Ray Marsh prepares to bid farewell after a lifetime caring for a remote Essex nature reserve.
We wait for Ray on the bank and gradually he appears from the mist hanging over the water, his dog Bella at the prow of the boat.
I am here with a working party from Essex Wildlife Trust who are travelling to a nature reserve called Skipper’s Island – a remote location in Hamford Water near Walton in north Essex.
With this fog closing in around us there is an other-worldliness to the waterscape, made up of creeks, islands, intertidal mud, sand flats and saltmarshes. When the tide is in, Skipper’s Island, which is around 500 metres from the mainland, can only be reached by boat. When the tide recedes, the way across involves treading carefully through deep mud and along rickety board walks.
I’m here for two reasons – firstly, to roll up my sleeves and get involved in some physical work, and secondly to meet Ray, the warden of the reserve who is due to retire this year after looking after the island for 60 years.
Now in his mid-eighties, the aptly named Ray Marsh, first started caring for the place when the island’s previous owner, Fred Williams, used it as a weekend retreat. When Mr Williams passed Skipper’s Island over to the Trust, Ray continued helping with its upkeep and looked after Trust members who rented the lodge on the island for holidays.
When lettings ceased in 1973, he continued in a part-time role, repairing seawalls, planting trees and maintaining the woodland rides that run through the island’s thick clusters of blackthorn and bramble. Ray, who can see the island from his bungalow on the mainland, has even intercepted one or two poachers in his time, who have sneaked over to take pot shots at the rabbits and the assorted wild fowl who congregate in and around the rich mudflats.
But now Ray has decided to hang up his oars, as the work has got too much. Even getting back and forth to the location is a bit of a work-out and Ray tells me he has fallen into the water from his boat twice in recent months – I shudder at the thought as the wind cuts in.
I ask him to sum up his 60-year connection with this wild place.
“It’s been a wonderful experience, it’s been my whole life really, I suppose – I’ll be very, very sad to leave it,” said Ray, who hopes his son, Peter, will take over the caretaker role when he finally stops in September.
“I may be able to come over on the odd occasion if I feel fit enough but old age is my problem – I have my knees strapped up, my hearing is going – all the usual problems.”
We stand and look out across the water. A chevron of Brent geese move through the sky; an oystercatcher shrieks nearby. Later we watch a little egret fly low across the saltmarsh and make out the bulky outline of a buzzard in a distant tree.
“There’s so much movement with the tides and with all the species – it’s just a wonderful place,” continued Ray, who says he rarely has time to sit and ponder in this isolated haven.
“I’m nearly always busy doing things,” he explained. “There’s always so much to do – maintaining all the paths and the boats, and the footpaths coming across.”
And when he does get some downtime, Ray has recorded every species of insect, bird, reptile and mammal he has seen at Skipper’s Island over the years. They are listed in the back of a book he wrote about the place years ago – from water rail to peregrine, and many more besides.
And while Ray’s legs may be getting weary, there’s still a lot of strength in his upper body. He must get into his rowing boat now, before the tide goes too far out, and he propels himself at speed through the briny, a lifetime’s worth of conditioning still apparent in his shoulders.
When I meet the working party over the other side, chainsaws are buzzzing and cutting into the blackthorn before the branches are dragged away and piled onto a fire of impressive size. The team are clearing the scrub in the hope that the space left will be colonised by the rare hog’s fennel plant.
The reason that so much brawn is being focussed on one plant is that hog’s fennel is the food plant of the larvae of the rare Fisher’s estuarine moth. The species overwinters as eggs laid on long, coarse grass, and the larvae hatch in late spring. The young larvae feed in the stems of nearby hog’s fennel, later boring into the roots and emerging as adult moths after pupation in the autumn.
Skipper’s Island supports the largest population of the moth in the UK but the site is particularly vulnerable to flooding and tidal surges, which can damage the habitat and reduce the numbers of this extremely rare species.
Ray may be stepping down but the important conservation work continues.
This article first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times in March 2019.