My eagle-eyed winter wander around the Isle of Wight

The island isn’t only for summer holidays: the colder months are perfect for birding and walks along trails that will form part of the England Coast Path

The Isle of Wight is having a moment. That’s what conservationist Dave Fairlamb tells me as we eat homemade cake on a silver-grey afternoon, watching meadow pipits above Newtown’s salt marshes.

“From a nature perspective,” he says, “everything’s converging.”

Dave has just launched Natural Links, offering birdwatching breaks and courses on the island, which has been focusing on its natural assets in the past year. Two Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust projects – the Wilder strategy and Secrets of the Solent – launched in 2019; Visit Isle of Wight published a Slow Travel Guide; and the whole island was awarded Unesco Biosphere status. Last summer also saw the start of a white-tailed eagle reintroduction project, with six birds released on the island’s north coast.

We see no eagles but as we stroll along the harbour we spot a swirl of dunlins – “about 600,” Dave estimates in an instant – and thrill to a fly-by of overwintering Brent geese, which purr softly as they pass. Winter is one of the best times for birding on the island, with large flocks of wildfowl and wading birds converging on the wetlands, and peak numbers of divers and grebes offshore.

It’s a suitably serene start to my slow, off-season exploration, which has proved remarkably easy. The island is served by a year-round hovercraft service, which crosses the Solent in 10 minutes. It’s also laced with cycle tracks and hiking trails; has a programme of public walks that runs through winter; and enjoys a useful bus network – some bridleways even have bus stops. Then there’s the island railway, limited in scope (one line, Shanklin to Ryde), but a paragon of recycling: it uses 1930s London Underground trains – the country’s oldest rolling stock in regular use – and although these will be retired from May, the “new” carriages will be converted 1970s tube trains.

Sea eagles have been reintroduced to the island.

I have been making the most of all of these services to put together a winter weekend. Having caught a bus to meet Dave in Newtown, I head onwards on foot, walking about six miles to Yarmouth via the coast path. It’s lovely in the winter light: I head down lanes of skeletal trees, then alongside streaks of wave-tickled shingle, the mainland visible across the water. I see few other people, though it’s not cold, and the bare trees make spotting birds – such as the finches and tits that throng together at this time of year – all the easier. I keep my eyes peeled for red squirrels, too.

The Isle of Wight has had a coast path since the 1970s but – like the train – it’s about to get an overhaul [ . . . ]