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Review: Elmley National Nature Reserve

Attraction - Nature reserve

Minster on Sea, Isle of Sheppey, Kent, ME12 3RW, United Kingdom

Little Owl - shepherd's hut stay on Elmley National Nature Reserve

  • By SilverTraveller Hardyplant

    26 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon

  • September 2020
  • Your husband, wife or partner

8 people found this review helpful

(With apologies for the mixture of upper and lower case initial letters when referring to fauna and flora.)

I’ve reviewed Elmley National Nature Reserve before, as a destination for a day visit, but said I would do another review once I’d stayed there overnight. At the beginning of September my husband and I spent two nights in Little Owl, one of the two smallest shepherd’s huts on the reserve; there are also some larger `huts`, a cottage and rooms in the farmhouse plus five bell tents in the summer. Elmley Nature Reserve borders the northern bank of the Swale, the stretch of salt water that separates the Isle of Sheppey from the North Kent mainland. The 3200 acre family run farm/reserve is an area of marshland that is intensively managed; livestock graze the land and the water levels are controlled, making it an important area for birds. You really need to look at a map of Sheppey to see just how big Elmley Reserve is.

We arrived early afternoon but due to new Covid cleaning regimes could not have access to our hut until 4.00 pm so we went for a walk, down the path that leads past the remains of a Victorian school, where we’d seen a Little Owl back in July. Dozens of dragonflies were hawking busily over the track while damselflies were taking things easy, sitting in a row along a fence. Luckily for us a photographer who had just been taking photos of the Little Owl pointed it out to us – it was on the roof, well camouflaged against the surviving bricks of the gable end. We continued down the path and my husband spotted a hare, sitting in nearby undergrowth where there once stood a church, now demolished. We watched as the hare zig-zagged into a field where it began to graze but then another crossed the path in front of us; it stopped and looked our way and appeared to be an old one. We continued to the banks of the Swale where we discovered an old wharf and remnants of buildings that we learned later had once been a cement works and village for the workers. On the opposite bank is Ridham Docks, surrounded by several industrial sites that have developed there as their raw materials could be easily shipped in on a high tide.

Later, having settled into our Little Owl, we opened a bottle of red wine and sat outside in the sun, watching swallows, lapwings and more hares while we waited for our meals to be delivered in a hamper – lamb tagine with couscous for my husband, vegetable lasagne with garlic flatbread and salad for me plus two delicious desserts. I slept well in the comfortable bed and awoke as the sun was rising, glowing orange over a coverlet of mist that partly concealed the cows grazing on the marshland – absolutely beautiful. I watched the changing landscape through the window at the foot of the bed and the open top of the stable door while my husband made a pot of tea; there’s a camping gas stove in the hut and a gas ring in the shared camp kitchen. We didn’t get our breakfast delivery until about 9.20 a.m. (two thick sandwiches – one large bacon, egg and tomato and one avocado and egg); we’d already been told that guests with children have priority so our walk started rather later than planned. Soon after we’d passed the second hide there wasn’t another person in sight. It was sheltered below the seawall and Small Copper and Common Blue butterflies flitted from one yellow autumn hawkbit flower to the next; my husband, who knows quite a lot about butterflies, had never before seen so many Small Coppers at one time. A dot on the horizon eventually turned out to be a lone figure walking along the path towards us, a lady volunteer litter picker, collecting rubbish that had blown over the sea wall. In time we saw our destination – Spitend Hide – with a kestrel sitting on its roof but it soared away as we got nearer. This isolated hide is about 3 miles from the main car park, and as we had it to ourselves we sat inside out of the wind and ate our packed lunch while looking out across The Swale. It was low tide and in the distance a group of wading birds stood in the mud, their heads tucked over their backs, all facing the same way and presumably sleeping, so it was hard to see what they were. We’re not expert bird watchers – we have binoculars and a book to help – but are still learning. Curlews and gulls called and a couple of egrets flew in but it was too early for most of the migrant birds: winter is the best time to visit Elmley for serious bird-watching. We walked back the way we had come, visiting South Fleet Hide on the way but there wasn’t much to see so we decided to go back to the barn for a pot of tea and a piece of cake; unfortunately the cake of the day had proved popular and there was none left so we had to content ourselves with large cookies instead. That evening we each had the other’s previous choice of supper (there are only 3 choices of mains and 3 desserts, the menus changing weekly). Lunches, snacks, hot and cold drinks and alcoholic drinks are all available from the barn and you can also eat there at socially distanced tables if you wish. As it turned cooler I decided to get into bed to read as there’s no room in the hut for seats. There are solar powered electric lights and a shower but no electric points in the hut, however you can charge phones in the barn if necessary and there was a good signal on the reserve. There’s also a woodburning stove for colder weather and a firebowl for barbecues for those who prefer to self cater. Luckily breakfast came earlier on the last morning, as we had to be out of the hut by 10.00 am., however we stayed on the reserve until nearly midday and went for another walk but only saw some sort of Diving Ducks and more lapwings. We then left to drive slowly along the two mile track towards the exit, hoping to see more wildlife on the way, and saw stoats, pheasants and a lone patrolling marsh harrier.

It was a wonderfully relaxing two days and we will definitely return for another stay: we were lucky with the weather but next time we will probably book a slightly larger hut, just in case the weather is wet and we need more space to hang damp coats. All the people who work there are friendly and helpful and a real asset to Elmley, as are the Friends of Elmley who volunteer their services and are often on hand in the car park to point out interesting birds, such as Short Eared, Long Eared and Barn owls.

See the Reserve’s website for photos and details of accommodation

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Other Members' Thoughts - 1 Comment(s)

  • ESW
    14 days ago
    This sounds a wonderful place.