The Downs Safe Anchorage

One thing you get to learn about fairly rapidly once you come to this place is all about the wind. When we bought these meadows a year ago yesterday, we didn’t really give the wind much thought – we were aware that it was windy from time to time but had not got an appreciation of the reason for it or the direction of it.

But here, the wind forcefully places itself in front of you and demands to be noticed.

Directly out to sea at the meadows is an area of water between the land and the Goodwin Sands known as The Downs which provides shelter for vessels from southerly and westerly winds. If there is a northerly or an easterly wind, there is no shelter here and rollers crash onto the beach and the ships need to go round the corner to find safety in the lee of those winds around Folkestone.

In fact it was because of the Downs that Deal first became established. Ships leaving London sailed out of the Thames and turned the corner south into the Downs and waited there for a favourable wind to take them off around the world. There were many hundreds of them there at any one time. Deal grew to service these ships while they waited.

It has been a lovely additional point of interest to notice what boats lay anchor opposite the meadows at night. I use an app called Marinetraffic and I can look the ships up and discover all sorts of information about them. When the winds are really strong, we sometimes get P&O ferries up from Dover sheltering offshore.

Yesterday it was fairly blustery with winds from the south west and gales are forecast from lunchtime today. We had three ships anchored overnight alongside the meadows, one flying a German flag, one Nederlands and one Bahamas .

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The Nova Cura (NL) and the Eric Hamman (DE) at anchor in the Downs from the second meadow

The Dutch ship, the Nova Cura is a general cargo vessel that has come from Rouen a couple of days ago. The German ship, the Eric Hamman is also a general cargo vessel and is going to Rouen and its previous port was Buckie in Scotland and before that Hamburg (I told you I can find out a lot about these ships..)

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The Hellas Reefer

The third ship, flying a Bahamas flag is a Reefer – a refrigerated cargo ship – whose destination is Dover. Its previous ports read as a series of unknown but exotic sounding places to me – it was last at Paita and before that at Guayaquil, then Panama, Limon Bay Ancy and Aruba.

They are always fully lit up at night, little christmas trees in a dark grey night.Presume this is to both make them visible to other shipping and so that they can watch that no small boats come alongside for whatever reason – I have so little knowledge about life at sea.

What must life be like for the crew aboard these ships as they anchor up alongside our meadows overnight, their lives co-inciding with ours so briefly?

Macerating Hedgerows

Following our recent attempt to cut a small section of the hedgerow ourselves to see how practicable that was ( Answer: not practicable at all – we have a kilometre of hedge, a rickety ladder, a heavy hedge trimmer and two old soft bodies) we contacted the farmer that has been used by the previous owner of the meadows for years to keep the hedgerows in order. He farms at St Margarets and turns his attentions to his hedgerows in November to January once the heavy work of the harvest is over. He was very happy to continue to do ours as well at a cost of £25 an hour. This seemed very reasonable to us and we promptly put ourselves onto his list.

This morning was the day and the tractor arrived first thing

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Tim and his human sidekick arriving in the tractor
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A dogs life

The tractor has a manoeuvrable arm with a flailing head with it which basically cuts the plants and shreds them into little bits that fall to the ground within the hedge. Anything too woody ends up with a very smashed up look to it at the end of the process.

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The Flailing Head

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Macerated plant material falls down into the base of the hedge

We asked him if the hedge cutting could be done at a slant producing an A shape hedge, thicker at the bottom than the top which we have been advised is the healthy hedge shape to aim for. I am not sure this is quite what we got – I think we now have a flat sided hedge with a pointed top but, anyway, this does look better than a flat cut top

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Flat sides and pointed top

The tractor has now cut the entire hedgerow dividing the two meadows.

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It has also cut the hedgerow between the first meadow and the landward farmers field, including driving out into the farmers field and cutting it on that side as well.

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Cutting from the farmers field side
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Some deep tread marks left in the soft ground of our meadows

This leaves several runs of hedge that have not been cut this year. These uncut hedgerows will still carry berries on them to feed the wildlife through the winter and hopefully through the Hunger Gap of late winter/early spring when a lot of countryside food resources have been used up and the birds are struggling to feed themselves. Well, we hope so, anyway. It will be interesting to see if there are berries left in February and March.

Next year, the plan is to cut other bits of hedgerow so that each bit is only cut every three years which should be the best balance between maintaining hedge health while still retaining food to feed the wildlife through the hard times.

 

 

Bombardment

This morning was the first time ever that we have seen ice on the pond, which was only filled in March this year. Didn’t stop the dog going in though.

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We have a friend who is doing a bird list this year and yesterday he saw a Grey Phalarope which took him to 299 species seen this year in Britain. All the more impressive when achieved alongside a very demanding job.

But I try not to let this make me feel less excited by the fact that we saw our 37th bird species on the meadows today – a Grey Heron down by the pond.

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There are no fish in that pond and probably very little else of interest to a Heron at this time of year and so he would not have been rewarded for dropping by, but he didn’t get a chance to find out:

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Two Herring Gulls – probably the ones who have been paddling the meadow for worms for a few days and are feeling proprietorial over it – set up a continuous and noisy bombardment of him until he gave it all up as a bad job and took off up the hill.

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Staking out the new hole

Over the course of several weeks a new hole has been being dug at the far end of the second meadow along the cliff edge.

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The new hole

Obviously we needed to investigate this further!:

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Trap camera set up and pointing at the hole. Peanuts scattered to detain passers-by while they have their picture taken.

