Letting Ramsey back in

It is now over three years since I spent three late spring and early summer months as the long term volunteer on the RSPB’s Ramsey Island reserve. It seems like a lifetime ago and so much has happened in my life over the intervening years. A new job, COVID-19, a new house in a new area, and, most notable for me, a wedding, had put the island very much to the back of my mind. They were a fantastic three months, a highlight of my life without a doubt, but life very quickly moved on after I left, and bar the small matter of a global pandemic and cost of living crisis, very much for the positive, 

I used to think about Ramsey Island a lot more often, often stimulated by the painting of St Justinian’s (the launching point for boats to the island) above my bed and other prints and photos on the walls of my old house. Despite those pictures being transferred to my new home, they have somewhat melted into the background; familiarity moving those images to the periphery of my vision. I also think, knowing that I couldn’t go, as volunteers haven’t been able to over the past two visitor seasons on the island, putting it as the back of my mind stopped me moping about it.

However, the opportunity for another stay on the island could not be missed. Having got out of the routine of an annual stay, as it had been between 2012 and 2018, it almost came as a surprise to me when the day arrived to travel across England and Wales to the familiar coast of Pembrokeshire. My packing was a little haphazard and my food very much a last-minute consideration, but, I have everything I need for a week.

The weather was beautiful when I arrived and has been the same since; almost wall to wall sunshine leaving me feeling sun-kissed each evening, although some of that might be wind burn as the strength of the northerlies have increased over the course of my stay. Having had a recent close shave with the effects of the sun on skin, my application of factor 50 has been a little more liberal this time, as has the wearing of my caps; it’s pretty exposed out here and the breeze can easily disguise the strength of the sun.

Arriving on the late summer bank holiday weekend, I half expected the island to be busy with visitors every day but the winds have meant that boats bringing them have only run for two days of my week’s stay; and I’m leaving a day early for the same reason.

While my life and the world has changed so much over the last three years, there are some very stable things about Ramsey which are gently reassuring. The scenery, on land and sea; the familiar birds feeding on the pasture, across the heathland and out over the water; the boats around the island, the ships in the Bay and the ferries on their routine journeys across to Ireland and back; the sounds of manxies at night and chough during the day; the flickering lights on the mainland and Milky Way overhead, and the stunning sunrises and sunsets; they all give a sense of continuation and permanence, that Ramsey is a constant in an ever changing world.

But, things do change here. There is a new warden, Nia, and another long-term volunteer, Luke. There is a new dog, Jinx, who has been trained to sniff out rats on land and sea, and the sheep dog, Dewi, indisputably the best dog in the world, is now very much the old boy of the island. The Bungalow, the volunteer accommodation, has been transformed, but not quite finished, with a fresh, clean look inside with new interior walls, a new stove, more electricity with sockets in each bedroom, and double glazing all round. There is just the kitchen and bathroom to remodel this autumn and the change will be amazing.

Ramsey, also, cannot escape the global changes and issues that are being faced in so many other places. Like the most of the UK, and elsewhere, Ramsey has experienced exceptionally low rainfall this year; climate change is casting a shadow over the island. I’ve never seen the place so dry and the grass isn’t just brown, it is non-existent in some areas. Not helped by the enormous rabbit population as the moment, the grass is so poor that the sheep, already down to a couple of dozen from around one hundred when I was last on the island, will be taken to the mainland at the end of the season.

There is another shadow over the island which is bringing dread of what is to come. Before I arrived, the news emerged that Grassholm, the other main island that is part of the reserve, has been hit by avian influenza. After reading awful stories from further north in the UK, and seeing signs of it in the Outer Hebrides, the news that bird flu had reached this hugely important gannet colony was a massive blow. Both on Grassholm and on Ramsey itself, as well as on the other Pembrokeshire Islands, bird flu could do enormous damage and undo so much of the decades of hard work of the conservationists. Ramsey’s birdlife is still recovering following the rat eradication over the Millennium winter with further good news this year, after the latest survey, that Manx Shearwater numbers have increased strongly again. As the adults and fledglings leave the island this year, it is hoped that they have avoided bird flu in this colony but there is anxiety over what may happen if it gains a greater grip over the winter and when they return next year.

