WILDEN MARSH: March in Hoo Wood and Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve – PART 1.
TUESDAY 2nd MARCH – 18:12: I scanning the north marsh pond with my night scope. I noticed a number of small flickering coloured flares in amongst the trees on the other side of the pond. I couldn’t see with any clarity, what was over there. It looked like half a dozen fireflies were hovering above the ground. With my naked eye, I could see, very faintly, orange and blue flickering. I stood for a while trying to work out what it could be. I alternated between my naked eye and the scope, I was still unable to get a definitive view. Through the scope, I could see a lot of bright white infrared light bouncing from the surrounding tree branches and half a dozen small flares flitting between them. I don’t believe in fairies, gnomes, or in any other supernatural entities that might crawl about at night, and I had not yet seen fireflies on the marsh. There is a rational explanation for what was happening on the other side of the pond.
It crossed my mind that I had been caught-out before, by those Chinese paper hot-air balloons that are becoming increasingly popular. One dark night earlier in the year I saw a bright orange globe descending slowly in the distance, whilst out walking in Hoo Wood. It was only when I found a spent Chinese paper lantern on the marsh, that it dawned on me: the orange globe I had seen descending into Hoo Wood was not a UFO, after all …
Anyway, what to do now was the question! I had three options as I saw it: continue south around the pond, over the gate, through the bog and work my way down the other side of the pond– this would be a noisy option, and the breeze might carry my scent towards the ghoulish thing that might be slithering on the other side of the pond. I could wade across the pond, but this was little better than the first option. I could walk north along the Stour to Hoo brook and follow the swamp fence to the lagoon side of the pond, where I might be able to get a better look at whatever was there. The night was already as dark as ol’ Nick’s coal hole, so I decided on the latter option and crept back the way I had come.
Having made it around the swamp without falling in any of the stagnant pools that are dotted around the lagoon field, I was now inching my way along the swamp fence and was within spitting distance of the pond. I scanned the wood with my scope, but couldn’t see any dancing lights; however, I could smell wood smoke and cooking. With my mind on recent peculiar happenings on this side of the pool, I worked my way further along the fence to where I was roughly opposite the basic tree branch shooting hide I stumbled across and pulled-down a few weeks ago. I scanned the wood with my night scope again. What I saw made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The shooting hide had been re-erected and was now covered with fabric sheeting. I worked my way to where I could get a look at what was at the front of the hide. As I focused my scope, the outline of a man in a wide-brimmed hat began to form; he had a very large bushy beard too. He was sitting crouched over what looked like a hobo cooking stove, and he was sitting on what turned out to be a very large ex-army kit bag. It was obvious to me now that I had stumbled upon a ‘gentleman of the road’ – otherwise known as a tramp.
I slowly stood up and shouted – not too loudly: “Hello there! Can I enter your camp?” I think I gave him a bit of a fright, because he jumped up pretty smartish. “What the…?” he spluttered. “Who am ya and what are ya wanting from me?” “Are ya trying ta give an old man a heart attack?” “Ah, away wit ya already!” “I prefer me own company.” At a guess, I would put his origins somewhere between the Irish and Jewish quarters of Dudley – ha! . ”Well…I was passing, smelt your cooking and wondered if you might be up for a chat,” I offered. There was a pause and a bit of scuffling. I didn’t have as good a view of him now as I had through my scope. “If ya must. I ain’t got much snap mind,” he said nervously.
I walked into his camp and chatted with this gentleman of the road for a while.
He looked like the archetypal tramp, and I sensed he was not very happy at having me invade his privacy, or at having his dinner rudely interrupted. He was wearing a great-coat and probably a few sets of old clothes under this. His camp was remarkably tidy – setup for a quick exit I thought. The hide was his shelter, and he had covered it in a lightweight waterproof sheet. His hobo cooking system intrigued me. It consisted of two tins: a billy can and a stove; the former probably made from an old paint tin. The billy was slightly smaller in diameter and would fit inside the stove to minimised carrying bulk. The billy, a large coffee tin with a press-in lid and a wire carrying handle, is for boiling. The fireflies I had seen from the other side of the pond were flames licking out of the stove air holes. He had a two-wheeled trolley; the kind used to carrying large suit cases to the check-in desk at airports, except this one was sturdier. He uses the trolley to transport his very large kit bag – which is almost as tall as he is. Strapped to the trolley was another tin, large enough to put the bottom 400 mm of his kit bag in.
Anyway, it turns out that he travels river bank and canal tow paths and when he passes this way, perhaps once or twice a month, he camps on or around the marsh. He catches his food, as and when the opportunity presents itself, on or close to the rivers and canals along which he travels. He was cooking a fish and meat stew, using charcoal as his fuel. I asked him how he caught his food. He said he used a hook and line for fish, snares for rabbits – pheasants as well, I suspected – and a catapult firing buckshot to bring-down birds on the ground. He told me he makes his charcoal by tightly packing his large can with dry wood, with some burning wood at its center, with soil being used to seal it. A small amount of air finds its way into the can through small nail holes punched in the base of the can. He does his charcoal manufacture overnight, and the tin can double as a hobo hot-water bottle on cold nights – I suppose he cuddled it.
