Foxes and Musket Balls

Caressed as we are by the warmer sea, it is rare for temperatures to drop below zero here on the coast, but one morning this week it was down to -2°C:

Once the water had melted, a Sparrowhawk had a bath in the same spot:

We finally got out and did some metal detecting this week once the ground was no longer frozen, although it was still very cold and we didn’t stick at it for long:

Two more musket balls were discovered in the ground. We have now found four, all of the same size and weight:

This sized ammunition was used in ‘Brown Bess’ flintlock muskets which were in service in the British army from 1725 until 1838:

We have two musket balls framed on the wall that were found at the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium (not by us though) and our four from the meadows are the same size as the larger one of these:

At the time that these musket balls were dropped in the meadows, the soldiers would have been dressed as below and the balls would have been held in a black leather bag on the hip. We are assuming that they were dropped rather than fired because there are no indentations on them, although apparently if they have only gone through flesh, there wouldn’t necessarily be any.

As I stand and look out over the meadows, I find it disconcerting to try to imagine these soldiers here in their scarlet and white uniforms two or three hundred years ago. It rams the point forcefully home to me that, as current owners, we are just temporary guardians of the land and this is all just a snapshot of time.

Foxes mate between December and February. At some point during these months, The females come into oestrus for three weeks although fertilisation is only possible for three days of that time. During oestrus, the male closely attends the female and, as the magic three days approach, he shadows her every move. The first attempts to mate are usually rejected by the female and I think this is what we are seeing here. The male on the left is the moth-eaten old gentleman – so perhaps not as moth-eaten as I thought, then:

The Badgers are in their winter torpor and are spending much more of the night cosily in their burrows conserving energy. Although they do appear at some point every night.

The chalk rock under the meadows contains layers of flints which gradually work their way to the surface. We collected some from the hedgerows…

…and made a flint pile near one of the shallow ponds as additional habitat that will be useful shelter for all sorts of things:

The paving stone along the edge of this little pond was already there and, as we were making the flint pile, we found several Frogs sheltering under its lip whilst standing in the water. A couple of days previously, this shallow water had been completely rock solid so presumably they got themselves out of the pond before this happened because otherwise they would have been frozen into the ice.

Whenever the sea is not dangerously rough, my sister-in-law and her friends go swimming every morning throughout the year from the local beach below. One day this week she had an unexpected spectator in this Grey Seal pup:

This is the second pup she has seen in recent weeks. It seemed perfectly alright and will be fully weaned by this stage of the year and so they gave it space and left it in peace.

In the wood, the camera under the feeders always takes hundreds of photos of Pheasants. As I was clicking rapidly through them, my eye caught on this one:

Up in the top right hand corner, a Buzzard is gliding through the wood. Its wingspan is so enormous, I’m amazed that it fits between the trees when at full stretch like that. Here is the same photo but zoomed in:

On both recent visits to the wood I have put several Woodcock up as I step along the paths to get to the cameras. They have also been seen on the camera at the new pond:

Now that it is January, the sound of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on dead treetops reverberates through the quiet winter wood. They use this drumming to advertise their ownership of an area of the wood, the way that males of other Bird species use song.

The town of Deal is just up the coast and we went there for our flu vaccinations this week and took the opportunity to walk along the seafront. Between the pier and the castle, there is a tangle of fishing boats and winches to lower them down the steep shingle bank into the sea and haul them back up again. Actually, I have never seen these boats move anywhere but maybe they do:

On Fridays, a fisherman sells fish from these tables. It’s a quintessential Deal scene and he’s always very popular.

You can see the pier in the background of the photo – another iconic part of Deal. This is the third pier on this site. The first one, built in 1838, was washed away by a storm some twenty years later. The second one was opened in 1864 and sounded great with salt baths, a tram running along it and a concert pavilion and reading room at the end. However, in 1940 during the war, a Dutch ship, the Nora, was damaged by a mine and was lying incapacitated just to the south. Inevitably, it got swept onto the pier and destroyed a large part of it and Winston Churchill gave the army permission to take all the wreckage away to allow the coastal guns a clear line of sight. The current pier, built of reinforced concrete – and, dare I say, a bit ugly?- was opened in 1957 and now is held in great affection by the people of Deal.

There are often fishermen strung along the pier and you can promenade to the restaurant at the end which is still open for take-aways in these locked down times. I hear that the lobster rolls are very good.

