• Thatcham Reed Beds
  • Conservation Volunteers Round Up
  • ObstacEELS’
  • Plovers at The Pang Again
  • ‘TURNPIKES AND TANK TRAPS’ Exploring the Sulham Gap. Starting and finishing at Pangbourne

Those of you who have passed through by train or walked along the Kennet and Avon Canal
will have admired Thatcham Reedbeds from your vantage point. But it’s not until you venture into the depths of the reedbed that you can truly appreciate the atmosphere and diversity. The reedbeds were here well before the canal was cut through the landscape in the 18th century or Brunel’s Great Western Railway bisected the reedbeds in the 19th century.

Archaeological finds from the reedbeds date back to the Palaeolithic period, some 250,000 years ago. The main occupation of the area was around 10,000 years ago in the Mesolithic period when people would have lived in camps on the shores of large reed-fringed lakes in the Kennet Valley. Early OS maps show a mix of reed-swamp and fields. The local reedbeds were harvested for the thatching industry up until the 1950s.

These days Thatcham Reedbeds is managed as a nature reserve by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT). The site is very important, being designated as both a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). For visitors there are many quiet paths to explore, along with a visitor centre with events and café at the Nature Discovery Centre.

The key habitats are the reedbed
and fen which are dotted with wet woodland areas. Reedbed is dominated by common reed (Phragmites australis). Fen is a more diverse habitat comprising reed, rushes, sedges like greater tussock- sedge and flowering plants such as yellow loosestrife, meadow rue and marsh woundwort.

If left untouched, reedbed and fen will eventually develop into woodland.
In times gone by, reed harvesting for thatching would have maintained the habitat. With the cessation of reed harvesting the wet, open habitat was no longer maintained. Therefore, an annual programme of management is essential. Cutting of the reed and fen is top of the list. The reedbed is cut on a 10-year rotation. Roughly half a hectare is cut in any one year. This removes dead reed and scrub species such as willow which, if left, would ultimately lead to drying of the site and a loss of these important habitats.

The cutting is carried out by an amphibious Truxor machine which can even cut reed well below the waterline in deeper pools. A very versatile and effective piece of kit!

Water is essential in the system so, as well as the reed, we also manage water levels and flow, maintaining a series
of ditches, dams and weirs. All the management that the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust carries out on the reedbeds has wildlife conservation as the primary goal.

Reedbeds support a wealth of wildlife including many specialists. Birds such as water rail, reed, sedge and Cetti’s warbler nest here. The reed warbler for example, weaves its nest between stems. Thatcham Reedbeds is an established bird ringing site and some 38,000 birds have been ringed by volunteers here show important local and national trends in bird species which may be affected by habitat loss or climate change.

A species of particular note is the Desmoulin’s whorl snail (Vertigo moulinsiana). This snail is the reason Thatcham Reedbeds has the SAC designation as the snail is a protected species listed on the European Habitats Directive. This tiny snail is typically found in the fen where it feeds on algae and fungi growing on the leaves of grasses and sedges. Therefore, maintenance of wet ground conditions and an element of decomposing leaf material are important.

Thatcham Reedbeds is also host to many beautiful moths. A number of the Wainscott moths specialise here, feeding on reed or bulrush. Their pale wings with fine lines presumably reminded 18th century entomologists of the wooden panelling used in the best rooms of upper-class houses.

But that is just a taste of the diversity of wildlife found at Thatcham Reedbeds. There are also otters, bats, harvest mice, dragonflies, butterflies, starling murmurations and plenty more besides to discover.

Roger Stace, BBOWT Land Manager for West Berkshire

“Clearance” was a feature of our weekly summer tasks, with vegetation being particularly abundant because of the warm wet weather.

This was very evident at Grove Pit Common, Leckhampstead, where we removed substantial overgrowth from the right-of-way through to the village. Our brushcutter operators attacked the two spur rides with gusto. We also renewed haloes around some of the larger hazel stools.

A very hot day (a temperature of
30.2C being noted) saw us return to Ashampstead Common to rake up grass cut in three places by Yattendon Estates. The arisings were hidden in surrounding scrub to leave the sites clear for wild- flowers and plants. We have been working in the glades for 20 years and every Spring the results become more beautiful. Less welcome was a variety of rubbish left by visitors, which we stacked for the landowner to remove.

On one visit to Rushall Manor Farm we continued to widen rides to let in sunshine and encourage plants and wildflowers to grow on the verges. On a second, we cleared a huge tree that had fallen into the pond and brush cut the surrounding mass of vegetation and willow. We also removed growth around lime trees, cut the hedge around the car park and relocated four heavy picnic tables.

