February 1st - 28th
My dog walking duties took me to Mill Green Common, where I spent a couple of hours following Misty hither and thither, trying to keep my body warm by jogging and my mind from seizing up by reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the area since the days of my boyhood. At that time - the 1950s - the Common was a much more open area than it is now, there being numerous grassy rides interspersed with thickets of furze and swathes of bracken and purple flowered ling, with just a scattering of bushes and young trees around the numerous old clay pits, which had supplied the adjacent pottery for hundreds of years. It was a popular venue for family picnics on Sunday afternoons and it was here, as a five year old, that my life-long interest in birds began, the bird that initiated it - a Goldcrest - being pointed out to me by my father as it flitted around in a gorse bush by the side of the road. How vivid that memory still is : the brown duffle-coat I was wearing, the red woolly hat, the grey woollen gloves with their Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer motif, my father’s gloved hand clutching mine as he showed me the bird, the splash of golden-yellow on its crown, the frosty, snow rimmed road, and my excitement, conveyed animatedly to my mother when we returned home. The bush in question died of old age around twenty years ago. I felt a pang of loss at its passing.
A few years later the memories are of bird-nesting among dense fortresses of gorse, where Linnets and Greenfinches bred in large numbers, and of the nervousness I always felt when crossing the wide patches of heather for fear of the Adders that abounded there; ‘Skip’ Seymour (my old headmaster at Ingatestone Boys’ School) once finding over thirty during the course of a two hour search. Red-backed Shrikes, Stonechats and Nightjars all nested in the area while personal triumphs included the finding of a Tree Pipit’s and, sometime later, a Nightingale’s nest. Towards the end of my schooldays I developed a taste for truancy. On the first occasion I recall being filled with a sense of guilt at the wickedness of my behaviour (I was a well brought up child) especially when my classmates turned right towards the best years of their lives and I sneaked off left to Mill Green Common. Less than an hour later I was watching my first Wood Lark, at which point, it has to be admitted, my feelings of guilt diminished considerably. Thereafter, my unofficial absences from school were on a fairly regular basis but only during the spring or autumn migrations or when the sun was shining. The sun seemed to shine a lot more often at Mill Green than it ever did at Ingatestone Secondary Modern!
Thus the old place is full of memories for me and even today, over sixty years on, it remains one of my favourite stamping grounds. Yet my memories of it as a heather and gorse dominated heathland represented a fairly recent development in the Common’s history. In the eighteenth century its main role was as wood pasture and in a surviving account book for the Petre estates, kept by one William Robertson (Bannister & Bannister 1993 p. 160) there is an extraordinary record of 800 pollards being “falled out of Mill Green Common” in 1793. Whether “falled” actually meant felled or whether it meant pollarded is not quite clear. The neglected pollards that survive today tend to have huge overgrown tops and it is difficult to imagine eight hundred of those crowded on to the Common - there would be no room left for the grazing animals to squeeze between them! But of course a regularly cut pollard in those days would probably have been a small stunted tree, a couple of which still survive today on the edge of the Common, where it borders Harding’s Farm. There is apparently a record from Epping of up to 1000 such pollards on an acre of grond! 625 pollards were also “falled off Edney Common” the following year so it would seem that pollards in general had likely outlived their usefulness by this time and it was the policy of the Petre’s to remove them. As Thomas Jagger only had to fork out a paltry £40 for those eight hundred trees it suggests that the trunks were of little use apart from firewood while the sale of 15 stack of oak timber top-wood yielded a further £9 15s, 1210 oak faggots £7 17s and the bark from the same £18 3s 4½. If that huge number of trees were indeed felled then the many subsequent sales of oak timber, top wood, faggots and bark from the Common to 1802, when the book closes, suggests that many other trees must have survived.
Its heyday as heathland appears to have been from the early nineteenth to the mid twentieth century but its demise probably began as early as the 1870s. It was then that the current Mill Green-Highwood road was established as the main thoroughfare across the Common. It seems to have been one of numerous tracks that crisscrossed the area at this time and was presumably chosen because it was the most direct route, running past both Woodside Cottages and the Commoner’s dwelling which had recently been converted into The Viper Ale House. Its construction initiated the opening bars of a death knell for the Common’s role as rough grazing for the livestock of the Commoners, whose cottages were clustered along its margins, and the advent of the motor car sounded it fully as un-tethered animals could no longer be allowed to roam at will. The encroachment by oak/birch secondary woodland which had begun when I was a boy accelerated when the rabbit population was decimated by myxomatosis later in that decade. The situation became so serious that by the early 1990s less than a quarter of the common land depicted on the 1876 map remained an open space while gorse had been reduced to scattered remnants and heather was on the point of extinction, only a few sorry wisps remaining. Subsequently, determined efforts were made by Brentwood District Council and English Nature (since renamed Natural England) to restore at least some of the heathland to its original condition, their energies being centred on the triangle of grassland opposite The Cricketers, bounded by the Mill Green-Highwood Road, Mill Green Park and Mapletree Lane. The invading birch scrub was cleared and so too the last of the remaining gorse thickets. Heather restoration is a painfully slow process, as the seedlings need optimum moisture conditions during their first year or two of life in order to survive, but within a few years the number of plants had increased from around a dozen to well over one hundred. Unfortunately, their efforts (and funding) ceased around fifteen years ago and the site was rapidly re- invaded by birch thickets. Gorse also increased once more but that was no bad thing as it is a fine habitat in its own right and the the dense clumps here are virtually all that remain in the entire Forest. For the past 5-6 years Rob Smith (the County Butterefly Recorder) and me have been working to try and preserve this last fragment of heathland. We have felled all the birches and some of the scrub oaks ( the deer have killed the stumps by nibbling the re-growth); thinned some of the older, dying gorse; and dug out some of the all-conquering clumps of Purple Moor Grass to create open patches where heather seedlings can gain a foothold. It seemed like a hopeless – albeit an enjoyable - task when we began but we have succeeded in creating a mosaic of gorse, heather, bramble and open grassland with scattered young oaks, Rowan, Alder Buckthorn, Goat Willow and Apple and it has been very rewarding.
