A winter birding walk on the Isle of Sheppey
Elmley Island, as the south-west corner of the Isle of Sheppey is known, includes one of the largest areas of unimproved, wet grassland in southern England, much of which is a National Nature Reserve (NNR) under the auspices of Natural England. Although some arable farming is carried out, the land is dissected by numerous reed-fringed drainage ditches, meres and creeks, plus large areas of open sheep-grazed fields, some of which flood in the winter. The former RSPB reserve at Elmley, comprising some 3,200 acres, is now a private farm but continues to be managed much as before as a nature reserve. The drive or walk along the two-mile access track to Kingshill Farm can take some time, as there are normally plenty of birds on the fields and in the strips of game cover. Combine all this with the tidal Swale channel to the south and a wide range of wintering species are assured. The open vistas are attractive to large numbers of wetland birds such as Lapwing, Golden Plover, Curlew, Redshank, Sky Lark and Meadow Pipit, which in turn attract birds of prey. Look out for Hen Harrier and Merlin, plus the chance of Rough-legged Buzzard among the commoner Marsh Harrier and Buzzard, while day-flying Short-eared and Barn Owls are regularly seen. Carefully scrutinise goose and swan flocks, as Whitefronted Geese and Bewick’s Swans are sometimes present. A winter rarity, such as Crane or Great White Egret, is also quite likely. The section of the walk on the reserve takes in a number of hides, which are good for viewing waders and wildfowl. Viewpoints also overlook The Swale tidal channel. It’s worth spending the day at Elmley as the sense of remoteness found on these marshes is hard to experience anywhere else in this overcrowded corner of south-east England.