The wonders of Wallasea Island
PUBLISHED: 13:20 02 December 2014
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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 backgarden
There’s no denying that Essex has a bit of an image problem, with negative stereotypes seeming to cling like mud to this most maligned of counties. However, even for those who are familiar with its really rather picturesque rural heartland, there is, I suspect, a perception that the Essex countryside is somewhat tame, that there aren’t really any wild places to speak of. Even those who rail against the stereotypes and passionately champion the county’s beauty would, I suspect, concede that, in order to experience anything even approaching a wild landscape, one would need to leave both Essex and the entire south-east of England far behind and head to somewhere like Exmoor or Dartmoor.
There are, however, areas of our county that are just as wild as Exmoor and Dartmoor, where nature holds sway and where one feels blissfully remote from human civilisation. I am talking, of course, about the wonderfully wild and windswept Essex coast, with its miles of mudflats and stretches of salt marsh, its teeming wader flocks and its wintering wildfowl.
Unfortunately, much of this coast is either so remote that it is not terribly accessible or else it is owned by the MOD and is therefore all but closed to the public. However, on Wallasea Island, only a short drive from the towns of Rochford and Southend on Sea, the RSPB has embarked on an ambitious project, the largest of its kind in Europe, to create both a wetland haven for wildlife and a first-class visitor attraction for the public. Although work isn’t due for completion until around 2025, the site is nevertheless open to the public — which is just as well, as there is much to see, especially in the winter months.
Every year, around 25,000 Brent Geese leave their breeding grounds in Arctic Siberia and head for the Essex coast, where they will spend the winter before making the return journey the following spring. On Wallasea Island, and in addition to ranks of Wigeon and wheeling flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover, these charismatic geese can be seen in large numbers, where they make for quite a spectacle as they wing their way across the milky winter skies in loose skeins. On one memorable occasion, as I recall, they flew so low that the soothing sound of their gentle honking calls was accompanied by the strangely alluring and oddly hypnotic sound of innumerable pairs of wings being flapped, providing a spellbinding natural orchestra of the most exquisite kind.
In addition to waders and wildfowl, Wallasea is renowned for its wintering birds of prey, attracting some quite iconic species, including Peregrine, Merlin, Short-eared Owl, Marsh Harrier and Hen Harrier. All of these birds are beautiful and spectacular, marauding across the island in search of a much-needed meal, but for me it is the Hen Harrier that is the real star attraction, especially the crisply handsome males which are proudly decked out in the plushest, most stunning silver plumage. Unfortunately, these birds have long been persecuted and are now very scarce in the UK, with England’s breeding population teetering on the edge of extinction, primarily, it would seem, due to conflict with grouse-shooting interests. Male Hen Harriers perform a breathtaking aerial flight display, dancing and tumbling through the air, and it would be a shame indeed if this were to disappear altogether from English skies.
There has therefore never been a better time to make a beeline for Wallasea Island, where you stand a good chance of clapping eyes on this mesmerising bird, so at home amid the winter wilds of the untamed Essex coast. If you fancy a visit this winter, why not consider joining the RSPB’s Wallasea Wander on Saturday December 6, with further monthly walks to follow. Or you can simply head on over there for a stroll along the sea wall whenever you fancy. The RSPB is also working hard to save the Hen Harrier,
so please consider supporting these vital efforts, either by making a donation or, better still, by becoming a member. n
You will find more information on Wallasea Island, including visitor information anddetails of the RSPB’s Skydancer project at, www.rspb.org.uk.