Published: 05:00, 17 October 2021
| Updated: 18:35, 17 October 2021
It had been many years since I last set foot in Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey.
In those days you could just drive up the three-mile road through marshy fields to the car park and then set off on the hunt for wildlife.
Not being a ‘twitcher’ and with only a moth-eared bird book as my guide it proved somewhat daunting.
There were many birds flying overhead or making strange noises from the reeds but identifying them was a bit of a challenge.
I made my way to one of the custom-built hides and settled down in the shelter which had photos of wildlife on the wall and soon managed to pick out widgeon and geese.
The adventure was only cut short by a storm of biblical proportions which sent me running back to the car from which I could look back and marvel at a beautiful rainbow left to light up the ground.
That’s the thing about Elmley, you never know quite what you are going to get.
Since that visit, dad-of-two Gareth Fulton, who has run the privately-owned reserve with his wife Georgina since 2013, has installed a mini shepherd’s hut at the entrance and charges visitors £6 to enter.
“It’s for all day,” he explained. “And under-16s go free.”
Certainly, running a bird reserve costs money. But he realised a while back that not everyone fully appreciates the varied and often rare wildlife on their doorstep.
“As only about five per cent of the population are ‘twitchers’ we realised we were missing a trick,” he explained.
So the couple decided to go upmarket and attract another type of visitor who were trying out the new craze for glamping - camping in relative comfort.
The first odd structures to appear were three old-fashioned shepherd’s huts on wheels. Campers could spend all day spread out on a bed watching the wildlife through open windows. All face the rising sun.
The reserve now has eight plus a selection of bell tents, Elmley Cottage which can sleep 10 and the amazing Kingshill Farmhouse which can comfortably hold a group of 12.
One of its recent visitors was QI presenter Sandi Toksvig who raved about it after spending a night there with actress Jessica Hynes for the Channel 4 TV programme Extraordinary Escapes. At one point Jessica turned to host Gareth and asked: “What are those big white birds called?”
“Swans,” he replied.
The reserve’s old Kentish barn has been converted into a top wedding and corporate events venue and, thanks to Covid restrictions being eased, is now doing a roaring trade of two weddings a week as couples line up to be spliced.
The reserve covers 3,300 acres and boasts 50 species of breeding birds.
If, like me, you need a little assistance in spotting them all, then help is at hand thanks to the reserve’s in-house nature guide Abbie Burrows. She also hosts special dawn and dusk excursions at £125 a couple.
Abbie was born in Chatham 26 years ago and still remembers being taken to Elmley by her plumber dad on her first bird-watching expedition when she was nine.
“I’ve loved anything to do with nature ever since,” she said. “It feels like I have come back home.”
It was only last year that she was globe-trotting, spending her days guiding tourists across Indonesia, Vietnam and eventually Australia’s outback.
Last summer she made a return visit to Elmley and struck up a conversation with Gareth who ended up offering her a job.
She takes families and children on tours of the reserve visiting the hides, ponds and sometimes taking them towards the Kingsferry Bridge where she reveals what is left of Elmley’s Victorian primary school, built in 1855 for 35 youngsters, St James’ church (1247) and the ruins of long abandoned brickworks where you can still see where a former pier jutted out into The Swale.
“It’s hard to imagine there was once a thriving community of 300 people living here,” mused Abbie, who was wearing her green woodpecker earrings.
She can recognise almost all the birds and wildlife on sight from marsh harriers and cattle egrets to boxing hares and swooping owls.
But for those who can’t quite make out the plumage using binoculars she can resort to an app on her mobile phone which conjures up photos and facts in a flash.
The reserve has also planted 8,000 oak saplings to bring diversity to the area.
Helping to keep it all together is general manager Clare Potten, 29, from Whitstable. She’s been on the team for a year.
“It’s a wonderful place to work. We’re all a big family,” she said.
The only problem to look out for are vandal cows which have a habit of hogging the road as visitors leave.
“Just wave at them,” said Gareth. “Then they’ll, moo-ve.”
Philip and Corinne Merricks took over Elmley more than 40 years ago and transformed the arable and livestock farm into a site of international wildlife significance.
In 1991 it was designated a National Nature Reserve by Natural England, the only family-owned and managed farm in the UK to have this status.
Their daughter Georgina and her husband Gareth Fulton moved to Elmley in 2013 to set up holiday accommodation and are now directors.
The marshes were previously run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Elmley National Nature Reserve is at Kingshill Farm on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, ME12 3RW. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.elmleynaturereserve.co.uk or call 01795 664896.