Despite its lack of blue, this has got to be a female common blue, still a little out of place in my urban garden.
April 2016 – Up with the lark.
April marked the start of this years breeding wader surveys on farms across North Kent. The survey has now been extended to 12 farms stretching from the Hoo Peninsula, across the Isle of Sheppey to Conyer near Faversham. Throughout the next few months we will walk all the sites twice, concentrating on areas with potential for birds such as lapwings, redshank, oystercatchers and yellow wagtails and follow up with a survey conducted by vehicle in June in order to look for chicks. A further survey may be carried out in July. The survey follows on from advisory sessions carried out during the autumn and spring to discuss how to get the best out of each site. Advisory sessions concentrate on getting the grazing and water management right and tackling predation.
This work is part of a long term collaboration between Natural England, The RSPB, Carol J Donaldson Associates and the farmers but, after one season of advisory work we are beginning to see some results. Overall the land is in better condition for breeding waders and, although there is still lots of room for improvement then we have been delighted by the good will and effort which some farmers have gone to improve things.
The cold weather which began the spring will not have done early breeding birds any favours but we are hopeful that numbers of fledged chicks will be up on last years results.
Dawn starts and long walks dominated this month but we did take time out to work with the Bredhurst Woods Action Group to install barriers to prevent illegal trespass off the byway which runs through the woods. It was a welcome change to spend time in this beautiful bluebell woodland after the exposure of the marshes and the baked potatoes for lunch were very welcome.
Just finished the first round of dawn bird surveys. Even at 6am on a barren grassland with an Arctic wind flying along the Thames then I know that this job is a privilege. I see isolated bays and sunrises, the sharp light of dawn, hunting marsh harriers and a world with only me and the skylarks awake.
Tuesday I walked the sea wall at Yantlet Creek on the Thames Estuary. The bay at the creek mouth was deserted apart from me and a big dog fox who bounded off in puppy leaps but was overcome with curiosity every few steps, stopping to turn back and judge me. Deciding I was harmless, he stopped to shake himself sending a shower of droplets into the air, an eiderdown on dew sent skywards.
I walked down to the memorial stone marking the entrance to the bay. When I came here many years ago there had been a plaque commemorating the death of a young boy who had drowned in the bay, now all that was left was a green stain where the copper plaque had been lifted by thieves, for its scrap value no doubt.
I sat down for second breakfast, coffee and muller rice and watched the moon fade and an egret fishing the shallows. The trails of water reaching the creek wriggled their way across the mud like blood vessels across the brain. There were birds in the bay, redshank, oystercatchers, godwit, a whole flock of knot peppering the water with their wing beats but none on the land I had come here to survey.
That is where my real work begins, not on these dawn walks to count birds, that part is easy, the real work is in enthusing a farmer to make the changes that are needed to create land suitable for these birds to breed.
An easy jet plane flew over the gas container storage depot out on the Isle of Grain and I felt myself slip through a wormhole in time. The marshes, the bays do not seem of this century and, in them, I become not of this century. Slipping into a world of Bawley boats and labour on the land and gentleman naturalists heading out with butterfly nets.
Despite its fragility the world I occupy seems more solid. If the industry and the aeroplane vanish, as one day they will, the bays will remain and part of me will remain in them as having attempted to create an alchemy of land and water and wildlife, the bones of life, onto which the 21st century’s imposition seems tinny and temporary.
Second breakfast finished I continued on my way past the saltmarsh towards the head of the creek where two black backed gulls guarded an ancient dock demanding tolls from all who dared to pass.
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.
I am working on ideas for a new book. Currently what it’s about is all a bit unclear. I get an idea here, a thought there, I am told a great story and it leads down another path. Is it going to be fiction, non fiction, a rather daring mixture of both? At the moment I can’t tell you.
I can say that part of the research has seen me taking to the woods on a weekly basis to try out survival skills. One week I cooked bacon and nettle sandwiches in the woods, another week I spend hours attempting to light a fire with a flint and steel and, eventually, succeeded. This weeks project was shelter building. My oldest friend, Karen and I, took to Willow woods and tried out hand a constructing a shelter amid the bluebells.
With my trusted Ray Mears bushcraft skills book in hand we began by measuring our shelter and constructing a frame.Gathering the wood poles to construct the walls took a lot longer than we imagined but by now the structure was looking pretty secure. We then weaved ivy, honeysuckle and leaf litter into the walls.
Trying these skills out for real gives a much better appreciation of the time and amount of material needed and how little you would want to abandon such a home and build a new one every night. All crucial insights for my story.
We toasted our new home with a cup of hot chocolate and a swig of mead from my hip flask.
“You know what we need to do now?” I said to Karen. “We need to take it all apart and return it to the woods.”
Karen looked horrified at the thought. It had taken hours, it was cosy and a thing of beauty, she wanted everyone to admire it. But, she knew I was right.
So we destroyed our creation, flinging the poles in the brush and scattering the leaf litter all around. When we finished there was nothing to see, like we had never been there, and that was just as it should be.
Took a walk on the North Downs Way caught between sunshine and showers through woodlands of wood anemones and early emerging bluebells, along holloways, past yew groves and sarsen stones. A landscape where the prehistoric ancestors walked close on my heels.
I emerged at sunset at Kits Coty a Neolithic burial chamber set overlooking the Medway valley. Alone on the hill with the resting place of an ancient king I felt that his people had done him proud, it was a fine place to spend eternity.