As nature reserve marks 50 years its manager looks back at how Rye Harbour Nature Reserve got to where it is today

Dr Barry Yates is Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Manager at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. The reserve has just celebrated its 50th anniversary and Barry has worked, and lived, on the reserve for the last 36 years. Here he recalls the origins of the nature reserve and looks at its development over half a century and considers where it might go in the future. 

In the 1960s there was a realisation that coastal habitats in Sussex were under increasing pressure from tourism and development, so the Sussex Naturalists Trust, now the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and the Sussex Ornithological Society (SOS) worked together to build a case for several coastal nature reserves.

Golden Plover at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.

The work began under the enthusiastic guidance of Frank Penfold, Chairman of the Trust and Guy Mountford, President of SOS. Jack Harrison, a retired solicitor, on behalf of the Trust, and Tony Marr, the SOS Secretary, worked closely preparing the submission which went to the County Councils.

In July 1965 East Sussex County Council (ESCC) published a report, Coastal Preservation and Development, which supported proposals put forward by the Sussex Naturalists Trust for the establishment of a nature reserve at Rye Harbour.

Since 1970, Rye Harbour Nature Reserve has been guided by a Management Committee with representatives from voluntary and statutory bodies. The staff and volunteers recorded the wildlife and managed the special habitats of saltmarsh, saline lagoon, vegetated shingle, wet grassland and reedbed. The committee passed on its direct management function to ESCC in 1995 and then in 2011 this was transferred to Sussex Wildlife Trust, The Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve has also generously supported the nature reserve with volunteers and funding since 1973.

Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

Major advances have included the progress from just having a summer Warden to having a team of five. After the current health crisis we will double staffing here, with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Discover Rye Harbour Project.

The land area has increased from the original Beach Reserve with the addition of privately owned land, the purchase of Castle Water by Sussex Wildlife Trust and the incorporation of Rye Harbour Farm into the reserve after the Environment Agency bought it in 2002 to build improved sea defences.

The number of birdwatching hides has increased from one small, to five large ones that are all accessible to some wheelchairs.

We have protected and managed the coastal habitats here that were once more common in Sussex, with four landscape scale habitat projects that stand out:

  • Development of electric fencing to protect the roosting and ground nesting birds
  • Creation of 20 hectares of reedbed habitat adjacent to the Castle Water gravel pit
  • Re-creation of 20 hectares of saltmarsh as part of the sea defence improvements
  • Improvement of new saline lagoons, ponds, scrapes and wet grassland created by the sea defence improvements

None of this happens without funding and regular contributors have been made by: Environment Agency, Natural England, ESCC, Rother District Council, Icklesham Parish Council and of course, the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. 

During the last 50 years there have been so many wildlife highlights, but the top ones include:

  • Increasing the number of breeding birds to nearly 100 that includes six waders, six gulls, six ducks, seven warblers and three terns.
  • The saltmarsh re-creation project has rapidly matured in a few years to become a productive area for some special wildlife that includes breeding Avocet and Redshank, large flocks of wintering Golden Plover, the flowers Sea Heath and Sea Barley and several scarce invertebrates: Sea Aster Bee, moths – Crescent Striped and Star-wort, spiders – Enoplognatha mordax and Argenna patula, beetles – Dyschirius angustatus and Cassida nobilis.
  • The re-establishment of a large population of Stinking Hawksbeard that was declared extinct in the UK during the 1980s – with more than 30,000 plants last year and it featured on a Royal Mail £1.55 stamp!
  • The creation of a large reedbed that has contributed to an amazing recovery of the UK Bittern population (11 booming males in 1997 to more than 200 last year). The reedbeds at Castle Water now have 1-2 booming Bittern plus breeding Marsh Harrier, Bearded Tit, Water Rail, Cettis Warbler, Garganey and Shoveler.
  • The recent return of the Sussex Emerald moth to Sussex, several species new to Britain including Euaesthetus superlatus (beetle), Eumerus sogdianus (hoverfly), Neon pictus (jumping spider), Streaked Plusia moth, the first Least Tern recorded in Europe and the discovery of a new species of fly that lives underground in the shingle, Megaselia yatesi (named after me!).

It has been a great privilege to manage the land and its wildlife with so many amazing people and together develop this special place into what it is today – a coastal wetland that is home to hundreds of rare plants and animals that enjoyed by many people. 

If we can inspire more people to appreciate and value wildlife, then we have a greater chance of reversing the decline of wildlife that has been going on all around us for decades. 

Hope for the future

I hope that the reserve is still here, and has grown larger, with all our special species still living here, but joined by a few new ones like Beaver and nesting Black-winged Stilts and Great White Egrets.

I would want the reserve to still be funded within a society that values its environment and the international community has managed to slow the warming climate and helped the sea to be much healthier than it is today.

I would hope that Sussex Wildlife Trust is still inspiring people to be more wildlife aware. I hope many people continue to support both the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, and that my grandchildren bring their grandchildren here to enjoy the coastal landscape… and remember their grandparents.

We are living in difficult times at the moment, but nature continues to be remarkable, and I’d like to thank everyone who has supported the reserve over the decades, and continues to do so.

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