The Common was a quiet and lonely place today; no other walkers had braved the flurries of iced rain and I only had the dog and the wind for company. One small group of birds were foraging in the tree-tops, our paths crossing on several occasions. A dozen or more Long-tailed Tits were in the vanguard of this band, a score of Blue and Great Tits following their lead and bringing with them half-a-dozen Goldcrests, two Coal Tits, a Treecreeper and a pair of Nuthatches. No sign, though, of either Marsh Tit or Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, two species that would certainly have accompanied them a few years ago but which have subsequently all but disappeared from the Forest woodlands. The only other touch of colour was provided by a beautiful Scarlet Elf Cup Sarcocypha coccinea, nestling out of the rain in the rotting core of an old oak stump.
A grey, murky, bleak, kind of day. The garden riddled with puddles of brown water and the misshapen lumps of congealed leaves and mud-stained flower stalks remaining from the autumn. Among them, almost unnoticed, was the first Crocus of the year. The first week in February is a late date for such an occurrence nowadays, certainly when judged on the experience of the past couple of years. Last winter, for instance, Snowdrops were seen in flower on the first day in December, Lesser Celandine was blooming beneath a hedge at Pleshey on Christmas Day, and by the middle of January Primroses, Sweet Violets and even a few Daffodils were contributing their colour to the village gardens. Daffodils in January for heaven’s sake! Fortunately, most species are less impatient this year. I say “fortunately” as such unseasonal appearances give me little pleasure, whether they be plants, birds, insects or any other kind of wildlife. I prefer my seasons to follow a more orderly sequence. Indeed, so great - or absurd - is my desire in this respect that I deliberately refrain from gazing too closely at these garden bred ‘wild flowers’ less they tarnish the joy of finding the first genuinely wild blooms in woodland glade or hedgerow ditch a month or so hence. Likewise, an encounter with a wintering Blackcap or Chiffchaff; or a Peacock or Small Tortiseshell butterfly lured out of hibernation by warm January sunshine is a cause of irritation rather than enjoyment. It does not matter that Primroses and Chiffchaffs have probably made unseasonal appearances since time immemorial - what does matter is that they have always symbolised the coming of spring in the mind of man and that being the case they should have the decency to delay their appearance until the mind of this particular man is ready to greet them!
A saturation of mist oozing with white light from a strangled sun. Skyline hedgerows, shrouded with frost, transformed by distance into towering forest lands. The brown plough on the valley slopes splashed with slivers of snow and crisscrossed with skeletal oaks and crumbling elms where hedgerows used to be. The River Wid a torrent, wind chopped and white frothed. Mallard and Moorhen cringing in the shallows. Me cringing - disgruntled by the cold and whinging for the spring - behind the sparse shelter afforded by the walls of Buttsbury Church. I had come this way as Harold Smith, who farms Jordans Farm, Mountnessing for Lord Petre, had told me yesterday that Brown Hares are very common in the area at the moment and easy to see because of the light sprinkling of snow. This surprised me, as during the many years I have been walking the parish footpaths I doubt whether I have ever seen more than a couple on a single day. Harold was right, though, as I counted no less than twenty-eight this morning - dark lumps against the snow with only an occasional twitching ear to give them away. Even allowing for the fact that daydreaming has long been a very bad habit of mine, to encounter twenty-eight hares in one morning when I had only seen half a dozen during the previous six months bears eloquent testimony to my powers of observation! Mind you, Peter Standford-Hope, Lord Petre’s gamekeeper at Writtle Park, told me recently that if he shot thirty hares on the estate during the course of a winter it would have little effect on their abundance but that if he killed fifty then it probably would, as he estimated the population at around one hundred and twenty animals. Likewise, Nick Robson, who is the EWT’s warden at Bluehouse Farm, North Fambridge, reckons that when they do surveys at night using lamps they often see thirty or more hares, whereas you are lucky to see a tenth of that number during a daytime walk. Thus, it is obvious that they are far more nocturnal in their habits than I had imagined.
The late Reg Smith, Harold’s brother, once told me that he thought hares were much more numerous in the past when root crops were grown at Ingatestone Hall and neighbouring farms. They loved to nibble the sugar beet and were considered to be a serious pest. He recalled a cull taking place during the war, during which the workers on the farm surrounded each of the fields in turn and walked slowly towards the centre, the fleeing animals either being shot, clubbed or set upon by dogs. Very few managed to escape and by the end of the day they had killed over two hundred and fifty.
This story reminded me of a conversation I once had with a visitor to the Bird Observatory at Bradwell. He came from the Saffron Walden area and during a chat about country matters he mentioned that just prior to the last war he had taken part in a day’s shooting during which no less than a thousand hares were killed. He went on to say that the stench in the barn where the bodies were hung was overpowering. Later in the conversation the subject turned to foxes. Apparently one had recently broken into his henhouse and killed several chickens. He became very animated about it, heaping all manner of abuse on the animal’s head, and concluded by saying that no manner of death, however slow or cruel, was bad enough for such a bloodthirsty species. Quite so!
