Minsmere is one of the RSPB's flagship nature reserves, set on the Suffolk coast. The area was flooded in the Second World war to make invasion more difficult, and the row of cubical concrete tank traps on the dunes between east Hide and Public Hide remind us of this history.
Avocets returned to England taking advantage of the flooding, and Bert Axell, the first warden of Minsmere helped them by scraping out a shallow lagoon, which has been home to generations of waders and wildfowl ever since, including the avocet, which is the bird on the RSPBs symbol.
The reserve opens at 9am, and it is worth going round the Scrape in a clockwise direction to keep the sun behind you for the best view of the birds. Starting from the visitor centre when you pick up your reserve pass (RSPB members get in free) take the path that leads towards East hide via the North Wall.
The reed beds on either side of North wall may have flocks of the delightful bearded tit/bearded reedling, with their characteristic pinging contact calls. When you get to the end of North Wall and go through the gates to the dune path, it is worth scanning the sea for sea ducks, before continuing to East Hide, with excellent views over the Scrape with lovely light is the sun is up and behind you, depending on how long you take to get around the Scrape, the sun will tend to go with you, whereas if you go the other way round starting with West Hide then you will have the sun in your eyes.
The full tour of the Scrape hides is quite a way and more than little feet will take kids, though a trip to East Hide and back is doable. However, near the visitor centre there are several quiet places where some of the common species can be seen, and there are the ever-popular feeders by the tea room where finches and tits come to feed only a few yards from the visitors if they make no sudden movements. In summer sand martins often nest in the sandbank which is overlooked from the back of the visitor centre.
Although the Scrape is the jewel in the crown the other trails in Minsmere have their own attractions. Bittern hide is good for an overview of the massive reed beds to get a scale of the reserve, and the tree canopy hide is a very tall edifice that rises looming over the deciduous forest at the back of the reserve. I haven't ever personally had much luck with that hide, which is a pity considering the remarkable engineering and effort to climb it!
All in all any trip to Minsmere is bound to be a memorable experience whatever your knowledge of birds - there are so many and the clamour at breeding time is amazing.
Minsmere is one of over 200 nature reserves in Britain managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Established in 1948 it is also one of Britain's oldest nature reserves. Back in those early post war days it was known as the Minsmere Bird Reserve and covered only a fraction of the 150 acres that it now spans. Today, Minsmere Nature Reserve covers the whole of east Suffolk from the estuary of the River Blyth to its north down to Minsmere River on its southern boundaries, this area now also forms a part of the much larger Minsmere - Walberswick Special Protection area and is also an area of outstanding natural beauty. In addition to its birdlife, it is also an important habitat for flowers, plants, insects and mammals. In September 2004 a previously unknown species of moth was found here, which was given the name the Minsmere Crimson Underwing.
I first visited Minsmere about 15 years ago and a couple of months ago I had the opportunity to return here again. I have always had a keen interest in birds and wildlife and a great love for the outdoors so this was always a place that I intended to one day return to. As far as I can recall the place has not changed at all, which is obviously good news for the wildlife that has made its home here, although I think that the quality of some of the footpaths had been improved.
Minsmere is a wetland reserve that is dominated by shallow lagoons and thick beds of reeds. This type of reed bed habitat was once abundant in these flat, low lying lands and until a couple of centuries ago this type of habitat covered much of East Anglia, Belgium and Holland. However, deliberate draining of the land has almost eradicated this unique habitat and now only small fragments of it remain.
Here the reeds are managed carefully by the RSPB to provide the optimum wildlife habitat. This management actually involves the cutting down of large areas of reed at the end of each summer to ensure that the Greater Reed Mace, which is the predominant grass species here does not grow too tall and take over. This cutting back of the reeds is especially important for the Dormouse, one of the UK's rarest rodents.
Arriving at Minsmere is relatively easy, although I would imagine that it could be quite difficult without a car. The reserve is well sign-posted from quite a few miles away and there is a large car park with toilets and a visitor centre where the narrow country road that leads to it ends. The toilets here are equipped with disabled and baby changing facilities and there is also a gift shop.
Like most of the RSPB reserves Minsmere is free to visit if you are a RSPB member or a member of certain other societies but there is a small charge to enter the reserve for non members. This fee is payable at the visitors centre, from where a day permit has to be obtained . This revenue goes towards the upkeep of the reserve but since this reserve attracts over 100,000 visitors every year surplus revenue also goes towards the upkeep of some of the other RSPB reserves and also to help support some of the other important conservation work that this charity undertakes.
The current admission charges are:
Adults - £5.00
Concessions - £3.00
Children - £1.50
Family ticket - £10.00
Due to the nature of this habitat access across the reserve is restricted but there are several footpaths that have been cut through the reeds and these are raised up above the marshy ground on wooden platforms. These wooden platforms are quite wide and very easy to walk on and are suitable for both wheelchairs and pushchairs.
The reeds at either side of these footpaths are up to three metres tall and therefore despite the twittering noises of the birds coming from inside it is virtually impossible to see anything. However every two to three hundred metres there are wooden observation hides that are raised high above the reeds and provide an elevated view. These hides also overlook the open stretches of water and the shallow lagoons. The majority of these observation hides are built on two different levels with a ramp up to the higher level. There are wooded benches inside and they usually look out onto three of their four sides.
Without the observation hides it would be difficult to see anything but optical viewing aids like binoculars or a telescope are also useful as some of the views of the birds are rather distant. Binoculars can actually be hired from the visitor centre for a small charge plus a deposit.
Minsmere is a perfect day out for the family and is suitable for anyone who enjoys the countryside. If you know nothing about birds there are always staff and other visitors there to point things out. Whilst I was there one of the wardens was explaining to some young children about the swans here, telling them that the ones with the yellow beaks were not the common Mute Swans, which have orange beaks, that we see on our rivers, but that these were in fact Berwick's Swans that only come to Britain for the winter after they have bred in the high Artic.
During my recent visit I saw lots of different birds, including two of the local highlights, Avocet and Marsh Harrier. I certainly left here with some nice find memories.
The reserve is open daily from 9am until dusk. Facilities include a car park, visitor centre, shop and toilets that are fully equipped for disabled visitors.
Minsmere Nature Reserve
Tel : (01728)648281