Havergate Island

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August, 2016

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Is it just us, or does everything we go especially to see have just ended?

We had a busy weekend, needing to shop on Saturday and going to a friend’s house for a garden party on Sunday afternoon, so it had to Monday for our “Havergate Adventure”. This is a guided visit to Suffolk’s only island, an RSPB sanctuary but also an estuary site that looks on approach to be in a lake. One day it may happen, as the coastline is in constant flux.

Orford Ness almost encloses it, stretching from the Butley estuary towards Snape and the Alde. Although a National Trust site and open to visitors, the MOD has just put a further 50-year ban on information about the WW2 nuclear experiments on the Ness, so it’s easy to get a feeling of Loch Ness with a real monster. The so-called pagodas dominating the skyline – very low because of course Suffolk has “big skies” – have always presented an eerie profile from the shore. From a boat the effect is even stronger.

There are regular RSPB visits to Havergate, purchased from a local farmer shortly just after WW2, but guided tours are specially organised by Woodbridge branch of the Society. Our guide, long since reconciled to the lowlands and warmer climates of southern England as compared with his native Durham, gave us some interesting and salutary information. The island can support just 29 hares – one of its attractions – but the floods of 2013 had reduced the population to just three. It is now building again, but nobody knows why the limit is 29. In those floods the northern hide had been destroyed along with its toilet block, leaving only one adjacent to the southern hide, where other members of the Society would offer us drinks and cake. Rebuilding is a long-term process, but perhaps profit from the “Adventure” will help. This was a vivid illustration of the state of flux, which centuries before had diverted the Alde from its eponymous town to Snape.

We didn’t expect to see hares because they are active early in the year, but we had hoped for spoonbills, regular visitors to the island in summer. “There were 22 here yesterday but only one this morning, and now that’s gone too,” was the bad news. It was the same when we looked for porpoises in Scotland. So what was good?

Plenty, as it happened. The weather was beautiful, very warm tempered by the usual breeze off the sea. Swallows were swooping low over Orford Quay while we waited for the boat. A family was fishing off the Quay, and we had time to see their children catch some crabs, which reminded us we’d hoped to buy one to take home. The trip takes 10-15 minutes; once the harbour area is cleared the journey seems to be in a river, with the Ness on one side and the Orford marshes and flood wall on the other. Havergate is nowhere to be seen until the Butley outflow is reached. A sailing barge was moored there, as beautiful as any craft to be seen. It was just off the northern tip of Havergate, which then presented the effect of an inland riverbank until we reached the landing stage.

A little more Orford Ness information preceeded our walk to the visitor centre near where the north hide had been. Avocets, the icon of Minsmere 30 miles to the north, had first settled on Havergate in the bomb craters left by the Ness experiments. In view of the horrors caused by radiation after the era of testing a Loch Ness monster seemed ever more of a possibility. However, there’s nothing monstrous about avocets, among our most beautiful wading birds. Plenty were about; we saw them in flight, then they settled on the far side of the island. Just one remained in camera range.

There were numerous gulls of course. Their feeding habits are disastrous for avocet breeding prospects, as they will eat any small nestling. Their own problem is that the lesser black backed gull is also in serious decline so they have to be protected. It’s an example of the well known law. Three foxes had also made their way to the island recently, presenting another threat to both birds and hares.

One of our party had recently suffered a stroke but had bravely come to the island. She and her friend managed the first walk but decided to stop at that, making their way slowly back to the landing stage by the time we returned from the south hide. She had found boarding the boat very difficult, but for the return someone advised her to sit on the gunwhale and swing her legs over. This worked well.

Apart from birds there was the splendid sea lavender to look at and a few dwarf elder trees, only one of which was tentatively putting forth berries. The view across the island stretched to the church and castle of Orford.

Common terns were at their aerobatic best, a curlew called and took flight, and there were redshank, oyster catchers and a dunlin. We heard but didn’t see a wren. But there were common tern chicks on a nest with a shelter provided by RSPB in hopes of holding off the gulls. If experience of arctic terns some years ago is any guide to common tern behaviour, I wouldn’t want to be a gull trying to invade its nest. There was a guardian tern nearby.

The cake, by the way, was excellent and the drinks very welcome after a walking tour that was not strenuous but thirst-inducing. On the way back to the landing stage there was a chance to see footprints that may – just – have been made by departing spoonbills, just as we’d once seen a tiger footprint in India with only the skull of its most recent meal in evidence. (We did finally see the porpoises at Inverness though.)

Orford from the estuary is a splendid sight, with castle and church prominent but much else visible beside. Now we know the island we’ll take advantage of a trip without guide next summer and hope to see the spoonbills. There were no crabs either: there were to be on Tuesday. We bought smoked prawns and wild salmon instead from the excellent Pinney’s.


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