Massive open skies stretch uninterrupted in every direction, dominating the flat damp ground beneath. There are small pools scattered across the fields which act like mirrors to the clouds and extend the skies reach into every corner of the land. The mountainous cloudscapes rise up above you; scudding, twisting, swirling and thundering through the atmosphere, constantly changing and always impressive. You might think that the place I describe above is somewhere in East Anglia – the fens of Cambridgeshire or the extensive wetlands of Norfolk for instance. But in fact I am writing about a well-known nature reserve in Kent; none other than Elmley – managed by the RSPB and located on the Isle of Sheppey – a vitally important spit of land in the enormous Thames estuary, used by hundreds of thousands of birds during their migration and as a breeding or wintering site.
Although Elmley is a fantastic place to enjoy vast skyscapes it is mostly visited due to its prime location, surrounded by mudflats and boasting extensive flooded fields, Elmley is a hotspot for birds of all sorts. Waders such as Godwits, Greenshank, Curlew and Plovers use Elmley as a resting place on their journey South (or North) to feed-up, join groups of their own species and get some much needed rest before heading onwards. It is a large reserve and walking from one end to the other is pretty tiring to say the least but well worth it – especially in winter when large flocks of geese and ducks of various species congregate on the reserve along with Snipe and other waders.
But one cannot talk about Elmley without mentioning the birds of prey, for Elmley is host to many raptors, owls, harriers and Buzzards all drawn by the promise of a steady meal. Short-eared Owls swoop low over the grass and cruise around on their rounded golden wings, with yellow eyes that seem to light up the ground in front of them in their endless search for voles. Marsh Harriers are commoner than sparrows here, quartering the reeds and alighting on fence posts to preen their chocolate-brown wings in the rays of a sinking sun. If as you walk along something like an arrow-head shoots over the top of the sea wall in front of you and flashes across the fields like a bullet into the feeding waders then you have seen one of Elmley’s raptors. Either a Peregrine Falcon or if you’re lucky a Merlin which spend the winter whizzing around sending flocks of birds up in their wake like a jet ski.
Summer at Elmley is a different affair, it is quieter in the sense that there aren’t the numbers of birds that you get in winter but the species are different and just as exciting because these birds are breeding and singing and displaying at your pleasure. Yellow Wagtails are a speciality at Elmley and add a dash of golden light to the green pastures, there are still waders; Redshank, Lapwing and Oystercatcher breed here and of course the Marsh harriers raise their young in dense reeds far from the paths. Being a wetland habitat Elmley in summer is about more than just birds; Dragonflies are abundant and conspicuous, many species breed here and bring a welcome contrast to the birdlife with their perfectly constructed machine-like bodies that glisten in the sun, reflecting all the colours of the rainbow like precious jewels.
Elmley is in many ways a harsh place; it appears uninhabited and uninhabitable, it is so low and flat that the sea threatens to engulf the whole isle, gales scour it, rain, sleet and snow lash at it – yet life thrives. Whenever I visit the reserve I am struck by how peaceful the place is, perhaps it is because of the expansive skies filled with gorgeous clouds, or because it is so flat so quiet so open. It is without doubt one of the best reserves in the South East – for wildlife as well as people and a great place to get in touch with nature. (But do go prepared; there is literally no shelter except for the hides and it’s a long walk between each of them, if you get caught in a shower without a coat at this place then you’re done for!)