A cold still night full of whispering snow showers. When I set out just before dawn I was met by the bent, hooded figures of other early risers who were plodding to work enveloped in clouds of steamy breath. We were the silent inhabitants of a soft white world where the dark edged twigs on every tree were outlined in silver and the fallen snow had spread inches deep across roads, pavements, garden lawns, hedges, roofs, railings, sills, chimney stacks, aerials, street lamps, road signs and each and every surface which presented the gently descending flakes with a foothold, no matter how precarious. Even the village High Street lay hidden beneath a three inch deep pall of snow, which at this early hour of the day was barely sullied by the wheels of passing traffic. At first light the sun oozed pink through a wet mist and although it gave no warmth it did bring light to a pale blue sky of such transparent brittleness that it seemed likely to shatter at the merest tap. The scene was too beautiful, the silence too profound to be described without stumbling into cliché. Such a hush humbles the soul. Or alternatively, if you don't believe you have one, stimulates certain chemicals in the brain. Either way, the effect is the same.
A good day for a walk, even though the early morning magic had faded under a thawing sun by the time I left the village behind and the temperature had risen a little. To be truthful, beauty in winter is, for me, dependent on more than the inanimate delights of an ice-pale sky, mist shrouded views or frost crystals patterning the grass, lovely as they are : it needs vibrancy, exuberance, sparkle. In a winter like this one, where drear grey skies have been the norm, that sparkle can only be delivered by birds. They, almost alone in a dormant winter landscape, are alive with the light, colour and zest for existence which the soul (or those misbehaving chemicals) so much crave! Such spectacle, though, is increasingly hard to find in the industrialised farming landscape of the 21st century. On the coast, the large flocks of wildfowl and waders still bring joy to the heart but, inland, that joy has to be prised from the landscape.
Local knowledge drew me back to the River Wid and the habitats alongside it where flocks of birds may still be found. This corner of the parish has a role in several of my childhood memories. Not that I am a sentimentalist about that stage of my life - it’s just that some memories persist forever whether you want them to or not! Roger Smith, Dave Pinnock and I used to spend a lot of time bird-nesting in the area. On one occasion we were caught by Lord Petre’s grumpy old gamekeeper, Harold Ball, just after we had robbed the Jackdaws that used to nest in the belfry of Buttsbury Church and on another I fell up to my neck in one of the farm’s several ponds and nearly drowned. All good boyish pranks. Or they would have been had I not, when gruffly asked by the gamekeeper whether we had any more eggs on us than those in our mitts, meekly grassed on Roger, who had hidden one in his mouth, and in the second instance had gone bawling home to my mother. There is no truth in the rumour that I was sixteen at the time, however.
Come now you miserable sod, there are happier memories too. Such as those occasions, when I was little more than a toddler, that my parents used to take my sister and me for walks on Sunday afternoons. The path between the Recreation Ground (Fairfield) and Ingatestone Hall was a regular route and on one occasion I clearly recall finding a Pheasant’s Eye among the numerous wild flowers in the autumn stubble. This is an extremely rare plant in Essex - there has only been one confirmed post-war record that I am aware of - so maybe I was mistaken : the blooms of a Scarlet Pimpernel entangled among the leaves of a mayweed perhaps? Either way, it was the first wild flower to fully imprint itself on my consciousness, so much so that, when my father died and I took over the garden, it was among the first plants I decided to grow.
Later on, when train-spotting became my passion, my friends and I used to hang around on the railway bridge at the head of the path, waiting for the steam engines to pass beneath. I soon ticked off most of those that were to be seen on the Eastern Region but one, Oryx by name, always seemed to elude me. Then came that happy day when it at last appeared; not only appeared but halted almost beneath the bridge. I was overcome with joy - leaping up and down on the parapet in ecstasy - and the look on the face of the engine driver, who was so obviously sharing in my happiness, is with me still. Over forty years later Roger Green - a train buff who lived on my post-round on the Heybridge estate - very kindly researched the fate of dear old Oryx. He even managed to find an old photograph of it steaming out of Marks Tey station. Part of me had been hoping that it had been preserved for the Nation somewhere but its fate, alas, was more predictable : it ended up in that great marshalling yard in the sky via a scrap yard at Doncaster! Sad.
The then Lord Petre is buried in Buttsbury Churchyard, an elevated spot overlooking his land. It was a bleak view for him today across those snow-swept fields. But not without a few of the images I craved : a cackle of Fieldfares stripping the last of the berry crop from the whitethorn bushes along the railway embankment : ribbons of Lapwing - black and white against blue - moving slowly westwards towards more temperate climes : fifty or more Pied Wagtails and a couple of dozen Skylarks and Meadow Pipits foraging in a corner of a set aside field swept clear of snow by the wind : a Kingfisher perched on a willow twig above the river, peering into the silt stained shallows for minnows or loach. The number of Teal on the sewage works settling beds had increased to nearly two hundred since my last visit ten days ago and Snipe to fifty. I flushed a Jack Snipe, a Water Rail and a female Pintail, the last a scarce visitor to the area. A foraging party of Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits were working their way through the thick screen of bushes alongside the beds and an unseen flock of Blackbirds and Redwings scrabbled among the leaf litter beneath them, only their contact calls and the scuffing of the leaves betraying their movements. Nearby, a trio of Bullfinches sat plumply on top of the hedge while the wintering Chiffchaff from last time had found a companion. On the other side of the hedge upwards of a hundred Starlings - as noisy and quarrelsome as ever despite the cold - were hitching a ride on the slowly revolving arms of the sprinkler beds while a pair of Grey Wagtails expertly dodged the arms to snatch morsels from among the clinker.
