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8th January 2019 - Cuckmere - A talk by Tony Whitbread

A large audience gathered for the first meeting after the Christmas break and enjoyed a very detailed and informative talk by Tony Whitbread, the recently retired chief executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust. The talk, entitled simply ‘Cuckmere’ was given in two halves.

The first half looked at the general overview of water in the environment and the need to think about water on a wider ‘catchment scale’ rather than looking at rivers, lakes or other areas in isolation.

We were encouraged to think about our ‘water footprint’ both individually and communally.

We each use around 150 litres per day but this rises to 3,400 litres per day when use for agriculture, manufacturing etc. is added.

Although we refer to Planet Earth this may be something of a misnomer as it is actually 75% water, however only 2.5% of that water is fresh and of that only 0.01% is available to man.

Water is a rare commodity in our solar system on which life is dependent.

The availability of water in the South East of England is a constant concern for water companies with the ever present threat of a crisis and so water management issues are of paramount importance - although we are actually using less water now than in 1990 even though economic activity has doubled since then.

Wetland issues facing us today are that more than 80% of our water bodies fail to achieve good ecological status. Floods, erosion, drought and major events are happening more frequently and again do not happen in isolation but could be happening simultaneously.

Work in the upper catchment areas of rivers can help to prevent flooding further down the course. Sussex is one of the most wooded counties in the country and the role of trees is one of the areas being looked at.

Planting of trees in the upper reaches of the river can help to slow, and regulate the flow and work to this effect has already been done with landowners around the River Uck.

A lot of naturally occurring wooded floodplain has been lost in this country and it is thought that historically this played a valuable role in minimising flooding.

Re-planting of wet woodland habitats, re-connecting rivers to their woodland flood plains and allowing natural flooding is one of the ideas being considered in order to restore hydrological function.

Mention was made of the black poplar- a tree that thrives in these conditions but is now largely lost in Sussex.

Part two of the talk was more specifically focused on the River Cuckmere or should it be the Cuckmere River?

A member of the audience noted at the end that the correct name appeared to be the latter – though no-one present was aware of the reasons why!

Tony discussed the meanders and the doubts behind the previously accepted theories of the development of meanders and oxbow lakes as the original studies of their development were based on the Colorado River which is on an altogether different scale and not really comparable to the Cuckmere!

An expert geomorphologist has postulated that once formed, meanders can be very stable. The Cuckmere meanders with which we are so familiar have probably been unchanged for a very long time and of course since becoming disconnected from the river by the artificial cut made 1840-60 which was probably to aid navigation rather than to minimise flooding.

The top meander has a rather unexpected angle of 90 degrees – the reasons for this are unclear.

The meanders are now actually just a long narrow lake though slowly widening due to side to side wave action and having been cut off from water replenishment, have become very brackish and not a very hospitable habitat.

The mouth of the river however has changed and will continue to do so due to the constant action of longshore drift – the movement of shingle from west to east. The Cuckmere estuary is an iconic area of natural beauty- known widely, and is the only unbuilt up estuary along the south coast.

The area around the Cuckmere estuary has a variety of landowners such as local Council, National Trust, South Downs National Park and individuals, and is subject to a number of protective orders e.g. Marine Conservation and SSI. This does mean that while considerable protection is afforded, it can be difficult to negotiate and achieve consensus on management issues.

Management of the Cuckmere Haven area has been subject to long debate as to whether to allow nature to take its course or to continue active management or a combination of the two.

There are concerns about flooding further up the valley but this largely affects agricultural land rather than homes and so can take a lower priority from the Environment Agency especially in times of severe flooding in the wider area.

If left alone the shingle at the mouth will gradually build up until in time of storm the river breaks through and changes the course.

Currently the Environment Agency removes the shingle to maintain the mouth but a severe storm event can easily reverse this almost instantly.

Various interventions have been, and are, under consideration to encourage increase in scour and assist the river to maintain its own flow and patency of the mouth, including restoring and increasing flood plains and reactivation of the meanders by reconnecting them to the river.

The ideal outcome would be to achieve a compromise between reverting to nature and full management, thus minimising flooding while maintaining the area in its current much loved condition.

Please see link below for further information: https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/discover/around-sussex/a-living-wetland-landscape/sussex-flow-initiative-river-ouse

Ann Roe

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22nd January 2019 – Seaford Community Wildlife Project – Michael Blencowe and Nikki Hills

Michael and Nikki from the Sussex Wildlife Trust came along to talk to a packed audience about the two year project funded by money from the National Lottery. The project was launched in March 2018 with the main aim to encourage schoolchildren, teenagers and local residents to learn, and be more aware of the wildlife in and around Seaford Head Local Nature Reserve (SHLNR). Many events have already taken place and Nikki (Project Officer) working mostly with schoolchildren and teenagers showed us photos as she detailed the different programmes.