I can’t end this post on a sad note, however. My stay on the island has been as lovely as ever and I will be very sad to leave it behind again. It is a truly beautiful place, and that won’t change; day visitors and volunteers alike are very privileged to spend a little time here. For me, it is a place that once it has you, it won’t let go no matter how long you spend away from it. Even if the periods of absence do grow longer and my stays shorter, even if it is put to the back of my mind, the island is still a major presence in my little world. Those pictures on the walls of my home will surely come back to life and over the autumn, winter and spring, I will spend a little more time thinking of this amazing place. 

A little visitor

We were just relaxing in the shade of our magnolia tree when we heard a rustle in the undergrowth and there popped up this little chap.

It’s years since I saw one, in fact it’s so long I can’t think when it was. So this is another mammal to add to the ‘seen’ garden list on top of our nightly hedgehogs and less frequent foxes plus loads of bats.

Just hoping he’s not going to destroy our lawn like the last two did over winter.

Zooming in on the rain

We were going to go for a local walk today but the weather is pretty awful and by time we drove the 10 minutes to the start of the walk the rain was coming down – we aborted the idea. However, on arriving home we spent some time in the garden using our new phones to do some macro photography of the water droplets on the flowers. I don’t do much macro photography but I’m pretty pleased with these…

A close beaver encounter

We’ve just returned from a week in the Swedish countryside, staying in a summerhouse amongst the lakes, meadows and forests. Over the past 20-odd years I’ve been a frequent visitor to this stunningly lovely country but this was my first since the summer of 2019; COVID getting in the way of seeing family for far too long. I will write a more comprehensive post about the wildlife encounters during the trip but just had to start with the beavers!

Close to the summerhouse is a small lake teeming with wildlife above, on and below the water’s surface. Over the course of my previous stays there, I have made almost daily trips down to the lake to see the family of beavers that live there. Most often, the views are distant, across the lake, around their large lodge, and are certainly not guaranteed. However, this trip was very different, at least at the end.

We saw one or more beavers everyday and up to three at once but the penultimate night of our stay was particularly special. As usual we walked down to the lake towards dusk (although you can often see the beavers during the day) and we stood where the little jetty reaches out into the water. Going any further onto the jetty itself risks its clanking frightening off the animals and sending large ripples rolling out across the lake.

Soon after we arrived a beaver approached us. Not swimming far off on the other side of the lake but within five metres. Judging by its size it was likely to be a youngster from last year, coming up to take an inquisitive look at us. At first it swam into the little bay by the jetty, floating and turning for a while as its beady eyes kept a watch on us. It then suddenly splashed its tail and disappeared under the water. However, it wasn’t gone for long as it reappeared towards the little bay beside us and came back for another look.

Seeing one beaver so close was incredible but once the first had eventually made its way back to the other side of the lake, a second came in for a look. Similarly, it was likely to be a a kit from last year and it was equally as inquisitive and spent as much time floating about watching us and making several passes. Eventually, it too made a final pass and disappeared into one of the channels they have dug a the edge of the lake.

The sightings of these two beavers was made all the more special by the other wildlife in the surroundings and the sunlight as the dusk came in. The background sounds were of calling cuckoos, chattering fieldfares, several roding woodcock, numerous smaller songbirds and some croaking frogs in the lakeside reeds. The clouds lit up by the setting sun as well as the light on the trees gave the water a golden shimmer as the gentle breeze broke the glassiness spread across much of the lake.

This was not only one of the most memorable wildlife moments I’ve had in Sweden but one of the most memorable I’ve ever had. Fortunately, I have some photographs and video that captured the moments.

Neighbouring wildlife

We occasionally get asked by our neighbours to feed their cat and chickens while they are away. This weekend after closing the chickens into their coop for the night, we stayed in the paddock for a little while to see what wildlife would turn up.