An even greater surprise than the Pintail awaited me at Margaretting Hall Farm Reservoir - a Great Northern Diver! How a bird more accustomed to the wide open spaces of the estuaries and northern lochans managed to manouvre itself between the tree-lined banks of this secluded water when coming into land astonished me but it was showing no signs of claustrophobia. The reservoir being so small I was able to enjoy what amounted to an eyeball to eyeball encounter and to note that there was a broken secondary on one wing and a slight wound on the right leg. That apart, it seemed in excellent health and there was no sign of any oiling - a frequent reason for seabirds wandering away from their usual haunts. When first seen it was fishing and thanks to the shallowness of the water it proved easy to follow its movements during each dive by observing the line of bubbles rising to the surface. The smaller fry seemed to be swallowed underwater, only the larger fish - including a four inch long Perch - being brought back up. Afterwards it spent twenty minutes or so at its toilet : an energetic series of exercises which involved frequently treading water and flapping its wings; pattering along the surface as if about to take wing; surging through the water half submerged; rolling over and over like a canoeist practicing at righting himself; and paddling sideways with, at first one wing, then the other, extended below the surface. There then followed a minute inspection and realignment of the flight feathers on each wing. The number of other wildfowl on the reservoir had increased dramatically since 9th, the water (which, surprisingly, was still completely free of ice) being crowded with 121 Coot, 83 Mallard, 38 Tufted Duck, 37 Wigeon, 32 Gadwall, 14 Pochard, 11 Moorhen, 9 Dabchick, 2 Grey Heron, 2 Cormorant and a single Canada Goose and Great Crested Grebe.
I spent nearly an hour in the diver’s company before the cold forced me to seek shelter in the porch of Margaretting Church, where I enjoyed a snack of luke warm coffee and frozen cheese & pickle sandwiches! As I left for home a Common Buzzard flew low over the church, a huge trail of wildfowl, pigeons, gulls, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Starlings billowing in its wake as it flapped and glided across the valley towards the Stock ridge. As I belted round the corner of the rectory to try and obtain a better view four Brown hares came scampering along the track towards me. They stopped and crouched - ears akimbo, noses all of a twitch - loped forward a few more yards, halted, twitched some more, fussed, hesitated, then fled!
The beauty of the snow drenched landscape was beginning to pall as I plodded homewards. This may have been because my soul had been humbled enough or possibly because the chemicals in my brain were no longer imbalanced. Alternatively, it may have been because I was knackered. There is only so much snow a sixty year old can take, both mentally and physically. A warm fire and a good book were beginning to seem preferable to cold feet and lukewarm coffee! The day was not yet finished with me however and proffered - if you will pardon the hyperbole - a few more images of liveliness and loveliness with which to ease my weariness. As I approached a game cover strip adjacent to Osborne’s Wood I flushed a party of around 30 Chaffinches and a dozen Yellowhammers. These, though, proved to be a mere apertif for the main course, which was served as I passed another strip alongside nearby Bushy Wood - the flock that rose from between the broken and snow laden stems of quinoa and millet containing at least 200 Chaffinches, 25 Yellowhammers, 12 Reed Buntings, half-a-dozen Goldfinches, 4-5 Bramblings and - tra la la yipee yipee yipee - 20 Linnets! A bit over the top? Perhaps. But the Linnet was one of the staples of my bird nesting childhood. They were everywhere. You couldn’t walk far, anywhere in the parish, before being accosted by a red-blazoned cock Linnet chattering away to himself, his mate, and anybody else who cared to listen. Now they are rare. Literally rare. A few in spring and autumn - chattering overhead on migration - and a few breeding pairs clinging to old haunts in common land furze thicket or overgrown hedgerow; but in winter they are almost unknown, having fled these shores for the warmer, less intensively farmed landscapes of France and Iberia. Thus my elation at seeing this little flock.
They settled along the edge of the wood, a few yards away from where I was standing, and waited patiently for me to move on. Thus I did not linger long, allowing them to return to their feast. The cold weather probably also explained the approachability of five Fallow Deer stags grazing the frosted wheat in a field alongside The Grove. We appraised each other from a distance of no more than fifty yards; they seeming to realise that I bore neither a gun nor ill-will and I admiring the handsome seven-pointer stag with broad, curved antlers who continued to exchange glances with me long after the rest of his band had resumed grazing.
The final delight of a rewarding walk was a hundred strong swarm of chuckling Fieldfares, Redwings and Blackbirds gorging on rotting apples in Maisonettes orchard. A source of joy - and without joy no life can function properly. Joy, of course, comes in many forms and its source can be both the head and the heart. Those who are in thrall to either and who decry its opposite lead imbalanced lives. There are days, though, when the one needs to acknowledge subservience to the other and stay its voice. The quiet, snow filled landscape of an English winter belongs to the soul. Deride it at your peril.
We have experienced a run of severe frosts since the current cold spell began a weekt ago, overnight temperatures falling to as low as -6`C 21`F on a couple of days last week. Man or beast, that’s plenty cold enough if you are sleeping out in it but is as nothing compared with many a winter during the three decades following the Second World War. The winter of 1946-47 is reputed to have been one of the bitterest of these but the coldest and most prolonged - unmatched since the “mini ice-age” of the early 18th century - is that of 1962-63. It is certainly the one that lingers longest in the memory among people of my generation. The snow began falling on Boxing Day and the ground - already frozen since December 22nd, when a bitter east wind arrived from the depths of the Russian steppe - was quickly covered to a depth of between six inches and a foot. The wind ensured that much of this was piled into drifts several times that depth while the overnight frosts which accompanied it remained unrelenting until the end of February. The nadir was reached about January 23rd, when a temperature of 6`F -15`C was noted in Essex and the ground was reported as being frozen to a depth of between one and two feet. There were a couple of short periods of partial thaw after that but the snow cover persisted until early March.