One programme has been to work in Seaford schools to make the school grounds more wildlife friendly, providing a series of wildlife pockets across Seaford. Nikki with small groups of schoolchildren visited SHLNR to look at and explore the different habitats there. She then encouraged them to see what wildlife they had on their school grounds, and helped them to attract more wildlife by making bug hotels and planting wildflowers, seeds and bulbs.

Nikki explained that it is harder to involve teenagers but she has established a working party of about 8 boys from Seaford Head School who have actively cleared scrub on SHLNR and helped out in the Seaford Community Garden.

Wild Beach Project was aimed at encouraging schoolchildren to explore beach life. Each week over several weeks last summer small groups of schoolchildren from different schools went to the beach to take part in activities. At the end of each session they would beach clean for 2 minutes. They made beach art, necklaces, or mobiles out of anything they found on the beach. Another favourite was making pebble towers, waiting to see if the tide destroyed them. They went rock pooling and some even managed to paddle in April. A group of children from Cradle Hill School biked to and from the beach in a project called Bikes 4 Nature, and another older group of children took part in a John Muir Award project, completing a set of beach tasks to gain the award. Nikki also explained about a 3 day programme for teachers to gain an award to become a Wild Beach Training Leader.

Nikki told us they are working with local community groups, like this Society, to carry out conservation work on SHLNR, and we saw photos of volunteers struggling to remove a large quantity of old fishing nets from groins on Cuckmere beach. Another day 12kg of litter was collected. To encourage local residents to use SHLNR more, money will also be used to provide new signage, wildlife and walk leaflets for the area.

Michael used photos and bird calls to illustrate his part in the project leading wildlife walks for locals. In March he led a small group on an evening walk looking for the barred tooth striped moth. SHLNR is one of the few places it breeds, and he explained it’s life cycle. In April he led a large group on a bird walk around Hope Gap looking out for migrating birds. Among the birds they saw was a wheatear and unusually an adder. He went on to explain with maps and pictures how many birds fly thousands of miles from Africa, often passing over the UK to get to their breeding grounds as far away as Canada. We listened to the call of the common whitethroat and lesser whitethroat both of which can be seen on the SHLNR. Michael also led a very large group on a Spring walk and saw three different types of butterflies - a small copper, orange tip and grizzled skipper. He talked about fulmars that now breed on the SHLNR. With photos and bird call he told how they only lived on St.Kilda many years ago.

After the tea break Nikki told us that Sarah Quantrill’s volunteer group continues to meet once a month on the SHLNR and that money from the Project will enable contractors to come in to do some of the bigger jobs.

Next the loss of many elms to Dutch elm disease, the ongoing work to replace them and the dependence of the white letter hairstreak butterfly on them was discussed. The tree wardens have planted 104 elms to commemorate the 104 local people who died in WWI, and students from Seaford Head Secondary School were involved in planting about 20 trees.

The wildlife ranger groups for 12-16 year olds was mentioned. Footprint tunnels with food placed inside were set up to attract wildlife. Pawprints left in ink inside were later checked to work out what they were, but this was not that successful.

In the summer at Seaford Head a beach bioblitz was held in which everything found was recorded in the two hours before the tide came back in. There was also a successful Sea Life Fun Day with loads of displays and activities. They were hopeful that the nature reserve at Beachy Head East would be adopted to join up with the existing MCZ at Beachy Head West, commenting that marine life was often overlooked. Also in August Nikki was asked to find a mini sailing boat washed ashore at Hope Gap. It turned out that this had taken 3 months to cross the Atlantic from a school in Scarborough, Maine in USA, and was a school project tracked by GPS. She took the boat to Cradle Hill School where it remains, and now a dialogue has been set up between the two schools.

Looking ahead 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of SHLNR and to celebrate there will be many events, including a bioblitz on Saturday 13 July. There will be new signs at Seaford Head, and more volunteer training. Michael ended by thanking the Society for all their support. After questions Marion Trew gave a vote of thanks saying it was impressive how much work has been done on the project.

Marilyn Binning and Susan Painter

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5th February 2019 - Fifty Years a Local Nature Reserve, 1969 – 2019

Anne Fletcher owned up to her involvement in this project in her introduction to the talk when she said she had commissioned Alison to do this work on behalf of the Seaford Head Local Nature Reserve Management Committee while she was still the Society’s representative in 2015.

Alison began by sharing the dilemma that she had had over where to start a history of a nature reserve. It didn’t just spring from nothing to Nature Reserve, there had to have been something there before. She then dealt concisely but comprehensively with how the land had come to be in public ownership and the great debt owed by the people of Seaford to Hugh Northcote, the owner of Seaford Head and surrounding land, who died in 1929 and stipulated in his will, that 357 acres should be sold to the Seaford Urban District Council (SUDC) for a nominal sum to ensure that the whole of Seaford Head would be preserved for the public forever.