At Redhill Wood we disentangled plastic tree guards in two areas of woodland, sorting them for recycling by the landowner. We also removed plastic fencing from around two enclosures installed to protect young trees. It will be reused on other projects.

Mid-July saw us back in Winterbourne Wood for the annual bracken bash on Primrose Ridge, where there has been progressive weakening of regrowth thanks to two cuts a year. After eight years, the benefits are evident from the tremendous number and variety of butterflies and the wildflowers and grasses that have thrived as the bracken has been pushed back to the ridge’s margins.

At Sulham Meadow our yearly efforts in the main field meant there was a limited amount of ragwort to pull up there. We cleared a second, smaller, field and tackled an abundance in a third, putting the pulled plants in large builder bags for Sulham Estate to take away.

In the three years since our last visit, there had been significant re-growth of brash, nettles, small trees and shrubs on and around Hampstead Norreys Mound (described as a “mediaeval hill fort” on a local information board, but in reality, a Bronze Age burial mound). It took significant effort and care on the steep sides to remove it, but the results proved very worthwhile and led to complimentary comments from the local community.

After several years of our cutting and removing invasive rhododendrons around Grimsbury Castle, aided
by Yattendon Estates spraying the resulting stools to inhibit regrowth, we have gained the upper hand immediately around the earthworks. This year we worked on the other side of the Marlston road, close to the carpark and around two ponds, so allowing light to enter and help more natural flora and fauna to develop.

At Furze Hill we tackled the regrowth of brambles and other vegetation in the butterfly meadow, resuming a pattern of working various plots each year from selected areas and raking the arisings into large heaps on its edge. We also removed protectors from the new maple hedges that we planted a couple of years ago (which looked very healthy) and cleared the remains of the weed-suppressant fabric under them.

Terry Crawford

Thames Rivers Trust (TRT) is leading ‘ObstacEELS’; the citizen science part of a new environmental project – the Thames Catchment Community Eels Project. It
is being developed and piloted in the Thames catchment and is looking for volunteers to make it a success.

Eels spend the majority of their lives in our freshwater rivers -yet start life thousands of kilometres away in the Sargasso Sea. When young eels reach our rivers, huge numbers of obstacles, such as weirs and sluices prevent them from continuing that migration and being able to disperse upstream to reach healthy river habitats. Eels need connectivity to find places to hide and plentiful food sources to successfully grow and mature.

The project is training volunteers from communities near the Rivers Mole, Pang, Upper Brent, Ravensbourne, Middle and Lower Kennet to work in teams along the riverbanks to identify and map obstacles to eel migration, using a specially modified app.

The data collected this summer by small groups of trained ObstacEELS volunteers will help shape future practical projects to open up fish passage for the critically endangered European eel. Mapping

will show where to prioritise focus for the best wins for eels. This could be

removal of a barrier, or a series of barriers or installation of eel passes. Improving rivers for eels will also improve rivers for other wildlife species.

Thames Catchment Community
Eels project is a partnership, TRT are working with Action for the River
Kennet (ARK), South East Rivers Trust (SERT) and Thames21 (T21) to aid the long-term survival of the European eel. Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Thames Estuary Partnership (TEP) are collaborating on the project, bringing in their expertise. Data from the project will feed into Thames Estuary Partnership’s Fish Migration Roadmap and the Environment Agency’s Thames Basin Eel Management Plan.

The first training workshops have happened, and Eel Force volunteer teams are now out walking riverbanks together; logging details using a newly created ObstaEELS methodology. More training days are coming up and the project
is looking to recruit more ObstacEELS volunteer.  The project is also raising the profile of this unusual and in the past, common fish, through a range of free community outreach activities, encouraging communities to connect with local nature. Free guided eel riverbank walks are an opportunity for a leisurely stroll

along the riverbank to discover more about eels, the wider wildlife and the local river. Eel talks are taking place throughout the year and the project is looking for local groups who would like a presentation.

Local schools are receiving Eel Classroom Workshops and Eel Assemblies, these
are fun, educational and free. Children discover the amazing eel lifecycle, what makes a healthy river habitat and how important their local river is.

Training is free. Ongoing support and guidance are provided. If you would
like to get involved and get out with likeminded individuals on the riverbanks of any of the five rivers that are being targeted within the project, do email: info@thamesriverstrust.org.uk or visit: http://www.thamesriverstrust.org.uk.

This project is funded by the government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund. The fund is being delivered by
The National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Natural England and the Environment Agency.

Anna Forbes, Thames Catchment Community Eels Project Manager

Rainfall in winter 20/21 was plentiful and by spring 2021 the river level at Bucklebury was quite high. However, there was no flood water in the field where Little Ringed Plovers had successfully raised chicks in 2020 and only a small muddy pool at the nearby ‘pony paddock’. By March the breeding site was ploughed, set for cultivation and maize planting would follow.