As I write this morning, we have had the lightest of dustings of snow:

In the seven winters that we have been here, we are yet to experience the wonder of an old-school thick carpet of snow covering the meadows – the sort of snow where I used to wake the children up early so that they could dress up in hats and gloves and go out into the garden to make a snowman before school. I know that it comes with lots of hardships to wildlife and inconvenience to travellers but a part of me can’t stop wishing for it nonetheless.

Piddocks in the Chalk

Daffodils are beginning to poke their heads up through the soil, the sun is going down a whole twenty minutes later than on 21st December and my father has been called up for his first dose of the vaccine – these are things to be cheerful about. Yes, its been cold and wet and the country is again in lockdown, but we remain positive.

This odd-looking vessel below has become a very familiar sight, having been here on and off all week. She is the Ocean Marlin, an offshore supply ship, although she is is now on fishery protection duties.

The Royal Navy’s Overseas Patrol Squadron monitors 80,000 square miles of sea around Britain, protecting our fishing rights. It also carries out inspections of fishing boats in UK waters to ensure that they are operating within the law.

A year ago, the squadron was called the Fisheries Protection Squadron and there were just three ships and a helicopter:

As a result of Brexit, there are now eight Naval ships and other vessels such as the Ocean Marlin have also been seconded in to help. 80,000 square miles is, after all, an awfully large area.

One day this week, we went for a walk around the village and down onto the beach.

Some of the chalk has been burrowed into by Piddocks (Pholas sp). These Bivalves can bore a hole into the soft rock by first locking on with their sucker-like feet and next twisting their shells to drill. The animal is then completely protected in its rock tunnel and extends a siphon out to filter feed on organic matter in the water.

On the underside of a big lump of chalk that had broken away, one of the Piddocks was still there – this was exciting for us because, in all the years of seeing their tunnels, we had never actually seen one of the animals before. The flesh of these Bivalves is bioluminescent and apparently it is possible to see them glowing in the dark at low tide.

We also found some fossils in the chalk wave cut platform:

The Gunnery stands up on the cliff – a recently renovated, James Bond-style house that has incorporated a Second World War gun emplacement within its structure. Building work had been going on for ages and it’s good that it is finally completed. The only access to the house is by a lift up from the bottom of the cliff. I don’t know if this house is still for sale, but it was on the market for £6million in March 2020. This seems a lot for something with very little land indeed and a chalet holiday park nestling around it, but what do I know.

Back at the meadows, there are cameras on two of the gates to photograph perching Birds but we also see these gates being used as a super highways for Rats and Mice throughout the night.

Perhaps they feel safer being off the ground away from the Foxes when they are crossing open areas.

We watched through binoculars as a Fox ran at, and probably caught, a Stock Dove that was pottering around under the feeders. There was also this bitten-off wing of a juvenile Herring Gull lying in the meadows.

This Gull must have provided an excellent meal for a Fox because they are really quite large.

And here is another chance to admire how great the one-eyed Vixen is looking these days. Back in the summer, she had scarcely any fur at all on her tail because of mange:

I hadn’t seen Yellowhammer for a while but now they are back:

The Kestrels have been doing a lot of hovering above the meadows hunting for Voles. The male has also been turning up on the cameras:

Woodpigeon are busy working the hedgerows for any remaining food:

In the ponds, the time is approaching when Frogs gather to spawn. We are certainly noticing increased activity:

Across in the wood, this Squirrel is out and about in the cold weather and has managed to find a Hazelnut:

I’m always surprised to see how high up in its head a Woodcock’s eye is:

Finally today, this picture was taken on our walk to the village and it tells the story of our week of weather – wet with a bitter easterly wind:

It is a good time to curl up in the warm with a book and a 1960s edition of Charles Darwin’s Earthworm book has arrived that we are both intending to read. Who knows, we may even try to reproduce some of Darwin’s experiments on our own Worms here…

A Shiny New Wildlife Year

We have had an assortment of different weathers over the festive period. Storm Bella raged across the meadows one wet and wild night and, the next morning, there were lots of these long Earthworms stretched out across the grass. They were alive but we didn’t understand what they were trying to do.

We realised that we knew next to nothing about Earthworms, and yet they have such immense importance to the ecosystem here and everywhere. Charles Darwin spent forty-four years studying Earthworms and carrying out experiments in his garden in Kent and he published a book on them a year before he died which is apparently very readable even now, after all this time.

Worms break down organic matter into substances that plants can use and their burrows allow air and water into the soil, vital for soil health as well as providing space for plant roots, fungi and microorganisms. And, of course, the Worms themselves are an important part of the diet of all sorts of birds as well as Badgers, Foxes, Moles and other animals.

