by Paul Dunt
When the Ice Age ground to a halt and Essex began to emerge from the
big freeze, the rising melt-waters left the county with some of its
most intriguing landscapes. The huge quantity of water released from
the ice may have separated Britain from the rest of Europe, but it
also created the incredible coastal estuaries that make Essex what
it is today.
Blackwater-Colne estuary is a great example. This enormous feature
was formed not by rivers flowing into the sea, but by the sea-levels
rising and flooding the land and that also led to the creation of
some fantastic islands, such as Mersea near Colchester.
cut off from the mainland has had a dramatic effect on the way Mersea
has developed - and it has proved to be a haven for wildlife. The
first clue lies all around the island - mud. It's easy to think
there's little alive in the black and brown sticky stuff, but nothing
could be further from the truth.
Graham Underwood from the University of Essex is an expert on the
creatures that live in the inter-tidal zone. As the ice melted the
mudflats that were created left a whole new opportunity for life
to exploit and today just a few scoops with a spade can reveal a
are all sorts of things living in the mud such as ragworms and molluscs,
you just need to dig to find them" says Graham. "Closer
to the shore there are also other amazing creatures such as specialist
beetles that have learnt to take advantage of this new environment."
animals that moved into the mud also attracted other wildlife -
and in particular, the birds. Today Mersea is a haven for numerous
species including shelduck, avocets and curlew, all brought to Essex
by the rich food supply that is revealed every time the tide goes
the birds haven't just taken advantage of Mersea's mud. At Cudmore
Grove Country Park to the east of the island a colony of sand-martins
have made their home in the sea-cliffs. Thousands of years ago these
cliffs once formed part of the Thames before the Ice Age diverted
the river further south. But now the soft sands and gravel's provide
a perfect place for the martins to dig their holes where they will
raise their young before departing for Africa for the winter.
first came here a few years ago and now they are one of the largest
colonies in the county," says Park Ranger Dougal Urquhart who
lives and works on the reserve. What's even more extraordinary is
that the sea-cliffs are packed with 300,000 year old fossils, including
those of elephants and hippos, showing the incredible animals that
once roamed the county.
remoteness of Mersea has also given other animals a perfect undisturbed
home. Adders are often spotted in the country park where they enjoy
basking in the sunshine, although other species which are found
on the mainland, such as nuthatches and deer don't live there. That's
not to say they haven't tried - Muntjac deer have been found washed
up on the shores.
Grove Country Park is a great place to visit if you want to get
a taste of island life and the legacy left to the county at the
end of the Ice Age. Events are held throughout the year, including
guided walks. There's a bird hide and behind the beach is an area
of clifftop and grassland providing space for picnics.
Cudmore Grove country park, Bromans Lane, East Mersea, Essex, CO5
8UE, Tel: 01206 383868.