England is many things — it is green, it is pleasant, it is disarmingly pretty in places and breathtakingly grand in others.
One thing it is not, though, is exotic. This is a fact best supported by the obvious lack of venomous, virulent and predatory fauna we have to fear. But even if British wildlife is on the mellow side, there are still plenty of reasons to appreciate the creatures that make their homes in England’s hedgerows, waterways and woodlands.
There is the feeling of victory when you spot a harvest mouse the size of your thumb in the undergrowth. There is the impatient thrill of waiting in the dark for a pine marten to slink out from the shadows. And what can compare to the quiet beauty of majestic antlers silhouetted in the dawn mist? A more peaceful sight you won’t find here or anywhere.
Twitchers are the best people to turn to if you need convincing that English wildlife is worthy of your time, but you don’t even need to be a bird lover to appreciate the finest feathered friend that has made the British Isles its home.
The sheer majesty of the barn owl as it sets out on its hunt at sunset is nothing short of magnificent. We have other owls in England, of course, but there is something about the barn owl’s heart-shaped face and button eyes and neat little beak that makes it look deceptively kindly.
Even with its fawn-coloured wings tucked in and cocooning its body it is an undeniably attractive creature. But it’s when it fans out its feathers, the tips almost translucent in golden light of the dusk, that its true elegance and grace is revealed.
One of the best places to see barn owls in the wild in the UK is Elmley Nature Reserve in Kent. Nestled on the Isle of the Sheppey in the Thames Estuary, an easy drive east from London, Elmley feels hidden and secret and forgotten about in the very best way.
When I was there last autumn, the landscape was permanently cast in a gentle sepia glow and other than a placid murmuring of grasses in the wind the place lay in a dignified hush. I had the sense it was saying to itself: if you just stay perfectly still, no-one will even realise you’re here.
Just as the handful of daytrippers head off for the day, things start to perk up. A screech echoes across the fields; then another. The barn owls are awakening, and you can be there to witness it.
Elmley is a nature reserve, but it also the home of the lovely Georgina and Gareth Fulton. As owners of the whole lot, they allow a small number of guests to stay every night to share in the beauty of the reserve when it is closed to the public, but at its most beautiful — at first light and last.
With three options to choose from, I booked a weekend in ‘Little Owl’, a shepherd’s hut overlooking the oak trees where the barn owls live, for me, my boyfriend and his vast collection of camera equipment.
Decked out in Farrow & Ball colours and boasting its own wood-burning stove, the hut was sophisticated, cute and always cosy-warm. In the mornings, a hot pot of coffee and farm-fresh bacon and egg rolls were delivered to the door. We were very happy curled up in our pastel-hued home. A weekend in Little Owl didn’t feel like long enough.
In the days we explored Faversham and the local pub scene. Our favourite was The Plough Inn at Stalisfield (a recommendation of Georgina and Gareth’s), where we had perfect roasts and crumble and custard to die for.
The weather was nice enough that we could put down the roof on the Jaguar F-Type we were driving that weekend, although on several occasions we had to duck from stray branches as we criss-crossed the countryside on narrow lanes.
In the evenings we positioned ourselves by the window (me inside in the warm, him outside in the grass) with local food and beer from Macknade Fine Foods near Faversham and readied ourselves for the show.
The owls swooped in and out of the trees, circling low, sometimes carrying unfortunate prey in their talons. We watched as one perched statuesque on a branch for minutes, before dropping into the long grass below and emerging with its prize.
And while our prize was the owls, there was other life to be found at Elmley too. By day the fields were dotted with the flashes of rabbit tails. By night we saw two hedgehogs — two more than you’d ever see in London. Perhaps the most exciting spot, however, was a sprightly stoat who seemed to hang in the air as he bounded through the long grass.
If staying on a reserve and getting a backstage, after-hours pass to the great show that is nature unhurried, Elmley is the place for you. You can hide out, watch the wildlife do its thing and know that nothing will bother you, expect maybe one of the free-roaming chickens. It’s beautiful, it’s serene, it’s bird-watching bliss.