Watery weeding

Normal people use normal things when they do a bit of weeding.

Usually a trowel and fork will do it. If you are really keen or over run you might even break out a hoe but here things are a little different. 

Today’s pennywort weeding was all of the bank side, dry feet variety. Through hard work and the help of Environment Agency this year is dramatically better than last year but that doesn’t mean I am being complacent. I go with the little and often approach and for that a grappling hook and extendable pruner come in very handy. With the smaller bits of weed you can’t surprise them. If you do the mats break up and one small raft can turn into dozens of big ones within a couple of weeks. The trick is to gently persuade it onto the bank to desiccate in the sun in one piece. At the moment that isn’t taking too long. With all the practice with the grappling hook my aim is getting pretty good, my netball teacher might finally be proud. 


Waking the neighbours and causing fights

With the warm weather and a physical job sometimes the best policy is a (very) early start. This morning it was strimming and mowing, aided by my glamorous assistant/volunteer/husband before 7.00. As well as being more pleasant working when it is cooler, it also enables picnickers to avoid having grass in their quiche and no petrol fumes and engine noises hen they have come to enjoy a peaceful day by the river.

The local Odonata however did get disturbed. They were sunning themselves in their scores this morning for another hard day of fending off interloping males and attempting to attract females. Until we upset their day.

To ensure the vegetation doesn’t get too tall and there is an elongated flowering season for the wildlife I strim down some of the taller plants. Sometimes I take them to the ground to create a visual gap and sometime I just decapitate them slightly to make them flower a little later. These tall waterside plants however are much favoured resting places for the local dragonflies and particularly damselflies and strimming is a little disruptive to say the least. The banded demoiselles are particularly plentiful this year, as ever, but wouldn’t pose for a photo. 

The males have been fighting and patrolling their chosen bits of riverbank that are particularly attractive to females for egg laying. For this the view from the prime, tall stems is vital. Unfortunately after my endeavours the plant landscape is somewhat changed and I might well have put a few damselfly noses out of joint. Metaphorically speaking, I’m not sure any of their facial features qualify as noses exactly. Some of those who had only managed to hold on to the lower stalked territories by default, were accidentally promoted to kings of the riverside castle. I like to think that some of the less aggressive males had the chance to reproduce when they might not otherwise have (there are always for more banded males than females). What is more likely however is that the poor downtrodden individuals got a pasting all over again and still didn’t get the girl. I’m trying not to think about the problems I inadvertently caused in the line of duty. That said the lockside does look lovely, from a human point of view.

Duck feet

Looks like Mrs Mallard has been using my punt as a landing pad again this morning. 

At this time of year she is much more likely to be in unusual places (for ducks) in search of a little peace from persistant males. When I lived on a boat it was not unusual to be woken by the slap of running duck feet trying to land and stay upright following a rapid exit from the trees. Something you will never have heard if you have lived all your life in a house like a normal person but I miss it. I don’t miss the early morning beak tapping on the boat from the swan mafia demanding breakfast with menaces. They never did get the concept of lie-ins on your days off. Now I just have a dog for that. 

Not all weirs, water and wildlife

There are no two days the same and no two seasons the same by the river. At the moment I am in the middle  of turning this

into these.

We are undertaking various projects this year to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War One and this is one of them. I am making 20 wire and poppy wreaths with recycled fence from the river to hang on bridges along the length of the Navigation. We hope it will be understated but thought provoking. That’s the plan anyway.

My colleague Steve’s kind volunteers have been have been removing some old barbed wire fence and boating it up to me here. The first load was delivered from Steve’s van to mine and over the bridge in a wheelbarrow. Suffice it to say there was a small amount of indelicate language and blood shed and an early descision that there was a better method of transportation. I strongly suspect that some of the ex-fence might well have been in situ during the war, it’s certainly rusty enough. The rest that isn’t has had a vinegar dunking to dissolve the galvanising and help it rust and look a little more weathered. It has had the side effect that I’ve had to appologise every time I have walked into the room over the last couple of weeks for smelling like a chip shop. And it’s made me crave pickled onions and monster munch (other crisps are available). A small price to pay. 

To allow for spares I’ve got to make 20. So far I have 16 of them rusting away nicely in the garden that just need the poppies. It’s been a bit of a slow process but as I say, it makes a change. Tomorrow it’s back to paintbrushes and mowers, weather permitting…. At least if the rain comes it will help make my rust!

Top 10 Weird and wonderful Walsham wildlife ‘facts’

Since living and working on the Wey I have observed lots of behaviour I wasn’t expecting to see (often human but largely wildlife related) and in the course of my historical research I have also come across some oddities. While in my mind they are all ‘facts’ I don’t think my ecology professor would necessarily support either my scientific methodology or hypotheses. That said

1 – Tawny owls have favourite chimnies. Whether it is view or temperature related, my local tawny only sits and hoots down my north facing chimney. Regardless of whether the fire is lit or unlit in the other one she never sits on it.

2 – Badgers don’t like fireworks. This is a very recent and I suppose obvious ‘discovery’ but the nightly damage to my lockside grass at Walsham in their hunt for food stopped for the few days around the local bonfire night festivities…… Unless that means that they like do them, and were actually too busy finding good vantage points for the displays to come and dig up my turf.

