Love Hambrook Marshes

A tantalising glimpse of Canterbury Cathedral across the Hambrook Marshes
A nineteenth century painting by Thomas Sydney Cooper of cattle grazing on what today is the Hambrook Marshes reserve

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.

Lovely wet marshland at this time of year

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.

Female kingfisher fishing the marsh

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.

Osier cutting on the upper Thames by H R Robertson 1875. Image from Wikimedia Commons

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:

The osier bed at Hambrook Mashes
Several different colours of stems are produced for interesting basket work

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:

They usually land a distance from the cages as we are spreading the seed and then walk in as we leave

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:

Yellowhammer amongst the house sparrows in the cages

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

Four yellowhammer in this photo
A beautiful fox at dawn

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:

The central core of silver birch trees in the wood

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.

Testing out the design concept but we definitely need a better tarpaulin
This timber structure is going to to be particularly useful in the heat of the summer

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:

Tawny owls have been peering into this box that they nested in last year

But there was also a lot of trail camera evidence that squirrels were nesting in the box:

So, this week the bailiffs arrived:

The wildlife photographer, Eric Hosking, was famously blinded by a tawny owl attack in 1937 and it felt sensible to wear eye protection when opening the box in case there was an owl within. The ear protection is unnecessary but is an integral part of the helmet

In the event, the box was empty and there was much less bedding in there than I had been expecting:

What bedding there was in there has now been cleared out and the box is empty should the owls want to use it again this year

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?

A great spotted woodpecker displaying all its spots

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.

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