And so the season begins

The very best thing about Orford Ness is that it really belongs to the wild birds. The Ness opened again to visitors two weeks ago, but at this time of year ‘open’ means only on Saturdays, and even then you can do only one of the three designated walks; the others are closed because of ground-nesting birds. The first boat across from Orford Quay is at 10.00 am, and the last one back is at 5pm. After that, and for the next six days, the 16 kilometres of shingle spit is returned to the ownership of wildlife – to the birds and the hares and the wind, and the sounds of silence. (The Ness opens more frequently in August and September, but after that it’s closed completely until the beginning of April.)

This characterisation of humans as strictly controlled, temporary incomers gives me enormous pleasure, and I believe it’s these restrictions that give the Ness its own distinctive character. That stretch of shingle has a particular and unusual beauty that I find both moving and inspirational. The loveliness is more than the sum of its parts, although each of the parts is so individually beautiful, and so intensely ‘other’, that it takes your breath away.  And although this was my third visit in recent years no memory quite prepared me for the feral joy of its diversity: the reed beds thrumming with wind and bird song, the rolling marshland where larks and swans nest, the harsh salt marshes where this time we glimpsed not only hares but also one of the rare water deer, and the steeply shelved shingle beach where just about every single one of the thousands of pebbles seems a distinctive and natural work of art worth individual attention.

Orford Ness has a long history of supporting secrecy. In the 13th century it protected the port of Orford from surprise attack, but more recently, and most notoriously, it was used for a sequence of top-secret military research and development programs during the 20th century. It was finally bought by the National Trust in 1993, and the Trust aims to preserve past evidence of the site’s use while also allowing natural process to run their course – which means the slow decay of the remaining military buildings and leftover junk. Some visitors, I’m told, complain about “the mess” of decay and rust: I love it.

We saw: a barn owl, oyster catchers, lots of gulls (I’m no good at identifying one gull from another, but some were black-head gulls and others might have been skuas), larks, swans, redshanks, shelduck, cormorants and a skein of geese in the sky. We also saw hares and a water deer. I heard, I’m sure, a cuckoo – but the call was coming from the mainland and not actually on the Ness itself.

This is a water deer, but not my photo.

The only wildlife I managed to photograph was this caterpillar.

And I was struck by an incident I witnessed on Orford Quay, waiting for the boat. Two tourists had driven on to the Quay and parked their car, despite notices that ask you not to do that (there’s a visitors’ car park close by, and the working fishermen own the parking spots on the Quay). One of the fishermen prepping his boat asked them to move, and when they argued he patiently explained the rules. And after he finally won the day, and the visitors had grumped off to move their car, one of the fisherman’s friends grinned at him and said, “And so the season begins.” You have to wonder if that sentiment is shared by the Ness wildlife.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.