Before long, we ended up at the website of The Earthworm Society of Britain. There are twenty-nine species of Earthworm in the UK and, given how vitally important they are, they are desperately under recorded. So little is known about the distribution of the different species and one of the reasons for this is that they are tricky to identify – many of the species need to be killed first and then put under a microscope to do it properly.

That is something that I do not want to do myself, but I can tell you that our worms, spreadeagled on the grass on the morning after the storm, are probably Blue-grey Worms, Octolasium cyaneum.

Blue-grey Worms are in the Endogeic group – worms that feed on the soil itself and don’t usually come to the surface. Their burrows are horizontal to the ground and not particularly deep down.

But, as I understand it, when conditions are really wet, it is suddenly much easier to move across the surface of the ground rather than tunnelling through the soil below and so they come up to grab that opportunity to disperse quickly and easily. However, they should definitely have ensured that they were back below ground before it got light – once the sun came up I think a lot of them were left exposed and were hoovered up by Seagulls.

I have now joined The Earthworm Society of Britain, watched some of the educational videos on the site and am now much more informed about what is going on out there under the soil and it is fascinating.

Another thing that interested me recently were these next two photos. Here are a Woodpigeon and a Stock Dove having a bath in the wild pond:

Once they had left, there was a slick of dust floating on the surface of the water:

Perhaps we are all familiar with the print that a Pigeon makes on a window if it flies into one by mistake:

This white dust on Pigeons and Doves comes from their soft down feathers which have fine barbs that crumble away to form this feather dust. The bird then preens itself to spread this waxy dust all over to make itself waterproof.

Most other birds have a preen gland which produces an oil with which to waterproof themselves but Birds that use feather dust either have no preen gland or a very much reduced one. Bathing is especially important for these feather dust Birds, to wash the dirty dust off so that they can replace it with new to keep them properly waterproof and well insulated.

Our general strategy is to cut both meadows once a year and remove all the cut vegetation, thus gradually reducing the nutrient level of the grassland. But we do always leave areas uncut so that some long grass habitat still remains each year. Most of this retained long grass is in the second meadow, but the first meadow does have a few patches as well.

A couple of days before Christmas, we spotted a flask-shaped Wasp Spider egg sac in one of these patches of long grass in the first meadow.

Now that we had got our eye in for them, we instituted a search of all uncut areas and ended up finding three. One was very close to the Wasp Spider webs we were watching back in the autumn and is almost certainly the egg sac of one of those two Spiders.

How fantastic to have moved another step forward in our understanding of their lifecycle. The next stage now is to see if we can spot the Spiderlings coming out of these egg sacs next spring.

All round the hedgerows now there are Woodpigeon eating Ivy berries.

It is only Woodpigeon I have seen taking them at the moment but there are still a few Hawthorn berries left on the bushes. Song and Mistle Thrushes, Redwing, Blackbirds and Blackcaps do also eat Ivy berries but only when all other options have gone. Presumably they are not as tasty, but they have a high fat content and so are great fuel for the Birds when they do get round to them. The RSPB says that the pith of an Ivy berry contains nearly as many calories as a Mars bar, gram for gram.

During the first lockdown, flour was in severe shortage for several weeks and in desperation I bought some coconut flour but never used it. Now, as it is about to go out of date, I made some rock cakes with it. Unfortunately these cakes really lived up to their name and were indeed much like stone. We didn’t want to eat them and so they went out with the peanuts one evening and I am pleased to see that at least the moth-eaten old gentleman Fox appreciated them:

All the expected Birds of Prey have been sighted over the festive period:

In the wood, our coppicing work has been continuing slowly:

Christmas Day was unusually quiet for us as I’m sure it was for many people. We walked the dog up on the high chalk cliffs before breakfast which was a really memorable way to start the day:

I got two interesting-looking natural history books as presents. I must make more time in my day for reading:

On New Year’s Eve, it all went very cold here. A lot of the country had a fall of snow and even we potentially had some forecast, but none arrived.

On New Year’s Day, the Autumn Stream quietly came alongside and dropped anchor. She had taken seventeen days sailing from Peru and was loaded with a cargo of bananas and other exotic fruits. Dressed as we were in double coats, scarf and gloves and standing by a frozen pond, it was impossible not to be imbued with a little bit of tropical sunshine and warmth by her presence.

1066, 1666, 1914 – some years stand out from all the others and maybe 2020 will be one of these, but it is behind us now. We are embarking on a shiny new year with light flooding strongly in from the end of a long and dark pandemic tunnel. It will be wonderful when we get there but, until then, we here will be focusing on Earthworms and other wildlife to get us through.