South Essex

South Essex

South Essex
A landscape of wetlands and marshes nestled along the Thames Estuary.

South Essex

  • An explosion of Orchids at Canvey Wick

    Canvey Wick Nature reserve may be more known for its importance to invertebrate life and its brownfield oil refinery roots, but what is special about the reserve does not end there. This brownfield reserve is special for other types of wildlife too, from whitethroats singing in the scrub, the distinctive sound of warblers in the reeds, to the occasional sighting of a green or great-spotted woodpecker, the reserve comes alive in the summer months!

    One particular spectacle that has developed on the reserve since the completion of the initial invertebrate habitat restoration, is a spectacular sea of orchids that blossoms annually in early summer. Literally hundreds of common spotted orchids pop up, interspersed with pyramidal orchids, their dark purple colour showing up in amongst the lighter shaded companion.

    Common Spotted Orchid

    The annual sea of Orchids does not end there in variety as over the past two summers a flurry of Bee Orchids has come through behind some of the sites distinctive round tarmac pads, once planned to be filled with towering oil containers in decades past. Even a single rare Southern Marsh Orchid has been recorded on the reserve in recent years.

    Our volunteers now conduct an annual count and for 2018 this result from this showed well over 1700 Common Spotted, over 500 Pyramidal and 25 of the much less common Bee Orchid.

    Bee Orchid

    Oil refinery’s can be dangerous and combustible places, however this old refinery continues to explode annually with something much more colourful and pleasant!

    Common Spotted Orchids at Canvey Wick

    Steve Roach - Warden, South Essex

  • Water Voles on the South Essex Reserves

    Assistant Warden Susy Jones talks about her work with water voles across the South Essex Reserves:

    As Summer approaches its end, my mind turns to getting the last water vole surveys of the year done. Our reserves in South Essex are a stronghold for this rare and endangered mammal, so we carry out dedicated surveys to monitor their presence and number, in April and September. It’s been a dramatic year so far in nature’s calendar, with extremes of weather affecting the wildlife in different ways, so I was particularly interested to see how our water voles had fared through the harder times. Winter and early Spring were very wet and cold, augmented by a huge snow melt after the Beast from the East slipped away. Some of our ditches filled to the brim and water levels across our wetlands were higher than they’d been in years.

    Image: Water Vole - Ben Hall (

    When it came to doing the April surveys, it was clear to see that many of the water voles had probably not started breeding for the season across much of the reserves yet. There was evidence of their activity around such as piles of distinctive feeding remains dotted here and there but across much of our ditch networks, few latrines –  their territorial giveaways – were counted. Two things crossed my mind. I first of all supposed that winter mortality had been high, especially with the long winter season with unusually cold spells. Small mammal mortality over winter is a very natural thing. It is normal for many water voles to perish over winter. The strongest, often those born later in the previous season rally through to see the following Spring, But an especially harsh winter can cause higher than usual numbers of small mammals to die. The second thing that occurred to me was that my little friends were late getting going. From March to October, the water voles are busy making babies. I supposed that due to the extended winter their activity may have been delayed on that front. Do water voles innately know when it’s sensible or not to have families? Probably.


    But how much influence do we - as the custodians of these reserves - have over the fates of our water voles?

    As land managers of wetland, we have the ability to provide and maintain the perfect homes for water voles. When the South Essex RSPB reserves were designed and created, networks of ditches were incorporated into the landscape. A big part of getting this right is making sure the ditches are of the right profile, the right depth and in the right location to be free of grazing livestock. They must also be subsequently easy and low-maintenance to manage thereafter. On Bowers Marsh, a ditch several kilometres long runs along the perimeter of the reserve, with further ditches running off it like spokes from a wheel. This is where our highest water vole population density is to be found. The ditch is fenced on one side, and has the footpath on the other side, so it is free of cattle grazing. We need our water vole ditches to be free of cattle grazing on at least one side, so that the cattle don’t trample and affect the integrity of the banks in which water voles make their home. Grazing would also remove a lot of vegetation which water voles rely on for cover and feeding. Even the natural run–off from cow manure can make the water conditions unfavourable for water voles if there is too much of it. The ditch is also designed to have just the right sort of bank profile for burrowing; not too shallow, and not too steep. It also holds a large capacity of water, so that it can flow freely and therefore the ditch doesn’t get too full of sediment and therefore overgrown with encroaching vegetation.


