Fields around Titchmarsh, usually green with sprouting cereals, lie naked under the weeping skies. Since the August deluge, rain has been frequent and heavy, and brief sunny interludes have not dried the sodden land. Farmers have struggled to get on to their fields; often the plough has done its work, but the planter has not yet followed.
Working wet soils presents challenges for the machinery, and also damages and compacts the soil. The interminable rain has scoured rich topsoils from the bare fields into the rivers. Farmers now face having to plant spring crops with low profit margins, while a strengthening pound has been suppressing prices, despite concerns about domestic yields in 2020.
Getting on to Titchmarsh nature reserve involves squeezing along the raised path edge, which is itself ankle deep in water, while being watched by a flock of greylag geese standing in shallow floods. The lake, a former gravel pit, is usually about 34 hectares, but has swollen to nearer 40, leaving a telltale line of emerging reeds that mark the usual bank.
Traversing the western edge of the reserve along Harper’s Brook, we encounter a flock of Hebridean sheep grazing nervously on a raised bank of tussocky grass. Black as night and lavishly coated, most sport a pair of thick curved horns but a few are endowed with four, the top pair spiking upwards.
A great white egret lifts elegantly away from the water’s edge, its body and gangly legs bouncing gracefully up and down, suspended between its awesomely long wings. This snow-white spirit of wetlands is perfectly in its element in these watery conditions. As part of the rapidly burgeoning European population, only colonising the UK in recent years, this bird is at home, but for me each sighting still carries the frisson of the new and rare.
On the eastern side of the reserve, the River Nene is swollen and spills evenly over the bank and across the path, gathering and gushing in a torrent through the poplar trees and into the lake. Absorbing this surplus water on the reserve provides protection to fields and towns downstream.
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