I’m usually confined to a tractor or waist deep in a ditch, but you'll start to hear a bit more of what’s been happening on the reserve and what jobs we’ve been doing. So going forward expect to see regular contributions from Colin (Site Manager), John (Assistant Warden) or myself; it’ll hopefully give you an insight into what goes on “behind the scenes”.
On Friday I was tasked with supporting the dreaded “sheep round-up”. I say dreaded, because sheep are notoriously infuriating in my opinion, DO NOT do what you want them to do, and all the time, you’re racing the tide back to dry land!
Firstly a bit of background: The Dee Estuary reserve is massive. It’s not simply confined to Burton Mere Wetlands and Parkgate which most people are familiar with; we manage over 6,500 hectares of land from Burton, all the way across the estuary to the Point of Ayr. A large part of this area is tidal saltmarsh, grazed by our tenant farmer at Burton Marsh Farm. We bought this farm in 2006 because it gave us the opportunity to influence the vegetation structure of the saltmarsh; hugely important as our saltmarsh is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its plant and bird related features respectively. The farm is still run with a commercial interest, but we try to use the sheep as tools for our conservation land management; they help maintain a desirable height of the grasses and prevent it from becoming too dense or tall. This increases plant diversity, provides nesting opportunities for redshanks and skylarks, and gives nice, juicy feeding “lawns” for wintering wildfowl such as pink-footed geese and wigeon.
After lambing, the marsh can hold up to 5000 sheep! Luckily today there were only around 1500 but trust me, that’s enough! The aim for the day was to bring the sheep off the marsh for the weekend as we're due the highest tides of the month (we have to do this at least once per month through the autumn and winter). At this time of year, some of them also come off for lambing too.
Three of us set out at 8 am from The Harp Inn (Denhall Quay); Diggs and Annie (the tenant shepherds, plus their sheep dogs) and myself. Diggs and I exclaimed that it would be a cold one as the snow was threatening but Annie, being Finnish, told us to stop being wet and that this was NOTHING compared to Finland! So we walked out in a “straight” line towards Wales and the sheep that were farthest from home. We would try to push them back towards Burton Point.
It started pretty well, with one flock running in the correct direction as soon as we shouted at them. Diggs was left to bring in whatever he could mop up from the inner marsh, as Annie and I headed a bit futher out. After a few minutes Jazz, Annie's dog, scented out a pregnant ewe on her back who was struggling to get to her feet. She was well hidden and without Jazz, we’d have missed her. Luckily, we were able to right her, and with a bit of persuasion we sent her on her way to dry land.
Now, navigating the saltmarsh is absolutely not straightforward. There are massive gutters everywhere: some which you can cross, others which you definitely cannot! This makes the job that bit more difficult as there can be sheep on the other side of an un-crossable gutter, that simply won’t move, so you have to walk about 2 miles just to get around the gutter to bring five sheep off! Frustrating, exhausting, but it’s got to be done. There’s a piece of marsh at the farthest tip, that is almost cut off from the rest, but there are always a handful of sheep out there. Luckily Annie really likes going out there (so much so that we now call that area "Annie’s Marsh"), so she headed out that way to fetch in that lot, as Diggs and I pushed the bulk of the flock up.
It sounds nice and easy just walking behind a load of sheep. But bear in mind, these things barely have a brain, and they (the Welsh Hill Sheep especially!) just want to bolt off in the wrong direction half the time. Also, they won’t cross the slightest bit of water either, so you’ve got to walk them around every gutter you find. They sometimes think it’s a good idea to jump right into gutters too! I don’t know how many of you have tried lifting a sheep, but they’re flipping heavy! Usually takes two of us to lift one out of a big gutter – and at the moment its worse as most of them have one if not a couple of lambs inside them too! I only encountered one in a gutter today and luckily I was able to drag it out myself. There were several more laid on their backs though; it’s common at this time of year as they’re close to lambing, so lie down for a rest and simply can’t get back up again.
In the past it has taken us literally from dawn 'til dusk to round them up, and sometimes involves an unplanned ice cold swim in the Dee! Luckily today we’d got them all in by just after 1 pm, so just a five hour round trip! We herded them all in through gates at Burton point and down the Burton Marsh Greenway to the sheep pens where those closest to giving birth will be separated. We caused a little bit of havoc for cyclists for a short period, but luckily this time everyone waited patiently as we tried to get them in as efficiently as possible.
If you do cycle along there when we’re gathering the sheep, please bear in mind that we have to do this for the welfare of the animals, and it only takes a short time. Just keep to the side of the path and walk along; the sheep will come past you calmly and safely.
Today was a relatively painless gather (with relatively few expletives shouted at sheep and dogs), and the birds we passed en route were pretty good! A male hen harrier, two great white egrets, a few marsh harriers, a spotted redshank calling overhead and the sighting of the day, a snow bunting. The little beauty flew in calling then landed only a couple of metres in front of me, and then was quickly off again
Makes the 15 mile hike, loss of voice and layer of mud and sheep poo on my clothes well worth it! Now back to Burton Mere Wetlands for a nice hot brew and bacon butty from Chris's catering van!
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