The Westmoreland was wrecked off of Hoo over on the north shore back in 1973. Another of the many old sailing barges to come a cropper. Her agony has been prolonged. The wreck was taken to Faversham, in the hopes of restoration, but time and money ran out a few years back. The owner of the Edith May then stepped in and bought her and transfered her, on a floating dock, to Halstow Creek, where she has sat out at the end of the old causeway.
Friday, an hour before the tide covers the flats. Halstow creek is busy with Pintail and Brent. Both are up in number, even though numbers have been going down; an internal estuary movement of lowering estuary numbers as the fowl try to gain a little shelter from the increasing easterly wind.
A figure passes me. I look up and see they are carrying a shovel. Curiosity is aroused; the local Parish Council have long-since stopped bait-digging here, but one or two still flout their rules. But a bait-digger uses a fork? And has a bucket to carry the bait in. This chap clearly had a spade and a rather large spray can of compressed air. Curiosity dials up to eleven.
They cut down off the seawall and out onto the old causeway. Now overgrown with weed, and with sections of the brickwork missing, it is not a particularly nice walk. I've done it twice in five years. Both times on an ebbing tide, to follow the waders out, at a distance. I'm in no hurry to try again. On the rise? Wouldn't risk it and besides, there would be an awful lot of birds disturbed.
I think he must be an owner of one of the handful of sailboats kept out there but, no, he keeps going, going, going.. right off the end, knee-deep in the clinging mud, pausing only to retrieve.. a child's plastic sledge. And make for the Westmoreland.
All sorts of alarms go off in my head. During the past five years I'd seen enough wreckers on hulks to know there's money in old metal. Was he planning on dragging some back? I'd planned to be off to Funton by now, but it could wait a little longer. I like the Thames barges, and didn't want anything happening to this one.
He disappears inside the floating dock. Through the 'scope, every now and then I spot his head bob up, then I see I saw a camera. What was happening?
Of course, there is absolutely nothing to stop anyone going out on the estuary at Lower Halstow, though I wouldn't advise wading through the soft mud to anyone who's never tried it under guidance from someone with experience. You don't walk as such; lift a leg for a stride and down you go and 'stickfast'. There's a technique to wlaking the mudflats, and I'm not telling you! Instead I'll save your life here by keeping you to the seawall.
Although us birders know Twinney and Halstow creeks are a spectacle, neither are protected from routine usage. Disturbance is to be expected. So, as well as watching the mystery mudskipper, I watched the birds.
It was a rising tide, early afternoon. So, not too many gulls loafing on the causeway. By the last third of February you can usually expect to find the first handful of Mediterranean Gulls back among the Black-heads. There were eight, but they were sheltering alongside Halstow Creek. The Lapwing were in fair number for here though; often resting birds disturbed from the fields overfly, with some coming down to roost safely on the causeway; a three-figure number went up, along with a handful of Oystercatchers and Turnstones.
On the mud itself, many of the larger waders and wildfowl were soon off; they never appreciate a close approach. The smaller, as usual, stayed in more numbers, but I always add a caveat to that rule. The tighter the flock, the quicker they go; all it takes is one flustered bird to set off a flush. And the wildfowl on the water in Halstow Creek near to the Westmoreland? They retreated to the far bank.
The 'wrecker' was off ahead of the tide, just, with his sledge laden with.. well.. nothing. And he brought it all the way back to shore. Quickly noting any second phase of flighting (just double figures of Lapwing had been happy enough to land back on the causeway, but now followed the others to Barksore), I moved to a point where I could intercept the chap and strike up a conversation.
Bad news. On Monday, in poor weather, the dry dock had decided to hole; the Westmoreland was no longer afloat. For me, the penny, like the barge, dropped. The can of compressed air was for opening/closing old rusty seals or similar; letting the water out. That's why he had gone out on the rise. To close things up. Open on the drop, close on the rise. And if I had had half a brain, I'd have noted the Westmoreland had shifted when I 'scoped it. Actually, shifted was an understatement. More liked twisted (or as the chap said, 'popped'). The shovel was to clear mud, the sledge perhaps a buoyancy aide to spread weight as the soft mud sucked up water on the incoming tide? Probably still got a bit of all that wrong, but I didn't need to ask.
We chatted for a few minutes. I asked after the Westmoreland's fate, bearing in mind Lottery funding had been turned down. They hasn't given up hope yet. The owners are Lower Halstow through and through, and the Westmoreland is a part of this village's history.
An estuary doesn't just belong to the birds. The Medway is no exception. Lower Halstow, for birders, is one of the gems of the southern shore. But for now I understand we'll be seeing more flighting, more 'necessary' disturbance to the feeding birds- and right at the start of the coldest winter weather here for five years.
Here on the blog I sometimes mention the estuary is protected by Ramsar. The Ramsar Convention on 'Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat' is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Recreational use has to avoid a detrimental effect. This was an unfortunate incident.
The Westmoreland had 'popped' on Monday. The end of February usually sees a drop in Knot numbers as they move off to the Waddenzee, but I'd been puzzling all week over why they had so suddenly moved out of the Halstow/Twinney creeks. There were still numbers in Funton still, but Lower Halstow's rising tide flock had gone, seemingly.
But another good excuse to keep going out at the moment. An bit of an impact study of sorts. The counts would be dull, but the more you don't see, the more you understand.