A toast to the Thames Estuary
PUBLISHED: 11:12 12 January 2015 | UPDATED: 11:12 12 January 2015
Andrew Fallan shares his expertise in Essex wildlife with us, revealing top locations to find special species as well as the unusual animals you can discover in your own back garden
Apart from a three-year stint in Wales in the early 1990s as a student, attending dreary lectures, writing boring essays and necking cheap alcohol, I have lived my whole life in Essex.
I spent my formative years in the small and unremarkable town of Corringham, in the very south of the county, though for the last several years I have lived in the not-so-small town of Southend on Sea, which, with its amusements, pleasure pier and bucket-and-spade beaches, was the location for many a day at the seaside when I was growing up.
Perhaps because I only moved there as an adult, I don’t feel any particular attachment to Southend. To be fair to Southend, though, a lot of this is simply down to the fact that, in true Victor Meldrew style, the less desirable aspects of living in a large town — especially the infuriating litter-dropping antics of its less considerate inhabitants — tend to irritate me more and more the older I get, to the point that I yearn for the peace and quiet of a more rural setting. However, if there’s one thing about my adopted hometown that I do like, that I not only identify with but am also rather proud of, it’s that it overlooks the stunning Thames Estuary and its wonderful wildlife.
Although not as obviously picturesque as our more celebrated landscapes, the Thames Estuary nevertheless makes for quite a dramatic backdrop, while the addition of warming rays of sunshine, which transform its waters into a shimmering sheet of twinkling light, renders the scene quite beautiful — magical even. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the best places from which to take in this glorious vista is the bar at the Cliffs Pavilion theatre. Here, from a wonderfully elevated perspective and over coffee and cake, one can gaze upriver, to the lofty cranes of the new London Gateway deep-sea port; across, to the distant banks of the hazy North Kent coast or downriver, to the long finger of Southend Pier and the promise of open sea beyond. And all this while a procession of boats and container ships ply the estuary’s busy waters under the broad umbrella of its immense skies.
Admittedly, this privileged view from on high isn’t quite so grand when the Thames’s tidal waters retreat to reveal its dank and dingy mudflats. However, for the interested observer it’s a win-win situation, because it’s when the tide is out that the seals, up to 15 or so, haul out on an exposed bank and just lie there, within easy range of a curious eye and a half-decent pair of binoculars.
There are two species of seal in the UK: the Common Seal, also known as the Harbour Seal, and the Grey Seal. Both are found in the Thames Estuary, though Common Seals, which have an appealingly rounded face and flattish muzzle, seem to predominate in the estuary itself, while the much larger Grey Seals, which have a longer face and snout, are more prevalent further offshore.
Undoubtedly one of our most alluring and charismatic wild animals, it is heartening to learn that a recent survey by the Zoological Society of London has found that the number of seals in the greater Thames Estuary — which, in addition to the Thames itself, covers large areas off the coasts of Essex, Suffolk and Kent — appears to be on the rise. Since 2013, the population of Common Seals, a species whose fortunes have taken a nosedive in Scotland, has remained stable, while, quite remarkably, the number of Grey Seals visiting the estuary has more than doubled. At a time when nature seems to be facing greater and greater threats, that, surely, is worth celebrating.
So, if you fancy drinking to the success of the seals, while also raising a toast to the beauty of the Thames Estuary, I suggest you make a beeline for the bar at the Cliffs Pavilion on a nice, sunny day at low tide. While you’re at it, you might also wish to take a bracing stroll — or even avail yourself of the narrow-gauge railway — to the end of Southend pier, where these inquisitive creatures sometimes bob about in the murky waters. Who knows, you may even be lucky enough, as I once was, to chance upon the beguiling sight of a couple of Harbour Porpoises, a mother and calf no less, cruising through the undulating waves.
Can you help?
If you do see a seal or any other marine mammal in the Thames Estuary, the Zoological Society of London would like to hear from you. Please report your sighting by visiting http://sites.zsl.org/inthethames/#Public%20sightings.