29th October 2011: A ribbon of dense white mist covered the Lower Stour Valley early this morning. This is always an impressive sight when viewed from high-up in Hoo Wood. I watched crows, magpies, pigeons and buzzards emerge from its murky vapours into a bright autumn sunrise, only to see them fade away again as they flew back into the mist.
The marsh vegetation was dripping wet as the heavily water laden mist lifted. I realised later that I should have taken more photographs of what was really a spectacular event. For a short period, as the sunlight began to break through, the water droplets hanging from leaves and other vegetation twinkled as the sunlight refracted through them. I did take a couple of water droplet photographs, but I know I missed a golden opportunity to capture some really dramatic images. Next time I see a mist floating above the marsh, I won’t make the same mistake.
I find it exciting walking along the twin iron pipes from the water works early in the morning – if I have said this before, then I apologise. Badgers, foxes, squirrels, the odd weasel, mink, various birds, and sometimes muntjacs leave their droppings along the top surface of the pipes: an animal’s calling card, if you like. This is one of the few places on the marsh where I can readily see what animals have passed before me. This morning it was fox and badger droppings that threatened to get between the pipes and my boots to put me on my backside in amongst the brambles and stinging nettles. Heavy vegetation grows vigorously in between and to each side of the iron pipes. At a guess, I would put each pipe as being half a meter in diameter and 100 mm apart. Depending on the composition of my boot’s soles, moving along the pipes in wet weather is a very risky business that requires a high level of concentration to avoid my sliding off into the dense bramble and stinging nettle bushes. Rubber soles work best on the wet iron pipes: polyurethane soles are deadly, offering only minimal grip. At the moment, I have 5 pairs of Gortex lined waterproof boots, and I have found four pairs severely lacking in their ability so separate my feet from the wetness of the marsh. I am so disappointed in the modern high-tech boots that I am replacing them with traditional rubber wellingtons and lace-up wellie type boots. At least, the latter can be relied upon to keep the feet dry.
Every so often, I have long dog-rose tendrils to deal with. These are often 25 mm thick, thorn covered, flesh ripping whips that are best avoided at all costs; in darkness, these can prove to be particularly dangerous. They wind their way in and out of the tree and bush branches. Sometimes the tendrils get so long and overbearing that their hosts are unable to support them. They fall unrestrained across the pipes, waiting to embrace and entangle anyone or anything foolish enough to brush past them. The older dog-rose tendrils are hard and tough and the thorns extremely sharp. I carry a folding pruning saw in my pocket to deal with these vicious obstacles; a sharp pocket knife is just not up to the rigours of this job. I mean to say: eventually, you might cut your way through a tendril with a sharp knife, but you could also get ripped to pieces by its thorns in the process. Cutting through dog-rose tendrils is dangerous, they are often highly strung with various latent tension or compression stresses. The free end of this organic spring is likely to lash around all over the place when it is severed and, before it is eventually restrained by the surrounding vegetation, you might find yourself entangled in one of these unpleasant man traps.
The marsh cattle had cleared a fair bit of the tall undergrowth from around North Pond and they have even started working on the swamp. Progress through the north end of the marsh is now much easier. The Shetland cows do seem ready to eat anything green. I watched a well horned cow stripping the leaves from the tree branches around the pond this morning.
Six cormorants arrived on the marsh last week after an absence of six months or so. I am glad to see them back.
There is more marsh-related stuff I could drone on about, but at the risk of boring everyone … another day, perhaps! What goes around comes around repeatedly.
In the slide show below are some of the images I made today on the marsh:
25th October 2011: I’ve just arrived home from the wood. It is pouring with rain, and has been so for a little more than an hour. After months of mainly dry conditions, we could do with some decent rain. My dog is constipated, and he has suffered for the last four to five days. He has not been a happy dog at all. The last couple of days he has not wanted to go out. He is a little better today, and he has been out with me, but he isn’t over it yet.
Spike rarely runs out of my sight, but he did so this evening. I walked through a bend in the track, towards Dark Wood, and had to bring myself to a dead stop to avoid tripping over on a badger. It was hunched-down, with its back to me, in the middle of the track. I switched my torch on, and there was Spike standing face-to face with the Brock. He was refusing to let it pass: it couldn’t go back, and it couldn’t go forward. Spike just stood there staring-out a hissing badger. He wasn’t acting aggressively: he just calmly stood his ground. I told Spike to leave, he did so and stepped aside, The badger, seeing his chance, made his run for freedom.
The marsh cattle are attracting quite a bit of interest. Increasingly, I find myself answering questions from concerned locals and from others living as far away as Tasmania and Australia, which is about as far as a person can get from where I live in the UK.
