We belong to a small network of Kent landholders interested in supporting wildlife on their land. Recently some of our group visited Hambrook Marshes and were shown around by its band of enthusiastic trustees.
The fifty acres of marshland run alongside the banks of the River Stour, right at the very edge of the city of Canterbury and with atmospheric views of the cathedral spires at one end. Even with two sides bordered by the railway and the busy A2 cutting the reserve in half, it still retains a real sense of bucolic charm.
Hundreds of people walk, run and cycle along the riverside path every day but a very much smaller number venture off the path and into the reserve itself. The land was bought in 2014 by a local charity, Love Hambrook Marshes, in order to protect the land as a green space to be enjoyed by the people of Canterbury, as well as encouraging wildlife with good land management. Visitor access is welcomed and encouraged, other than on Tonford field on the far side of the A2, which is a wild space kept undisturbed for wildlife, especially focussed on over-wintering snipe.
The trustees have to deal with all sorts of issues that being close to a city brings – incidences of arson, cows being attacked by dogs, long term rough camping and development threats bordering the reserve amongst others. I was filled with absolute admiration for them and, despite all of these on-going problems, they continue to cheerfully push on to make improvements.
A wet area away from the river is used as an osier bed for willow cutting, an ancient craft where the trees were pollarded to produce outcrops of strong, flexible stems used to make baskets, fish traps, fencing hurdles and so on. This was a significant industry in Britain until the early twentieth century, when the import of cheaper materials made it commercially unviable.
The willow cutters had recently been working at Hambrook Marshes at the time of our visit and the willow was freshly cut. Presumably pollards are favoured rather than coppicing down to the ground because it is easier on their backs when harvesting:
How wonderful that one of our traditional country crafts is still being supported and valued in this way.
Back in the meadows, all has been exceedingly quiet on the cameras. For the first time in a long while I have put a camera on the feeding cages. Seed is scattered up here every day of the year and some of the seed goes into the cages to keep it available for the smaller birds. The cages are moved every other day so that there is no build up of disease.
A lovely flock of house sparrows is always waiting for us to arrive and their contented cheeping from the nearby hedgerow warms the cockles of your heart on a chilly January morning:
Also waiting for us is Chuckles, the male herring gull who has made the meadows his territory these last couple of years. At the moment he is usually accompanied by last year’s chick to show it the ropes:
A good number of stock dove visit in the winter. I think I can count twenty-four here:
The seed on the open ground quickly gets hoovered up by the bigger birds but seed in the cages remains much longer into the morning:
This is the weekend of the RSPB’s 44th Big Garden Birdwatch – one of the largest citizen science surveys in the world. Last year 700,000 people across the UK spent an hour at the end of January counting the birds and submitting their results. In the welcome January sunshine of Saturday, I watched the feeding cages through my binoculars for part of my hour of birdwatching, and was pleased to count five Yellowhammer coming down to the seed
I have been treating the One-eyed Vixen for her mange for over a fortnight now, with another four weeks to go. Hopefully it is working but I will only know once the fur starts to grow back.
Here she is cleaning the ears of her mate:
Over in the wood, there was more progress on the jobs that we want to achieve this winter when one of our sons and his friend visited. They got to work building a timber structure around the picnic table, across which a tarpaulin can be strung as protection against the rain or the sun.
While they were working on that, we got on with building another pond nearby, using materials left over from digging the ponds in the meadows. We laid some old carpet down and then a double layer of underlay:
Then some waterproof liner:
It is a long way from being a work of art, but I think it will look better once it settles in a bit:
But on returning to the wood after building the pond, I felt so guilty to find a drowned vole floating in the water:
Voles are quite good swimmers and it was surprising that it had been unable to get out. However, we have now put two logs in as exit ramps:
When I looked at the trail camera photos of this new pond, I saw that a squirrel had also fallen in but managed to escape:
Perhaps the butyl liner at the edge is dangerously slippery and turning the pond into a death trap? I think it would be a good idea to put a layer of rounded pebbles into the shallow end to create a beach and make it safer and more accessible to small birds.
Now that the temperatures are no longer freezing, it felt a good time to carry out our threat to evict the squirrels from the owl box. It is, after all, a box for tawny owls and not for squirrels and the owls have been showing interest in it:
But there was also a lot of trail camera evidence that squirrels were nesting in the box:
So, this week the bailiffs arrived:
In the event, the box was empty and there was much less bedding in there than I had been expecting:
We then found a squirrel lying dead on the ground behind the tree:
On looking at the camera footage, there was this photo:
Had the squirrel simply fallen out of the tree?
