Back to nature at Elmley Nature Reserve

The CLA's Mike Sims finds out how Elmley Nature Reserve, a National Nature Reserve, has combined nature and wildlife recovery with a successful farming enterprise

The UK’s first family-owned and managed estate to be a National Nature Reserve is home to nearly 2,000 livestock and is run by farmers who champion both agriculture and conservation. Elmley comprises 3,300 acres on an island in north Kent, and at its heart is a family farm with a commitment to the sustainability of the landscape and land, and a long-term vision to restore nature.

Transforming the farm

Taking over Elmley from the University of Oxford 40 years ago, Philip and Corinne Merricks transformed the intensive arable and livestock farm into a site of international wildlife significance. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 enabled major change, with the estate becoming almost entirely a Site of Special Scientific Interest. By 1991, Natural England had designated Elmley a National Nature Reserve.

The couple’s daughter Georgina Fulton and her husband Gareth moved to Elmley in 2013 and have diversified its operations. Reserve Manager Gareth, who has a background in the army and is trained in physical geography, says: “Maintaining farming here is important because it keeps Elmley relevant and real - it’s not preserved in aspic.”

Elmley delivers conservation and farming together. The cattle maintain the sward at the right height and density over the year, benefiting breeding waders and producing quality beef reared in a sustainable way. To do this on such a large site, the family partners with several local farmers to run a combined herd of 750 native and continental breed cows and 1,000 Romney sheep. The grazing marsh provides an important habitat for wildlife and biodiversity, interspersed with wide fleets, reed beds, rough grassland strips, hay meadows and 9km of sea walls. The freshwater habitat alongside the expanses of salt marsh and mudflats of the Swale – a sea channel separating Sheppey from the mainland – also make the area a huge feeding table for waders and wildfowl throughout the year.

Gareth and Georgina Fulton with their children.jpg
Gareth and Georgina Fulton with their children

Opening up Elmley

The family is passionate about sharing Elmley with visitors and the local community, running trips, tours, events and retreats. It has a café, accommodation and a wedding venue, and visitors are likely to see birds of prey soaring above, waterways teaming with insects, and voles and grass snakes along the ditches, among many other sights.

When they moved to Elmley, the Fultons set up wildlife holiday accommodation, starting with three shepherd’s huts. In the early days, they did everything from the ironing to the cooking themselves; they now have 18 beds and attract 25,000 day visitors a year, mostly in the winter.

Gareth says: “It has grown organically each year. We had to adapt during Covid, but nearly 50 people now work here, from tour guides to the land team – up from three in 2013. Swale is a deprived area, and there aren’t many jobs on Sheppey, so it’s really positive for local regeneration.” Most visitors are attracted by the natural beauty and wildlife. Gareth, who lists his favourite sights as the 45,000 ducks and waders floating in mid-winter and the abundance of chicks in the spring, adds: “There are over 100 marsh harriers roosting in the winter, compared with one pair in 1974 – an amazing recovery.”

It shows wildlife recovery is possible within a farming landscape and with the right mindset.

Nature recovery

Nature recovery has been achieved through changing land management practices, culminating in National Nature Reserve status. Does this voluntary designation make much practical difference?

Gareth says: “You’re expected to manage the four key areas: research, education, access and conservation. “There’s no direct additional funding, but it does bring opportunities. You’re more open to various organisations and sectors, and it’s good for awareness. “Philip believes landowners can manage the environment as well as anyone, so his way of thinking focused on what’s best for the long-term and nature. We’re now achieving levels of wildlife not seen since before the intensification of farming, which is a real source of pride.”


Seasons at Elmley

In winter, visitors can see common buzzards, hen and marsh harriers, peregrines, merlins, kestrels, sparrowhawks and, if fortunate, wintering rough-legged buzzards. Rain fills the ditches, rills and pools, attracting thousands of birds – golden plovers, teals and widgeons are all common.

More than 40 bird species breed and raise young at Elmley, including lapwings, redshanks and grebes. In the summer, butterflies and rare bees abound on every flower, field and sea wall, against a sky full of swallows and martins and a cacophony of marsh frogs. Yellow wagtails are a frequent dot of colour among the cows and calves, and the salt marsh skirting the Swale reaches full bloom with sea lavender and purslane, creating a saline meadow.

In the autumn, migrants such as whimbrel and green sandpiper pass through en route to Africa, stopping to rest and refuel for a few weeks while wildfowl and waders begin to return from North East Europe and the Arctic.