Reversing the drainage of Brading Marshes has been the key to providing the environment needed to encourage birds back to this expansive bird reserve – the RSPB’s first on the Island, bought in 2001.
Brading Station is the gateway to the reserve and here you can pick up trail guides with reserve information and plan your exploration via the extensive series of footpaths around the site.
Follow the old railway line, Laundry Lane, that used to run to St Helens from Brading Station and you are likely to see nesting Lapwings to your right during late March. At this time of year you can see them displaying, and may even catch a glimpse of chicks in April.
Clearing the wet grassland of invasive scrub and trees, to improve the habitat for breeding waders, has encouraged Lapwings back to nest in the short grass and you can hear their distinctive ‘peewit’ cries.
“Up to 1000 Lapwings come through here in the winter, but some stay to breed in the summer,” said RSPB Site Manager Keith Ballard.
Once this area was a harbour, with the sea filling the river Yar basin as far as Brading – in fact the eastern part of the Island was once a separate Island. But the land was gradually reclaimed and the sea wall to take the railway to Bembridge eventually enclosed the estuary in the 1880s.
Now the RSPB are getting the site wet again by reversing the drainage as much as possible, clearing the land and keeping it grazed – all essential to reinstate the habitats favoured by the birds.
“We had a Redshank nesting here last year. It’s one of our highest priorities to protect these type of environments and restore them,” said Keith.
Follow the old sea wall that crosses the river plain and you have an ideal vantage point to see across the reserve towards the Bembridge harbour or look back at the town that now looks out over the marsh – once Brading Harbour.
Meadow Pippits forage in the fields and leap into the air. Winter wildfowl still in evidence might include Teal, Tufted duck, Gadwall, Shoveler and Wigeon with their striking golden striped heads. Along with the Lapwings waders such as Curlew and black tailed Godwit like to visit and now Bittern often spend the winter here – a species that was almost extinct in the UK.
Coot, moorhens and swans can be seen here and Canada Geese are usually about. Cetti’s Warblers and Sedge Warblers can be seen and heard in the hedgerows in the spring and Buzzards are often flying overhead.
Since 2006 the reserve has encompassed Centurion’s Copse, Gander Down and meadows to the East. Bear to the right after crossing the ‘Great Sluice’ that controls the river and you can climb to a vantage point and bench on top of Gander Down, giving a panoramic view of most of the river Valley. You can carry on from here to Yaverland or up Bembridge and Culver Down if you wish.
But if you walk back through the Copse towards Bembridge the floor is carpeted with spring flowers; daffodils, primroses, celandines, violets and soon the Bluebells will appear.
Woodland birdsong is all around you: Robin, Wren, Blackbird, Song Thrush and the falling scales of the Green Woodpecker. You may also catch a glimpse of a Red Squirrel in the old oak trees, and Dormice live in the coppiced Hazel trees. Ten more acres of copse have been planted and 13 more will soon be added.
From the copse you can take the path through the arable fields sown with cereal crops specifically to produce seed for birds. Here there are Skylarks, Reed Buntings, Linnets and Yellow Hammers.
“The winter stubble is an important habitat for farmland birds,” explained Site Manager Keith. “We had some Lapland Buntings here in the winter which is quite rare.”
Around the edge of these fields are Goldfinches in the teasels and Chaffinches in the hedgerows along with Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long Tailed Tits.
Walk on from here and you could visit Bembridge Mill on the top of the hill, the only complete windmill on the Island, and carry on down into Bembridge for lunch in one of the cafes or pubs.
But don’t forget to pay a visit to Brading Station where the café has teas, coffees, soft drinks and light snacks, along with more information on the reserve and heritage information on the railway and newly restored signal box.
RSPB trail guides are always available from a dispenser outside the station.
Brading Station opening times
April 1 to April 21– 11am to 3pm. April 22 onwards 10am to 4pm.
Telephone: 01983 401222