An Overlooked Haven
When you think about the New Forest you usually conjure up images of grand old oak trees or expansive heathlands. Rolling waves and shingle beaches don’t always spring to mind, but coastal environments make up quite a chunk of the New Forest. And, I personally think that these coastal stretches of the National Park are home to some of the Forest’s best kept secrets.
Tucked away, past the cosy little village of Milford-On-Sea is one of my all-time spots on the new forest. Keyhaven. A pretty little harbour with spectacular views across to the Isle of Wight and a huge array of both resident and visiting wildlife. The flora and fauna make the most of a variety of habitats such as: salt marshes, mudflats, saline lagoons, shingle banks and grazing marshes and it’s always somewhere we head when we need a bit of a wildlife fix.
I’d heard a rumour that there had been sightings of a short-eared owl seen hunting the marshes in between Keyhaven and Lymington. I was super keen to tick off the SEO from my list, I have never seen one. I always miss them when they are in the area, and one of these stunning birds would make a great addition to my #my200birdyear list. Luckily, you can park over-night at Keyhaven, so that meant we could head over in the van, stay the night and get out early to see what birdlife was around. Any parking near Hurst Spit runs the risk of the road flooding during hightides, so it pays to keep an eye on both tide times and the weather.
We arrived late, it was already pitch black with some heavy rain coming in, so we had no idea what would be waiting for us on the mudflats and salt marshes in the morning. It was a pretty rough night and although the steep shingle banks of Hurst Spit blocked us from most of the winds, we still took a bit of a battering. So, it was a relief when the morning broke and looking out through bleary eyes we were greeted by stillness and the warm orange glow of a rising sun seeping through the landscape.
It was early, but the place was already buzzing with life; early morning runners, dog walkers, council men collecting with cuppas in the layby and a few keen photographers route marching with tripods slung over their shoulders. The mudflats were also bubbling with life, every nook and cranny seemed to be filled with birds. An outgoing tide had revealed an expanse of oozing mud that provided rich pickings for turnstones, flitting frantically amongst a large group of black-tailed godwits chattering and chastising one another as they probed with their long up curved beaks through the slick mud. Curlews warbled as they glided in over the heads of brent geese that had congregated in the shallows and gulls quibbled amongst themselves.
The start of the sea wall was guarded by two oily black crows perched on the gate way, their coats illuminated and iridescent in the early morning light. Every time I’ve visited Keyhaven these two sentinels always seem to be there. The sounds of seabirds going about their morning routines floated by, and I found myself being inspected by a female reed bunting that was perching in a bramble bush a little further ahead of me. She was close enough that every line, mark and feather was in high definition – a stunning mix of tawny, cream and chocolate. Following the sea wall, I headed towards the main carpark, opposite the pub, where the path continues past a private wildlife hide, over the bridge and away towards Lymington.
The path winds it’s way through 500acres that have quite the history. This stretch was once prolific in salt production, and as you walk the coastal route you can see remains of not only shallow saline lagoons (salterns) but also narrow docks that were used to bring in coal for the old boiling houses, as well as transporting the finished salt product away. The salterns were shallow lagoons where salt water was collected and left to evaporate, the brine that was left would then be transferred into large metal pans in the boiling houses where it would be boiled so that the salt would be left behind.
It’s pretty impressive stuff and to think that what was once a big industrial production is now a safe haven and refuge for a whole host of wildlife. The combination of all of these varying different habitats make it a really important place for both flora and fauna. It’s particularly noticeable in winter when huge numbers of waders and wildfowl flock to the area but it’s not just birds that thrive her, the foxtail stonewart, lagoon shrimp and the starlet sea anemone all make their homes here. The area is still managed today, not for salt production now, but a mixture of sluices, tidal traps and animal grazing are all put in place to help manage the water levels and salinity through the now nature reserve.
There is always something to see here, whether it’s a wildlife marvel or historical evidence of times gone by. That for me is a good enough argument for the Keyhaven area to be one of the top spots in the New Forest. An even stronger piece of evidence for this argument occurred as I was walking back to the van. From the bridge past the car park is a great view point out over the reed beds, it was as good a place as any to stop and scan for birds, particularly short-eared owls. Over on the far side of the reed beds were two impending birds, effortlessly skimming the tops of the reeds. I’ve seen so many of those looming silhouettes this winter that I instantly knew they were marsh harriers. I don’t think I will ever get bored of seeing these phenomenal creatures and I’m pretty certain that my heart will leap in my chest every time I see them.
I didn’t see my Short-Eared owl that morning, but it was ok, I didn’t mind. I’m not even bothered that I missed the bittern that flew right under the noses of the two photographers I walked past on the way back to the van and a well-earned coffee. The warm morning glow and a salty sea breeze was more than enough, especially after a long night of relentless winter weather.
By all means, when you visit the New Forest head right into the wooded enclosures, heavy with greenery and ancient tree. Or seek out the stretching heath lands where the ponies graze and under uninterrupted skies. But, don’t forget to head to the coastal corners and uncover their hidden treasures.