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Bramber Brooks – How we created a new nature reserve (Episode 2)

After our company bought the land at Bramber Brooks in late 2016, the advice we received from every conservationist and ecologist we spoke to, was not to touch the land or make any changes for a whole year. It hadn’t been grazed or managed at all for at least thirty years and one more year would make little difference. They advised that time was needed to get to know the wildlife, the flora and fauna, the opportunities for conservation and to see how the land changed through the seasons.

However, we realised very quickly that urgent action was required to deal with one major problem.

During the first couple of weeks, we found the carcasses of a young deer, an adult badger and several rabbits which had been attacked and killed by dogs. There were also many skulls and bones lying around. On the western side of Bramber Brooks, approximately 20 acres are ringed by a wide drainage ditch which effectively makes it an island site. For years, it had been the perfect place for dog owners to release their big pets, to allow them to safely burn off energy by chasing the wildlife. This area of land was home to badgers, foxes, roe deer and many small mammals and was the perfect dog playground!

We set about having gates and fencing erected at the entrance points to the 20 acre site. We worked closely with Bramber Parish Council, set up a Facebook page and announced that this area was now designated as a ‘dog free’ nature reserve. Although there are no public footpaths across the nature reserve area, we allowed permissive access to visitors.. but not their dogs.

There was an immediate backlash from a number of local dog owners. Some openly admitted that they had been letting their dogs chase the wildlife for years and could not understand why we would now stop them. The small wooden sign we erected on the gate informing visitors that dogs were not welcome was vandalised. The comments on social media, for a week or so, were nasty and negative but were soon taken over by positive feedback from those visiting to see the wildlife.

We were staggered by the support we received from the local community. We started to realise that we were creating a ‘community asset’ and rather than being owners of the land, we were really just custodians for future generations. It was a very humbling realisation indeed.

Over the next few months, we had a proper management plan prepared by Dr Petra Billings, a local ecologist, and followed the recommendations. We also worked closely with the parish council and applied for grant funding from the Rampion Wind Farm Community Benefit Fund. Grant monies we received allowed us to have five timber bridges built over the wettest areas of the nature reserve. We decided on the right locations for paths for visitors and cut a route through the long grass and brambles to form a circular walk around the reserve. The grant monies also paid for benches to be built and placed in strategic spots, with views across to the ruins of Bramber Castle.

Part of the new nature reserve is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, containing some of the only undisturbed medieval salterns along the south coast. The nature reserve walk takes visitors over these protected salterns with the spoils of the Bramber salt trade of the 15th century under their feet.

We are currently working with Horsham District Council and Sussex Wildlife Trust to have the land designated as a Local Nature Reserve (LNR). It will be only the third LNR in the whole Horsham District, the only in private ownership and will ensure protection long into the future.

Our Facebook page now has almost 1,000 followers and we regularly post news on our wildlife.

Next year, the Environment Agency have agreed to build three large bird scrapes within the nature reserve. They obtained full planning permission early in 2020 and the work is to mitigate the losses of wildlife riverbank habitat as a result of the Shoreham flood defence work. The 1,000 cubic metres of soil they remove will be used to build up the paths for visitors, with wooden sides and stone chippings. Bird hides will be created and the biodiversity of our nature reserve will increase greatly.

Do follow the ‘Bramber Brooks’ Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/bramberbrooks – for all news on the nature reserve. Our Managing Director, Nick Mills, is very involved with the project (and cuts the grass on his tractor) and would be pleased to answer any questions or suggestions you may have to help our project – n.mills@riversonggroup.com

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Bramber Brooks – The Purchase (Episode 1)

My wife and I bought our house in Bramber village in the early summer of 2016. We’d lived on the other side of Bramber for some years and I’d been a local parish councillor since 2014. I knew the area very well and much about the history of the village. We purchased the property knowing that there had been a string of unsuccessful planning applications to develop the land at the side and to the rear. However, we fell in love with the setting and our daughters could walk to the nearby school in Upper Beeding.

In the late summer of 2016, whilst on holiday with my family, an interesting new listing appeared on the Rightmove website…

“40 acres of former floodplain for sale to the north of Bramber village. 

Development potential and suitable for a variety of uses (subject to necessary consents)”

A friend sent a message to tell me about the listing. I knew the land well – it was to the rear of our new house, with the access being immediately adjacent to our driveway. The information included a map of the land, showing that it ran from the castle ruins in the west to the waterline of the River Adur to the east, the whole width of Bramber village.

The listing said nothing about the incredible history of the site, the rare medieval salterns or the moated area where medieval buildings would have stood. There was no mention of the badgers, foxes, roe deer or the rich variety of birds, flora and fauna which had been left undisturbed since the land was seasonally grazed almost thirty years before by the Wiston Estate. It was presented as an opportunity for speculative developers or those with particular uses for the land until future development ideas could be unlocked.

Almost immediately on my return, we were approached by several keen prospective buyers, each with their own designs and each wishing to sell us a small area of land behind our house to help fund their purchase of the whole site.

One prospective purchaser was a tall Irishman, who was keen to meet me. We spent a couple of hours walking around the land. He said that he was negotiating directly with the sellers and that a contract had been issued to his solicitors. He wanted to have year-round ‘glamping’ on the western side and a permanent ‘party field’ on the eastern side which would be available to hire for weddings and parties. The only vehicle access would be next to our house and a concrete road was to be built with new electricity and water services.

He had spoken to English Heritage about the large tents to be erected within the Scheduled Ancient Monument site and they had provided clarity on how deep he could drive tent pegs and whether concrete hard standing areas could be created. He had a large topper being delivered from his father’s farm in Ireland and was going to clear the whole land to see where the concrete road and services could be run.

He had also asked a sound consultant to visit the site to determine where music speakers would be best located to counter any noise complaints from neighbours!

He offered us a small area of land next to our house and was hoping to speak to other neighbours to offer them similar plots.

Another budding buyer was a company that also had plans to run a concrete road through the land with water and electricity services. They wanted to place shipping containers on the site, on concrete pads and plumbed into the new services. Each container would house residential tenants paying rent. To overcome planning restrictions, they would move the containers to other concrete pads every 28 days! Again, they offered us a small area of land to buy.

It was clear that fast action was required!

The current owner was a speculative Malaysian developer, living in London. I managed to make contact with him directly. He made it very clear that he was not willing to sell just part of Bramber Brooks and was looking to sell the whole area of land to a single party.

I continued to speak and negotiate with the prospective buyers for a small area of land, while my solicitor made haste to collect searches and legal paperwork. I negotiated a price with the current owners and very quickly the price escalated as we were played off against the other parties.

I spoke to Andrew, my business partner, and we agreed that it would be good for our company, Riversong Ltd, to acquire Bramber Brooks. We both have a passion for nature and share connections with the local area. Riversong had been supporting local charities for a number of years and the purchase of land for the protection of wildlife matched the ethos and aims of the company and our staff. The same day we agreed that Riversong should buy the land, our solicitor received a contract and we exchanged!

And so the journey began …