She then moved on to talk about how a small group of men led by Chris Hemingway, a founder member of the Natural History Society, had lobbied the SUDC to create a nature reserve on land they owned on Seaford Head; and once successful had then effectively negotiated for an eastern extension down into the Cuckmere Valley and then one to the west which included the borders of the golf course and the foreshore. A few years later Harry’s Bush was added to complete the Reserve as it now is.

There was then a whistle stop tour of the various responsible bodies with whom the Management Committee has worked, from SUDC to Lewes District Council, the Sussex Downs Conservation Board to the South Downs Joint Committee, Seaford Town Council to the South Downs National Park Authority. An inordinate number of changes in just fifty years.

These same four environmental activists then set about managing that land for the benefit of the public and the wildlife, starting with very ad hoc arrangements but working to create a structured management plan which was adopted in 1980 and remained in use until 2000.

By the 1990’s the Management Committee was actively managing the site to improve habitats and the visitor experience. Main pathways were cleared and scallops created by pushing back the scrub. Footpaths were being improved, trees were being coppiced, weeds and brambles were being tackled systematically, and grass was being cut, baled and removed twice a year.

Having instigated a rolling programme of works, the ’noughties’ consisted of a continuation of the successful scrub works and grass mowing as well as specific management to improve habitats for wildlife. Cattle grazing was reintroduced and measures taken to extend the foraging opportunities for the rare colony of Potter Flower-bees.

The Sussex Wildlife Trust were successful in the tendering process to provide Ranger services in the Reserve after it became part of the South Downs National Park in 2011 and Sarah Quantrill and her group of volunteers work to deliver the key objectives of the current management plan.

Alison then turned her attention to surveys to establish just what the Reserve contains, who wants to know and why. The first recorded systematic species survey of Seaford Head consisted of 260 botanical species and 26 species of birds. The Natural History Society have worked closely with the Management Committee throughout the 50 years to provide surveys to inform management plans and provide a comprehensive list of what is there. 272 plant species were recorded in 1986, 298 in 1988 and 332 by 1992. 19 different species of butterfly and 13 different moths a well as numerous and varied micro-moths, beetles, numerous bugs, flies, wasps and snails were recorded in 1986. There was great excitement when the rare Potter Flower-bee colony was discovered in 1996, possibly the largest in the UK and similarly exciting was the sighting in 2000 of the rare Barred Tooth-striped Moth, confirmed in 2017 as probably the best site in the UK.

The Society have undertaken annual surveys of the nationally rare Moon Carrot since 2013 and are now regularly surveying butterflies, reptiles and fungi as well as regular monitoring of some ride-side scallops which revealed 43 species new to the Reserve in 2015 alone. Twayblade, Green-winged Orchids and Autumn Ladies Tresses have also been counted annually for several years, none of them common but present here.

All finds are submitted to the Sussex Biodiversity Records Centre for confirmation and are then added to the master list of species present. Latterly Graeme Lyons from the Sussex Wildlife Trust challenged the Society to keep recording data to enable the Reserve to move into the top 10 of Nature Reserves in Sussex for species numbers. Paul Baker was able to report that it has now done so.

The dewpond was dwelt on in more detail with Alison explaining that the disused dewpond near South Hill Barn was restored in 1988 and attracted considerable local interest. By 1995 the pond was leaking badly and it was relined. The following year it was reported that it was establishing very well with all the important plants reappearing along with insect and animal life. Unfortunately invasive species were also present and a succession of Rangers fought a losing battle with Parrots Feather, New Zealand Stonecrop (Crassula) and Canadian Pond Weed before the dewpond was abandoned in 2011. The Sussex Wildlife Trust do not manage the whole of the Local Nature Reserve and the dewpond is not part of their remit.

Next the foreshore, incorporated into the Local Nature Reserve as part of the western extension in 1978, and its status within the Reserve was discussed. Once part of the Reserve, bye-laws could be enforced halting the collecting of shellfish on a commercial scale which was doing so much damage to the environment. Attention was drawn to the fact that the lease with the Crown Estates expired in 2016 with the result that the land is legally likely to have reverted to the Crown and no longer part of the Reserve at all.

The talk ended with some unexpected items from the records including a 1979 proposal for a country club comprising two additional golf courses, an equestrian centre, a leisure centre, a hotel and residential accommodation on Seaford Head, the 2012 Artichoke Peace Camp, a 2017 Hari Krishna Peace Walk, and the Atlantic voyage of the mini-boat Red Storm in 2018.

Ruth Young proposed a vote of thanks for a most interesting and entertaining afternoon.

Paul Baker

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Page updated 5th March 2019