We knew it had been a special event for these rare birds to breed in the Pang Valley and had already predicted that the unique factors in 2020 meant it would be a one-off event. Imagine our surprise to find two birds feeding at the muddy pool on April 8th 2021! It had to be two of the same birds. Within a few days they were exploring their (now ploughed) old nesting area, displaying and mating.

Unbelievably this continued for
three weeks and allowed us enough time to raise a fund to enable a conservation plot to be created at one end of the arable site. West Berkshire Countryside Society and Newbury District Ornithological Club each gave a grant that was matched by the Birds of Berkshire Conservation Fund. Once more the farmer was an enthusiastic partner in our adventure.

On May 10th the nest site, a shallow scrape in bare ground among maize seedlings, was located by viewing from the road by telescope. Male and

female birds then commenced a 24- day incubation period. By the end of May there were four chicks to show for it, but it soon became very difficult to see the birds as the crop of maize was growing fast. They survived the visit of a spraying machine by moving onto the unsprayed conservation area. The last actual sighting of chicks was on June 13th, adults were seen in flight and calling and it seemed that the chicks fledged successfully by the end of June.

Another interesting observation was that the adult birds both visited and regularly fed at Bucklebury Ford. This has always been a popular local spot, more so in recent months, with 20

or more people there with children, dogs, bikes and so on. The Ford was within 50 meters of the scrape. So, at times in their incubation and fledging the Little Ringed Plovers were within sight and earshot of families enjoying the water. Proving once again that birds can sometimes accommodate quite a lot of human presence as

long as their immediate nest site is protected.

It is hard to draw any scientific conclusions about the events above, but it really does show how remarkable nature is and how apparently one-off events can be the start of something new. Our thinking is that the birds left Bucklebury on migration, wintered in Africa, instinctively returned to their former breeding site and were able

to cope with the new, dry, farmed conditions to raise a second family there. We see even less prospect of breeding happening again next spring as the muddy pool at the pony paddock is now completely dry. The creation of an undisturbed wet areas for birds to feed would be essential to build a sustainable population and perhaps that is where our efforts are needed most.

Debby Reynolds and Tim Culley

An important part of our constitution requires the WBCS members to...‘promote the understanding, appreciation and conservation of the West Berkshire Countryside by its residents and visitors and all other groups and businesses involved in its care and management’.

Apart from our Books and Guided Walks, the two main ways we do this are by providing Walk Leaflets and Parish Path Leaflets. Each Walk Leaflet describes a single walk and has a good clear map, pictures and information about the countryside through which the walk passes. We have made Parish Paths Leaflets for many West Berkshire parishes. The most recent one being for Frilsham Parish. Each Parish Paths leaflet has a clear map showing every track and path in the parish to which the public have a Right of Way. A right that is as legally valid as the right to drive along a highway. The leaflets also contain a brief note on each path. All these leaflets are freely downloadable from the Society’s website.

A valuable spin-off of creating a Parish Paths leaflet is that every path has to be walked and recorded and access and other problems identified. Problems are reported to West Berkshire Council’s Rights of Way Department whose staff do their level best – with the limited resources available to them – to remedy the problems. In the case of the Frilsham paths they were able to clear two seriously blocked paths, where Yattendon Estate helped by repairing stiles. A problem with Path 14 was solved with the help of Eling Estate

Parish Paths
leaflets benefit
the landowner
as well as the
walker. If the paths on his or her
patch are clear, well-marked and have sound stiles, bridges and gates then any objection to a walker straying from them is valid. Also, the compensation paid to a user injured by a collapsing structure is likely to be far in excess of the cost of maintaining it safely.

Walking and exploring are fun and the more you walk and the more you look the more an area becomes your HOME rather than just a place where you LIVE!

Dick Greenaway

About 31⁄2 miles or 6 km

There is a modest hill on this walk and surfaces can be uneven and muddy. There are two lengths of road walking. There are two WBC car parks in Pangbourne and many places to revive a tired walker!

Navigation note. Take the path down the side of ‘WH Smiths’ to start the walk.

