Some might say that the only guide you need for the Isle of Sheppey, would be directions off the Isle of Sheppey. If it weren’t for the birdlife, I’d be inclined to agree.
Sheppey is a strange place with a mixture of farms and down and out seaside towns.In parts it has the gordy facade of a miniature blackpool pleasure beach, with none of the charm. However grim it may be for people though, it is a paradise for birds, with two fairly large nature reserves attracting a wealth of wildfowl and raptor.
What to do
My friend Seren, for whom I have to thank for introducing me to birds, sent me a message in the morning saying he was off to Sheppey and did I want to come. I’d heard a lot about Sheppey and its reputation for birds of prey. We met at Elmley, the UK’s only farming family run nature reserve, so it says on the sign. As soon as I turned off the main road, I was mobbed by a gang of starlings and sparrows. I felt as though I was being fleeced by ticket touts, trying to get me to follow them to some other attraction rather than the one I’d come to see.
Having made it past the starlings, I was stopped once again by a herd of cows. Some of the younger members of the group were very inquisitive and reluctant to move out of the way of my car. I wondered how long I be stuck there, edging slightly closer without running over any hooves.
Eventually, they granted me safe passage and I meandered down the drive of the reserve. The drive, as it happens, was the most most fruitful place. Everywhere I looked there were birds. I saw a pair of avocets, more lapwings than I could count and a few redshank with their young. A little egret paddled in a pool next to the winding drive. I even saw a yellow wagtail (new one for me). It wasn’t just birds that caught my eye. A few hares hopped about in the fields. I’d never seen a hare before and I was amazed at their size.
I met Seren, his wife and his sister in-law in the carpark, surrounded by sparrows and chickens. Swallows swooped above our heads. Birdlife was good in Elmley.
We set off across the marshes to see what we could find. It wasn’t long before we were watching marsh harriers and short eared owls through our binoculars. It’s good going birdwatching with someone who knows what they’re looking at. The owl was by far the most spectacular, with an enormous wingspan. I tried to get a photograph, but we were a long way away. When I zoomed in later, to check the photo, it seemed the owl was looking right back at us! Please excuse the terribly blurry image…
As well as the owl we spotted oystercatchers, reed buntings, possible reed warblers and common terns. If I was a lister, I’d have been ticking things off by the minute.
Having spotted a fair few birds, the girls motioned for lunch. Oysters on the beach was the suggestion. You’d think it would be relatively easy to find a nice seafood restaurant, being by the sea and all. How wrong we were.
Lunch on Sheppey
Our first destination was Leysdown-on-Sea, which Wikipedia describes as ‘a coastal village on the east side of the Isle of Sheppey in the Borough of Swale in Kent, England.’ I would describe Leysdown-on-Sea as ‘a vomit inducing sprawl of flesh filled tracksuits, arcades, caravan parks and one grim pub.’ It was ‘orrible. We turned the cars around and headed for another town. It couldn’t be worse.
We drove to Sheerness. I liked the sound of it. This appeared to be the main town with an actual high street. We parked in a backstreet and walked into town in search of a chippy or a hut selling cockles etc. We didn’t have much luck with the town so we walked to the seafront. Desperate, we asked the lifeguards where we could get some lunch. Their response says it all really. “Where have you come from?” We explained we had come from London and were just looking for somewhere to get some seafood. “Why did you come to Sheppey? You could have gone to Margate. You want to get off Sheppey, there’s nothing here.” The lifeguards were of course right. There was nothing.
We drove to Minster, where we finally settled on a pub with dodgy carpets and a buffet, because it was by the sea and because we’d been driving and wandering in search of food for an hour and a half. We ate chips and whitebait, watching cargo ships. We could see Southend-on-Sea on the other side of the water. The food was edible and the beer was good. The girls gave a review of, “It’s not that bad,” and “It could be worse.” I reckon they’d be happy with that.
I was keen to visit ‘The Raptor Mound’ that a friend from work had told me about. She had said that you can stand there and watch all sorts of raptors swirling about. This I had to see for myself. I drove back to the other side of the Sheppey, and turned off down Harts Ferry Road. I had imagined a large hill that I’d be able to see from a way off, complete with buzzards and marsh harriers circling above. When I got there I found a tiny hillock with an RSPB sign boasting hobbies, owls, harriers etc.
I must have been unlucky, as all I got was a very, VERY boring man on a motorbike who would not stop talking. He saw me checking out the mound, got off his bike, walked up to me and proceeded to talk absolute nonsense at me. He didn’t stop for a second, if he had I would have tried to make my excuses. He was a very odd bloke, a Sheppey local I believe, with three and a half teeth. Having had a very similar experience the day before, I had absolutely no patience for the man and ended up just walking off. So thankyou, belligerent motorcyclist, for ruining the raptor mound for me. I will never go back.
As I was driving back, I came to a strange mountain of grey sand that was full of holes and home to a large number of rabbits and one red-legged partridge. The bird was stood right on top of the mound when I reached it, but descended to the floor when I saw me.
The rabbits were cool and all, but I wanted to see raptors. As I got back into my car and began to rejoin the road, I noticed something perched on the telephone cables in the opposite field. It was a Kestrel. I watched as it flew and hovered before returning to the cable, satisfying my hunger for a decent sighting of an airborne predator.
Would I go back to Sheppey? No.
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