A Wild and Windy Wilderness

We spent two wet and windy nights this week in a shepherds hut at Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey. This muddy island, now connected to North Kent by a pair of bridges, sits in the estuary of the mighty Thames and is an enormously important sanctuary for wetland birds.

NASA satellite image of the Isle of Sheppey. The Elmley reserve is the 3,300 acre green area of marshland in the bottom left hand part of the island.

In the winter there are great flocks of ducks, geese and waders overwintering there, rising from the marsh in synchrony whenever birds of prey fly over, searching for a meal.

The reserve is privately owned although, when we last visited it over ten years ago, part of it was managed by the RSPB. But in recent years the family are back at the helm and have been doing a lot of wonderful conservation work. They have also refurbished the old farm buildings into guest accommodation and a cafe and have installed several shepherds huts with amazing views out over the marsh.

Tens of thousands lapwing overwinter at Elmley and the bird has become their symbol. Conservation at the reserve is particularly focussed on getting conditions right for the breeding of lapwing and redshank
A large group of coot out on the marsh with Elmley farm in the background

Our shepherds hut was very cleverly designed and well insulated – perfectly comfortable and warm, even in the bleakest of January days.

The Saltbox shepherd hut with its kingsize bed and glorious view

We could watch the sun coming up from our bed….

Photo from under the duvet

…and binoculars needed to be kept close by at breakfast which was delivered to the hut:

I had only seen grey partridge before at a distance or on trail cameras. Therefore, when a gaggle of seventeen or more of these birds spent some time under the hut, I was surprised at the noise they were making as they chatted amongst themselves. It was really loud and I had no idea that they did that:

Photo through the hut window
I love these birds
The group of partridge as they wandered off

We spent the first morning on our own visiting the bird hides on the reserve:

Stonechats were very obvious in the vegetation at the sides of the paths

We also went on two tours with the reserve’s nature guide. She was able to show us so many birds that we would otherwise have completely missed. In the centre of this next photo you can just about make out one of the many little owls that live on the reserve:

A roosting young male barn owl:

If the weather had been less foul, we would have returned to this spot later with the digiscope to try to get a better photo, but this was the best we got in the circumstances

There are also many short eared and a few long eared owls on the reserve. Tawny owls are the only UK owl species that they do not routinely have, although these owls too are occasionally heard.

The grazing of the marsh has to be finely tuned in order to get the vegetation just right for the birds. Seven hundred cattle graze the marsh in the summer and these are replaced by a thousand sheep in the winter. As well as that, the rushes and sedges are cut by machine in late summer to promote regrowth,

On our final morning we had a private tour by jeep across the marsh to Spitend Hide which felt like a real adventure:

This jeep is nicknamed Pamela Landerson by the staff

There are two lonely buildings out on the marsh, over two hundred years old and built by long-ago farmers. These days they are used for animal husbandry and both have nesting barn owls within:

The raptor gates at the remote far end of the marsh are kept closed. The raptor gates at the other, busier end are closed from dusk to dawn. These gates attempt to keep foxes away from the vulnerable bird chicks. Other predators such as stoats are controlled under licence.

This bleak and desolate wilderness is only an hour’s drive away from home and so why had we left it so long between visits? We are told that mid May to mid June is a wonderful time to visit and to see the bird chicks. We are now planning to return to The Saltbox then and experience the marsh in a different season.

A pair of kestrels through the rainy windscreen at Shellness on Sheppey

Back at the meadows, the Battle of the Tulip Bulbs has a winner and it is not me, it’s the rats. But as well as being annoyed, I am also rather impressed with what they have achieved. Back in December, I realised that rats had dug up the hundred tulip bulbs that had been planted to produce cut flowers for the house in the spring. Forty more bulbs were then ordered and planted just before Christmas, but this time with chicken wire pegged down over them. I even put a wire enclosure there as well as a double defence. But the rats have dug down at the edge of the wire and tunnelled underneath to remove the bulbs from below:

A rat-sized tunnel starting at the rosemary bush and going in under the wire
Caught with a smoking gun – a rat holding tulip bulb
Holes are now appearing under the wire where bulbs used to be

So I have given up trying to get tulips this spring, but in the autumn I will plant the next lot of bulbs into one of the raised beds with wooden sides to see if that goes any better for me. In the meantime, perhaps the foxes and sparrowhawks will have dealt with the rats as well.

I did have more success in my attempt to get hyacinths flowering for Christmas Day:

Hyacinths flowering on Christmas Day

As I stumbled into the kitchen on Christmas morning, I was met with the delightful fragrance of hyacinth which was a really special start to the day.

The One-eyed Vixen’s mange has worsened and I have started her on a six-week course of Arsen Sulphur sprinkled onto honey sandwiches, a treatment that was recommended by the Fox Project charity. This fox loves honey sandwiches and she waits for them every evening, so she is easy to get the medicine into – let’s hope that it works this time.

An early blackbird catches its worm just before dawn
A weasel races across the gate. This has been the only sighting in January so far

One of our sons is an engineer and we put him to work in the wood to design a sturdy structure that we can prop a camera against to look at the owl box:

Tying the hazel coppice poles together

This trail camera is now close enough for the nest box to be fully in range of its sensors and it has been getting some great photos of tawny owls inspecting the box at night:

But there is definitely an active squirrels nest in the box at the moment:

We plan to evict the squirrels shortly.

Last winter we cleared a large area of dogwood from a woodland glade to stop it shading out the marjoram that grows in profusion there. By the end of the summer, though, the dogwood had regrown quite high:

What a lot of regrowth in just one year

However, the new dogwood stems were quite spindly still and could easily be cut again by brandishing a hedge trimmer around. Once the cut stems were raked up and stacked in a pile at the edge of the clearing, the job was done. We are now looking forward to all the woodland butterflies brought in by the marjoram this summer:

The clearing is now butterfly-ready. I expect we will have to redo this job every year though

The hazel catkins are out in the wood and looking beautiful:

It seems so early in the year for the tree to be flowering.

The woodcock are still happily seeing out the winter here. On my last visit I put four of them up as I wandered around the paths collecting cameras:

The polecat (or polecat-ferret hybrid) has been seen again on the cameras:

Looking down the hole that was used as a fox den last spring

John and John, the bird ringers, managed a ringing session in the wood last week and this feels like a bit of a victory for them with the weather we’ve been having. They caught fifty-eight birds, forty-two of which were blue tits, eight were great tits and there was a marsh tit as well. There are certainly many tits in the wood and I finish this week with some photos that John took of them while he was there:

Blue tit
Great tit
Coal tit
Marsh tit

Christmas is already disappearing fast in the rear view mirror and these birds are starting to think about spring. We are too, but expect that there might be quite a bit of winter to get through yet.

One thought on “A Wild and Windy Wilderness

  1. That Shepherd’s hut looks amazing and how fantastic to have all those Grey Partridges visiting.
    Glad your one eyed vixen doesn’t mind you treating her. X

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