A Return to Elmley

Elmley Marshes is a 3,300 acre privately-owned nature reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, lying in the Thames Estuary and separated from the North Kent coast by The Swale tidal channel.

A NASA photo of the Isle of Sheppey from space. Elmley is the big green area in the bottom left of the island

On two particularly tempestuous nights back in January, we stayed in a shepherds hut in the middle of the marshes and loved being surrounded by all that nature. Over the winter sheep graze the reserve and large flocks of overwintering waterfowl were rising up from the marsh, their atmospheric calling filling the air.

We really wanted to see what this wonderful sanctuary was like in springtime and returned this week to continue our total-immersion nature therapy there.

Kingshill Farmhouse in the spring. Most of the marsh is very low lying and protected from the ingress of saltwater by a seawall. Kingshill Farm and the shepherds huts sit on a low hill, formerly an island when the marsh was tidal.
We stayed in the same hut as last time – the Salt Box now has a shiny new addition to its facilities – an eye-catching copper bath and outdoor shower
The view from the large and comfortable bed was very different at this time of year – in January this view had been filled with birds but now was strangely quiet. The over-wintering waterfowl are all gone and breeding birds are scattered secretively across the wet grazing land, busy raising their young

The management of the marsh is geared towards breeding lapwing and redshank. Getting the right balance of water levels, grazing of the marsh to produce the correct height and density of the sward and the controlling of predators are vital – but the weather is always an additional wildcard.

At this time of year, it is cattle rather than sheep that are on the marsh. The two bridges across onto Sheppey are seen in this photo – the high arching bridge is more prominent but it is the older combined road and railway bridge, with its two concrete croquet hoops that can lift the central section, that brings you to the reserve

As we drove along the two-mile track through the marshes and up to the farmhouse, using our car as a mobile hide, we were aware of lapwing and redshank in the wet grazing meadows on either side. A marsh harrier quartering low overhead brought out squadrons of previously unseen lapwing parents from all directions, anxious to drive the raptor away from their eggs and young.

Lapwing are such striking-looking, wonderful birds but their numbers have more than halved since the late 60s:

Redshank have suffered a similar decline:

Redshank chicks were wandering over the track but this was the best photo we got:

In the summer of 2018, 336 pairs of lapwing produced 429 chicks on the reserve and around 500 redshank were counted.

Predator control is an important part of encouraging these ground-nesting birds. There are no badgers on Sheppey anyway and a predator fence, closed from dusk to dawn, keeps foxes out of the reserve. Any foxes that do find their way in are shot, I’m afraid, and stoat and corvid numbers are also managed. Hedgehogs, voracious consumers of eggs, are live-trapped and moved elsewhere.

It is not just the birds that are benefiting from these low predator densities – hares, for instance, are also thriving there. Mother hares often park their young up by the shepherds huts where close human proximity acts as a further deterrent to any would-be predator such as a marsh harrier or buzzard.

A leveret, photographed through the hut window:

The dark eyes and shorter, paler ears of a rabbit, for the sake of comparison:

When we were in and around the shepherds hut, we also felt like we were running a creche for moorhen chicks. I became very fond of them all:

Our group of moorhen chicks were always interested to find out if we had any food for them
Will it grow into these feet?

They were also still being delicately fed by their parents:

There are a few chickens around the farmhouse, all named after members of Wham, and I would like to introduce you to George:

George is a very odd-looking Polish breed of chicken and she is a real character, wanting to be involved in everything and adored by all members of staff there

One afternoon we walked down to the bird hides and on the way I was most excited to see a black oil beetle lumbering herself across the path in front of us:

Black oil beetle, Meloe proscarabaeus. Oil beetles have a very interesting lifecycle that involves the larvae waiting in flowers for solitary bees to visit, grabbing hold of their fur and being carried back to their nest where they develop into adults at the expense of the bees

The Wellmarsh hide had good views of a noisy black-headed gull colony:

There were a few terns nesting in amongst the gulls and their nests were much less grand affairs. This common tern is landing back down onto her nest.

The gulls also have to share their space with ducks:

Here are two green-headed male ducks, the shoveler on the left and the mallard. I had never before noticed that the shoveler also has a blue patch on his side, although a much paler shade of blue than that on the mallard:

One black-headed gull had made the decision to nest on her own on a tiny island. I worry for her chicks that are going to be terribly exposed and vulnerable when they hatch:

The chicks on the two main gull islands have vegetation to retreat into if the need arises, which surely makes them more likely to survive. I like their spotty heads:

We loved seeing so many hares as we walked around the reserve:

A mother mallard watches over her brood:

There were not yet many butterflies about but I always admire an orange-tip:

We went out for an evening tour with the reserve’s wildlife guide and found a newly arrived hobby. This bird will have migrated here along with the swifts, catching and eating them as a moveable larder as they all flew northwards together.

Although there were swifts swooping over the reserve, this hobby will now be more interested in eating dragonflies that are just starting to emerge.

Here is the same hobby with its very stripy chest and red trousers, as seen on a mobile phone attached to a birding scope

The guide also took us to see a pair of barn owls nesting in a box. We were quite a distance away but saw the female coming in with a young bunny or hare for her chicks:

She also showed us two different little owl boxes, both of which are being used this spring. But, despite our best efforts, we didn’t see a little owl that evening. One of the boxes is on this ruined school, dating back to a time when there was a small cement works on the island:

The atmospheric school house ruins
The little owl box is at the back of the building

Jackdaws also nest in the school house and are apparently often observed pushing the owls’ buttons:

We returned to the schoolhouse the next morning and were disappointed to still see no owl. But when we visited a third time that evening, two shelduck were perched on the building as we approached. Before we could properly get our act together, a brown bird flew at the ducks – we had at last found our owl:

Once it had chased away the shelduck, the owl sat amongst the masonry. The light was not good for photography but the owl is to the left of what would have been the apex of the wall:

Spot the little owl

The next morning we walked to the school one last time before getting in the car to come home. This time the sun was shining on the building and onto the owl:

It felt like a grand finale of a fantastic short break away. But what of that new shiny copper bath? Had we put it through its paces? Well, yes, one of us did:

Personally, I felt much more comfortable showering inside the hut. We are now hoping to return to Elmley in the autumn for our third visit of the year.

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