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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

09.05.22/3. Lewes Railway Land Nature Reserve. Grey Wagtail and reed habitat.

After visiting Malling Down Nature Reserve (Sussex Wildlife Trust, I walked down the path by Lewes Golf club that ends further down Chapel Hill road, where I walked down to South Street. From South Street I walked along the Cliff High Street, over the bridge, then turned south (left) into Railway Lane, which ends at the Railway Land Nature Reserve.

For more information on the Railway Land Wildlife Trust see: Railway Land Wildlife Trust | Lewes Nature Reserve (

This urban wildlife haven can be found in the heart Lewes, just off Cliffe High Street and behind the train station. Right next to the meandering River Ouse it makes a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of the town.

Nestling on the flood plain of the River Ouse, the reserve was once a busy railway marshalling yard that has now been reclaimed by nature. The area where the railway sidings once stood is now crammed with wildflowers which buzz with life. The reserve also boasts 4 distinct water habitats that are vital to different forms of wildlife:

  • Wet woodland, important for mosses and lichens.

  • Reed bed, called the Heart of Reeds, which in summer is heaving with singing reed warblers.

  • Ponds, home to newts and fish.

  • Floodplain grassland, made up of a system of ditches that are jam-packed with aquatic invertebrates.

All of these habitats are fed by Winterbourne stream, which flows through the middle of the reserve and under giant tidal sluice gates into the River Ouse. This chalk stream is fed by water which has filtered through the surrounding Downland hills and only runs when it’s been raining. In winter the stream regularly overflows and fills these habitats with fresh water, keeping them in top condition. In the woodland once stood a large Victorian town house; the Leighside Estate. This contained formal gardens and landscaped fishponds. These are interspersed with large railway Poplars and some exotic specimens, including a fantastic Holm Oak and Swamp Cyprus. The nature reserve is owned and managed by Lewes District Council, in close partnership with the Railway Land Wildlife Trust. The Nature Reserve | Wildlife Education In Lewes (

A pond; I didn't see any invertebrate life in it; probably because the surface was covered in pond weed

A Grey Wagtail in the Winterbourne Stream

The grey wagtail is more colourful than its name suggests with slate grey upper parts and distinctive lemon yellow under-tail. Its tail is noticeably longer than those of pied and yellow wagtails. They have gradually increased their range in the past 150 years and in the UK have expanded into the English lowlands from the northern and western uplands. UK breeding: 38,000 pairs. UK conservation status: Amber. Grey wagtail Bird Facts | Motacilla Cinerea - The RSPB

A breeding bird of fast-flowing, upland rivers, the grey wagtail can also be seen in lowland areas, farmyards and even towns in winter. The grey wagtail is a common bird of fast-flowing rivers and can be found in high densities in the hills of England, Scotland and Wales. In winter, they move to lowland areas and can be spotted in farmyards and even in towns. Grey wagtails eat ants and midges that they find beside rivers, and snails and tadpoles they find in shallow water. They nest near the water in hollows and crevices lined with moss and twigs. Grey wagtail | The Wildlife Trusts

If there was a prize for most unsuitable British bird name, grey wagtail would win hands down. My heart sinks as I hear for the umpteenth time “I’ve just seen a yellow wagtail” and I explain that, although the bird was indeed a wagtail, and did sport a flash of lemon-yellow beneath the tail, it was in fact a grey wagtail. ... Most people are familiar with the pied wagtail, that charismatic little bird that picks tiny insects off pavements and lawns, and roosts in trees along our high streets, up and down the country. Grey wagtails are not as common as their black-and-white cousins, but I do see them fairly often – usually flitting up from a drainage ditch – as I cycle around the Somerset Levels. Slender and elegant, they have a distinctively sharp, metallic, high-pitched call. Usually found by fast flowing rivers or streams in summer, in winter they can be seen almost anywhere. The yellow wagtail is a spring and summer visitor from Africa, mostly found on wet meadows. Sadly, the species has declined in recent years, and so is far less likely to be seen than before. Steven Moss (2018) Birdwatch: 'That is not a yellow wagtail' | Wildlife | The Guardian

The Heart of Reeds

A nature reserve with a sense of humour? After the excitement in the world of conservation engendered by reintroducing White Storks at Knepp, it would seem that the Lewes Railway Land Nature Reserve has got its own White Stork.

A viewing mound

House Sparrows

A Magpie

A Carder (probably Common) Bumblebee

A Buttercup with a fly; I think this may be a species of the order Empididae - Dagger flies / Dance Flies; but I am not at all sure!

Ragged robin's dishevelled beauty enlivens many a damp meadow.

Where it grows

Wetter woods and meadows.

How's it doing?

Many counties have recorded a local decline, mainly from habitat loss to agriculture.

Did you know?

  • Ragged-robin is dedicated to St. Barnabas. Why? Hay-making took place around his Feast Day (11th June) and this bright pink flower would been found amongst the hay.

  • In Shakespeare's time it was known as Crowflower and is one of the flowers in Ophelia's "garland".

  • In the the Victorian "Language of Flowers" it symbolises ardour, aversion, and wit.

  • It is particularly attractive to long-tongued bees. Ragged Robin (Silene flos-cuculi) (

The paths through the floodplain were bone dry; I have noted a small range of wild flower plants on bloom over the last few weeks than I would expect for this time; probably because of the current lack of rain. This lack of forage seems to have resulted in a smaller number of insects apparent, in comparison with this time last year.

Azolla filiculoides (Red Water Fern); a naturalised (non-indengous) species

Azolla is an invasive water plant that can completely smother native aquatic wildlife. We have had Azolla in the ditches and managed to get on top of it using azolla weevils, a harmless, biological control. Azolla weevil’s are incredibly expensive and eat up small budgets that could be used so much more positively. Dog Walking In Lewes, East Sussex | Our Canine Community (

"The Heart Of Reeds"

I heard many warblers but saw none

Interestingly I saw no Dragonflies or Damselflies, which were the reason I came to this reserve. There was much water but maybe the azolla infestation has stifled diversity. But I saw a Grey Wagtail and that was unexpected and a real treat. Unexpected pleasures are great pleasures.



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