As kids we loved it (and unlike today, at fifteen I was still a kid) and I recall helping to build a seven foot high Snowman in a neighbour’s garden and tobogganing on the steep farmland slopes around my Aunt’s house at Maplestead. For wildlife though it was a nightmare and sad tales abounded. At Margaretting, for instance, a Moorhen became frozen into the ice on a pond. During its struggled it pulled one leg right off. It hobbled off into the undergrowth, where it was presumed to have died, but, remarkably, it was still about and apparently none the worse at the end of the year! There were also reports of 30 Redwing seeking food beneath the stalls in Chelmsford Market and of 60 feeding in the gutters in Southend High Street while one observer picked up over twenty from beneath bushes in his garden, all of which died overnight. As for dear old Jenny Wren, over 90% were wiped out (I only saw about three birds hereabouts the following summer) and there were heartbreaking stories of 25 being found huddled together in a squirrel’s dray and no less than 44 in a nest-box, all of which were dead.
The effects of the freeze along the coast were even more spectacular. Malcolm Chettleburgh describes the scene from Sales Point in the Bradwell Bird Observatory log for January 26th as follows : “The whole of the Blackwater estuary is frozen and covered in pack-ice. When the tide recedes large blocks of ice, some four feet high, cover the mud, which only shows through in a very few places. At high tide the moving ice resembles the spring thaw in the Arctic, with dull rumblings and - every now and then - ice rising up from the bottom to displace that already floating, creating a heaving mass of ice sheets. On the patches of open water great stretches of ice float by. A small party of Turnstones sit on one huge block and a solitary Golden Plover on another while it is an impressive sight to see groups of Oystercatcher piping their way across the whiteness of the river”.
On February 10th he noted that :
“Today’s weather, particularly in the morning, was very miserable. The visibility was extremely poor and the sea rough, large waves breaking on the ice piled high along the tide line. In the flotsam of mashed ice and dead seaweed the emaciated corpses of many birds were to be seen, including a Curlew, eight Shelduck, three Common Gulls and a Lesser Black-back”.
A week later he records finding 80 dead birds of 18 species along the beaches between Bradwell Power Station and St Peter’s, namely, 37 Shelduck, 8 Redshank, 8 Common Gull, 4 Wood Pigeon, 4 Mallard, 3 Black-headed Gull, two each of Curlew, Eider, Herring Gull and Skylark and single Carrion Crow, Great Crested Grebe, Kittiwake, Linnet, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Red-throated Diver and Wigeon.
Subsequent winters never matched the severity of that one but many of those during the 1970s and 1980s were vicious compared with those we have experienced during the past decade. When I was young they seemed exciting as if the freeze extended to the Continent, particularly the Dutch polders, it could trigger spectacular movements of birds into eastern England and the unexpected appearance of species that were seldom to be seen in the County during milder winters. In retrospect, though, it is the sufferings of wildlife that come to the fore. One particularly bitter January day in the early 1970s comes to mind. As I cycled into the grounds of Eweland Hall at Margaretting on my postal delivery there was a great commotion as a flock of around 30 Collared Doves exited their roost in a large holly tree. Most flew off without any trouble but half-a-dozen fell to the ground and attempted to scuttle away into the undergrowth. After much slipping and sliding I eventually caught two of them. One had one wing and the other both wings firmly attached to the flank feathers by ice, so they were unable to flap them. Hence their unexpected nosedive from the tree. In addition, the foot of one was encrusted in a ball of ice the size of a large brussel-sprout. By warming their feathers with my breath I was able to free their wings and managed to melt the ice ball by holding it in the palm of my hand. But when I let them go they seemed too weak to fly and wandered off into the shrubbery looking very forlorn.
A more amusing but in its way equally sad spectacle was enacted by our cat, Tibby by name, and a small group of starving Wood Pigeons that had been forced to overcome their fear of man and visit the village gardens in search of food. Some of them alighted on our broccoli and as soon as he saw them the said Tibby went into his stalking routine. Body lowered close to the ground, head unmoving, but tail swishing gently from side to side, he edged along the side of the shed towards the distant broccoli. The pigeons remained unmoved. Encouraged, he made a dash for the cover afforded by the nearest linen-post. The pigeons still didn’t take any notice. Another dash and he was up to the second linen-post, no more than five yards from his quarry. It was obvious that the pigeons had seen him, as unlike a wild animal his swishing tail kept giving him away, but they made no effort to fly off. By this time his rear end was wagging to and fro along with his tail and after a final furious oscillation he shot up the path towards the pigeons. They just sat there, too cold and miserable to even think of flying off. Totally nonplussed by this behaviour the courageous Tibby skidded to a halt beneath the nearest broccoli, stared in momentary disbelief at the unmoving pigeon perched on top of it, then turned abruptly and fled down the garden path with his tail very firmly between his legs…………
Romanticism, like nostalgia, is an insidious emotion. By its very nature it flourishes in the perpetual glow of rosy sunsets. Winters were colder and crisper, springs warmer, summers longer and hotter, autumns forever golden. As a young birdwatcher I thrived on the romance of the early bird observatories, especially those on offshore islands such as Fair Isle, Bardsey and the Isle of May. It seemed like a wonderful adventure simply to get to them, battling gigantic seas and roaring currents in tiny boats. I dreamed of standing on the bow of the legendary “Good Shepherd” as it surged across the northern ocean between Shetland mainland and Fair Isle or of witnessing one of the famous lighthouse attractions on Bardsey, during which thousands of migrant birds swirl through the beams of light in a manic dance and dash themselves against the glass. When, eventually, the first of those dreams became reality my friends never forgave me! Against their better judgement they had been persuaded by my romantic outpourings to travel on the "Good Shepherd III" rather than fly to the island but our first sight of it came as a shock even to me. It was a battered old tin tub, badly in need of a coat of paint, with a door-less tin shack on deck that served as a kind of cabin. One of my friends had altruistically given me his final two 'Kwells', claiming that he did not suffer from seasickness.That assertion proved to be erroneous as he spent most of the trip to Fair Isle throwing up over the side, while I stood at the entrance to the 'cabin' with my eyes glued to the far horizon throughout the three long hours it took to get to Fair Isle. When, at the end of the crossing, my friend - who was not one to take the loss of his breakfast calmly - turned to the boatman complaining that it was “the worst bloody boat I have ever been on” the latter looked very hurt and replied in broad Scots “’tis not the boat laddie, ‘tis the sea”. Quite so!
