Rothschild’s Sussex Reserves

Source: Abraham, Frances. “Rothschild’s Sussex Reserves.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 67 (January 2009).


Already in the early years of the 20th century there was concern that sites known for their wildlife were vanishing under bricks and mortar, woods were being felled, and wetlands drained. There was as yet no legal protection for wildlife sites, and nature reserves barely existed. In 1912 the banker and entomologist Charles Rothschild founded the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves which, after numerous changes of name, is now known as the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. With great prescience, he organized the compilation of a shopping list of those sites which were deemed to be most important for the preservation of wildlife. He hoped that they would be acquired by bodies such as the fledgling National Trust.

Naturalists around the country were consulted, and a questionnaire was filled in for each proposed site, accompanied by a map. Good examples of important habitats were wanted, and also sites where rare species occurred. It seems astonishingly forward-looking that habitats of importance in a European context were given extra weight in the selection process. Places which were thought to already be in safe hands were excluded. Unfortunately some of the questionnaires and maps have been lost, and many of the maps do not show the boundaries of the sites, so in some cases guesswork is needed to work out which areas were intended.

By 1915, 284 sites in Britain and Ireland had been selected, and the list was presented to the government. In the event, due largely to the Great War and to Rothschild’s illness and early death in 1923, his plan was shelved for many years. However, it was not forgotten, and was used as a reference in the 1950s in the selection of the first Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and National Nature Reserves (NNRs). The list included eight sites in Sussex: Amberley Wild Brooks, Ashdown Forest, Camber Castle, Chichester Harbour, Hempstead Wood near Hailsham, Kingley Bottom (ie Kingley Vale), Lewes Downs and Selsey Bill. It is thought that Pagham Harbour is intended by Selsey Bill, and Rye Harbour by Camber Castle.

Nearly 100 years later, it is interesting to see what has become of those eight Sussex sites. In fact all but one are not only now SSSIs but also bear other conservation designations and are wholly or partly managed as nature reserves. For example, Kingley Vale was one of the first NNRs and is now also an SAC (Special Area of Conservation). Amberley Wild Brooks was included on the original list for its bog, although that had long been destroyed by 1915. However, it is still very species-rich and is now a RAMSAR site and SPA (Special Protection area), and the greater part is managed as a nature reserve. The area of Lewes Downs which was listed includes the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Malling Down reserve. Oddly, the adjacent downland of Mount Caburn was omitted from the list – it is now an NNR and, with Malling Down, lies within the Lewes Downs SAC. Ashdown Forest is also an SAC and SPA. Rye Harbour is a Local Nature Reserve (LNR). Chichester Harbour is a RAMSAR site and SPA. Pagham Harbour is a RAMSAR site, SPA and LNR.

The exception to this blizzard of designations is Hempstead Wood, which was apparently proposed in order to conserve Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicata) and the Heath Fritillary butterfly. Most of the wood has been destroyed by housing development, coniferisation and roads – it is bisected by the A22. When I visited in April 1993 a scrap now known as Chichele Wood remained more or less intact to the east of the A22 at TQ578101. It was still an attractive wood with oak standards over hornbeam and hazel, with some ash, holly, field maple and aspen. Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) were abundant, with some Primrose (Primula vulgaris), Wood Spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) and Pignut (Conopodium majus). However, the Rampion has apparently gone (but please prove me wrong) and the Heath Fritillary is extinct in Sussex.  The original site suggested for the protection of these species seems to have been Abbotts Wood nearby, which does still support Spiked Rampion, and it is not known why Hempstead was substituted for it.