Loder Valley Nature Reserve
In the Reserve's 60 hectares (149 acres), there are three main habitats — woodland, wetland and meadowland. There are also many typical Wealden geographical features — sandstone outcrops, ghylls (small steep-sided valleys), and complex soils. It also includes a 16ha (40 acre) branch of the Ardingly reservoir. In short, it is an ideal environment for its purpose.
There is a rich diversity of animal and plant life in the Reserve, including:
- over 100 species of birds, 55 of which are recorded as breeding, such as the much-declining marsh tit and willow tit
- 30 species of butterfly, including the magnificent purple emperor
- over 300 species of wild plants, epitomised by a superb bluebell display in spring
- mammals, such as badgers, dormice and yellow-necked mice
Visiting the Loder Valley
Visitors on either of the Reserve's two nature trails are rewarded by natural landscape, relatively-undisturbed wildlife, and an insight into traditional and more modern techniques of woodland management. It's a good idea to take waterproof footwear, binoculars and / or a camera.
In order to prevent excessive disturbance to the plants and animals, access is generally limited to 50 people a day. To gain access, please go to the ticket desk in the Visitor Centre on the day of your visit. No pre-booking accepted.
There are two nature trails within the Reserve, for which permits are required. The Yellow Trail passes through woodland and meadowland, but essentially follows the margin of the reservoir. There are several bird hides with one giving excellent views of a specially-built sandy bank which attracts breeding kingfishers. Beyond a footbridge across the head of the reservoir is Hanging Meadow, traditionally-managed, and rich in wildflower and insect life as before the invention of modern herbicides. It also contains the Wakehurst Bog Oak.
The Green Trail is a more strenuous walk on typically steep High Wealden slopes which lead to impressive views across the valley. Here, woodland management is by the traditional method of coppicing. Hazel coppicing with oak standards forms a matrix of woodland in varying stages of growth which provides a diversity of habitats.
The undergrowth of brambles and hazels provides both dense cover and food for the native hazel dormouse, for which Wakehurst is enthusiastically helping English Nature's Species Recovery Programme. There are some 300 dormouse nesting boxes in the Reserve, which are monitored on a monthly basis.
There is also a badger hide on this trail and badger watching is a delight. Badger watches happen between April and September and can be booked by contacting Visitor Services on 01444 894067.
Poor soil and steep hillsides made the High Weald unsuitable for intensive farming, so it was one of the last areas of England to be permanently settled. The Wealden woods are the remnants of a great forest which stretched in Roman times from Kent to Hampshire and probably originated in the ancient wildwood which grew to cover most of the country after the retreat of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.
After the eleventh century Wealden forest trees were extensively felled for building ships and firing the iron industry. Nevertheless, the High Weald still has up to 20 percent woodland cover, over double the national average.
The Loder Valley Reserve has several different types of woodland, notably semi-natural oak, beech, sweet chestnut, hazel coppice and alder carr.
Humans learned long ago that they could harvest wood by coppicing — cutting the trunks of trees to ground level and letting shoots grow up from the stumps. Coppicing keeps woodland open, letting understorey plants and wildflowers gain a foothold.
In summer, a dense canopy is formed by mature broad-leaved trees, but where it thins, there is enough light for smaller trees — hazel, birch, holly and yew; and shrubs hawthorn, bramble and dog rose — to grow. In deciduous woods, there is no leaf canopy in winter, which allows a huge variety of wildflowers to thrive in early spring — wood anemones, primroses, bluebells, wood sorrel and dog's mercury. This diversity of flora allows a corresponding variety of fauna. Woodland is also a major, but by no means the only, habitat for fungi.
Modern flood control schemes and the constant drive to create productive agricultural land mean that the old Sussex wetland habitats are now rare. Of all the endangered plant species in Britain, around half are wetland species and more than 500 species of plant and animal depend for their survival on freshwater habitats. Wetland conservation helps save an important part of Britain's heritage.
In the Loder Valley Nature Reserve, and at Wakehurst itself, there is a variety of wetland habitats, ranging from the open water of Ardingly Reservoir, through streams to marsh and reed-swamp, each with its own characteristic plant and animal life. Among the plants that flourish around the reservoir are water mint and lesser spearwort, while the waterlogged soil around natural springs make ideal conditions for alder, golden saxifrage, marsh marigold and wild garlic.
The Reserve attracts great numbers of birds — both residents and passing migrants. The Kingfisher Hide is opposite an artificial bank and cunningly-placed branch where in spring and summer, this stunning bird regularly poses, often with fish in its beak, before entering its nesting-hole. There are ospreys and hobbies performing aerobatics around the reservoir, while other hides give excellent views of great crested grebes, greylag geese and mandarin ducks, while common sandpipers, lapwings, greenshanks and little egrets search for food along the muddy margins.
Fragrant, herb-filled, traditional meadows — of the older generation's childhood memories — are not natural. What grows in a meadow depends on the soil, the grazing and the haymaking regime, because mowing at different times allows different plants to reach maturity and set their seeds.
At the Loder Valley Nature Reserve, the traditional meadowland management of this part of south east England has been maintained for nearly 50 years. The beautiful Hanging Meadow is managed to increase plant diversity. In early autumn, just one third of it at a time is mown to about 5cm. This three-year cycle maximises the populations of wild flowers and butterflies and supports well over 100 species, including oxeye daisy, lady's smock, bird's-foot trefoil, ragged robin, and three species of orchid. Protecting old meadows such as this conserves not only a huge variety of plants, but also the insects, birds and small animals they support.
The Wakehurst bog oak
In 1976, when the Ardingly Reservoir was being constructed, a large piece of bog oak was unearthed from 4m (13ft) below the surface and presented to the Wakehurst estate. It now lies in Hanging Meadow, carrying a plaque commemorating the opening of the Loder Valley Nature Reserve in 1980.
Bog oak is oak that has been preserved in wet, airless conditions. It is often found in East Anglian fens and Irish peat bogs, but rarely elsewhere. The Wakehurst bog oak was probably deliberately put into one of the ponds serving local iron-makers, the idea being to store it until it was sawn into planks. Somehow, it was lost; the pond silted up and later became part of the woodland.
Radiocarbon dating from a centre sample showed it to be 1,100 years old, and a ring count, which allowed for some heartwood and sapwood being lost, indicated that the tree had lived for around 230 years before being felled in around 1086, the year the Domesday Book was completed.
Photography in the Reserve
The Loder Valley Nature Reserve provides a great opportunity to photograph rare and interesting flora and fauna associated with the High Weald of Sussex. There are also many high vantage points that offer fine views across the Wealden countryside which, if caught on film, will provide a nice memento of your visit.
Photography in the Reserve is permitted for personal use only.
As an uncommon and easily disturbed bird, the kingfisher is afforded the highest degree of legal protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Under this act, it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during the breeding season. If you are watching our resident kingfishers or taking photographs of this enigmatic bird at the Reserve's artificial kingfisher nesting bank, please ensure that you do so from within the Kingfisher Hide.