3 – Foxes, mice, voles and rescue terriers called Badger are flagrant abusers of door etiquette. They are the most common users of my hedgehog door, which has so far, to my knowledge, not been used by a hedgehog although I know they are about. A retired former teacher I know, who is much cleverer than me, puts it down to a low literacy rate amongst local hedgehogs. 

4 – Otters were so common at Walsham in 1864 shooting 3 of them was celebrated in the newspaper. They were somewhat ungenerously described as ‘destructive enemies of the finny tribe’. ( I looked that up, it just means fish like ) While there are now otters elsewhere on the Wey, they are now sadly absent on my stretch. I do get regular reports of otter sightings from walkers and anglers but unfortunately they are all pesky American mink who I would definitely describe as destructive enemies of the water voley tribe.

5 – Weasels, deer and badgers all regularly use people bridges. As in bridges built for not of people. I’ve seen them all happily do it. Some Labradors ( you know who you are Bertie ) however are much less keen, having to surrender their sticks and virtually crawl over as low to the ground as they can get themselves before being reunited with their stick by their kind owner following their miraculous survival of the twice daily perilous crossing

6 – In 1918 25,000 baby eels were sent by rail from the river Severn to Byfleet station having been born in North Atlantic and made the transatlantic portion of their journey under their own steam. They were to be ‘placed in rivers, ponds, canals etc.’ in the local area, including the Wey. The plan was they would be used raised and used for food. At one time around half of all freshwater fish caught in the UK by weight were eels, now they are considered endangered. The descendants of these, and others who made their own way here naturally, are thankfully still doing well on the Wey.

7 – Chaffinch stealing used to be a thing. In 1944 a gentleman was fined 10 shillings for ‘taking 4 cock chaffinches with the intention of selling them alive’ near the pub just down the towpath. He clearly made a business at it, or tried to. He was caught with 2 cages in his possession and a ‘stuffed bird made up to represent a chaffinch in the grass’. This must have been considered a good place to find them as the misguided chap had travelled all the way from Islington in North London to undertake his bird rustling activities.

8 – Bats seem to like flying in circles in red arrow type precision flying display, always anti-clockwise. When the outside lights are on on the cottage on a summer evening they circle it at heart-stopping speed. While I appreciate that moths and other flying food are attracted by the light they could easily circle back after the first pass the other way, in clear air but always choose to buzz the rooftops instead.

9 – Ernie the oak tree has been watching over Walsham lock since he was an acorn in about the 1690s. I measured his girth the other day at over 6 metres, which according to the magic circumference convertor calculator makes him around 330. He hasn’t always been called Ernie, that’s my fault because he is next to Eric the bridge, but he doesn’t seem to mind. That means he was a mere sapling during the Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials, the death of Queen Mary II and the opening of St Paul’s Catherdral. Boggling.

10 – Ex- Battersea resident staffy crosses don’t appreciate having their photos taken in festive attire.

However many biscuits you bribe them with they just won’t talk to you. Despite the pained expression I can assure you that no dogs were harmed in the pursuit of this underwhelming festive photo. Happy Christmas! 

Extreme close up

This beautiful hobby ( who is showing his displeasure and confusion at my proximity by his upturned head ) arrived at Walsham tucked under the arm of one of my kind dog walkers who had found him sitting on the grass. It’s relatively unusual to see them at all but whenever you do they are usually in flight and have no intention of stopping to get close. Because of his injured state however I was able to get a very priviledged view. He repaid our rescue attempts by trying to take a chunk out of my thumb but that is entirely forgivable.

He hadn’t perked up after a couple of hours in a peaceful box and wouldn’t eat so I took him to our local ( fabulous ) wildlife hospital. He still can’t fly, despite no broken bones, so he’ll get a few more days rest and with any luck he’ll be back home soon to be released near where he was found.

Happy to see the rain…

for once. We Lengthsmen can, from time to time, be a bit grumpy when it rains. The sleep deprivation of hourly weir checks through the night mean when it’s been wet, particularly for weeks on end, we aren’t always glad to see it. Today however I am more than pleased it’s finally here. The grass has started to get a bit brown in places, despite my care not to cut it too short. You can almost hear the trees and grass breathing a sigh of relief.

The biggest problem is that the dry start to the year follows 2 dry winters meaning river levels and ground water levels haven’t been topped up. While I’ve been able to keep the levels in the navigation steady the natural river is suffering. It’s the lowest it’s been in my time here. I’ve had to put my summer boards in for the first time in over 6 years. As well as being able to control the levels by opening and closing the 4 regular and 3 flood weir gates, I can insert boards between the piers of the bridge to restrict the flow. In the last week I’ve had to use 4 to keep more water in the navigation. This ensures boats still have enough water to move freely and the delicate banks aren’t damaged by fluctuating levels. 

It might be low tech but it works just fine. It’s another of the things we do here that I imagine is pretty much unchanged since the navigation opened in the 1650s. I love the continuity of that. I’m the most recent in an extremely long, unbroken line to be keeping an eye on the weather to keep the river and it’s users safe. And I’m sure shortly  if this continues I’ll be cursing not having been more careful what I wished for, like my predecessors before me.