Review of 2019 from Rye Harbour Nature Reserve - by Reserve Manager Dr Barry Yates

02 January 2020 | Posted in Project
Review of 2019 from Rye Harbour Nature Reserve - by Reserve Manager Dr Barry Yates

Well that was a challenging year - one of preparing the foundations - literally - for new and improved experiences for our visitors and volunteers with starting the Discovery Centre and a three year National Lottery Heritage Fund project called Discover Rye Harbour. Our latest visitor figures, for 2018, show that annual visitor numbers continue to increase with 356,310 visits estimated from hourly car park figures, which is a 4% increase on 2017 and a 66% increase since 2001! This is typical of most coastal countryside sites and reflects increased mobility and recreational time in our society and more people wanting to exercise in nature.

Sussex Wildlife Trust maintains a safe place for people to enjoy and discover special wildlife in an open coastal landscape and we are fortunate that most visitors appreciate and respect the nature reserve. One rewarding aspect of our work is seeing people enjoy a close encounter with wildlife and helping many get more involved, be it as members of the Sussex Wildlife Trust or Friends of the nature reserve, as volunteers, as participants on our events or just as walkers, runners, cyclists, scooters or wheelchair users.

During 2019 we held nearly 250 walks and talks, engaging with more than 3,750 participants. Volunteers opened the information cabins nearly every day of the year and welcomed more than 18,000 visitors. Our regular clearance of rubbish from the beach was helped considerably this year by many individuals doing their own beach cleans, following increased awareness of plastic pollution.

But our primary objective remains the conservation of our rare wildlife and it was volunteer workparties that were a vital part of our habitat management. There were the usual ups and downs of nature including weather and food. There were floods and drought, but on the whole our special wildlife had a good year. Here are some highlights 


Three wintering Twite on the saltmarsh were the first recorded here for 15 years, 391 Curlew roosted at night on Rye Harbour Farm and several overwintering Wasp Spider egg sacs were found at Castle Water.


Water Vole signs were widespread, probably as a result of our control of its arch enemy the American Mink. An overwintering Spotted Redshank, three species of egret, Bittern and Spoonbill all show what a great wetland we now have. Our annual walk on World Wetlands Day was well attended with 28 walkers.


An American Ring-necked Duck was at Castle Water, a pair of Raven nested successfully at Camber Castle and the three Twite were seen until 20th. A Small Sallow Mining Bee on the 31st was the first record here for over 20 years!

Lime Kiln Cottage was handed over to Baxall Construction to begin the year long work to create the Discovery Centre with the first task being the demolition of the concrete building.

Lime Kiln Cottage 27.3.19 (c) Pat Bonham


The steady arrival of common spring migrants was accompanied by a Glossy Ibis on 5th, up to 3 Spoonbill and exceptionally for here, 3 Jay on 19th. A pair of Black-winged Stilt (below) graced pools on Rye Harbour Farm for 3 days, then moved on. A student studying the rare Red Hempnettle noted the even rarer flea beetle, Dibolia cynoglossi, that feeds only on that plant on the exceptionally early date of 16th . This year the first sighting of St Mark’s Flies was on 25th which is St Mark’s Day.

Stilts thumb@2x


The Bee Orchids flowered in profusion (many being of the pale paler flavescens form) along the eastern section of the sea defence bank, which was only created in 2005. There were sightings of the rare jumping spiders Pellenes tripunctatus and Phlegra fasciata and the uncommon ground-spider Haplodrassus dalmatensis. The peak nesting month for birds with so many to keep track of. It was all going so well for the nesting terns …

The piles for the Discovery Centre were installed, enabling the floor level to be an extra 1.2m above the road to protect it from future floods.

Preparing the ground for pile driving RHDC (c) Emma Chaplin


The 320 pairs of Sandwich Tern did well during May and the colony was alive with chicks, but then there was total disaster as the chicks starved with a presumed lack of small fish in the nearby sea. Read more here

By contrast we had our first successful nesting of Little Egrets on the reserve, with a pair raising two young in the Cormorant colony at Castle Water. This brings the total of birds that have nested here to 99. The isolated colonies of the rare Large-headed Resin Bee at Watch Cottage and of Marbled White butterfly near the viewpoint at Castle Water, were both active this year.


With more than 20 individuals of the Sussex Emerald moth caught in the moth trap at the information cabins, it is probable that this rare species now breeds in Sussex. Previous to this year, there had only been two records on the reserve and we think it is breeding on the Wild Carrot growing on the reserve. It was first discovered in the UK in Sussex (hence the common name) but currently only breeds at a few sites in Kent.

Several records of Southern Migrant Hawker dragonfly at Castle Farm, with at least six males on the 23rd, and a mating pair on the 24th – this is a recent colonist to Britain. Two further rare insects were recorded, the weevil Mogulones geographicus that lives on Viper’s Bugloss and the wonderfully named Sheep-nostril Fly at Watch Cottage.

A staggering 33,000 plants of Stinking Hawksbeard were estimated to be growing here – a plant declared extinct in Britain in the 1980s - read more here 


The moth trap caught several Pale Grass Eggar, a very rare moth which in the UK is only found on the shingle of Dungeness and Rye Harbour. Here it a favourite of the adult Cuckoos that come out on to the beach to find them. Several White Stork were seen from the release program in the south of England – lovely to see, but these could pose an additional predation problem for some of our wetland birds in the coming years.