During the cold spell at the end of last year and at the beginning of this year, concerned individuals began the worry about the marsh cattle. Well, I can tell you that the Shetland cattle currently grazing on the marsh are extremely hardy, having been bred to cope with the harsh, wet and windy conditions and impoverished terrain of the Shetland Islands. To quote from the 1912 Herd Book “They are extraordinarily hardy, the weaklings having died out long ago.” Historically, during Shetland winters, cattle often had to endure what has been called “controlled malnutrition.” Thankfully such husbandry is a thing of the past; the resilience acquired lives on.
Here are some of the most sought after attributes offered by the Shetland breed:
- They are extremely hardy, having been bred to cope with the often harsh, wet and windy conditions and impoverished terrain of the Shetland Islands. To quote from the 1912 Herd Book “They are extraordinarily hardy, the weaklings having died out long ago.” Historically, during Shetland winters cattle often had to endure what has been called “controlled malnutrition.” While thankfully such husbandry is a thing of the past, the resilience acquired, lives on.
- They are self-sufficient and will readily out-winter.
- They are versatile foragers. With appropriate management systems, they will thrive on swards ranging from low quality rough grassland to fertilised meadowland.
- They are enthusiastic browsers and will eat regenerating birch on lowland bogs, for example.
- They do not need expensive concentrates, although, if out-wintered on low protein forage, in common with other traditional breeds, they will benefit from access to protein blocks that stimulate rumen activity.
- They are calm, easy to handle, do not require special handling equipment like Highlanders, and can be trained to come to the bucket if required (they were the original house cow of the Shetland crofter).
- They are very fertile and extremely easy calving when bred pure (second only to the Jersey in pelvis width), and are very attentive mothers, making them ideal suckler cows.
- They are long lived, and will continue to breed into their mid-teens, or even twenties in some cases.
- They range from small to medium in size (350-500 kgs). This is particularly important on wet sites or where out-wintered, as poaching is minimised.
- They are popular with the public – aesthetically attractive with black and white or red and white markings and “Viking style” short horns; not aggressive; their small size makes them non-threatening; bulls are docile in company with cows; and people are interested in their rarity and heritage.
- They are “dog proof” and will defend young calves against dog attack, but they rarely show aggression to their owners, even with new born calves.
- Animals not required for breeding are readily marketable, as they produce excellent beef. They are eligible for the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Scheme where they command a substantial price premium, and are eagerly sought by TBMMS finishing units.
- It is one of the faster finishing native breeds, in most cases ready for slaughter well within 30 months off grass, an excellent economic benefit.
- They are well proven in a conservation role. They are currently grazing SSSIs comprising everything from Scottish lowland bog to English heathland and coastal grazing marsh to woodland in the Midlands, and have been selected by the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, County Councils and unitary authorities among others.
The marsh cattle are well looked after. They are not just left to get on with it. They are regularly checked and are moved from one gated area to another in accordance with a grazing plan. In fact, they all had their TB checks yesterday, and they all passed.
23rd October 2011: Fox and muntjac activity has increased in Hoo Wood with the current grazing of the north pasture. Late Friday evening I was making my way south through Hoo Wood, when I heard rustling and then the most unearthly screaming imaginable. The horrible noise came from the top of a high bramble covered bank – not more than ten meters from where I was standing. A tall chain-link fence marks the boundary between Hoo Farm Industrial Estate and the wood. There is a fox run along a narrow gap between the fence and the impenetrable bramble bushes. The width of the wood at this point is no more than twenty meters.
The pitch, tone and scare-factor of the terrible yowling would not be out-of-place on the set of a horror film; it might have been specially designed to frighten the life out of the intended audience. It is difficult for me to do justice to intensity of the screaming with mere words. I have seen and heard foxes kill rabbits, pheasants and pigeons, on many occasions. A rabbit can put on a terrific screaming show when it finds itself clamped firmly in a fox’s jaw, but the high-pitched plea for mercy I heard the other night was loud and very intense. There was no doubt in my mind that the screamer was fighting for its life. It’s not easy for me to accurately recall every detail of the screaming, particularly a couple of days after the event. At the time, my imagination very quickly conjured-up a vision of a baby being stuck with a hat pin as being a reasonable analogy. However, the pitch of this victim’s screaming was higher than that of a baby’s, so I didn’t feel compelled to rush headlong through the brambles to carry out a rescue mission. The screaming continued for about ten to fifteen seconds before it ceased – I suspected for ever. I believe I heard bones being crushed immediately the ordeal had ended, but the sounds could have been those of breaking twigs.
I mentioned this event to a WWT agronomist I was chatting to on the marsh yesterday afternoon. He suggested that a rabbit as the prey, and a polecat the predator. Apparently, a polecat will attempt to mesmerize its prey by running around it in circles, before darting in and making the kill when the time is right. However, whilst this is a plausible scenario, I remain sceptical. Two animals capable of emitting the high-volume piercing screaming I heard on Friday evening might be a Little Owl or a gull.
