Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah, goldfinches in the garden. I knew there was some reason I hadn’t cut down that bloody huge teasel plant.
You know it’s cold when two robins tolerate such close proximity under the bird table. They jerkily hop around each other with a wary eye. They remind me of two blokes in the pub who keep calling each other ‘mate,’ while squaring up for a fight. It ends, as such things so often do, with a quick spat in the neighbours garden before both parties withdraw to brood in the hedgerow.
A new year dawns and I bag a new bird for me. A lesser spotted woodpecker, chequer backed and rosy hued. A tiny, flit of a bird, looking no bigger than a sparrow. I got it by not running around The Blean in a bird watching frenzy but by sitting and waiting and eating satsumas.
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.
In the midst of six days of 4.30am wake up calls as I head out for the first round of breeding wader surveys on the marshes of Sheppey, the isle of sheep. The early start means I am like a bear with a sore head by midday but, believe me, I never for one moment doubt how lucky I am that this is my day job. Marsh harriers, plummeting lapwing, beautiful sunrises and on Monday my first swallow of the year, flying across Capel Fleet.
February Fill Dyke is written into farming law. If your ditches are not full of water in February, so the saying goes, then it’s unlikely they will be. Full dykes, wet fields, short grass, that was what we were looking for as we returned to the farms receiving stewardship funding to manage the land for the benefit of breeding waders.
After a winter of meeting landowners and working with Natural England and the RSPB it was heartening to see how good the majority of sites were looking. Wet splashes and tussocky grass lead to insect rich pasture which should attract and support more breeding birds this spring.
It is six weeks until the survey season starts but, due to the positive attitude of the farmers and the flexibility of Natural England and the RSPB, who are supporting this project, then things are looking hopeful.
February is also a traditional time of year to do hedgelaying. A weekend training course run by Alan Sage of AJS Crafts gave all those taking part an appreciation of the sheer physicality and skill needed to create a well laid hedge. Although mainly now used for decoration, hedge laying produces a stock proof barrier and can be cost affective as, once laid, the hedge can be left unmanaged for 15 years. They are also an asset to the countryside which is more than can be said for the ugly, split, flailed hedges that line our country roads at this time of year.
The month finished by working with Oxney Land Services on Iwade Stream. Funded by the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership we undertook some selective tree removal on an overly shaded section of the channel. Removal of ivy clad trees and low branches should allow more sunlight to reach the water and encourage the growth of marginal plants. Water vole and water rail live in this section of channel so more bankside cover should benefit these species.
I feel these days there is a never ending stream of battles to fight. No sooner do you breathe a small sigh of relief at the squashing of one scheme poised to damage the places you love then another comes along. It wears you down, but I guess that’s the point.
On Thursday by accident I hear of a proposal to begin a sea plane business in the Medway Estuary. The guy shows me the map of where the planes are planning to land, between the breeding tern colony on Burntwick Island and the RSPB reserve of Normarsh. This area is a RAMSAR site rightly protected as one of the most important places for breeding and overwintering waders and wildfowl in the country. Peel Ports are running a consultation I am told but I am amazed that the proposals have even reached this stage.
I call my friends, Medway Swale Estuary Partnership, the RSPB, Countryside professionals in Medway Council. None of them have heard of these plans. So just who is being consulted?
Having raised the alarm things swing into action. The conservation bodies who protect this area begin to add their voices to the consultation.
“Well done you, for making people aware of this,” my friend says before going on to tell me that a development company have just won their appeal to build on the site at the end of my road.
Bakersfield is a scrubby brownfield site chocha block with songbirds, including nightingales, orchids and reptiles. McCulloch Homes’ original planning application had been thrown out by Medway Council as the site is just too valuable for wildlife but now the developers have won on appeal because the council isn’t meeting the government’s demands for housing at a quick enough pace.
I had protested against these plans, breathed a sigh of relief when they were dropped and now I have to swing into action to protest again. I do so, writing to Buglife, to the council, to my MP but it is exhausting, it is time consuming, it is never ending. It is designed to grind you down and make you stop saying ‘No.’ But saying No is still our right, it is the most important thing we can do. While I still live in some semblance of a democracy I will keep going. Raise awareness, protest, say no. giving in is not an option.
To contribute to the consultation for sea planes landing in the Medway Estuary contact email@example.com
To protest against the planned development at Bakersfield contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Travel broadens the mind, so they say, and having returned from a week staying with friends in Hamburg I have come back with a sense of sadness at what we in Britain have lost and continue to lose at an ever increasing pace.
