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! 

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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.

Damselflies on the woodchip…

… and other buggy starts to the day.

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Being lucky enough to live by the river means this is not an unusual start to the day, but it still always makes me smile. The warm nights mean open windows and flying visitors coming in and making themselves at home.

The warm weather has led to a bumper year for damsels and dragons. I’ve had one new species visiting ( I’m up to 15 confirmed and hopefully rising ) and good numbers of all of them. ┬áThe phone photo doesn’t do justice of the sight of over 40 male banded demoiselle damselflies warming themselves in yesterday’s sun ready for a day of patrolling their breeding territory and fighting off rivals. Every black dot you can ( almost ) see is the wing marking of a gorgeous bluebottle blue male waiting to impress one of the green females and continue his genetic line.

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It’s not all just damsels and dragons at the moment. This pair of eyed hawk moths were clearly at home on the workshop door frame yesterday.

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Remains of the (Doris) day

We managed to get off relatively lightly in last week’s storm but we’re still feeling the effects. On my length, amazingly, I only had 3 trees down which caused a problem, which were relatively quick and easy to deal with but on the navigation that is never the end of it. 

Weirs, tumble bays and various other water control and engineering structures and fallen tree limbs and debris don’t mix. This time it was only natural debris (I’ve had to wrestle an ironing board off my weirs before now – no idea where that came from!) to deal with. I was covering for my colleague over the weekend at New Haw and there was so much tree flotsam that the lock gates wouldn’t open fully. A drag rake, and hour, a colleague and a chocolate biscuit later and I had managed to clear it. On my own length things weren’t quite so bad. You can just see the branches snagged on the weirs below the bridge but the force of water managed to deal with much of it for me.


The rain however never sorts itself out. I had had less than half of one of these weir gates open pre-Doris, but to keep the levels in the navigation steady and safe I had to open 4 and a half gates at its peak. That meant shutting the navigation to boats for a day or so as the strong flow makes boating unsafe. Even the process of putting out the flood boards is more involved than you might think. Now we are now hi-tech and have an instantly updated river conditions blog but we still put the low-tech red boards out to make sure all boaters coming to a section of the river in conditions deemed unsafe for boating know to stop and moor up. On my stretch that process takes over an hour as the 5 flood boards are up to 2 and a half miles apart and some only accessible on foot over muddy fields.


It’s now back to a much less angry 1 and a quarter gates so boats are moving and all is much calmer. That all means I’ve had a few of nights of setting alarms for every hour and a half through the night to keep things under control. Last night I only had to get up 3 times, hence my ability to (almost) string a sentence together! My fitness tracker had 2 nights when it didn’t even recognise that the catnaps between alarms were even sleep. Never mind.

The one lovely thing about the end to the angry weather is the safety inspection walk is often people-free so you get to see wildlife that usually remains hidden. I was treated to a group of 4 roe deer out in the daytime watching me from the other bank. Always a joy, however sleep addled.


Bad phone shot – sorry. I was too busy watching them to remember to take a decent picture.

Weeds, seeds and new(t) friends

This time of year is always a busy one, but they all are. It’s a time to juggle the last of the winter chores with the spring cleaning and getting everything ship shape for the start of the the busy boating season….oh, and they say there is a storm on the way.

Today, amongst other things, I’ve been doing a bit of weeding but down by the river that doesn’t quite take the usual form. The fight with invasive plants that have made their way here and are causing trouble is not just a summer problem. I’ve already cleared the floating pennywort again over the winter but in 2 1/2 miles the little aliens can easily find a place to hide.
It only takes a bit this size, some warmth and some time and these few leaves end up as a dense raft that could fill my punt three times over.

I’m trying not to take it personally but as well as the aliens invading I’ve got moles making a mess of my lock sides. Hence the seeding as well as weeding. In a few weeks time, if not sooner, I’ll be mowing again so I’ve been been using my ex-groundsman’s skills and in a few weeks you won’t even know they’ve been. Unless or until they come back. But that’s ok, they’re joyful creatures, if a little messy, and I’ve got plenty more seed.

And so to the newt. This little one found its way into one of my bags while I was litter picking. By that I mean that when I left the full bag for a couple of hours while I finished litter picking, it made its way into one of the creases and hitched a ride in my van….not that I snaffled her up with my litter picker having confused her with a crisp packet. It’s more of an excuse for a picture of a beautiful newt than earth shattering revelation. I found her a safe pile of logs to pop her under which is a far better place for her to hide from the storm than a tarp in the back of my van.

Reasons to be cheerful….

….(at minus 1,2,3)

The chilly weather of late can be a great reason to snuggle up in front of the fire and forget about the outside world but there is a lot of things you only get to see when temperatures hit the icy end of the spectrum.

You can see weird and wonderful icicle displays over the weirs.

You can appreciate the arachnid works of art that are usually easy to miss.


Plants that could pass for weeds take on a higher level of beauty.

And best of all, when you have the icy river to yourself, you get to see birds that can often be missed. Today’s foggy grey backdrop makes the reds of the woodpeckers, pinks of the jays and yellows of the great tits even more vibrant and easy to spot. The complete lack of leaves means the large families of long tailed tits have nowhere to hide and are one of those birds that you can’t help but be cheered by the sight of. Today is saw my first binocular-free snipe as one flew within 2 metres of me at Newark Lock. (I feel that since the fabulous Pixar movie Up, I feel I need to explain to the ornathalogically challenged that Snipes do exist and are neither mythical, non-existent nor the brainchild of an American animation studio. They are an actual, beautiful, relatively common brown bird with a long bill that favours water meadow, marsh and estuary habitats.) When the local lakes are frozen over I have a pair of beautiful tufted ducks that come to visit and take advantage of the ice-free water to feed. They aren’t as used to people as many of my feathered visitors and don’t like to come close,  hence the ropey shot….although granted it is better than the non-existent shot of the snipe that took me by surprise. That’s one of the great things about nature, however well you know somewhere, it can always surprise you.