In the first of a series of blogs focusing on community wildlife and conservation groups across Sussex, Cliff Dean tells us about the great work being undertaken by the Pett Level Preservation Trust.
At the very western end of the Romney Marshes stands the stranded sandstone island of Toot Rock and around it lie the 24 level acres owned and managed by the Pett Level Preservation Trust. To the seaward side runs the Royal Military Canal, a defensive relic from the Napoleonic Wars now rich in fish, dragonflies and waterside plants.
Beyond that is a strip of formerly grazed coastal grassland, designated SSSI, upon which another invasion is now enacted: that of Blackthorn which, a few years ago, had formed dark, dense thickets until repelled with the deployment of heavy machinery. A Blackthorn “hedge” is retained but sections of the cleared areas are mown in rotation to permit the growth of grasses, reeds and a variety of flowers such as vetches, knapweed, hemp agrimony, fleabane & purple loosestrife which attract hordes of pollinators and shelter breeding Whitethroats. The remaining Blackthorn, meanwhile, provides nesting places for finches, thrushes & Lesser Whitethroats. It also filters out litter dropped along the adjacent coast road.
Some of this grassland floods in the winter but some stays dry since banked with shingle dating from a pre-war tidal incursion. Further along, the crumbling asphalt substrate of a 1930s tennis court provides the dry, shallow soil favoured by Viper’s Bugloss and Autumn Lady’s Tresses but beyond that, tall trees then a reedy pond surrounded by Alders and finally a patch of Corky-fruited Water Dropwort. A recent survey found at least 127 species of higher plant across the PLPT land and about 25 species of birds nest here.
The landward side of the canal is grazed by sheep but the flanks of the Toot are dominated by scrub which in autumn shelters and feeds a range of migrant warblers, while Hawthorns line the old Military Road, their berries guzzled by incoming winter thrushes. The fine geological exposure of the old cliff-face provides nesting places for both Jackdaws and Ivy Bees while the western slopes are full of Rabbit and Badger holes. Toot Rock must have long been a look-out point – the summit offers a wonderful panorama of coast and marsh – so was incorporated during WWII into the chain of defences. Three military structures remaining from that time have recently been gated by the PLPT and fitted out as bat roosts.
In the early 70s, all of this historic and biodiverse area was set to be auctioned off as recreational plots which would, by now, have been built over had it not been for the efforts of local residents who organised to save it for wildlife and public amenity – the whole property is Open Access. The Trust’s income, from subscriptions, events, donations and grants is, at the moment, just sufficient to meet the expense of management but new Friends are always welcome.
In addition to commercial contractors, smaller land management task are carried out during the winter by monthly Volunteer Work Parties in which Trustees are assisted by local residents and The Conservation Volunteers.
Photos: Cliff Dean