Sailing on the Swale

We had a truly memorable time this week, spending a day sailing onboard one of the few remaining historic Thames sailing barges, SB Mirosa.

The ship’s dog

The Mirosa was bought by Peter Dodds in 1976 and, since then, has been lovingly restored and raced by him. In return, she became his home for many years

She was built in 1892 and was used to carry hay and straw on her deck from Suffolk and Essex to feed London’s horses, returning with their manure for the farms. After the First World War, she changed to carrying timber which was stacked metres high on her deck.

Mirosa carrying timber in the 1950s. She is unusual in that she has never had a motor fitted and remains to this day a classic sailing barge
The historic Mirosa competing in the 109th Medway Barge Sailing Match in 2017. Photo courtesy of Clem Rutter on Wikipedia Commons

With twelve passengers and several crew on board, we left Oare Marshes and sailed west along the Swale, anchoring for lunch off the Elmley Nature Reserve and returning to Oare by the end of the day.

The Swale is the tidal channel that separates the Isle of Sheppey from the rest of Kent

Knowing so very little about sailing myself, I found it wonderfully interesting to sit and watch as the crew pulled up the anchor and unfurled the sails. It all required an immense amount of skill and fine tuning as well as fitness and stamina.

Here we go. Opening up the foresail

The barges were flat-bottomed which enabled them to ply their trade in the shallow waters of the Thames estuary but, even so, it was sometimes necessary to ‘swing the lead’ – a metal weight lowered into the water attached to rope with knots at fathom intervals to test the depth of the water:

Below deck, everything was welcoming and atmospheric:

Although the marine toilet did require a bit of concentration to begin with:

By lunchtime, we had reached Elmley where we anchored up to go below deck for a delicious lunch:

View across the Swale to Kingshill Farmhouse and the shepherds huts of Elmley Nature Reserve where we have so enjoyed staying twice this year

It was a very special day and one that will linger in our memories for a long time.

Peter returning to Mirosa after having dropped us at Oare at the end of the day

Back in the meadows, this gate often affords us a chance to learn about a magpies diet. Here we have seen them with rodents, snails, lizards, slow worms and heads of wheat from the neighbouring field, but this time I’m afraid it is a small bird:

…which was then fed to its chicks:

With the hard work of the breeding season now largely behind them, it is time for the magpies to moult. Judging by the photo below, this can’t come a moment too soon:

But they are way too successful here and I am pleased to see that sometimes the foxes do their bit to keep the magpie population in balance:

Butterflies numbers seem very low this year and some species that are usually abundant, such as the common blue, have scarcely been around at all. It was certainly a cold, wet spring and perhaps this took its toll – but then I remembered a particular day in mid July last year. It hadn’t rained for weeks and all vegetation above ground was yellow and withered:

The shocking view across the second meadow on 21st July 2022

We became aware that all around us were second-brood common blues roosting up amongst the yellowed grass stalks. We quickly counted to fifty without much effort:

Six common blues perched forlornly amongst the shrivelled vegetation

The larval food plant for these butterflies is birds-foot-trefoil but they had nowhere to lay their eggs that would give the resulting caterpillars anything to eat. There must surely have been no offspring produced by this second brood at all and this is what has so badly affected their numbers this year.

Hopefully there will be more rain this summer so that the populations have a chance to bounce back. In fact, we have had a little rain this week – just 6mm, but every little counts at this time of year.

Because the grasses have grown so long, just a small amount of soft rain caused large areas to flop right over. By the next day everything was back up

Looking over the meadows after the rain. Although the grass seed heads are becoming brown as they ripen, the stalks are very much still green:

One area of the meadows was sown with a native wild flower seed mix for chalky soils back in 2016 and every year it gets more wonderful:

As we wait for our butterfly populations to recover, we are celebrating those that have arrived:

Marbled white on greater knapweed
Essex skipper
Small skipper on lavender in the garden
Six spot burnet moth with those surprisingly blue antennae

For several years I collected kidney vetch seeds every autumn and grew them on in the greenhouse to plant back out into the meadows. This is the larval food plant for our precious colony of small blue butterflies, but it is a short lived perennial and I wanted to ensure that there was always enough. After a while there seemed to be so much kidney vetch out there that I felt it would happily self-seed and be self-perpetuating and so I stopped doing this. But unfortunately there is very little kidney vetch here now – perhaps last year’s drought has affected this too. I have hurriedly bought twenty plug plants and potted them up ready to go out into the meadows this autumn to feed small blue caterpillars next summer.

The pollen beetles are out in force at the moment, gorging themselves in the flowers:

I have a T shirt this colour and will never again make the mistake of wearing it out in the meadows in July. These beetles find bright yellow irresistible:

Photo from July 2020

The pollen beetles also love bramble flowers, but I don’t have a shirt this colour to see if it has the same effect:

There are many types of different grasses in the meadows, some of which we haven’t yet got round to identifying. We do know timothy grass, though. Apparently this grass was named after Timothy Hanson, a farmer, who brought it to the southern states of the US from its native Europe in the early 18th century because it makes such good hay for animal fodder:

At this time of year, the timothy grass flower is covered in purple stamens:

We have just started to hear the sound of grasshoppers and crickets as we walk round the meadows:

Field grasshopper

It’s been a busy week in the allotment. The onion family harvest, all planted last autumn, has been very successful and will keep us through the winter:

Red onions, garlic and shallots all drying in the trolley

The roofers have been working away on the new garage and there was a moment of triumph as the pinnacle was positioned on the wildlife tower:

This pinnacle will stop magpies and crows from perching on the top of the tower and using it as a lookout. From there they would also be well placed to predate fledgling birds that will be emerging from the bird boxes within the tower

It was a blisteringly hot day for June’s tour round the dormice boxes in the wood. The blue tits have now all finished with their nests in the boxes and we found several dormice nests on top of these abandoned bird nests…

… as well as two yellow-necked mouse nests and a beautiful wren nest:

This is the first time that we had found a wren nest in the boxes. Amazingly, a male wren builds five or six nests and then shows them all to his female so that she can select the one she likes the best. It looked as though this particular nest in the dormouse box had not been used

Two of the dormice nests already had a litter of young within. In one, we could see that the babies were only six days old and hadn’t yet fully developed their grey fur. Although normal practice would be to get these ‘pinks’ out and weigh them altogether, in the extreme heat of the day the decision was made not to disturb them further. The other nest, however, had three older young that we could get out of the nest and individually weigh:

This sweet young dormouse is at the stage called ‘eyes open’ and will be between 18 and 40 days old

Baby animals are appearing on the cameras throughout the wood:

Bullfinch have fledged
Big family groups of great tits and blue tits are coming down to the shallow pools
Fox cub with its parent

And my final photo of today is this. I believe that this must be one of this years baby owls since its tail feathers are yet to fully develop:

Of course is a shame that it didn’t grow up in the owl box where it could have been ringed, but I am so delighted to see it successfully fledged anyway.

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