Motoring Up The River

This week we once again launched ourselves onto the River Stour – this time in an underpowered electric boat in the company of an ecologist and ten other would-be beaver watchers. The boat left the Grove Ferry Inn as the sun was about to set:

Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve, containing the largest reed bed in the South East of England, is alongside the river here and 140 beavers are now thought to be living in the river and the reserve. This population of beavers doesn’t build dams because the only moving water is the River Stour itself and they would struggle to dam that. But they do build lodges and, as we gently putt-putted up the river into the setting sun, we went past a few of these:

A beaver lodge. The lodge also stretches up the bank to a height of about two metres above the water

But when the beaver family is only small, their home will be a simple tunnel in the river bank, leading to a dry cavern within the earth:

We saw several of these beaver tunnel entrances

As the family expands, the beavers then start constructing a full lodge around the tunnel entrance as an extension to their living quarters.

We had gone on a similar beaver-watching jaunt last year and saw about eight beavers. This time, however, not a single one was seen, which was a particular disappointment for the couple who had come down from London especially for the trip and were staying the night in the Grove Ferry Inn. We did see lots of other things from the boat and the river is beautiful but I expect this was small compensation for them.

I’m still trying to get my head round quite how many beavers are now living along this stretch of the river. Here are a couple of photos we took on last year’s trip in the heavy dusk:

The Stour may have a lot of beavers these days, but sightings of otter there remain only very occasional. England nearly lost its otters in the 1960s and 70s as a result of hunting and pollution but thankfully they are now once more to be found in nearly every river system – but not really in the Stour yet and I wonder why this is? It is presumably not because of competition with the beavers who are vegetarian whereas otters eat fish. The river and reserve do have good numbers of water voles though and apparently mink are now trapped in the area to protect that population.

Autumn is a time of mellow fruitfulness and it is the luscious red berries of the hawthorn in particular that birds love to eat here in the meadows. This year has been an exceptional year for the hawthorn and the hedgerow trees are heavy with fruit:

I’m not sure I’ver ever seen the whitebeam trees looking like this either:

These berries are also very popular with the larger birds

Yet there have been no elderberries at all this year and only very sparse spindle fruit so this strange year of weather hasn’t suited everything.

The pear tree in the orchard also has a lot of fruit. Foxes are partial to pears and I have got a camera on the tree to catch them red-handed:

Plucking pears from the tree
They absolutely love pears
And they are not alone – badgers have been taking the pears hanging close to the ground as well

Back in 2020 we got these extraordinary photos of the foxes climbing into the tree to get at the pears:

September 2020
September 2020
September 2020

Maybe one year this will happen again.

The amount of rain that fell this summer meant that the meadow grasses grew long and rank and the annual cut was quite a challenge for our small tractor. However this job is now completed:

We always leave a proportion of the meadows uncut each year on a rotational basis to protect our invertebrate populations:

An Irish Ferries vessel sheltering out in The Downs in the blustery winds of Friday. There has been little rain this autumn but 25mm has now fallen since Thursday, thank goodness

An enormous pile of cut grasses has been generated and we will now work at getting this away. A large proportion of it will slowly go out with the fortnightly Dover County Council green waste collections over the next year.

With the grasses now short, small rodents are more visible and birds of prey have been visiting to hunt them. We have put up a new perch with 360° vision of the cut meadow:

Within half an hour the kestrel was on the perch:

Magpies have also been using it. I know that Jays love the acorns of the holm oaks but I didn’t know that magpies ate them as well:

We don’t get squirrels in the meadows and so it was therefore surprising to see one on the old perch up by the feeding cages:

The barn owl has returned there for a second visit:

And there it goes, off into the night:

I have become familiar with tawny owls from the wood, but I don’t know very much about barn owls. We did get a chance to get up close to a captive-bred one when we went on a bird of prey photographic session last year:

This barn owl is a particularly pale one. If you wanted to have your wedding rings flown up the aisle by an owl, this bird could do that for you.
In fact we got very up close to the owl when it landed on Dave’s head

This is a more normally-coloured barn owl:

A barn owl. Photo by Alun Williams333 from Wiki Commons under CC 4.0

I really hope that we continue to see barn owls here. They like a mixed farming habitat with agricultural fields along with copses of trees, rough grassland areas, ditches and well-managed field margins – the meadows and our immediate neighbours can provide all that for them.

Now that our building works are finally nearing completion, the builders have removed all their equipment from their compound that was in one corner of the first meadow. They had laid a membrane down there and put stones on it to provide hard standing but, now that this has all gone, we need to reseed.

An area of 225 m2 that is going to be seeded with a mixture of calcareous wildflowers and grass seeds

There was much excitement amongst the bird ringers recently when a juvenile nuthatch was caught and ringed in the meadows – nuthatches aren’t seen this far east in Kent because English oaks don’t grow well on our thin chalky soils.

A young nuthatch going through post juvenile moult

Was this young bird just passing through or is there a small, previously undiscovered population of nuthatches nearby – such as in Walmer Castle grounds where there are a few English oaks growing? I have now put up a peanut feeder that is visible from the kitchen window just in case I ever see a nuthatch on it – I am forever optimistic.

We use Squirrel Buster feeders not because we have squirrels but in an attempt to deter magpies who do too well here all on their own without any further help from us

The wood, further west towards Canterbury and on different soil, does have oaks and nuthatches:

Back in the spring, green woodpeckers drilled a nest hole into a cherry tree in the wood:

Photo from May

Now the tree has produced resin in an attempt to seal and heal the wound and the hole looks very different. I find it pretty amazing that the tree responds like this:

Two badgers in the wood

I finish today with a weird and wonderful caterpillar photographed by my daughter at Battle in East Sussex:

This is the caterpillar of the pale tussock moth and what a most peculiar thing it is. It was wandering around on the ground because it was looking for somewhere to pupate and tuck itself away for the coming winter. With the weather having turned much colder this weekend, I can well empathise with that!

2 thoughts on “Motoring Up The River

  1. Hi Judy & Dave,

    I’ve recently discovered your page and have loved reading about your journey, getting a flavour of the amazing work you have done. I’m currently a trainee gardener at Walmer Castle and Gardens, under the HBG traineeship program, undertaking a project on meadows. Basing the project on a field adjacent to the castle (owned by English Heritage), but used currently as seasonal agricultural grazing. The aim of the project and the research that comes out of it, is to transform this area into a productive and biodiverse meadow, that can be managed accordingly for years to come.

    It has been so nice to hear of your success and ongoing learning. I would love to pick your brains on your experience of the journey. Understanding what has been successful and areas you would have addressed differently. If you’d be happy with that, I’d love to chat more via email.

    I’d also be more than happy to help you out on the meadow, if needed.

    Thank you,


  2. Would love to see beavers. Even though lots of people have seen otters in the River Ribble , I never have. Had to go all the way to the Outer Hebrides to see one. Barn owls are gorgeous aren’t they. Hope yours continues to visit. So funny that foxes and badgers are partial to pears.

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