It was great to see a small number of the rare Lesser Water Plantain have survived the spreading Australian Swampweed at Castle Water, we are hoping that biocontrol – a mite - could be available to us in 2020. This and other wetland plants and several rare insects are struggling to survive while this non-native invasive plant degrades the drawdown zone of ditches, ponds and pits.


A White-tailed Sea Eagle flying over the nature reserve on the 2nd was one of several radio-tracked birds released on the Isle of Wight as part of a reintroduction programme. Several sightings of Stone Curlew continue to give hope that one year this will become a breeding bird species of the reserve!

At Castle Water there were several of the very rare Marshmallow Moths around the plant of the same name. These plants were propagated by volunteers and students more than a decade ago, from seeds collected from the few plants we then had growing on the reserve. Two other insects doing well are the Sea Aster Bee on the saltmarsh and the first reserve record of Willow Emerald Damselfly at Castle Water.


The moth trap caught a Mottled Shieldbug the first Sussex record, with another found on the Beach Reserve later in the month. This species was first found in the UK in 2010 in London where it is now established, though these individuals were likely direct migrants from Europe. In addition, we had only the third reserve record of the uncommon migrant moth Olive-tree Pearl.

Among the many waders this month was a very late Wood Sandpiper on 29th .


Despite the lateness of the year an invertebrate survey on the Beach Reserve on the 10th turned up a good range of species, including some real rarities. Highlights were the rare weevils Ethelcus verrucatus and Lixus scabricollis, the former the first record since 1997, while the rare spider Lathys stigmatisata and the uncommon beetles Adonis Ladybird and Cymindis axillaris were also recorded. Also of interest, a species of Eremocoris bug was found which, regardless of species, will be new to Sussex.

Another exciting discovery was a colony of Marsh Helleborine at Castle Water, only the second site on the reserve for this rare orchid. A Twite was noted on a few days on the saltmarsh and a Long-tailed Duck on a saline lagoon.


There were three special wintering ducks on our saline lagoons - a Long-tailed Duck and five Goldeneye on Barn Pool East and the long staying redhead Smew (below) on the Flat Beach. They were all a challenge to watch as none of them came close to the best watching points and they can spend 90% of their time underwater!

Smew sunset thumb@2x

Interesting duck ringing news - We all know that our seas are in a very poor state now, but one aspect has greatly improved in recent years - oil dumped by shipping. Twenty years ago sitting on any Sussex beach meant checking for patches of oil or tar. There was a terrible toll on birds getting oil on their feathers and then being ingested - gulls, divers, terns, cormorants, waders, ducks and grebes. The lucky ones were picked up by volunteers who regularly searched the beaches and these were taken for cleaning, rehabilitation and successful release. One such example was a young male Common Scoter (a blackish sea duck) picked up at Rye Harbour and taken to Mallydams RSPCA by volunteers Rosalie and John. It was cleaned and released back into Rye Bay in February 2002. It has just been recovered (sadly shot) in September 2019 at Krasnoyarsk in Russia over 5,000 km away! At 18+ years old this easily beats the existing longevity record of 13 years 2 months 27 days as on the BTO website.

DC Nov 2019 hard hat EC

And 2020

With the 50th anniversary in March of the start of the nature reserve we are planning many events and we have a long guided walk planned on 15th (the date the first warden, Dave Flumm, started work) followed by the draw of the Quilt Raffle – still time to buy tickets online or from our information cabins. The fabulous, hand-crafted quilt of 30 squares, depicting wildlife and local landmarks of Rye Harbour has been created to celebrate 50 years of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in 2020 and to raise funds for our Discovery Centre. See more about the quilt here.

Whole quilt thumb@2x

We so often hear of the decline of wildlife with doom and gloom, but let’s not forget the resilience of nature – if we give it half a chance. Rye Harbour Nature Reserve has been fortunate in making large scale improvements and extensions to special habitats during its 50 years. The reedbed creation at Castle Water and the saltmarsh re-creation and saline lagoon creation on Rye Harbour Farm are all now maturing and many scarce and rare species are doing well. The nature reserve has so many wetland birds these days that we might take them for granted: thousands of wintering Golden Plover and Lapwing, booming Bittern, breeding Little Egrets, Marsh Harrier, Bearded Tit, Cettis Warbler, Raven, Peregrine, Avocet… and perhaps next year Great White Egrets too. Those people that initiated and supported Rye Harbour Nature Reserve 50 years ago would not have dreamt that some of these birds would ever breed here! And then there are the many other rare animals and rare plants that we care for.

This nature reserve is not just about wildlife, it’s also about enabling people to get out into nature and getting physical and mental health benefits. If this includes you, or you just like what we do, then we need people like you to support us by joining the Sussex Wildlife Trust and/or the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. You could then take a step further and try volunteering with us, learning new skills and discovering more about our amazing wildlife.

Our National Lottery Heritage Fund project – Discover Rye Harbour is up and running. We have started recruiting new staff and by April we hope to start opening the Discovery Centre. This project is all about involving people and providing a better visitor experience with more events and learning and training opportunities.

All our public events are listed here but the list will be added to as the year progresses.

2020 at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve will be very interesting and you can find out more by visiting our website -

and following us on social media


We have produced this short film to show part of the nature reserve on a high tide, with the saltmarsh covered by water and the river full.

The film is best viewed at full screen - use the little [  ] icon bottom right when it starts -  and the sound track best appreciated with earphones on.

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