Our neighbour’s paddock is often used for sheep but we know from signs we have previously seen that there may have a variety of wildlife visiting each night. As we sat with our backs to the hedge, we waited in the cooling evening air for the wildlife to turn up. It didn’t take long for the first to make an appearance; two types of bat flying over our heads hawking for insects along the hedgeline. Shortly afterwards, the sheep started to make quite a lot of noise and they moved up towards the top of the field. Soon afterwards, a fox trotted past us and down the field, probably having been to see if the chickens were still up.

In the distance we could hear a little owl calling in the growing darkness and we eventually saw a brief glimpse of our main target for the night, a badger breaking cover but soon disappearing again before we could get a good look. We eventually had to wander back home but on the way we heard a rustling in the undergrowth and found a hedgehog out for his evening rounds.

That wasn’t the end of the wildlife, however. For two nights I put out my new trail cam to see what else uses the paddock at night. Whilst my trail cam skills haven’t got any better, I did manage to get reasonable images of badgers, a fox and, slightly more surprisingly, a muntjac. This last find must been in the field only moments before I turned up to release the chickens and pick up the camera.

A nice morning for a bird survey

This morning I got up early a bank holiday Monday to do my first of two dawn visits to my Breeding Bird Survey grid square. It was a sunny and cool spring morning as I set out, having let out our neighbour’s chickens for the day (more of that in my next post).

As mentioned in my previous post, my new survey location is in and around the village of Clipston, just a 15-minute drive from home. I’m glad it is only that distance away as I realised that I had left the survey forms behind as I arrived at the car park. Half an hour later I was setting off on the survey having been home and back again. Setting off across the playing fields, it was a quiet start but bird numbers soon picked up as I entered the sheep fields and made my way up the hill above the village. Still relatively early in the season, there weren’t too many spring migrants to be seen and it was only after I had finished the survey that I saw a swallow, my second of the year.

The first 1km transect finishes in a wide open sheep pasture and I then had to head down towards the hill and into lower fields to start the second transect. This one is a bit more mixed with sheep fields mixed in with the urban fabric of the village itself, including the church yard and then out into more sheep fields. The central sections in the village were pretty hectic with birds on all sides of me but the survey became easier, from a counting perspective, once I was back in the fields. However, my task in the last section of the survey was made impossible by a field full of ewes and lambs. I tried to stick to the footpath but the sheep surrounded me, both young and old, making a racket and making it pretty clear I wasn’t welcome. So I had to make a retreat and finish the survey before I could walk the last 100m or so.

Overall, the birds found at the site were those I would expect to see and hear in the countryside and villages around here but, hopefully, the second visit will provide a few more including a wider range of spring migrants. I’m also hoping the sheep and been moved on to another field by then!

A new Breeding Bird Survey site

After moving house last year I had to give up my old Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) grid square in Cheshire but finally I have got a new one and yesterday I did a recce.

I’ve been doing the British Trust for Ornithology’s BBS since 2014 and have really enjoyed it. My old grid square was beneath and on the slopes of the Cheshire Standstone Ridge (hopefully soon to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) about 25 minutes from my former home. It had a mixture of landscapes with cottage gardens, horse and dairy pasture, a flower meadow and wooded hillside. The site gave me plenty of sightings and from looking at the previous records, I found more birds, and more species, than other surveyors who have held the grid square.

With taking a three-month sabbatical in 2019, I could only do half the survey that year and in 2020 I was locked-down in London and couldn’t do the survey at all. After moving home last year I had to give up with lovely site but early this year I secured a new site not far from my new home.

The new site is in and around the village of Clipston, about a 15-minute drive away, and I spent part of yesterday morning walking the route to get to know it and do the habitat recording part of the survey. The survey itself requires two, very roughly, parallel 1km transects to be walked, with notes taken of all the birds noted by sight or sound. The first transect starts in sheep pasture at the bottom of the low rolling hill looking over the village and then passes through the village itself, including through the churchyard, before finishing in what appear to be horse fields. The second transect starts in the village playing fields, before crossing a road and heading up into more sheep fields and finishes just down the opposite side of the hill from the village.

