Record Centre News

Harassed by the Rattle of the Steam-Plough

Cattle at Amberley Wildbrooks
Recently I was looking at William Borrer’s The Birds of Sussex published in 1891 and one passage particularly struck me: he seemed to be worrying, in a 19th century context, about similar things to conservationists today. Here is the passage in full:

The many changes of the last half-century have greatly interfered with ornithology in this county as in others. The whole of Sussex is now intersected with railways, not only inland but along the coast, nearly the whole of what may be called the maritime district being traversed by a line of rails extending from Brighton to the extreme western limit of the county, the whistle of the steam-engine taking the place of the Wildfowl and the Wader. The estuaries, formerly abounding in these species, are now far more disturbed by traffic than they used to be; and much of the marshland has been brought under cultivation. The last of the grand morasses of the western division, the Amberley Wildbrook, is converted into so-called smiling meadows, re-echoing with the lowing of cattle instead of the hollow boom of the Bittern and the croak of the Heron. The Downs too, once the peaceful haunt of the Bustard and the Lapwing, or disturbed only by the shepherd and his flock, are now to a great extent broken up by cultivation, and harassed by the rattle of the steam-plough. The cliffs have in many places been scarped down, or shattered by the engineer, thus destroying the favourite resorts of many wild birds. The inland aspect of the county, too, is much changed from what it was in former times. Where are the splendid stretches of heather? the sedgy bottoms? and where are the Black Game?

Interestingly Amberley Wildbrooks seems to be in fairly good condition as grazing marsh, and one might hear the hollow boom of the bittern again when it is at Rye Harbour and elsewhere. Herons are not uncommon and the number of nesting lapwings is increasing. There also seems to be plenty of heathland, though not as much as in Borrer’s day, I am sure. However, The Crumbles, an area of vegetated shingle and scrub to the east of Eastbourne, is now a huge housing estate. It was, according to Borrer, a habitat much favoured by the Dartford warbler and well known for many other species of plant and animal. It may also be some time before we see the bustard and the black game (black grouse) in Sussex again.

Borrer also uses the term ‘ancient woodland’:

There is a small portion of the ancient woodland called Charlton Forest, situated on the north slope of the Western Downs, the only part of them which still has native timber.