As for Bardsey, when I at last got to witness a lighthouse attraction it wasn’t exciting, it was immensely sad, horrible even. The bewildered birds, dazzled and disoriented, crashed against the light, looking momentarily like moths in the revolving beams. A young Manxie flew full-pelt into the glass, dropped like the proverbial stone, smashed onto a shed roof, rolled down the slates into the guttering, bounced out, and hit the ground with a thud. Remarkably, like the Moorhen mentioned earlier, it survived but many did not. Next morning, the neat rows of Redwings, Starlings, Meadow Pipits, Robins and tiny corpses of Goldcrests lined up on the ringing hut table, preparatory to being sent off to museums, brought home the reality of the extraordinary spectacle that is bird migration but at the same time engendered feelings of shame that I could ever have viewed birds as mere objects in a game to thrill the senses. How could one consider such a scene to be 'romantic'. Likewise cold winters. As I commented earlier it is the suffering I now remember, not the excitement. As much as I may moan about the mild, damp, grey, drizzly, gloomy, gutless winters of the early 21st century they are bliss for wildlife - and not a few human beings as well - compared with their bleak predecessors. Rejoice, I say, that not only wrens but crests and larks and pipits and tits and chats and thrushes can thrive here in winter and Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs remain with us throughout the year. Little Egrets now search out fry and Cetti’s Warblers sing from the ditches where Malcolm once recorded his line of corpses. Invertebrates too are moving north from Europe in droves to enjoy our snow free shores. We have lost so much in recent decades so let us celebrate the gains, so many of which are attributable to our warming climate. Long may it continue. If, as some scientists claim, global warming eventually leads to the loss of the Gulf Stream and a return to arctic conditions may I no longer be around to witness it. Assuming, that is, it does not happen next year……..!
Dawn revealed a day dominated by wind and rain. As we idled over a cup of tea in the Bird Observatory at Bradwell our chatter was interrupted by the sound of hail machine-gunning against the roof and walls of the hut, the stones catapulting from the woodwork and bouncing crazily across the lawn where they were quickly melted by the still warm earth. As the sunrise advanced, a faint rosy blush did tarry awhile along the eastern horizon but quickly retreated when confronted by a blanket of cloud that crawled out of the northwest, urged on by a fierce North Atlantic blow. From time to time the sky paled and a shaft or two of watery sunlight pierced the cloud, but for the greater part of the day showers pursued each other across the saltings, browbeating the marshland grasses, cratering the soft mud in gully and pool, and chasing the local sparrows under the eaves, where their strangely muted chirrupings testified to their disquiet. An ideal day for the monthly Wetland Bird Survey count between the Obs and Marshhouse Outfall!
Three times Clive, Bob and myself set out along the Dengie and three times we fled ignominiously back to the hut. "Can't go yet, it's still raining" was the lame excuse on each occasion.Thus three hours, half a dozen cups of tea and three packets of digestive biscuits separated the making of the decision from the mustering of sufficient will power to carry it out.
As soon as we left the shelter of the garden icy blasts of wind plucked at our clothing and a mixture of rain and sleet rattled ears and noses to pink numbness. Facing the gale caused streaming eyes and facing away from it incurred a constant tottering on the brink of disaster. Should we give up and retreat back to the Obs once more? Alas, we could not as an even worse fate awaited us there. We had run out of digestives. So we plugged on. It was still a couple of hours before high water so we decided to leg it to Marsh House and count on the way home, with the wind on our backs. Most birds seemed to have hunkered down for the duration of the storm and there was little to be seen. A few Reed Buntings, befuddled with cold, sheltered beneath clumps of Sueada and an occasional Wren patrolled the seawall, each five gram bundle of brown fluff defending its few hundred yards of dead vegetation with a puffed up, cocked-tail bumptiousness that appeared amusing to us but which was doubtless a matter of life and death to them. Along the edge of the saltings flocks of Starlings fed among the mishmash of plastic cups, petrol cans, electric light bulbs and detergent bottles that, together with a million rotting fragments of saltmarsh plants, formed the residue of tides past. Noisy and quarrelsome like all their clan, these wintering nomads from the USSR were at least worthy of a little more respect than their brethren in the backyard havens of suburbia.
