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Visiting Elmley Nature Reserve, one of the largest bird reserves in England, and what you can see and do there, on the Isle of Sheppey


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If you want to know what cow paradise is like, take the little turn before going over the Sheppey Bridge and follow the winding two-mile road into Elmley Nature Reserve.

Besides the thousands of birds and wildlife making their home at the 3,300 acres on the Isle of Sheppey, there are 700 cows who are living the life other cows can only dream of.

Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey
Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey

Theirs is a life of maintaining the sward (grasses) at the right height and density over the year, amid the rural idyll which has the bridge as its backdrop. For their trouble, the cattle live chilled lives compared to their more stressed sisters, thanks to the relaxed lifestyle and environment.

But it’s not just the cows that are happy at the reserve, which is one of the largest bird reserves in England, as well as a Ramsar site (wetland of world importance) and an internationally important site for the conservation of plants, animals and insects.

If visitors numbers are anything to go by - that’s the animal, bird and insect ones - then it is something of a mecca. There are 30-40,000 birds, with hundreds of lapwings, which have red conservation status, spending their winters there, along with wildfowl and wading birds.

A sedge warbler on the reserve Picture: Abbie Burrows
A sedge warbler on the reserve Picture: Abbie Burrows

There are also some 50 species of butterfly in the UK... and more than 20 can be found here. Even bees make a bee-line for the place - including the shrill carder bee, which gets its name from the ‘shrill’ buzz that it makes.

The site is a family business and working farm as well as a haven for wildlife and a must-see for birdwatchers.

Reserve manager Gareth Fulton, who with his wife Georgina and her parents Philip and Corinne Merricks run the former RSPB site, is proud of the status.

“This is the only working farm on a nature reserve,” he says. “The cows definitely have a good life - because it is a stress-free life.”

And what of the human visitors? Those have to now book their visits, since lockdown, but it’s a system Gareth says is working well and may continue indefinitely.

European brown hare, Lepus europaeus, among the wild parsley at Elmley Picture: Jodie Randall
European brown hare, Lepus europaeus, among the wild parsley at Elmley Picture: Jodie Randall

One such visitor, Abbie Burrows, who has been working in wildlife conservation around the world, visited recently; got into conversation with Gareth, and went on to join the small team as the nature guide.

A self-confessed bug lover, Abbie, 24, said: “I love it here. It is so nice because the wildlife fluctuates. There are wildflowers and beetles in the summer and in the winter you get merlins.”

The site is home to many birds but its lapwing and red shank visitors are its most precious, with red and amber conservation status. Clearly, the lapwings enjoy coming as they also had 450 chicks on the estate last year.

In fact 44 species of bird breed at Elmley, with some 300-400 lapwing pairs breeding there each spring.

Starlings fly together
Starlings fly together

As we head along from the small reception area - which is also a beautiful barn and doubles as a wedding venue - on the small path, there’s barely time to fit in all the species we can see. Though one we weren’t too worried about not seeing were the grass snakes and adders, who enjoy basking along the sides of the path, and even have special basking areas, which look like snake lay-bys, made by the rangers. The snakes don’t seem to mind that they sometimes share their basking spots with rabbits - maybe the rabbits should leave less droppings behind them, to cover their tracks.

Though Elmley has been basking in the warm summer we have had this year, and looking akin to a Kenyan safari, it’s actually winter time when the site is at its busiest for human visitors. “It’s very popular with birders in the winter here,” says Abbie. “February and March is a particularly popular time for them to visit.”

It’s as though the wildlife knows it’s hardly being watched at the moment. Life is going on quietly, with a pair of buzzards and their chicks in a nest, and at the old brickworks building, a family of little owls are rearing theirs.

A sign showing buzzards have a nest
A sign showing buzzards have a nest

You can book to visit the reserve, which is currently open to visitors on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays, from £6.

But there are many ways you can immerse yourself in nature for a longer stay.

Abbie calls to the buzzards
Abbie calls to the buzzards

There are luxury bell tents for glamping in the wilderness which sleep two adults and two children, and cost from £120.

There are also six individual huts across the site, including the Saltbox with its fully glazed end, giving visitors the chance to wake up to a floor to ceiling view. There’s also a cottage and an 18th century beautifully-appointed

farmhouse, often used by bridal parties.

Brown hare boxing in the fields Picture: Robert Canis
Brown hare boxing in the fields Picture: Robert Canis

A half day ticket costs £6, Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays. For bespoke private tours (any day of the week) which can be tailored to suit your interest and run for between 90 and 180 minutes are priced from £45 per adult, £20

for 12-18 year olds, and free for under 12s. Group guided tours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays are at either 9.30am or 1.30pm, lasting around 60-75 minutes, for two to eight adults and cost £15 per person, 12-18 years £5, and under 12s free. Book at elmleynaturereserve.co.uk

For more days out ideas across Kent this summer click here.

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