Travel: UK walks - Twitching down in Kent

A bleak outpost on the Thames estuary is the place for a wilderness fix. By Caroline Dilke
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The Independent Culture
Every so often along the rutted shoreline track, figures muffled up against the cold and festooned with optical equipment appeared. We knew what they were hoping to see. We were hoping to see it, too. Across this windswept, lonely land, at the end of a winter's day, a rough-legged buzzard sometimes flies to its roost.

We're not twitchers, you understand. We just want the excitement of getting another glimpse of this creature with its trousers down to its ankles - unlike a common buzzard whose feathers stop at the knee.

"Look at those men," one of our party said suddenly. "I reckon they're up to no good."

Inland, two tall young men, each with a Dobermann pinscher close at heel, walked slowly and intently across the tussocky grass. They reached a fence and climbed over, yanking the dogs up by their leads. A strangled yelp reached us.

"They're not dog-lovers," one of us said. "They're hunting. Probably hares."

The Isle of Sheppey is a flat, windswept, muddy island south of the Thames estuary between the Medway and the Swale. It is linked to north Kent by a single road at the south-west corner but there's not much on the island, except for Sheerness and the run-down, old-fashioned resort of Leysdown- on-Sea. That's why it is such a wonderful place to find wildlife.

Our leader, a local naturalist, had planned the trip with military thoroughness and appeared to know where any of the area's birds would be at any time of the day.

We'd already had a spell of "sea-watching", eating our lunch on a concrete wall and gazing out at what seemed at first to be a blank expanse of waves. Then we spotted turnstones, gulls, mergansers and a red-necked diver.

On along the track to Harty Ferry, where a boat once used to ply back and forth to the Kent mainland, there's now a pub, and a bungalow for sale. We walked past the pub to the salt marsh and the Swale. Here there were ducks, a little egret and some avocets feeding.

"I can offer you two short-eared owls," said our leader, with a tiny hint of triumph in his voice. The owls were some way off, seated side- by-side on fence-posts. We could just make out the speckles on their grey feathers, and their black eye-patches, though not their golden eyes. This owl puts up its little "mouse ears" only when startled.

Owls are never easy to see, and short-eared owls are rare, so we pored over them for some time with telescopes. On the fields behind the pub, a hunting horn was sounding, and a pack of beagles chased after two hares. Men in green coats and beautifully tailored trousers followed the dogs. It was clear that there was no chance of their catching the hares, so we watched the scene with pleasure.

On the way back, as the light was fading, we saw again the lonely watchers.

"Seen the rough-legged?"

"Not yet."

We stopped and waited with them for a while, and then, all of a sudden, as if it had been spirited out of the drab landscape, a short-eared owl, grey and graceful, flew in front of us, hunting.

"The owl! The owl!" we whispered. The bird flew on, turning its head from side to side, searching for rodents on the banks of the narrow, grassy channel. Then it turned and flew back, scanning with its black-looking eyes. Across the marsh, in the distance, we could still see the two hunters and their dogs. In the fading light they were still searching for whatever it was they had come for. Unlike us, they hadn't yet found their particular "fix" of wildness.

Transport on the Isle of Sheppey is patchy. A bus goes to Leysdown-on- Sea.

From the BR station at Swale it is a short bicycle ride to Elmley nature reserve. The London Natural History Society organises regular trips to wild places.

Membership costs pounds 15 a year. For a programme of events write to Peter C Holland, Flat 9, Pinewood Court, 23 Clarence Avenue, London SW4 8LB

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