Our head down plod into the wind was interrupted at Glebe when Clive's ever alert ears picked up the distant "chekka chekka chekka chekka chekka" of an angry raptor and it was his equally vigilant eyes that first spotted the vocalist, a large immature Peregrine. Not that he had a lot of competition: subject to my usual panic, I scanned the sky at such speed that I am not sure that I could have picked out a Jumbo Jet let alone a bird, while it is unlikely that Bob, although he was doing his best to look observant, could see much at all through the crust of egg yolk, tomato ketchup and estuarine mud that habitually coated the lenses of his binoculars. The Peregrine was flying across the estuary from the direction of Clacton and was being subjected to a lot of abuse, both verbal and physical, by a mob of Great Black-backed Gulls. Not being the most phlegmatic of raptors, the Peregrine repeatedly turned on its back and slashed at the gulls with its talons, or occasionally soared high above them and, chattering with ire, dived into their midst, feathers literally flying. It was in no mood to be trifled with and the gulls soon realised this and went back to squabbling among themselves, while the Peregrine resumed its journey across the estuary, making landfall near St Peter's.
We settled in at Marshhouse and began our count. With the best part of a mile of saltmarsh between us and Howe Outfall, the outer limit of our survey area, it was not easy to come up with a realistic estimate of the waders gathered along the foreshore. However, we were unwittingly assisted in our task by a de Havilland DH 100 Vampire, courtesy of North Weald aerodrome. It came roaring recklessly over the marsh. no more than a hundred feet up, and we began to think that the pilot must have a death wish because in the ensuing pandemonium thousands of ducks, geese and waders rose just beneath his wings - and engines! Birds of a feather flock together, or at least Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover do, and by, firstly, estimating the size of the whole flock and, secondly, working out the percentage of each species we reached a kind of inspired guess, namely 10,500 Knot, 4,500 Dunlin and 1500 Grey Plover. Milling among them were hundreds of Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Curlew while by looking northwards you could follow the jets progress by the clouds of birds flowing in its wake.
Soggy sandwiches and stale coffee were no inducement to linger at Marshhouse longer than we had to but our walk back to the Observatory was halted at Sandbeach by a sinister hissing sound. A wall of rain was bearing down upon us from out of the north-west and we watched fascinated as field after field was gobbled up by its advance guard and disappeared into the blackness beyond. We did not stand and stare for long however. The first touch of its icy embrace saw us scuttling for cover behind a bramble bush that for years had stubbornly resisted sea, storm, and the Environment Agency on the seaward side of the wall at Sandbeach. Its thorny defences also made a fair job of resisting us as we hacked ourselves seats along its sheltered side and covered our heads with an impromptu, hand-held roof of planks of wood, foam rubber and expanded polyurethane. Unfortunately the wind was very gusty and variable in direction during the height of the shower and each time a flurry of rain caught one of us unawares the suffer would attempt to yank the plank of wood further over his own head, with the inevitable result that large sections of the remainder would collapse on top of his companions. This led to what might be termed some polite friction, a friction that abruptly ceased when the sky was filled without warning with a soft murmuring as flock after flock of Golden Plover converged on the outfall from all points of the compass. Layer upon layer of birds moved towards us, seemed to be suspended momentarily above our heads, then moved away, only to be followed by waves of new birds, all softly calling to each other, as harmonious as a choir. They massed above the receding tide, then split, re-formed, split again, and finally swept along the shoreline in smoke-like trails that that shone gold, then silver, as the birds twisted from side to side. At Marsh House they joined ranks again and surged back towards us, 20,000 birds roaring a few feet above our heads in an extraordinary blend of fiercely beating wings and gently murmuring voices. A second performance followed before the united flock began sweeping repeatedly over the mud opposite where we sat, large numbers of birds breaking away during each pass and swelling the volume of sound arising from those already on the ground. Within a few minutes all the flock had settled but the sociable hum remained as they continued to talk among themselves long after we departed.
That departure was hastened when Bob decided to pop his head above the seawall in search of a silver lining and in so doing unbalanced the entire 'roof', one end of the plank crashing down on Clive's head and the other bouncing off my knees. We had to endure several more vicious flurries of sleet and wet snow during the remainder of our walk but there were no further suggestions about finding cover. At first, St Peter's Chapel never seemed to get any closer, but step by weary step we eventually neared our goal and then at last we were there. Kiers had seen us coming and put the kettle on and very shortly there were twin pillars of steam rising from in front of the fire, one from us and the other from mugs of hot sweet coffee. Kiers had also bought some digestives on his way down - chocolate digestives no less. The simple pleasures are best...............!
The day had one final treat in store for us. Towards dusk the sky cleared and the wind slackened as the weather front moved through. We decamped outside, coffee mugs still close to hand, in anticipation of seeing Hen Harriers coming in to roost on the saltings. The first to arrive was a large 'ringtail', almost certainly a ♀. This was followed by an adult ♂with a distinct brownish wash to its mantle, and finally by a much smaller 'ringtail', probably a cock bird. As they quartered back and forth looking for a safe spot to settle down for the night a couple of Short-eared Owls suddenly appeared on the scene. They were looking for somewhere along the seawall to roost but while so engaged were set upon by a tiercel Merlin and a pair of Carrion Crows. All three attacked with such determination that the owls were several times knocked to the ground. In response they struggled to gain height and after reaching a hundred feet or so they began circling. The Merlin broke away from the affray at this point but the crows took up station a few feet beneath the owls and religiously followed their every movement, turn for turn, only in the opposite direction, clockwise rather than anti-clockwise. Up and up they went, round and round they soared, the crows making no attempt to gainsay on the owls and the latter making no attempt to widen the gap between themselves and their adversaries. Soon they were tiny specks in the darkening sky and then they disappeared altogether, but within a couple of minutes a couple of cawing black dots spiralled earthwards into view again and moved southwards along the coast, leaving the Short-eared's, who had successfully out-flown them, to regain their roost at leisure.
