Tuesday, 22 January 2019

A busy start

A new year on the Reserve – and after a busy start, it’s hard to imagine that it’s only a few weeks since Christmas. Daily stock checks continued over the festive season, offering an opportunity for a moment’s windblown tranquility by the shore, or a Boxing Day game of hide and seek with the cattle amongst the dunes. It is a matter of constant astonishment how thirty well-built cows in calf can conceal themselves so effectively - we suspect a spark of mischief in these gentle-eyed, placid ladies, who would begin their exodus to a new location once we have come within counting distance. Short-eared owls watched our progress, yellow-eyed, then flew off in search of unsuspecting voles.

The last of the Christmas chocolates finally finished, we returned to work as normal – or at least, normal for an NNR - in the first week of January. The following Wednesday saw us farewell the sheep and cows who grazed the dunes and slacks since September and October respectively. It was an early start, working around the tide. One of our volunteers - a Reserve stalwart and frequent stock-checker – helped the three of us to load heavy metal hurdles into the large trailer, working in pairs and sharing brief New Year greetings as we passed one another. At Chare Ends we unloaded the trailer of its hurdles – beginning to feel heavier by now, but aided towards the end by the farmers and their workers, come to take their stock home. We split up – some securing a corral with the hurdles, others parting to walk the cows through the dunes. They appeared in a slow procession – if we must. They parted in three rounds of ten, leaving island life for the warmth of winter sheds.

The sheep left us too, from the Snook where they have grazed the dune slacks intensively since September. Sweet collie Meg showed her prowess, sent to the left and right of the flock by the calls of ‘come bye’ and ‘away’. Reluctant to leave, perhaps, the flock split and then reformed. Two parted from the flock, to be shepherded by us whilst Meg brought the other score in. A head-count followed, along with the reflection that anyone who has suggested counting sheep to get to sleep has never tried it! Meg, the hard work done, pleaded for tummy rubs.

It is strange without the stock - it has become habit to scan the dunes for the cows, chestnut and black, to load the Ford Ranger with water and sheep feed in a yellow bucket. They have done their job though, our four-legged colleagues. Their grazing efforts have paid off and the flora of the dunes and slacks will benefit. We have brought in the fences and the signs – the former will be used in not too many months for shorebird season, the latter stored for the autumn. Twite passed by in dipping flocks overhead, noisy in flight.

In the workroom we have varnished the willow sculptures of wildlife that form a nature trail on the island – we will put them out come Easter, which begins not to feel so far away. As we worked, we talked – reflecting upon last year’s shorebird breeding season and preparing for the next. Winter Warden Katherine is doing an audit of the Reserve’s signage to see where we can improve.

On the coast between Sheldrake Pool and Emmanuel Head, we spent two hours last Friday picking litter – too much found for us to carry, so lobster pots were lifted above the tide line for later collection, while we picked up the glut of smaller litter that had been washed up. In one 200 metre stretch we found 67 plastic bottles at the high tide mark. 

Returning to the office, two of the Reserve’s volunteers appeared in the yard to alert us that they had found and moved a lobster pot on their afternoon’s walk - duly collected, we added it to the pile in the yard. Ghost fishing and single-use plastic pollution have an incredible impact upon our wildlife – last year two seals were found tangled in rope on the Reserve, while autopsies of birds in Northumberland have all too often shown plastics in their insides. We continue to work to clean our beaches, helped by Reserve and Coast Care volunteers, and a programme of beach cleans will be forthcoming.

For now, we wish you a good week – wrap up warmly, and please take care not to disturb the birds. 

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