Wildlife you might see along the Kent & East Sussex Railway line
The Kent & East Sussex Railway, meandering through 10 ½ miles of beautiful, unspoilt Wealden countryside between Tenterden in Kent and Bodiam in East Sussex, provides the perfect habitat for a variety of wildlife. Here you can find out more about the landscape the railway passes through as well as more fascinating facts about the wildlife found here.
The local landscape
As you travel along the Rother Valley – an area of open countryside of weald and marsh with few roads and houses, keep an eye out on the western side of the railway upon leaving Rolvenden station where a series of abandoned ditches can be seen. These were crayfish beds, a business venture that had to be abandoned because feral mink consumed the fish! Wildlife here is plentiful, thanks to the absence of man, and the drainage channels create an ideal environment for swan colonisation.
You will notice that the valley is wide and flat to the west, with prominent hilly land next to the railway. In Roman times, all this low land was undersea and the line now runs on what would once have been the beach. In fact, as we approach Wittersham Road station, take a look at the hill in the distance to the south, this was once an island and is still known to this day as the Isle of Oxney.
The line crosses the River Rother on a substantial steel bridge, original to the construction of the railway in 1900. This is the site of the county boundary where you pass from Kent into East Sussex. In medieval times, cargoes of wool were exported from Smallhythe Place, the river port serving Tenterden. The river Rother was navigable for barges up until this century.
In earlier years much of this area was farmed by the Guinness brewery and hop gardens stretched as far as the eye could see. Now we are witnessing the growth of vineyards in their place, the higher land on the northern side of the railway has been made over to the growing of grapes.
From earliest times the land around Tenterden was used for swine grazing, sheep pasture, arable and meadow. Much of the town’s prosperity was founded on wool and cloth and flocks of sheep were a familiar sight in Tenterden High Street and Ashford Road up until well in to the 1970’s.
You may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some of the following animals and birds during your journey
Native to Asia, pheasants were introduced to this country by the ancient Romans. Now the most numerous game bird in Kent, they were largely locally extinct up until the 19th century when they were extensively reared by gamekeepers. Look out for them in the open countryside near woodland edges, copses and hedgerows. You will probably hear the loud croaking call of the male before you see it. They have an average life span of 1 to 2 years. Pheasants eat seeds, berries, leaves and insects and roost in trees. A group of pheasants is known as a bouquet.
The Mute swan, our most common swan is a very large white water bird. It can easily be identified by its long S-shaped neck and an orange bill with a large black knob at the base. We also have Whooper and Bewick swans in the UK. Often seen in a pairs these gracious and beautiful birds often mate for life. They have an average life span of 10 years. Look out for these in the fields and on the water. The female is known as a pen and the male a cob. The spring cygnets can frequently be seen sheltering in reed plantations. A group of swans is known as a bevy.
Herons are unmistakably tall, with long legs, a long beak and are grey with black and white feathering. Standing as still as a statue, you can see them by the river bank patiently waiting for their next meal. They eat fish, small birds and even an occasional duckling. When feeling lazy, the heron will visit gardens with ponds for a quick and easy snack! They make their nest site of twigs, often in the top of trees. They lay 3 to 4 eggs and the young will fledge from the nest after 1 ½ months. A group of herons is known as a scattering.
Once suffering persecution and pesticide poisoning, this bird has made a stunning comeback and is now the most common bird of prey seen along the railway. Look out for it soaring and gliding over grassland, farmland and woodland as you travel along. They are variable in colour from dark to light brown. The Buzzard is quite large with rounded wings and a striped tail. They have an average lifespan of 12 years. A group of buzzards is known as a committee.
Mallards are the most common of all the dabbling ducks you will see. The male and female ducks look so different that they were originally thought to be a different species. Look out for the bright male with its green head and yellow bill. The female is mainly brown with an orange bill. You can see them wherever there is water or in the fields looking for food. They have an average life span of 3 years. A group of Mallard ducks is known as a sword.
Moorhens have a red and yellow beak. They are blackish with a dark brown back with white stripes on the sides of its wings. You will see them along the Railway line around the rivers and stream and farmland ditches looking for small fish, edible water plants, snails and worms. Look out for their untidy nests on the water in spring. They spend more time out of the water than its relative, the coot, and can even climb trees. They have a life span of 3 years.
A group of moorhen is known as a plump.
The coot is black with a white beak and has an average life span of 5 years. You see them along the railway line, at the sides of the rivers, and at the edge of the fields looking for food. They eat seeds from the fields, snails and insect larvae. Unlike ducks, coots will bring their food to the surface often leading to squabbles. Coots are also known locally as bald coots or white-faced divers. A group of coots is known as a commotion.
In the early evening it is quite common to see the barn owl quartering the fields, flying silently just a few feet above the land. With a heart shaped face and pure white feathers, the Barn Owl is mostly a farmland bird, eating small mammals. See if you can spot their nesting boxes that have been put up for them along the channels. Throughout history, barn owls have been known by many different nicknames including ghost owl, church owl, screech owl and demon owl due to their piercing screeches and hissing calls. They have an average life span of 4 years. A group of owls is known as a parliament. This could be because owls are typically considered to be quite intelligent and wise.