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We got many images of these two lovely foxes and they seem to be in such beautiful condition. Judging by the fox droppings we find around the place that are rich with fruit stones and pips, they do eat a lot of the berries from the trees and this is most probably what the fox is doing in the background of the top photo.

But where is the badger? I wasn’t sure if badgers hibernated. A quick bit of research on the subject has revealed that they do not hibernate in Britain but do get less active. They go into a state of torpor (which is a wonderful word and one I don’t often come across but which brings to mind trying to get my son up in the mornings to go to school) This torpor can mean that they spend extended time in their burrows when its cold and it was indeed a cold, cold night last night.

So hopefully the badger was tucked up safe and warm in a contented state, but we will be setting the trap camera up again on a mild night in the near future to see if we can catch him out and about.

 

 

Invasion of Privacy

We have bought a new trap camera and are up and running again with our night time surveillance!

Last night, and with apologies to the fox for intruding into her private business, we captured this image of a fox having a wee. No wonder if often smells strongly of fox round these parts..

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The camera is a slightly upscaled version of the one we had before – still a Little Acorn, but a Ltl-6310WMC which has a few more features on it, probably none of which we will ever use because we aren’t very good with technology. Certainly it does have a nice wide field of view but I am wondering if the clarity of this photo is as good as we were getting previously. Maybe not, but this fox was quite a long way from the camera so I will suspend judgement for now.

Worm Charming

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Given that worm casts are such a prominent feature of the meadows at this time of year, I thought that I’d better find out a little bit more about them and I found a nice article written by two Sussex University lecturers about the worms found on campus: There are 27 species of earthworm in the UK, 19 of which are common and different species are found in different soil types and at different depths feeding on the decomposing remains of plants, which they eat as they tunnel along, ingesting this as well as some soil. Only two species produce surface casts: Allolobophora longa and Allolobophora nocturna – both deep burrowing species that live in permanent burrows and the casts are a mixture of faeces and this ingested soil coming out of their other ends. Worm activity is very dependant on temperature and moisture level. In winter the temperature is too low and in summer the ground is too dry and so worm casts are especially prevalent in spring and autumn.

This morning we had a Herring Gull in the first meadow charming the worms out of the soil by paddling with its feet up and down which causes the worms to come to the surface and then into the jaws of the gull. Apparently Herring, Common and Black Headed Gulls do this on Sussex University Campus grounds.

Why this foot paddling causes the worms to emerge out onto the surface is the subject of a bit of confusion. Charles Darwin, who was interested in earthworms and, in fact, wrote his last book on the subject, thought that perhaps the vibrations caused  by this were similar to that of a mole moving through the soil and so the worms were trying to evade that worm predator only to fall victim to another. Another suggestion is that the vibrations are like heavy rain and so the earthworms come up to escape drowning. However, often gulls are seen doing this worm charming in shallow water or on wet mud which are conditions where moles do not go and additional water as rain is unlikely to increase the risk of worms drowning and so perhaps the real answer to this conundrum is yet to be discovered.

 

 

Tree planting

In a previous house, we had a Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus) tree at the bottom of the garden. This tree had beautiful white flowers in the Spring but its real glory was its red berries in the Autumn and the birds that flocked to it to strip them off. We had a Man Cave at the bottom of the garden with the window looking out over this tree and you could sit at the desk pretending to be ‘working at home’ while really watching Song Thrushes on the ground doing wing-assisted jumping to get to the berries. In Waxwing Winters there were occasionally large flocks of these exotic looking birds that descended on the tree in a great mass stripping it all within half an hour. Fantastic.

With this in mind, we were very keen to plant some Guelder Rose here in the meadows since those berries really do seem to be exceptionally tasty to birdlife. We also thought we would try the Wayfaring Tree, Viburnum lantana, which is related but different but also carries wildlife friendly berries in the Autumn.

The land by the gate into the meadows is very open and people do regularly pass the gate to walk their dogs on the farmers field behind.

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Our plan was to plant two little copses of mixed Guelder Roses and Wayfaring Trees which would hopefully mean that there is a concentration of berries in the Autumn in this area that we can stake out and watch the birds in, as well as providing a little bit more privacy, at least during the Summer when they are in leaf.

To this end I ordered 30 bare root trees, 20 Guelder Rose and 10 Wayfarer from Ashridge Nurseries in Castle Cary in Somerset. They have now arrived (I think they dig them up once they have lost their leaves) and today was scheduled as planting day and luckily it was neither raining nor windy.

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The bare root trees were supplied with RootGrow sachets which is a preparation of Mycorrhizal fungus. It  was in granular form that needed scattering at the bottom of the hole so that the roots were in contact with it. Mycorrhiza are fungi that are beneficial to plants, growing in and around the root system and extending the effective absorptive surface. The fungal strands take sugars from the plants but absorb water and nutrients which they give to the plant. It is also thought that the Mycorrhizas help the plant absorb phosphorus and also that they protect it from some disease, so they are very good news.

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Planting 30 trees in one afternoon was a bit of a race to get done before all daylight went but we did achieve it. We have pressed the soil down very firmly with our feet around the trees and they feel very firm and so we are hoping that they won’t require staking. They’ve all been watered with multiple watering cans full and I think the heavens also have plans to help out over the next few days looking at the forecast. And so now its a question of keeping a bit of an eye on them to check they are not getting blown around and then waiting to see what bursts forth in Spring. Can’t wait.

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Working out the placing using old CDs
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Job done – but doesn’t look much yet. High hopes for Spring.