This man is a real country traveller, very experienced and obviously well able to live successfully off the land, whatever the weather. I guessed his age at mid 60s. I was sensing his nervousness and decided I had over stayed my welcome – he might be a mad axe murderer for all I knew. I thanked him for his time, advised him that the land he was camping was a private nature reserve and suggested that it would not be a good idea for him to camp here again. I left him contemplating his billy. I felt privileged to have met this man, and I walked away with all my important bits still attached (he didn’t murder me).
Anyone seeing this man walking along a canal tow path or a river bank, would see a fisherman pulling his trolley, they wouldn’t see a tramp at all. This man is a tramp in disguise – brilliant!
This morning I took a walk down to the pond and needless to say, the tramp had departed leaving not a trace of his presence, not even a foot print. The man is a real professional. Good luck to him, I say. However, I hope he leaves the marsh wildlife alone. I have a feeling that I might not have seen the last of this man.
SUNDAY 6th March – 18:10: Well, the new nesting season officially begins this month (March to July) and as much as possible needs be done to avoid scaring off ground-nesting birds from the marsh. Although the reserve is officially closed to the public, there are still people wandering about the marsh with their dogs on and off their lead, which is definitely not a good idea. New growth has started, in earnest: new grass and reeds are now very obvious. Having had a gentle word with the tramp who was camping alongside the north ponds, last Monday night, I feel I have made a start just before the nesting season, too.
I met two fishermen walking along-side Hoo Brook yesterday afternoon, at the extreme north end of the reserve – they weren’t planning on do any fishing; they were just out for a walk. I chatted with them for a while and one of them claimed he was a water bailiff, the other just a fisherman – the water bailiff was accompanied by his dog, on its lead as it happens, and he was a RSPB member – the bailiff, not the dog. These angler’s main concerns were the cormorants, heron and otters eating the fish, and they felt that cormorants, in particular, ought to be culled; in fact, they told me that a new law had recently been passed, and the Environment Agency are actively culling cormorants at this very moment. When I pointed out that even cormorants need to eat, they agreed, but after thinking about it for a moment the water bailiff said, “Ah, but there are too many of them.” It could be said, and often is to me, that there are too many fishermen. Anyway, every sportsman will try to protect his own sport and there are some pretty hard-core activists in the fishing community in this area and throughout the country. I was a very ardent fresh water angler in my youth and handy with a shotgun too.
I spotted a grey wagtail on a branch sticking out of Hoo Brook. The cormorants were perched on their favourite pylon. A couple of herons flew over the marsh on the canal side of the Stour, and magpies were making a terrible racket over there too. A green woodpecker was at his drumming post, and a buzzard circled and mewed high above.
FRIDAY 11th March 2011 – 21:30: This week I have taken advantage of the very low ground cover in Hoo Wood, and I have spent hours systematically checking for signs of muntjac and evidence of above-ground fox dens. I haven’t found any fox dens, but I did manage to get a photograph of a muntjac and I found a muntjac lie-up – it’s not a very good photograph, but a photograph all the same. Tonight I have a camera trap out in an area where there are many signs of muntjac activity – foot prints and digging – so I have great hopes for better muntjac photographs tomorrow morning.
As I was setting up my camera tonight, I could see the wooden shooting position through the trees and couldn’t help wondering how many pheasants had been shot on the ground my camera will be covering tonight.
Every morning this week, the green woodpecker has been at his drumming post, hammering out his messages to any female within hearing distance, and replies came drifting over from the depth of Dark Wood.
Monday 14th March 2011 – 21:21: Saturday morning did not result in better photographs of a muntjac. Saturday morning resulted in photograph of that darn marsh fox.
My Sunday afternoon stroll down to the north weir turned up nothing unusual, everything seemed in its proper place. The clear blue sky and warmth of the sun were a real bonus; the new growth of green reeds and grass was really striking. The woodpecker watched me creep past its tree. Pigeons were grazing on the north pasture; cormorants were soaking-up the sun at their usual places on the pylon and along the power lines. Mallards were everywhere there was water. A heron waded in the North Pond and flew silently across the Stour as soon as it saw me, magpies squabbled. Angry grey squirrels shrieked at one another across the Stour, and a buzzard was circling and mewing high overhead (this is a recurring theme around the north pond). Yes, everything was as it should be. When things are not quite right, the birds are the first to notice. It’s hard to put into words the small changes that occur in bird behaviour when they feel that something is not quite right. I suppose it’s an initial transfer of warning chatter, from one bird species to another, that grows in intensity and then dies away, only to erupt again into full-blown alert calls when danger is identified. Often, when I walk the marsh, the bird warning calls are almost casual. If someone or something unusual is about, there is urgency in their calls that alerts even me that another person or a predator is close by.
The mallards are usually the first to vocalise an urgent intruder alert; they take to flight at the slightest noise or shadow. The pheasants tend to hang on until the last few seconds before braking cover and screaming their unmistakable alert call. Then the pigeons take to the sky en-mass, followed by with their rasping alarm call.