    Image: Aerial of Bowers Marsh by Rolf Williams

    Elsewhere, on West Canvey Marsh, we have a very simple and easy to control system over our designated water vole ditch network, as this one needs a little more influence than that of Bowers Marsh. Again it is protected from grazing livestock, so has lots of lush marginal vegetation for cover and food. We have a pump system which draws water from our storage reservoir, into the ditch network to fill it up. We then have full control over how high the water gets. A pipe at the end of the network can be set high, low or anything inbetween, so water will flow out if it gets too high for our liking, and conversely we can adjust the pipe so no water will flow out at all, whilst we’re filling the ditches up with the electric pump. For example, if the water gets too high in periods of high rain or snow melt, we can tilt the pipe down to slowly draw the water back down to an optimal level. Many of our West Canvey water voles live in the main river that runs through the reserve, too. Although we have no control over the main river it provides a home year round due to its existing optimal profile with good flow. It also links with other ditches around the reserve. So, even if habitat falls out of favour for any reason beyond our control, water voles can easily access nearby areas which are more suitable. This main river forms a sort of ‘water vole hub’ through the reserve, so it’s like a highway.

     Image: Water vole eating aquatic vegetation by Ben Andrew ( 

    Overall, in having a large network of well designed and protected ditches, and by maintaining good water flow throughout them, we’re able to provide a very suitable home for our water voles. Therefore, even the things beyond our control like events of extreme cold, will not hit them too hard in the long run since they will always have the means to bounce back. This is something which nature is perfect at doing, if we give it the right home.

    We are running 4X4 water vole tours this September if you would like to go out onto Bowers Marsh and find out first hand how we monitor these amazing mammals and enter the world of a South Essex water vole.  For more information and to book your ticket follow the link:

  • Wild Wednesdays on West Canvey Marsh this Summer!

    Once again this year we will be running our Wild Wednesdays with the chance for your Wild Things to explore the ditches and grassy areas of West Canvey Marsh in search for creepy crawlies.  Last year despite the rain, each Wednesday we ran the event turned up something new including water scorpion,  dragonfly nymph and a smooth newt as well great views of wasp spiders along the ditch edge.


    The activities you are able to take part in are all connected to our Wild challenge with a major focus on trying to connect families with nature and the outdoors. whenever RSPB staff and volunteers are asked how they got into nature, majority often had a special connection when they were young and that what we want to encourage in the current generation.  Its not just for children though as one of the things that will always make me laugh is how keen parents often are to get involved with the various activities wanting to know what creatures are and it brings out the inner explorer in all of us.  Engaging children at an early age can excite a lifetime passion for the outdoors and its such a good time to get involved as their memories are like no other and majority of the time even we get reminded what we are looking at by a keen 7 year old.

    The Wild Challenge is supported by Aldi and has three tiers to achieve. Bronze, Silver and Gold and you earn these by taking part in a number of activities.  Some of these activities you can achieved by attending one of our events and taking part in pond dipping, some of these activities can be achieved by visiting your nearest nature reserve and just listening out to your surroundings and you can even achieve challenges at home by building a wildlife pond or making your own bird feeders.  To find out more follow:


    So get your Wild Things down on a Wednesday and come and discover some of the inhabitants of West Canvey Marsh. 

    All sessions start at 10am and last roughly 2 hours. 

    £6 per child, £5 RSPB Wildlife Explorer

    To book call us on 01268 498620 or email

    For more details:

    Image credit: Clive Osbourne