The first time that I was introduced to the Brede Valley was when I was about eight years old. My mother took me and a friend hop picking at a farm that was situated within the valley.
The hop fields were located just below the Icklesham ridge which borders the valley and it was on these trips hop picking my friend and I would often wander away into the depths of the marsh that lay adjacent to the hop fields, scrumping apples in the orchards, spotting birds and fish in and around the waterways of the valley. I never realised then that this area would become a life’s love.
I really disliked being at school and could never wait to visit the whole area in later years with my friends whenever possible between school time and holidays, either bird nesting or fishing and at this period in time the whole area was lush with bogs, reeded networks of dykes that in those days were full of water, fish and bird life.
We would normally catch a train from Ore railway station and travel through the Coghurst tunnel passing Three Oaks and Doleham Halt eventually stopping at Snailham Halt within the levels where we got off the train.
This railway halt was closed down in late 1959 which was not really so surprising because the nearest dwellings after alighting at the halt amounted to a very long walk either side up to the Icklesham ridge or by the other side of the valley to Udimore ridge, but perfect for us as we were only steps away from where we wanted to be which was the marsh levels which seemed our own little world!
Being very young at the time it was not unusual in those days for our parents to allow us to just disappear for the day with some sandwiches and a drink either to mess about in the woods or marshes really just doing what boys did in those times which also included for us clubbing together to buy a pack of “Domino” cigarettes for the princely sum of six pence in old money! there were four in a pack if my Memory serves me well.
Bird nesting was at the time considered by most to be a boy’s harmless hobby and the bird’s egg’s we collected in those years really had little impact on bird populations, we would often scoop out a few moorhens’ eggs by using a pole with wire attached to the end shaped in a cone, these would be cooked in an old oxo tin over a fire! Today populations of even the once common farmland species have dramatically diminished every where.
Wetland birds such as the redshank and snipe that only occasionally bred in the valley in bygone years have all gone, but lapwing and yellow wagtail can still be found within these marshes but their numbers have been hugely diminished as breeding bird in these levels. The Tree sparrow is another disappearing and now rare bird in Sussex , not so once in the valley where a large colony would breed in several old apple orchards below Udimore.
I remember these now rare birds thriving in the 1960s through to the 1980s then at some point the old orchards were grubbed out by new land owners and ended the breeding of this lovely little bird and the area now is just grassland.
It was about 3 years ago whilst fishing for chub below Udimore on the river Brede a landowner came past checking sheep, after a pleasant conversation about the birds of the valley I said bitterly that tree sparrow’s once nested in at least two large colonies in the apple orchards and once thrived there until all the trees were gutted out by someone to which the reply was “Oh we took the orchards out when we purchased the land” which made the rest of the conversation slightly uncomfortable!
Many years later I was to conduct a survey of the breeding birds in the Brede Valley 1976-1979 with a local Ornithologist David Pankhurst who was a close friend but has recently sadly passed away. The bulk of this survey mainly concentrated on the area from Doleham to Snailham and occasionally just outside that area but still within the levels. The result of our Survey was published in the Hastings and East Sussex Naturalist titled The Status of Breeding Birds in the Brede Valley 1976-1979 with Winter Counts of Selected Species 1978 to March 1979. I was later to write in 1987 another published article for this society entitled A History of Snipe and Redshank as a Breeding Bird within The Brede Valley
Although I have never taken part in another survey of this area since the first was undertaken, I have personally witnessed over the years dramatic changes to the birds visiting and breeding in the valley.
At the period in our survey years 1976-1979 the lapwing was a fairly common bird with at least 45 pairs breeding in the levels although suffering much at the time from predation by carrion crows, today by comparison there are just a handful nesting there that I know of and corvids have dramatically increased.
Although the lapwing is a common resident and winter visitor in Sussex it’s now a red listed species of high concern as are others affected by extensive farming.
The moorhen is another example of a species with a dramatic fall in breeding numbers which has been caused by the dykes being kept with minimum water levels and the impact of rising mink and Corvids. Which eggs and/or chicks are seldom safe from.
As for redshank and snipe, they have not bred in the valley for many years being that the suitable nesting sites within this area have long gone and sadly alongside the little owls once found in the valleys orchards near Udimore, that were grubbed out many years ago resulting again in the loss of suitable nesting habitat for the owl and many other bird species.
However, the positive is that reed warblers still maintain a reasonably healthy breeding population comparable to years gone by with several areas now being set aside in recent years with phragmite reed beds and scrub to attract wetland breeding birds , species such as reed bunting sedge warbler, Water Rail and Marsh Harrier with hopes of the possibility that Snipe and Redshank will eventually to return one day
Here is a typical reed warbler nest a beautiful construction shown woven here in phragmite reeds, also a sedge warblers nest situated in bankside vegetation.
In recent years there have been new species of bird to the valley including little egret, stonechat & marsh harrier while buzzard and ravens nest in the valley’s bordering woods, there are also a good number of skylarks that can still be found and of course singing constantly.
I have had a lifetime of love for this place, somewhere that I can still go and find seclusion in peaceful surroundings. The valley has gone through so many changes since those bygone years but it still draws me back just as it did when I was a young man looking for birds, fishing or just for a gentle stroll – but definitely no scrumping or collecting birds eggs anymore!
All writing & images Sussex Micky Summer 1973/2021