When I first began bird-watching along the Essex coast in the early 1960s the global population of Dark-bellied Brent Geese was around 30,000 and it was considered to be under serious threat. They were seldom seen on the fields but spent most of their time feeding on the beds of Eel Grass way out on the mudflats. It was only when these beds were decimated by pollution or disease later in the decade that they moved inland in search of an alternative food supply. Since then they have been protected throughout their range and numbers rose to around 150,000 in the 1990s and 250,000 today (2016). The reason numbers had fallen so low is that they were considered fair game in a previous era when, on the Dengie coast alone, dozens of professional wildfowlers (or Marsh Men as they were then known) made a living from shooting wildfowl and waders, fishing, ‘cockling’, and harvesting Marsh Samphire and other products of the estuary. One such was Walter Linnett, who lived in a tiny cottage on the edge of the saltmarsh at Bradwell St Peter’s. The cottage was built around 1798 by the Admiralty in order to house two naval officers - a lieutenant and a midshipman – whose job it was, along with two ordinary seamen, to man a signalling station on high ground nearby. The boredom engendered by the site’s isolation, coupled with having to live cheek by jowl in cold cramped quarters, not to mention the ever present threat of being laid low by the dreaded Essex ague (a form of malaria) must have made this the posting from hell. A surviving letter from November 1810 written by one Lieutenant John Leckie to their Lordships about the midshipman under his command states that:
“…….he went from the station without asking leave and stayd all night, did not return until nine this Next morning, and was then obliged to go to bed; I talked to him on that business, and he told me that he did not know that he was supposed to ask leave but promised to do so no more, on Thursday last he asked leave to go up to the village which he did, on the next morning he asked leave again which I granted him, and last evening he went away again without leave, and did not return again until one past ten, this forenoon and so drunk, that he went to bed immediately, he is without exception the most stupid man I ever had or saw……..”
Winters must have been fun in such company! At the end of the Napoleonic wars the signal station was closed down. The Linnett family are thought to have taken up residence in the middle of the century and remained in occupation until 1958 when the last member of their family to live there, Walter Linnett, died at the age of 80. He and his wife raised eight children there and it is rumoured that the babes in arms were put to bed in boxes in the cupboards. From the moment they could toddle much of their lives would have been spent out of doors. Walter’s father is likely to have been among the thirty-two punt gunners who are reputed to have fired simultaneously into a flock of Brent Geese on the Dengie flats in around 1860, killing at least 704 of them. Several other huge bags of geese were also reported from the area at around this time. The same era saw over 3000 Lapwing eggs sent to market one summer from a single Norfolk estate alone, not just the original clutch of each pair being taken but all the replacement clutches as well. They weren’t into sustainability at that time either!
It was probably Walter Linnet who planted the fruit trees in and around his cottage garden – apple, damson, bullus, plum and greengage-the last of which, following a mild spring, often sag with fruit in August. Warmed by the summer sun they have sweetness and flavour that is bliss both to both the taste buds and the mind, no matter that there is a little added protein in some of them. Now, alas, they are succumbing to a white rot caused by the bracket fungus Phellinus pomaceus, which destroys the lignin (one of the main building materials in woody plants), leaving a soft and spongy white mess behind. They have perished, each one, branch by branch over the past decade and now only a few healthy boughs remain, perhaps sufficient this autumn to produce a last lingering memory of one of the simple pleasures of my life.
As the sun slowly dipped behind the trees in Box Wood the light softened and the shadows lengthened. A chill breeze urged me to finish my coffee and leave but just as I was about to do so a Fox came ambling along the path towards me. It was a large dog Fox, his tawny coat heavily barred with dark grey-brown, and he was carrying what at first I took to be a mouthful of dried grass, presumably to line his lair with, but which on closer inspection turned out to be a long dead Pheasant. He trotted along - head high, tail buoyant - looking so pleased with himself, and passed within a few yards of me, oblivious to my presence. I was left with the w impression that for him, on this cold midwinter afternoon, the dividing line between happiness and misery was that mouthful of desiccated pheasant. May his priorities be a lesson to me. Simple pleasures! A warm finale to a cold windy day.
Caterpillars of the Angleshades moth normally hibernate during the winter and resume feeding in the spring but those inhabiting my Purple Sprouting appear to have continued eating, on and off, throughout the current cold spell. My evidence for this is that whereas, in October, the boiled caterpillars which remained on my dinner plate were minute they have subsequently increased in size and the one which I inadvertently consumed last night - despite all the washing and straining of the leaves - was not only large and fat but exploded with yellow protein when I bit into it……….. It’s an ill wind though, as they say. At least I’ve got all the sprouting to myself. No one else in the house will touch it!
After the snow, inevitably, comes the sludge! Everywhere looks wet and grey and filthy. And yet. And Yet. The snow has melted to reveal the first Cherry Plum peeping into bloom on the verges of the B1002 : the first Dog’s Mercury and Lesser Celandine mingling in splashes of pale creamy white and yellow in sheltered corners of The Grove : the first thick clusters of glossy green, black spotted Arum leaves thrusting through the woodland floor : and prompted by the merest hint of a breeze, the first Alder catkins scattering pollen through the tree tops. The humble House Sparrow’s libido is also on the rise, a lone female leading an entourage of several chirruping, charging, would-be passionate males on frenetic chases through the shrubbery, their eagerness proving their undoing as they constantly tumbled over each other in a desperate clamour to reach the object of their desire. No matter. If, as they say, the joy is in the anticipation, they still had a very good time……..!