  1. Pangbourne Village. There was a Roman settlement at Pangbourne
    and Domesday Book (1086) records
    two manors and two mills. The Great Western Railway was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It opened to Reading on 30 March 1840 and had passed Pangbourne by July 1840. It was initially Broad Gauge. Note the two phases of building in the bridge.
  2. The Sulham Gap is the part of the Pang Valley between the M4 and the Thames. As the last Ice Age was ending about 10,000 years ago the River Kennet, which ran through the Gap to join the Thames near the site of the future Pangbourne, suddenly switched its main course and ran through the Coley Gap to join the Thames at its modern confluence. The Pang, which had originally joined the Kennet at Tidmarsh, continued to flow

down the old channel, but could only provide a small fraction of the previous volume of water and the whole area became a marsh – ‘Tudda’s Marsh’
hence ‘Tidmarsh’. The ‘switch point’ at Theale was so marshy that a boardwalk had to be built to carry the road west from Reading. ‘Theale’ means ‘planks’ in Old English! Reading Abbey probably drained the marsh by re-routing the Pang and the Sulham Brook along the sides of the Gap, by raising the riverbank and by creating the grid of wide ditches.

  1. The Theale to Pangbourne Turnpike Road was built in the late 1700s together with its octagonal Toll House.
  2. The Greyhound was originally a Reading Abbey house.

The Greyhound

  1. The Manor of Tidmarsh and its Mill are recorded (with a vineyard) in 1239. The ‘rent’ was a knight to guard Wallingford Castle in time of war. In the early 1900s the owners of the mill installed new equipment to increase output, but when it was started all the windows fell out! The mill closed in 1937.
  2. World War 2 ‘Stop Line’. In 1940 a number of Defence Lines were built across the SE of England. ‘GHQ Line Red’ ran from the K & A Canal at Theale Mill to the Thames at Pangbourne. It was a wide deep ditch covered by pill-boxes designed

for a 2 pounder anti-tank gun and light machine guns.

Type 28A pillbox

  1. The Sulham Brook was probably once a channel of the Kennet and was re-routed as part of the drainage scheme..
  2. Sulham Wood covers a series of large terraces probably originally made
    to grow high value crops. Later they became a ‘scenic carriage drive’ for Purley Hall. There is an excellent view across the Sulham Gap.
  3. Pangbourne Meadow. During both Word Wars troops were trained in building pontoon bridges here. The Meadow
    is now owned by Pangbourne Parish Council and its extension to the south by the National Trust.
  4. The Thames Path – originally a towpath for barges – is a National Long Distance Trail running from Thames Head near Cirencester to the Thames Barrier at Woolwich. Barges were towed by horses and by gangs of men. The men were called ‘scuffle hunters’ from the sound of their feet on the path.
  5. Whitchurch Bridge was built in timber in 1792 to replace a ferry. It was re-built in 1840 and the steel bridge was built in 1901.

Dick Greenaway and Nick Hopton

Date for Your Diary

Sun 24th October 10:30

Explore the Holies with Charles Gilchrist. We may find varieties of fungi and it will be an interesting walk. Parking is available in the Lardon Chase car park at SU582 807.

  • Volunteers Event Diary
  • October Diary
  • November Diary
  • December Diary

Volunteers’ Task Diary

For outdoor events please wear suitable footwear and clothing. Most practical tasks start at 10am and usually finish around 3pm, unless otherwise stated, so bring a packed lunch. However, we are more than happy to accept any time you can spare! All tools are provided. A map of each task location can be found on the website diary page by clicking on the grid reference shown for that task.

October 2021

   

Tue 5th Oct

10:00

Winterbourne Wood

Woodland maintenance, coppicing and clearing fallen and damaged trees. Park in the entrance to the wood.

SU447 717

Sat 9th Oct

10:30–1:00pm

Bucklebury Common

Heathland management. Help maintain this important heathland habitat. Meet at Angels Corner.

SU 550 688

Tue 12th Oct

10:00

The Malt House West Woodhay

Hedge laying and maintenance meet at the farm house.

SU 395 637

Tue 19th Oct

10:00

Rushall Manor Farm, Bradfield

Woodland management, coppicing and ride widening. Meet at the Black Barn off Back Lane between Stanford Dingley and Bradfield.

SU 584 723

 

Tue 23rd Nov

10:00

Sheepdrove, Lambourne

Continue with hedge work Park near the Red Barn. Do not use Sat Nav guidance to locate this site.

SU 349 816

Sun 14th Nov

10:30–1:00pm

Bucklebury Common

Heathland management. Help maintain this important heathland habitat. Meet at Angels Corner.

SU 550 688

November 2021

 

Tue 2nd Nov

10:00

Bucklebury Common

Heathland management. Help maintain this important heathland habitat. Meet at Angels Corner.

SU 550 688

December 2021

  

Tue 7th Dec

10:00

Boxford

Brash clearing and tree lopping. Park along the lane and in the site entrance in Boxford Village.

SU 426 717

Tue 14th Dec

10:00

Rushall Manor Farm Bradfield

Woodland management, coppicing and ride widening. Meet at the Black Barn off Back Lane between Stanford Dingley and Bradfield.

SU 584 723

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