Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve its Beginnings

Monday, October 31, 2005

The many Trust members (and non-members) who visit Brandon Marsh are possibly unaware of the reserve's origins and may be interested to know how this important wetland habitat came to be.

As a young birdwatcher in 1948 I learned of the existence of Baginton Sewage Marsh. This amazing place opened up a whole new ornithological world to me with sightings of species that I had only read about, and dreamed of! Wildfowl, such as teal and garganey. Waders such as green sandpiper, redshank, greenshank and ruff and other less familiar birds like whinchat, meadow pipit and blue-headed wagtail. This haven for bird-life, which sadly no-longer exists, (though it is shown on ordnance maps as a bird sanctuary) was located alongside the approach road (now known as Siskin Drive) which led to what was then the Armstrong Whitworth aircraft factory.

One of its employees, Ron Lee was an older, experienced birdwatcher who spent his lunch times watching the birds on the marsh and whom I got to know. He helped me identify some of the more difficult species which turned up there and the nearby Baginton sandpits. Birds such as little stint and wood sandpiper, real rarities at that time.

I learned much from him and I am eternally grateful for his tutelage and encouragement, including introduction to The West Midland Bird Club.

Later as a member, of what is now Britain's largest provincial bird club, I was to play a key role in its administration. One of my first undertakings was to alert its committee to the importance of "Brandon Floods" in the hope, that one day it would become a reserve. It was the foresight and perception of my mentor Ron Lee, who drew my attention to the ornithological potential of Brandon long before it became the place we know today. I recall, his saying to me one day, "Alan, there's a place, along the Avon; just below the village of Ryton-on-Dunsnmore, which I think could be worth looking at!"

I remember cycling along Brandon lane, with Ron one summer's day in 1949, to call in at what I think was Brandon Grounds Farm, to seek permission to enter the area down by the river, that we had come to look at. I recall the farmer showing us large cracks in the walls of his house and outbuildings, which he blamed on subsidence, caused by the underground workings of the nearby Binley colliery, incidentally, then the deepest pit in Britain. Its spoil heap (now long gone) was a landmark, visible for miles around.

The subsidence that had caused damage to the farmhouse was undoubtedly responsible for the so-called "Brandon Floods" we had come to assess. The river had indeed widened and overflowed its banks, creating a small lake. However, at that time there was little bird life to speak of, certainly nothing worthy of a record in my note book. However, Ron said, we should keep an eye on it.

For a time I forgot all about the so-called "Brandon Floods", as Baginton continued to take up all my birding time during the early 1950's. In 1953 after completing my two years national service with the Royal Signals in Germany, Baginton Marsh continued to be my "local patch". However, rumours of interesting birds, now being seen at" Brandon floods", came to my ears.

On the 24th May 1953, I decided I should check out these rumours. I was amazed to discover how much the area had changed since my first visit a few years earlier. The floods now comprised a sizeable stretch of open water with surrounding marsh. It was alive with birds.

Notably a pair of garganey including a number of redshank and lapwing, obviously nesting. A further visit in June found the garganey still in residence. At least twelve redshank were also counted that day (far more than had ever been noted at Baginton.) Four teal were present and a singing corn bunting added to the interest of the occasion.

On August 9th I was delighted to discover a female garganey with six ducklings, constituting only the third breeding record of this species in the county. A greenshank was also present, along with seven green sandpipers, indicating that migrant wading birds were being equally attracted to the area, just as at Baginton, which also bordered the Avon, only three miles to the west.

As Ron Lee had predicted, Brandon was indeed a place to keep an eye on! Even so, I made only a limited number of visits during 1954, but which included sightings of black-necked grebe and spotted redshank, pretty scarce birds at that time.

The modernisation of Coventry's sewage disposal system, spelled the death knell of the Baginton sewage marsh and as the new Finham Sewage Works came on line the area became less attractive to birds and my attention became more focussed on Brandon.

From 1955, until I moved to Studley in 1964, I visited Brandon at every opportunity, often several times in a week, especially in the spring and autumn. They were exciting times as virtually each visit produced a new bird for the area, in addition to increasing sightings of various waders and tern, as each year went by.In 1960 I produced a paper on the birds of Brandon, which was published in the West Midland Bird Clubs

Annual Report.
Included among the one-hundred and thirty six species that I had noted since 1953, were unusual occurrences, of such birds as spoonbill (the first Warwickshire record) and red-necked phalarope, there being only three previous occurrences of this bird in the county!

As shown on a 1959 Ordnance Survey map, scale 1:2500 the area of water was then almost half a mile in length and a quarter of a mile across at its widest point. This plus the extensive surrounding marshy areas provided a wonderful wetland habitat not only for birds, but for an abundance of water loving plants, insects, amphibians, mammals and insects. Sadly, this area of open water was almost completely lost, when Severn Trent Water dredged the river in 1963. Even so the area was still of great natural history interest and with the backing of The West Midland Bird Club, The West Midlands Nature Trust began moves to secure SSSI status for the area. In 1973 one hundred and sixty-seven acres were so designated, which included all the sand and gravel workings which had begun in the mid 1950's.

The results of sand and gravel extraction did in fact further enhance the habitat and encouraged little ringed plovers to nest as well as providing suitable nesting conditions for a large colony of sand martins. Sand and gravel extraction continued until 1989 creating a further series of lakes and pools adding to the existing mixture of habitats.

Also, in 1973 an advisory panel under the aegis of the Nature Conservancy was established to look at the future of Brandon and the establishment of a nature reserve. This comprised representatives of the sand & gravel company (then Steetley), The Warwickshire Nature Conservation Trust, The West Midland Bird Club, Coventry RSPB Group and the Brandon Marsh Conservation Group. Many meetings were held over the next several years, with agreement finally reached in 1980. The Warwickshire Wildlife Trust was to be responsible for the reserves development with its day to day running; based on a management plan authored by W T Jackson of Coventry (Lanchester) Polytechnic, following a 12 month site-survey carried out under the auspices of the Polytechnic Department of Biological Sciences. These many meetings were attended by numerous individuals who gave of their time and expertise over the years and particularly included E R Austin (Cov. RSPB Group), Prof... F W Shotton (WARNACT), G R Harrison (WMBC), C Fuller (Nature Conservancy), B Wright (RSPB Coventry Group), M J D'Oyly (Nature Conservancy Council), Mrs Margaret Evans (Nature Conservancy Council) and J Walton (BMCG).

Twenty five years on, Brandon is now recognised as one of the midlands' premier wetland reserves with in excess of 40,000 visitors a year, a far cry from its river meadow origins in 1949, when just two birdwatchers cycled down a country lane to "suss" out its wildlife potential!

During the mid 1950's, few other birdwatchers visited Brandon other than myself, Alban Wincott and one or two others whose names I am afraid I cannot recall. However, as Brandon's reputation grew more and more birdwatchers became regular visitors. In 1959 a young Norman Sills appeared on the scene, (a co-founder of the Brandon Marsh Voluntary Conservation Group) later to become Warden of the RSPB Titchwell Reserve, now at Lakenheath, Suffolk) later to be joined by such Brandon stalwarts as J. Baldwin, Mick Finnemore, John Walton and Colin Potter. There are many who have contributed over the years in making Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve, the incredible and unique nature reserve it has become today.

By Alan Richards