Heron, harriers, dragonflies and dung!

Northward Hill on the Isle of Grain is one of eight RSPB reserves along the North Kent Marshes. Overlooking the Thames Estuary, it is home to marsh harriers, 150 pairs of nesting heron and can attract up to 120 pairs of breeding waders.  

As Harriet Smith discovered, the site is a perfect escape for birdwatching enthusiasts, but also a must visit for anyone just seeking a few hours of tranquility soaking up the seasonal wonders of nature.  

September always feels more like the beginning of a new year to me than January, along with the pull of wanting to go on long walks in the countryside to witness the change in season from summer to autumn.

Taking advantage of the warm dry September days and to mark the end of the long summer holiday, I prised my daughter away from TikTok and ventured not too far to the RSPB Northward Hill Nature Reserve in Cliffe.

After a 10 minute drive from the middle of Medway, we found ourselves in what felt like the middle of nowhere.  From the moment of stepping out the car we could feel the tranquillity of the area.  Plus there was no need to worry about social distancing as there was only one other car in the carpark. 

There are various walking routes to choose from but we preferred to simply wander.  The clear pathway from the carpark to the marshes was in abundance with the biggest blackberries I had ever seen and couldn’t help but smile to think of the local wildlife feasting from these hedgerows.

Sweeney Viewpoint was the first location stop where we sat and looked through our amateur binoculars. We are no birdwatchers but could fully appreciate the landscape of marshes before us and across towards the Thames Estuary.   Unfortunately the hides are currently closed due to Covid restrictions.

Being a working farm, we walked past the cows and sheep, and the biggest pile of dung I had ever seen, much to the amusement of my 11 year old daughter.  We were on the lookout for herons but instead came across the most beautiful display of dragonflies.

Whether you’re a birdwatcher or just looking for a few hours' peace away from the madding crowd, I can recommend the reserve and imagine that each season will bring its own magic.

Northward Hill through the seasons - the RSPB's highlights

Spring: Herons and egrets nest in woodland. Nightingales return and sing in dense undergrowth. Carpets of bluebells form mid-April-May and whitethroats sing from the scrub. Avocets nest on reservoir islands.

Summer: Hobbies hunt dragonflies over the marsh, while marsh Harriers quarter the reedbeds. You could see the rare white-letter hairstreak butterfly in the woodland, or turtle doves on overhead wires.

Autumn: Swallows gather around farm buildings. Noisy jays in wood gathering acorns. Dragonflies fly over reserve in late summer. Migrating waders such as spotted redshanks and green sandpipers may be seen on the reservoirs.

Winter: Large numbers wildfowl gather on marshland floods. Wintering thrushes, finches and buntings gather in scrub. Redwings and fieldfares can be seen in the orchards below wood. 4,000-rooks look spectacular as they prepare to roost in wood.

Factfile

  • Star species you will see: Grey heron; lapwing, little egret; nightingale; wigeon; 
  • The site also has a cherry orchard, bluebell wood and large rookery
  • Car parking and admission is free. The main car park is open dawn until dusk
  • RSPB Northward Hill is located at Rochester ME3 8DS
  • For more information and inspiration visit the RSPB Northward Hill Reserve Website.