnivorous, they act according to their nature.
I am a human, a thinking animal. Humans can be cruel and viscous but they can also be emphatic and caring and just plain soft. I couldn’t do anything but rescue the magpie. I too must act according to my nature.
enjoying a beautiful day on Chislet marshes.
On almost a daily basis people come up to me and say, “I wish I could have your job, I’m so envious.” Mmmm, I wonder if they would feel the same way today as I fought my way across Chislet Marshes in a torrential downpour trying to conduct a survey of a river? Possibly not.
My waterproof jacket was back in the car, having become drenched by a leaky bottle of iodine spray, the zip on my fleece, pock marked with burn holes, had chosen just this moment to break, water dripped down my neck, my waterproof trousers offered no resistance to the stinging driving rain. I was drenched, more drenched that I ever remember being.
I crawled under a hawthorn bush for cover but it was impossible, the rain came from all directions, bouncing up from the earth, sending the tracks into rivers. My notes were too sodden to read, even the kingfishers had taken shelter under the bridges. I gave up and slopped back to the car, peeling off the ‘waterproofs’ to reveal sodden, heavy layers of clothing underneath and drove home.
My dad on a weekly basis tells me I’m mad to do my job. “You should have worked in a bank,” he tells me. “Then you would have been rich.” I thought about it as I drove back down a spray ridden M2. Would I swap my walk across Chislet Marshes in the rain for a cosy dry job behind a desk? Would I hell.
Today I witnessed a starling singling lesson. An adult sat on my tv aerial and ran through it’s repertoire of clicks and whistles while a youngster sat two doors down attempting to imitate but producing little more that some scratchy squeals. The adult tried again, talking in the most animated fashion about, I guess, the sky, the weather, the amount of craneflies to eat and where to find them. He stopped and stared at the youngster as if to say, “go on then, you’re turn.”
After a moment the youngster began, quietly whispering a little ditty, like a shy teenager on a school stage on speech night. Then both fell quiet, contemplating perhaps that a few more lessons were going to be needed.
Two years ago I set off on my walk across the estuary of North Kent and begun writing my book, On the Marshes, which is due out next year. On that first walk I passed a beautiful barn, Frindsbury Barn and wrote the piece below.
On the Marshes – Deleted Scene – May 2014
“There was another place my mind turned to. A place I had passed on a quiet lane as I had pounded wet and tired into Strood on a Bank Holiday Monday last May. I had seen a footpath leading away through long grass and then a glimpse of a red roof and, despite it all, I had been intrigued and taken a diversion. There I had found a beautiful black barn, ancient, peg tiled, set on a chalk ridge commanding a view of the river. Two wings projected out from the barn doors, little slatted windows could be seen further along and one end rose several stories high. It was set within a meadow of vetch and cat’s ear and yarrow, the kind of place where bee orchids bloomed. It was surrounded by high metal fencing, one end covered in scaffolding. A sign on the door read, ‘Unsafe, do not enter.’ It was magnificent and vulnerable. I wanted it.
For one moment I entertained a vision of buying the barn with crowd funding, restoring this beautiful building to the people of Medway and creating a centre where I could showcase that there was an alternative way to live. Still, there was. There was still a way to live that was in tune with nature, in tune with the seasons and the basic needs of humanity. We would run courses where ordinary people could learn the skills to lead a more sustainable life. Where the unemployed, the drug dependent, people on probation and those suffering from all manner of 21st century meltdowns could work outdoors with their hands, learn skills and achieve something which would set them back on the right road in life. We would run meetings where we would decide how to work as a community to protect this beautiful area from the ugliness which was poised to engulf it. We would all leave, chilled and purposeful and walk down the hill to the train station. There would be no parking.”
Today I visited this beautiful building as part of the Heritage Open House scheme and found out that all my dreams look likely to come true. The owners are planning to convert the barn using apprentices and farm the surrounding land using traditional techniques. It is a project I very much hope to be a part of but still needs funding to see it reach its potential. Find out more here.
Another virtual postcard from online magazine Longshore Drift
Online magazine Longshore Drift have created a series of virtual postcards to promote the Medway Estuary.
August 2016 – Messing about with our rivers
The sun shone throughout August as we continued with our work to re-survey rivers and drainage channels for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. Repeating a survey we originally done six years ago shows the changes in land use and how this impacts on our waterways.
The loss of many grazing meadows is particularly a cause for concern as grazing allows a rich diversity of plant life to flourish and creates a tangled fringe of vegetation which provides a microclimate for insects.
We have found that some of the meadows which were originally grazed by cattle have now become unused. Development companies have bought up land on the edge of towns and villages and leave these fields ungrazed while they attempt to get planning permission.
With the cessation of grazing, plants such as tubular water dropwort have become outcompeted by more rigorous species such as common reed and banks become dominated by thistles. In other fields a change from grazing to arable has resulted in more fertiliser use, which has caused nitrate levels to rise in ditches leading to an acceleration in weed growth.
Throughout the coming months we hope to work with landowners to look at ways of reducing run off and improving rivers for wildlife.
Cutting a river channel by hand
This month we have also been working with Rhino Plant, the River Stour Internal Drainage Board’s contractor as they begin the annual weed cutting of channels. Where access for machines is too difficult the rivers are cut by hand with scythes. The guys involved in this work have to have plenty of strength and stamina to undertake the physical demands of cutting and hauling the weed onto the banks.
Our work involves advising on Biosecurity to avoid the spread of crayfish plague which can be transferred from introduced signal crayfish to our native white clawed crayfish with devastating affect. We encourage contractors to check clean and dry their equipment and spray with a iodine solution to prevent disease spread.
white clawed crayfish
We also look at ways of using the weedcut to create meanders and improve the flow of rivers, creating diversity in the channel which allows aquatic insects to thrive and fish to spawn.
Restoring the health and vitality of our rivers will prevent flooding and provide clean water as well as allowing people in towns to enjoy a therapeutic slice of the natural world.