For the first time this year, I am growing natal lilies. A native of South African woodland, in the UK these plants need to be in the house over the winter but I hope to get them out onto a shady bit of the patio during the summer.
Their flamboyant flowers are really brightening up the dark days of January for us here and I think I am obsessed.
We spent two wet and windy nights this week in a shepherds hut at Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey. This muddy island, now connected to North Kent by a pair of bridges, sits in the estuary of the mighty Thames and is an enormously important sanctuary for wetland birds.
In the winter there are great flocks of ducks, geese and waders overwintering there, rising from the marsh in synchrony whenever birds of prey fly over, searching for a meal.
The reserve is privately owned although, when we last visited it over ten years ago, part of it was managed by the RSPB. But in recent years the family are back at the helm and have been doing a lot of wonderful conservation work. They have also refurbished the old farm buildings into guest accommodation and a cafe and have installed several shepherds huts with amazing views out over the marsh.
Our shepherds hut was very cleverly designed and well insulated – perfectly comfortable and warm, even in the bleakest of January days.
We could watch the sun coming up from our bed….
…and binoculars needed to be kept close by at breakfast which was delivered to the hut:
I had only seen grey partridge before at a distance or on trail cameras. Therefore, when a gaggle of seventeen or more of these birds spent some time under the hut, I was surprised at the noise they were making as they chatted amongst themselves. It was really loud and I had no idea that they did that:
We spent the first morning on our own visiting the bird hides on the reserve:
We also went on two tours with the reserve’s nature guide. She was able to show us so many birds that we would otherwise have completely missed. In the centre of this next photo you can just about make out one of the many little owls that live on the reserve:
A roosting young male barn owl:
There are also many short eared and a few long eared owls on the reserve. Tawny owls are the only UK owl species that they do not routinely have, although these owls too are occasionally heard.
The grazing of the marsh has to be finely tuned in order to get the vegetation just right for the birds. Seven hundred cattle graze the marsh in the summer and these are replaced by a thousand sheep in the winter. As well as that, the rushes and sedges are cut by machine in late summer to promote regrowth,
On our final morning we had a private tour by jeep across the marsh to Spitend Hide which felt like a real adventure:
There are two lonely buildings out on the marsh, over two hundred years old and built by long-ago farmers. These days they are used for animal husbandry and both have nesting barn owls within:
The raptor gates at the remote far end of the marsh are kept closed. The raptor gates at the other, busier end are closed from dusk to dawn. These gates attempt to keep foxes away from the vulnerable bird chicks. Other predators such as stoats are controlled under licence.
This bleak and desolate wilderness is only an hour’s drive away from home and so why had we left it so long between visits? We are told that mid May to mid June is a wonderful time to visit and to see the bird chicks. We are now planning to return to The Saltbox then and experience the marsh in a different season.
Back at the meadows, the Battle of the Tulip Bulbs has a winner and it is not me, it’s the rats. But as well as being annoyed, I am also rather impressed with what they have achieved. Back in December, I realised that rats had dug up the hundred tulip bulbs that had been planted to produce cut flowers for the house in the spring. Forty more bulbs were then ordered and planted just before Christmas, but this time with chicken wire pegged down over them. I even put a wire enclosure there as well as a double defence. But the rats have dug down at the edge of the wire and tunnelled underneath to remove the bulbs from below:
So I have given up trying to get tulips this spring, but in the autumn I will plant the next lot of bulbs into one of the raised beds with wooden sides to see if that goes any better for me. In the meantime, perhaps the foxes and sparrowhawks will have dealt with the rats as well.
I did have more success in my attempt to get hyacinths flowering for Christmas Day:
As I stumbled into the kitchen on Christmas morning, I was met with the delightful fragrance of hyacinth which was a really special start to the day.
The One-eyed Vixen’s mange has worsened and I have started her on a six-week course of Arsen Sulphur sprinkled onto honey sandwiches, a treatment that was recommended by the Fox Project charity. This fox loves honey sandwiches and she waits for them every evening, so she is easy to get the medicine into – let’s hope that it works this time.
One of our sons is an engineer and we put him to work in the wood to design a sturdy structure that we can prop a camera against to look at the owl box:
This trail camera is now close enough for the nest box to be fully in range of its sensors and it has been getting some great photos of tawny owls inspecting the box at night:
But there is definitely an active squirrels nest in the box at the moment:
We plan to evict the squirrels shortly.
