Although we no longer run in the residential volunteering scheme we are still happy to have a couple of long term volunteers who know the Island well stay out there. Mike was on the island for 3 weeks and below you can read up on what he got up to. 

Havergate Island blog – July 2016

This year on the island was my eleventh since first arriving in July 2006 following my first ever residential volunteering trip on Ramsey Island that May. Since then I have also volunteered on Coquet Island and South Stack Cliffs. Spot the trend?

All these exceptional places are of course unique with a wild beauty that draws me back year on year. They are also managed by an incredible group of managers and wardens to whom I owe my thanks for the experiences they have offered me and to a band of residential volunteers whose friendship I have savoured over the years.

The experience on Havergate differs from the others in the fact that it is isolated with no warden on site and now with generally only one residential volunteer on the island at any one time. This suits me well as I enjoy the freedom this offers and should a tricky situation arise the speed boat or October Storm is really only 10-15 minutes away. Each evening a text of “all ok” to Lyndsey the warden is the rule.

This year I was the first residential volunteer since a couple had been on the island in early May. Consequently the island was in need of some tlc. Getting around is via the path that runs end to end and this is made much easier if the grass is mowed, especially if it rains. So, the first job I try to do is mow the path, clear the entrances up to the hides and clean up the steps on the two “bridges”. The jetty also needs attention, more of that later!

The paths were really overgrown (see pics) and added to the grass was the black mustard which all agreed was exceptional this year on the banks and paths. So, clearing the edges was the priority before the mower could get through. A job that normally takes me half a day took this year just over double that, although rain, just when I reached the North delayed matters a bit. Mowing the paths, weeding the entrances to the hides and the way across the bridges is an effort but really satisfying. The island looks so much better and it’s then a pleasure to move around.

Lyndsey had set me a really interesting body of work for my stay and we spent some time on the first day prioritising the tasks. Featured amongst these were making two triangular shaped barn owl boxes (one had already been made by a previous volunteer, John), fixing metal straps to the doors of the work shop and tools shed to deter burglars, cleaning and sterilising the 7 water butts which collect rain water, sorting out the work shop and tool shed, hare counts, bird surveys including gull chick counts on each lagoon, cleaning hides, fixing the flooring in the volunteer accommodation, clearing vegetation in front of hides, lagoon water height and salinity checks, putting up signs etc.

I mentioned the jetty earlier. Those who have visited the island will know that the jetty is midway along its length and juts out into the river, where it is in a perfect position to pick up weed growth. In any volunteer visit clearing the jetty of weed to make access safer for visitors is a priority but as the weed cover grows quickly it is best to prioritise the clean to just before a visit. I timed this to before the bbq (a thank you for local volunteers and partners) during the last week I was there and just before a photographic weekend. Over the years each volunteer has struggled with how best to clean the jetty. Bristle brooms, spades, paint scrapers, wire hand brushes and the like have all been tried. In the past a wire hand brush proved most effective although laborious. Whilst I was there this time I attached such a wire brush to a decking brush Lyndsey had bought. Both worked for a time but became clogged so my recommendation for the future is an industrial quality wire bristle broom.

One of the highpoints of Havergate is of course the wildlife. When I am there, June-July, the preponderance of birds these days are the large gulls, mainly lesser black-backed and herring gulls with a few greater black-backed gulls. In addition, and a very welcome sight, are the black headed gulls (head colour changing already as I left the island in July) and common gulls, the latter who are becoming increasingly low in numbers as the years go by. There are also large numbers of Canada geese. My highlights this year were a short eared owl cruising the north of the island, avocets (although none of the chicks survived more than a few days), common terns (who were laying probably second clutches of eggs) at Cottage Flood, spoonbills (up to 12 at any one time but not yet breeding), marsh harriers, peregrine, kestrels, little egrets, greylag geese and a curlew sandpiper. Not the sort of “haul” that a real birder would be impressed by but it suited me. One of the species that I most missed during my stay was the godwit which in past years had always put an appearance, in their spectacular breeding plumage, especially on Cuckold lagoon. They were absent but present elsewhere were redshank, curlew, whimbrel and dunlin.

On the mammal front I never saw more than 5 hares at any one time (and no leverets), but they were seen from north to south of the island, voles seemed abundant and clearly the recently mowed paths made them probably easier to catch by the owl.

Although there are no amphibians on the island, all water bodies are saline to some extent, common lizards are present and I saw two this time, one with regrown tail near Belpers hide and a juvenile near North hide. So they are well spread but not common. What are common are ticks. I like ticks (my career was in the veterinary pharmaceutical industry and ticks and other ectoparasites were my speciality) and last year I did some blanket dragging on the paths which revealed large numbers of what were identified as Ixodes ricinus, the common Castor Bean tick of sheep etc. These happily infest, and will feed on humans, and walks up the island, especially around Belpers hide, proved very productive when later inspections of legs were made. Lyndsey is currently involved, on Havergate, with a national project to survey ticks for a group based out of Liverpool University.

During my stay a consultant entomologist came onto the island to do a day’s survey and interestingly spotted starlet sea anemones (Nematostella nectensis) in all lagoons. His early impression was that as you went from north to south down the lagoons the density increased and he surmised that this was probably substrate dependent. He proposed that the most productive areas were a thin layer of mud over a sandy/gravelly bottom eg Cottage Flood. The first time I had seen these animals was in 2006.

Other highlights were the appearance of a pair of guys in a round GB rowing boat being towed up to Orford one evening by a small RNLI rib (www.roughreadyrow.com) and a Thames barge, the “Pudge” (see pic) which had been one of the “small boats” at Dunkirk. The rowers returned the next evening to continue their epic journey for charity.

Will I continue to volunteer on Havergate Island? You bet as it is a unique and remarkable place. The accommodation is excellent, there is a composting toilet (chemical toilets are now thankfully gone), the work is both interesting and varied and the isolation really appeals to me.

My thanks go to Aaron, Dave and Lyndsey, the latter of whom made my stay so welcoming and interesting.

Mike Matthewson

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