I will file the event away in the relevant brain compartment for retrieval when something similar occurs. My Cocker Spaniel can kill a rabbit in less than four seconds: with an efficient reflex action, he crushes them in his jaws. Foxes can probably kill a rabbit in less than four-second. Why did the scream last so long? Was it a polecat killing a rabbit?
(Click the links below to hear the owl calls)
It’s owl watching time for me in Hoo Wood and on the marsh. The hooting, tooting and screeching is hard to ignore on dark, cold autumn evenings. In local wildlife terms, owls are at the top of the tree in my estimation: above herons and buzzards.
There are Tawny Owls, Barn Owls, Long Eared Owls, Short Eared Owls, and Little Owls living in the Wilden area. Whilst often heard, owls are not so easily seen. As silent flyers, they rarely rustle a leaf when landing on or taking-off from tree branches. One minute they are hooting from the tree on the left, and the next minute from a tree on the right. If you are observant, you might see the ghostly form of the owl as it flies from perch to perch.
Tawny Owls are the commonest and the most vocal species on either side of Wilden Lane; they are larger than Barn Owls. Their call is the ‘towit twoo’, the call that people often associate with owls. The ‘towit’ is the female call, and the ‘twoo’ is the male answering the female ‘towit’. Barn Owls are light-brown and buff in colour, with a white face and underside. The Tawny owls are a brown colour all over. Barn Owls make shrieking calls that can seem unearthly on a quiet dark night on the marsh. It is the Barn Owl, with its white face and underside, which can give the impression of a ghostly figure moving silently through the night sky. It is not difficult to see how ghost, ghoul and vampire fables end-up being associated with the woodland creatures of the night – particularly flying creatures.
It’s a pity that I don’t have suitable infra-red cameras to photograph owls at night. I’ll just have to be satisfied with watching them.
14th October 2011: Yesterday, at 13:45, on an industrial estate at the north end of the marsh, a huge explosion shook the ground. Clouds of thick black smoke rose into the air. Ten fire engines rushed to the site. How many ambulances were at the scene I don’t know, but there were many sirens heard over the next hour. Fortunately – unbelievably I thought – no one was injured.
It was 4 degrees centigrade as I walked along the waterworks pipes this morning. Unlike last week, most squirrels were still abed, but I did hear a couple squabbling in a tree on the other side of the river. I waited behind a bush that offered a reasonable view up and down the pipes. The animals use the pipes as an easy route through the very swampy ground. If I wait long enough, I will see a critter or two. All I saw this morning was a cock pheasant walking towards me. I shot a few images, but he was just too far away, and he knew I was behind the bush, so he wasn’t going to come any closer. After 20 minutes, when nothing else came along, I gave up waiting and made my way towards North Pond.
As I skirted the river side of the pond, I checked the lightening tree for herons sitting on the topmost branches. The herons are always very vigilant, and this tree is one of the best perches on the marsh. If they see any unusual movement, they will fly off in an instant – they don’t wait about to see what is coming along. The only way I have found of fooling them is to wear my Ghillie suit and a face mask, and even then I have to move forward very, very slowly. This morning, though, there was only a crow sitting in the tree.
With nothing worthwhile for me to photograph in the lightening tree, I relaxed a bit and picked-up my walking speed ever so slightly. It takes me four to five hours to walk from one end of the marsh to the other and back again. So with my camera pointing to the ground, I ambled off to the north pasture. No sooner had I relaxed, than a huge heron launched its self from the river with a loud whooshing sound, just over my right shoulder. This is the sort of thing that can put the wind-up a person on dark marsh evening. I had to fight to pull my senses together and raise my camera up to my eye. I did manage to get a few shots off, but my camera settings were completely wrong for this photo opportunity. The images were over exposed and out of focus. It would have been a very good action shot, if I had been able to pull myself together quickly enough. Of course, it would have!
Rare breed cattle are grazing on the north and south pastures. I think this is a new herd. There are five cows at the north end: one being a cute calf and another being a right bellower. At the south end, there are between eight and ten cows: three or four of these being calves. Cattle are not something I have given much thought to on the marsh before. However, these cows are really pleasant and placid animals – easy on the eye. I have met some ill-tempered cattle in my time, and I can’t say that I have ever felt the need to interact with them any more than has been absolutely necessary.
I sat on the riverbank waiting for a kingfisher to fly by this afternoon. I had watched the river for around fifteen minutes when I heard a rustling from behind. I had a quick look, and the cattle had arranged themselves in a semi-circle around me. They too were watching the river. I think these attractive cows will prove good company for me on future cold and lonely evenings. I wonder how long it will be before they are replaced with another herd.
The last couple of evenings I have noticed increased fox activity in Hoo Wood. I can’t help wondering if this has something to do with the cattle being on the north pasture. I guess the cattle are effective mowing and fertilising assets.
It is certainly ‘owl time’ at the moment. There has been much hooting, tooting and screeching from Tawny Owls, Long Eared Owls and a Barn Owl; they were a delight to listen to this evening.