Last winter we cleared a large area of dogwood from a woodland glade to stop it shading out the marjoram that grows in profusion there. By the end of the summer, though, the dogwood had regrown quite high:
However, the new dogwood stems were quite spindly still and could easily be cut again by brandishing a hedge trimmer around. Once the cut stems were raked up and stacked in a pile at the edge of the clearing, the job was done. We are now looking forward to all the woodland butterflies brought in by the marjoram this summer:
The hazel catkins are out in the wood and looking beautiful:
It seems so early in the year for the tree to be flowering.
The woodcock are still happily seeing out the winter here. On my last visit I put four of them up as I wandered around the paths collecting cameras:
The polecat (or polecat-ferret hybrid) has been seen again on the cameras:
John and John, the bird ringers, managed a ringing session in the wood last week and this feels like a bit of a victory for them with the weather we’ve been having. They caught fifty-eight birds, forty-two of which were blue tits, eight were great tits and there was a marsh tit as well. There are certainly many tits in the wood and I finish this week with some photos that John took of them while he was there:
Christmas is already disappearing fast in the rear view mirror and these birds are starting to think about spring. We are too, but expect that there might be quite a bit of winter to get through yet.
The first part of this review covered how the birds, amphibians and plants had fared during the extreme summer drought of 2022. In this second and last part, I now move on to the highs and lows for the mammals and invertebrates of the meadows:
In all the years we’ve been here we had only had a couple of sightings of a weasel. But throughout the second half of this year we have been treated to frequent views of a lovely little weasel as it went about its business across a gate.
These predators of small rodents are only 20-27cm long themselves and that’s including their tail. We have seen it hunting both during the night and by day and it has continued to appear now that it is winter.
It has been an honour to be part of this animal’s territory this year and we hope that this will continue.
I’m sorry to say that the badgers have had a really tough year. They thrive when there is soft ground so that they can get at the worms that make up 70% of their diet, and so they were never going to do well in a drought. But all started well enough and, at the beginning of the year, we had three badgers, one male and two females, living in their sett dug into the cliff. In early February they mated which was a sign that cubs had just been born underground:
On 22nd February we got our first sighting of two tiny cubs as the mother moved them between burrows:
Over the next few weeks, the cubs were carried between burrows several times more, getting larger with each new sighting. We realised that there were two separate litters, one with just one cub and the other with two.
In mid April, the cubs were officially allowed above ground, initially under the close supervision of their mothers:
As they grew a bit older, the three cubs went around together in a gang:
However, once the cubs started to be weaned off their mothers’ milk, they needed to find food for themselves. By now the drought was well underway and the young badgers struggled in these conditions. They were often seen out during the day trying to find some food:
For a long time now, we have put peanuts out at dusk. These are nutritious and energy-packed and badgers absolutely love them. In previous years the parent badgers have brought their cubs to the peanuts but this didn’t happen this year. The adults continued to come on their own and we didn’t know what else we could do to help the cubs.
One day the dog told us that one of the badger cubs was sleeping above ground under a bush and quite a long way from the safety of the sett. We thought that there had to be something badly wrong and called out the RSPCA.
We were so impressed with the RSPCA. An inspector came out promptly, captured the little cub and took it off to a vet in Canterbury. The vet checked it over, declared it to be fit and healthy and the inspector then drove it back to us and released it close to its sett just as dusk was falling.
However, in the end, I regret to report that all three of the badger cubs died – presumably as a result of starvation in the extreme weather conditions. It was completely heartbreaking but I still don’t know what more we could have done.
As the summer wore on, I realised that we now only had two adult badgers as well. This is all a sorry tale but other parts of the country were less hot and dry than ours and I really hope that badgers did better there.
We regularly see several different foxes but there is one pair in particular that has lived here for several years and reign supreme as the Fox King and Queen of the Meadows.
It is always interesting to see the range of prey that these foxes catch. We saw a lot of rabbits in the mouths of foxes:
Also quite a few birds such as this pheasant:
Since we are on the coast, we also see the foxes with fish from time to time. This is a dogfish:
The pair of foxes had only one cub this year:
The cub was successfully raised through the summer, although it has now dispersed. But I am happy to report that the One-eyed Vixen and her mate are both still here and I’m looking forward to seeing what they get up to this year.
Although the meadows appear largely green and grassy in the winter, in the spring and summer they are transformed into glorious flower meadows, rich in invertebrates. There is so much that we don’t know about the complex worlds of these invertebrates, but every year we do learn a little bit more.
