A most unlikely wildlife haven, just off the M25


EXG JULY 13 WILD ABOUT - Credit: Archant

In the shadow of the M25, sandwiched between the heavy industry of South Essex and the urban sprawl of East London, with both the A13 and Channel Tunnel Rail Link on one side and the murky waters of the Thames on the other, Rainham Marshes is perhaps not the most obvious wildlife haven. Add to this the fact that it was once the site of a military firing range, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the RSPB, who now manage the site, were nuts to ever think of taking on such a challenge. But take it on they did, successfully creating a rich wildlife habitat, not to mention a visitor attraction to rival their more prestigious reserves, in this most blighted and unlikely of spots.

Rainham Marshes is well worth a visit at any time of year. In spring, breeding Lapwings – a bird whose population has suffered serious declines – tumble around over the lagoon, courageously dive-bombing any unfortunate creature that strays into their territory. Skylarks belt out their celebrated hypnotic melody, steadily climbing to a vantage point high in the clouds, where they linger awhile, riding the breeze, before slowly parachuting earthwards. These charismatic birds, immortalised by composer Vaughan Williams as The Lark Ascending, are also under threat, but here, at Rainham, their dramatic display flights and sublime warbling – quintessential features of the British countryside – can be readily encountered.

In the colder months, wintering waders and wildfowl predominate, also attracting one of our most spectacular and awesome predators, the Peregrine. This robust and intimidating falcon holds the accolade of being the fastest animal on earth, capable of reaching speeds in excess of 200mph when plummeting through the skies in pursuit of prey. And you may be lucky enough to spot the mottled-buff hues of a hunting Short-eared Owl, an exquisite bird whose flaming eyes and fierce scowl belie the grace of a ballet dancer.

It’s not all about birds, though, and in addition to a variety of insects, including the aptly-named Scarce Emerald Damselfly, Rainham Marshes is home to a local population of Marsh Frogs, whose bizarre chorus – more cackling than croaking – rings out from ditches and pools. With a bit of patience and a smile from Lady Luck, you could also see one of our most endearing mammals, the Water Vole, a species that has suffered a catastrophic population decline. Rainham Marshes offers this beleaguered creature a vital sanctuary and it was here that I saw one for the very first time, powering across the water like a tiny drenched Guinea Pig. If you’re really lucky, you might, like I did, also happen upon one of these delightful little chaps right under your nose, sat on a makeshift mat of vegetation on the water’s surface, nibbling on its favourite snack.

Oh, and be sure to check out the award-winning visitor centre. The café, which affords quite a view over the reserve, provides a cracking cup of tea and Maggie’s cheese scones are to die for.