Havergate Island’s magic reveals itself to make a visit unforgettable

Havergate Island. Picture: Mike Page

Havergate Island. Picture: Mike Page - Credit: Archant

On Suffolk’s only island - Havergate Island - all good things come to he who waits

Avocets Havergate Island sunrise Kevin Sawford

Avocets Havergate Island sunrise Kevin Sawford - Credit: Archant

It’s nice to arrive anywhere by boat and for Suffolk’s one and only island it’s the sole way of turning up.

Havergate Island can be reached via a 20-minute journey down the River Ore from Orford Quay - a low-lying 260 acres formed by a build-up of sediment and shingle that has developed over the centuries as the sandy spit of Orford Ness has lengthened to create a sheltering barrier for the estuary.

Down the years the island has been the haunt of smugglers and used for summer grazing - its pastures protected by early river walls - but after it was left to flood during WWII, the first avocets to breed in Britain in 100 years were discovered here, nesting in water-filled fields, prompting the RSPB to purchase the location in 1948.

Since that time the organisation has worked to create a haven for wildlife by making a series of salt-water lagoons concealed behind strengthened river walls. These are overlooked by a series of hides and connected by board walks and bridges.

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Magical isolation

Today, the island is unpopulated by humans except the odd party of conservationists who sometimes overnight here, and groups of summer visitors who come on RSPB guided tours. I visited as part of one such group last weekend - the Saturday after a huge electric storm had caused a temporary cessation in the heatwave, when the sea was still choppy and the wind was up.

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Alighting on the island I tried to think back to what it had been like for the herders and then the wardens who used to live here permanently - with no natural shelter, it must have been bleak at times, especially when the weather closed in. But if one is here only for a few hours, there is a magic in the isolation and uniqueness of your surroundings.

Hares on Havergate Island Picture: Frances Crickmore

Hares on Havergate Island Picture: Frances Crickmore - Credit: Frances Crickmore

The wild grass swayed in the wind and was given a purple sheen by the plentiful patches of sea lavender; we saw samphire and wormwood - the latter a strange smelling plant that at one time was used as the key ingredient for absinthe.

Steve, our knowledgeable and friendly RSPB guide, told us about the conservation work that goes on here - the island’s saline lagoons are being managed to suit breeding and wintering birds, including avocets, common terns and Sandwich terns. Techniques include restricting ground cover while controlling water levels and salinity. Feeding edges have been provided and deepwater refuges for invertebrates created.

Ever mindful of the toll of the tides and rising sea levels, work, funded predominantly by the Environment Agency and Viridor Credits, is being carried out to create a number of spillways in the islands walls - gaps where the water can run in during surge tides rather than bombard the defences and cause damage.

Hare today

Looking out onto the lagoon it was difficult to know where to focus first. My eyes were naturally drawn to a large grouping of avocets, sleek, elegant waders with fine, upturned bills - moments later they took to the air in unison, collectively spooked, their black and white wings creating a flickering effect.

Steve’s telescope alighted on a lapwing huddled against the wind and in the same view a curlew semi-hidden behind foliage. If we are talking bills, the beautifully brown-streaked curlew has a winner - a long, thin, downcurved affair used for probing deep into the mud for worms and molluscs.

We had hoped to see spoonbills - a regular sight here - but the inclement weather had driven them to better cover. I got excited when I viewed one from afar, only to be advised it was a plastic spoonbill model used to attract these visitors from Eastern Europe.

Undeterred, Steve led us in pursuit of the island’s other big draw - brown hares. He told us that the island’s population is a result of natural colonisation combined with human introductions, and that hares had been witnessed swimming across the briny waters both to the mainland and the Ness.

Our search centred around a stretch of gorse which we slowly circumnavigated. Welcome distractions came in the form of a pair of linnets playfully chirping as they busied themselves among the bushes - the subtle red breast of the male standing out against the general dark green and sandy colour scheme - and a speedy Sandwich tern that veered over us with a gush of wind, identified by a pale yellow tip at the end of its dark beak.

Then Steve pointed out a hare - hard to see at first - nestled nonchalantly under some gorse. I’m used to seeing hares ‘haring’ across fields at distance but Havergate’s hares have grown accustomed to human visitors and are less flighty - affording watchers the opportunity to study these remarkable animals at length.

Ours was content to sit there and be admired - even yawning at one point - before standing up to preen itself. I was taken by its size - much bigger than I had in my mind’s eye - and light colour. It was an encounter with a truly beautiful creature to round off a visit to a place whose magic reveals itself to those prepared to be patient.

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