The pretty village and great views across the Northamptonshire landscape, it’s a nice spot for a bird survey and will hopefully present provide plenty of birds to record. There were certainly quite a few around yesterday but it was the bird I didn’t see that was most notable. Not far from the end of the route, at a cross-road in the public footpath, I found a little owl pellet lying on a fence rail. The glistening of the beetle shell casings was a give-away that it was from a little owl and it was smaller than tawny owl pellets I’ve seen before. I’ve been hearing little owls calling at night quite a lot recently in the valley below our house and it’s nice to know they are at my BBS site too.

For me, there are few nicer things to do in spring that get up early and head out to do a BBS – wandering through the countryside listening to birdsong is a pretty relaxing thing to do.

A dusk moment…

After a walk in the last of the sun this evening, as we returned to our car, we saw three roe deer grazing in the open arable fields. We stood and watched them for a few minutes as they grazed on the new shoots, well aware of our presence and looking up in our direction every so often. A blackbird and a small flock of yellowhammers provided the backing music to the view as the sun brought a orange hue to the greening fields and hedgerows.

It was exactly for moments like this that we moved to the countryside, fleeting moments that being a connection to nature. In the 40 years I lived in Cheshire, I didn’t once see roe deer in the surrounding countryside. We’ve now seen them twice in these fields below Hanging Houghton and plenty of muntjacs a number of times in various places across the area.

We eventually drove away after the three deer moved into the hedge line, only to find there were actually four together in the fields, a buck and three does.

Not the best image from my phone; three deer just visible at the bend of a hedge.

Surveying badget setts

My first post of the year made an aim to get back into conservation volunteering after leaving so much of it behind when I moved home last year. I’ve already made a good start with a breeding bird survey grid square secured for this spring and a week on RSPB Ramsey Island in September.

I may have said before that whilst my wildlife interests are wide and I spend a fair bit of time focused on birds, I’m particularly interested in mammals. I’ve tended to find that volunteering opportunities for mammals are much more difficult to come by. However, after following the local badger group on social media for a while, I decided to join and see how I could get involved. The first step has been to get training to do sett surveys and to look for setts when out on our walks around Northamptonshire as well as closer to home.

A few weeks ago on a chilly Saturday morning I attended a training session provided by Northamptonshire Badger Group. Run outside at a live sett, the morning of training gave me a very good introduction to many aspects of badger’s lives. The purpose of the training was to introduce me and the other attendees to badger ecology and how to undertake surveys of their setts. We learnt about the different types of sett, how to know whether they are in use including the the field signs to look out for, some of the legal background and how to spot a blocked sett. I have also bought a couple of books to widen my knowledge of badgers and booked myself on a day-long course on badger-related crime provided by the Badger Trust.

Since the training we have been out for a few walks around the Northamptonshire countryside and have surveyed seven setts so far and provided the details to the country badger recorder. In just one walk yesterday we found four setts on a six mile route. It’s unwise to provide details of the locations in the public domain as there are plenty of people out there who wish harm to both setts and the badgers living in them, so I will be careful with any information I post on here..

However, below is a photo of the fourth sett we found yesterday. It included a huge hole in the middle of a crop field with other holes on the edge of the planted area and some more in the adjoining copse, all within a short distance of the public footpath we were walking on. The farmer had avoided the huge hole and planted around it. It is illegal for anyone to interfere with a sett, so ploughing over the hole would have been an illegal act, but I’m hoping the farmer did this out of care for wildlife. The hole was so big that it could also have damaged the tractor if they had tried to go straight over it.

I’m hoping this is the start to being able to do more to help the wildlife of Northamptonshire after being very pleasantly surprised at how rich nature in the county is compared to my former home are in Cheshire.