Twenty-three butterfly species are seen here each year but this year we added a new species to the list. In the heat of July, a swallowtail was feeding on red valerian:
This year we had brimstone caterpillars feeding on the alder buckthorn that we planted specifically for them about five years ago:
One brimstone caterpillars was attacked by a green lacewing larva, a predator of aphids ands other soft-bodied invertebrates like caterpillars. The lacewing larva’s hollow maxillae can be seen sticking into the caterpillar, through which it pumps in digestive juices, breaking down the caterpillar’s tissues. The resulting nutrient soup is then sucked back in through the maxillae.
The next morning the caterpillar did indeed look pretty well digested:
The meadows have a precious population of a rare little butterfly, the small blue. These butterflies had a good year:
In July the kidney vetch had finished flowering and I tried to find a small blue caterpillar feeding on the developing seed. I had to inspect a lot of flowers, but I was successful:
Common blue butterflies are also found in the meadows
The larval food plant of the common blue is usually bird’s-foot-trefoil, a plant that grows in plentiful abundance here. But common blue butterflies have three generations each summer and, in the south of England, the second and third generations can be badly affected by drought, which causes the trefoil to die back prematurely. The drought in the summer of 2022 was of a scale never previously seen and it will surely mean that there will not be many common blues here in 2023.
By July, the second generation of common blues were on the wing but the meadows were yellow and parched. Any bird’s-foot-trefoil was completely withered away and the butterflies had nowhere to lay their eggs that would provide food for the caterpillars of the third generation.
As we stood and surveyed the meadows and took the photo above, we noticed that the dried-up, yellow grass was studded with little gemstones of blue. In fact we counted at least fifty roosting common blues in quite a small area, all part of the doomed second generation with nowhere to lay their eggs:
The patches of marjoram growing in the meadows, however, did very well in the dry conditions:
Scabious is always very popular :
I didn’t run the moth trap very much in 2022, but we did still see moths around the meadows. It was a very good year for hummingbird hawk-moths which were often seen feeding on the red valerian:
Several were even rescued from the house over the course of the summer:
The sussex emerald is an extremely rare moth that breeds on the shingle below the meadows. One morning we saw one of these moths up here and pursued it with a camera. Although it hid from us behind a leaf, the red checkerboarding at the edge of the wings is diagnostic:
The crimson speckled is another seriously rare immigrant moth for the UK that was spotted in the orchard in October, when hot southerly winds were blowing up from Africa and the Mediterranean. Until this autumn, there had only been two hundred UK records for this moth in the last century. But in October quite a number arrived on plumes of hot air up from the south and we were delighted to see one of them here.
In September, our eyes were opened to the ferociously predatory behaviour of devil’s coach horse beetles when we saw this one carrying a desperately flapping moth:
In the late summer we were watching a wasp nest that was dug into a chalk bank and where a steady stream of wasps were emerging carrying boulders of chalk. Presumably mining operations were going on underground to make the nest cavity bigger:
One day we saw a large hornet mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) attempt to parasitise the wasp nest. These hoverflies lay their eggs in wasp nests, which then hatch into larvae that live off the wasp larvae and the general nest detritus. However, the hoverfly was too big to fit through the narrow entrance into the wasp nest – she got herself wedged in there several times before giving up and flying away. This got us speculating that, although the wasps are clearly very capable of excavating large caverns in the chalky soil, they deliberately keep the gateway very narrow to stop such parasites gaining access to their nest.
For several years we have had a little owl box up in one of the copses of trees:
In the blasting heat of July, I was sheltering in the shade of these trees when I noticed that a colony of honey bees had moved into the box.
As the summer progressed, it started to look as though the population of bees was growing too large for the box to contain them:
By the end of the day, the swarm had moved off to the new location that the scouts had found. The remaining bees in the box continued on with a queen of their own. They will be overwintering in there now, huddled together in a ball, shivering to keep warm and eating their stores of honey to give them energy.
2022 was a very challenging year and the severe lack of rain will have caused so many profound problems that reverberated up and down the food chains of the meadows. The badgers and the common blue butterflies are just the tip of the iceberg, I’m sure.
But as I look out over the meadows today, they are green once more. The overwintering animals are tucked away somewhere safe and perennial plants have withdrawn back into the earth, ready to poke their heads up again as winter retreats. For now, everything is quietly slumbering out there whilst the weather rages and blows – but spring will be here soon and all will begin again. Nature needs a chance to recover after the ravages of last year and I hope that 2023 gives it that chance.