I was staying in Rahlstedt, a suburb of the city and each morning of my stay I would take a walk along a stream which ran near my apartment. It was -6 and snow was on the ground by wildlife was everywhere. Trees reverberated with drumming woodpeckers, blue and coal tits called from every garden, red squirrels chased each other through the trees. It made me realise how impoverished our own wildlife in Britain has become, how concreted over our towns.
The difference was that here wildlife was allowed to live alongside people. gardens were allowed to run wild not turned into football pitches or car parks, mature trees were not removed as potential health and safety hazards and how delightful was it to walk past a field with horses grazing or a patch of scrub and not have to feel that constant anxiety that it would soon be gone for housing.
A roe deer watched me from a field edge, bullfinches flew between the trees in line with the balconies of flats and then, in a small woodland, I watched a goshawk fall from a tree and crash land on its prey feet from me, mantling it’s feathers over the creature before flying off to a nearby branch and watching me, seemingly unconcerned by my presence.
Red squirrels, bullfinches, goshawks, when was the last time a person living in Britain saw any one of these creatures? Most people in Britain have never seen them and yet we had them once, they are not scarce because they shouldn’t be here but because we pushed them out onto the edge of things.
In the city of Hamburg wildlife is part of everyday life, it surrounds peoples lives. Why then in Britain’s suburbs is wildlife increasingly portrayed as the enemy, an annoyance which stands in the way of progress and growth, and needs to be moved somewhere more convenient.
We have much to learn from other countries, not least, how to make our cities liveable for all, people and wildlife alike.
We’ve all done it. Dismissed a book based on the hype without ever opening the front cover. I was all poised to read this and be a bit sneery but, within the first few pages I changed my mind.
There was something real and honest in Helen Macdonald I hadn’t expected to find. Despite the reviews I don’t think this book is a work of dark genius. It’s not The Peregrine. I did not find it a hard, difficult, painful read but a simple account of grief and the desire to withdraw from the world.
Maybe it says something about me that I found so much in this book I could relate to. That the author’s desire to hide out with a hawk, lose herself in the wild, bury herself in non human instincts was something I could sympathise with.
I like the unapologetic way she deals with many of the issues this book covers. She doesn’t get bogged down in the ethics of killing animals it is just something she does. She takes responsibility for ending an animal’s life and she eats what she kills. Maybe at times you do feel uneasy about her lack of comment on the contrast between her own sustainable hunting and the pheasant shoots whose rearing pens her hawk plunders but ultimately the ethics of hunting is not what this book sets out to explore.
I also appreciated the lack of melodrama when talking about her grief and depression and her realisation that she can’t continue to hide out in the wilderness but needs people in her life.
If you are one of the people who have become sick of hearing about this book and actively avoided it then think again. Ignore the hype and enjoy the book for what it is. A simple and well written book from a women, who you sense, never sought the limelight.
Today I walked Barksore Marshes, a private area of land on the edge of the Swale in North Kent. I was there to do a survey, to look at grass length and water in preparation for the coming breeding season, when I hoped the land would be full of lapwing.
My head had been full of New Year decorating plans and the sky became a Dulux colour chart of cool greys with twee names like ‘moonshadow’ and ‘pearl dawn’.
I stopped on a bridge over a fleet for a coffee. It was silent, a marshland silence, an enveloping cotton wool cloud of hush, broken occasionally by a crow cawing or a pheasant clucking or knot wing flashing out on the bay with a sound like a wave breaking on shingle.
A snipe flew from the rush. It was silent enough to hear the drip of water from its toes, creating rings, growing and softening across the surface of the fleet.
Skylarks began singing as the sun warmed the land.
“Too early,” I told them. “Wait, wait. It feels like spring but it could still turn.”
I hoped so. I hoped that winter would still come and change the country back into one of four seasons instead of a country with a climate that seemed to remain, warm, wet and grey year round.
Talking aloud, talking to birds and insects and sheep. It was the curse of the self employed. I was so often alone on the marshes I forgot what was normal. The aloneness could drive you crazy but not today. Today other people felt the back to work gloom descend. crowded on trains or stuffed into overheated offices but not me.
Today I thanked my ex boss who had trusted me with this gig. I thanked God for this morning of silence and light on the marshes. I thanked my lucky stars.