The Little Egret has white plumes, black bill and legs and bright yellow feet. They first appeared in the UK in significant numbers in 1989 and were first bred in Brownsea Island in Dorset in the late 1990’s. The long neck plumes of the little egret were once more valuable than gold and were smuggled into Europe during the 19th century. You might be lucky to spot one along the edge of the water looking for fish. The average life span is 5 years. A group of Egrets is known as a congregation.
Red Legged Partridge
A plump gamebird, the red-legged partridge is an introduced species that seems to have settled here with little problem. It can be spotted in its favoured open scrub and farmland habitats. It has a large white chin and throat, bordered with black. It has a greyish body with bold black flank stripes and a chestnut-sided tail. With an average life span of 3 – 5 years, partridges feast on seeds, leaves and small invertebrates. When disturbed it prefers to run rather than fly.
Magpies are black with a purplish-blue iridescent sheen with a green gloss on its tail. They are noisy chattering birds. Magpies are scavengers, predators and pest destroyers. They live in woodland, farmland, grassland, and upland heathland, urban and suburban wetland. Non breeding birds will gather together in flocks. There are several names given to a group of magpies, but perhaps the most descriptive is “a parliament.” The birds have earned this title from often appearing in large groups in the spring, looking stately and cawing at each other.
One of the best known poems we hear today has two versions, the original being less well known and the everyday modern version.
One for Sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told
Eight for a wish
Nine for a Kiss
Ten for a Bird you must not miss
One for Sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral
Four for a birth
Five for Heaven
Six for Hell
Seven for the Devil, his own self
Kestrels are a familiar sight, look out for them hovering above fields looking for their prey. They have the ability to keep their head still whilst they hover, even in strong winds. They have pointed wings and a long tail and are found in a wide variety of habitats, from moor and heath, to farmland and urban areas. They have an average life span of 4 years. They nest in holes in trees, old buildings and abandoned crows nests and lay 4 to 5 eggs.
Introduced into the UK in the 19th century, the Little owl can be seen , if you are lucky, perching on a tree branch during the day. It bobs its head up and down when alarmed and in flight has rapid wing beats and flies with a slight undulation. It eat small mammals and birds, beetles and earthworms. Breeding between March and August, they nest in hollow trees. The little owl has an average life span of 3 years.
Kingfishers are beautiful small birds with unmistakable bright blue and metallic copper colours. They hunt for aquatic insects and fish and can be seen flying over slow moving or still water. They hunt and perch on riverbanks on the lookout for food. They have an average life span of 2 years. Did you know, there are over 90 species of kingfisher around the world?
Pipistrelles are the commonest British bats, weighing around 5 grams (same as a 20p piece).
They frequents rivers, ponds, lakes and ditches using woodland edges to navigate. They are small with brown fur, black face and wings. They can live more than 30 years and can fly at speeds of 60 miles per hour (or more!). They can find their food in total darkness. Bats can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes an hour. Baby bats are called pups! Bodiam Castle has one of the largest maternity roosts in the South East. To find out more about bats and how you can help these amazing but vulnerable animals, visit the Bat Conservation Trust’s website where you can become a member and discover the many ways you can get involved to do your bit for bats! The website is www.bats.org.uk and the National Bat Helpline can be reached on 0345 1300 228.
The two main breeds of cows you will see on your journey today are Sussex and Ayrshire. The Sussex are an ancient breed from the Weald of Sussex, Surrey and Kent and are reddish brown in colour. They were traditionally used as a draught Oxen in the Weald. The Ayrshire is black or brown with white patches and originates from Scotland. Ayrshire cows are renowned for their high milk production. A group of cattle is known as a herd or drove with over 12 known as a flink.
These mostly Romney sheep originate from this area. Coming from exposed and fairly isolated low lying land, these hardy, long haired sheep are renowned for the quality of their wool. They are excellent foragers and thrive in poorer grass areas. Unlike humans, sheep have four stomachs, each one helping them to digest their food. They have 300 degree vision meaning they can see behind them without moving their heads. A group is known as a herd, flock or mob.
One of Britain’s most familiar animals and a great family pet. If you are lucky, you might spot a black rabbit which has probably escaped from a pet keeper, in addition to the more common wild brown rabbit. Although very cute to look at, they do cause a problem for the railway making their home in the embankment beside the railway line. The embankment just after the Cranbrook Road level crossing has been nicknamed “bunny bank” as it`s had to be rebuilt many times. A group of rabbits is known as a fluffle or colony.
Thought to have been introduced into the UK in Roman times (or even earlier), they are larger and have longer ears than rabbits. Brown hares do not dig burrows, but shelter in ‘forms’, which are shallow depressions in the ground or grass. When disturbed, they can be seen bounding across the fields, using their powerful hind legs to propel them. They can run at speeds of up to 45 mph.
Hares are most visible in early spring. A group of hares is known as a drove.
Grey squirrels can be seen in any wooded area on the line. Their tails serve several unusual purposes including heat dissipation, balance and parachute. More unusual are albino squirrels which are often seen in the area of the engine sheds at Rolvenden. They are very territorial and will fight to defend their area. Mothers give birth to two to eight babies at a time known as kittens. They are born blind. Did you know that every year, millions of trees grow because squirrels forget where they bury their acorns! A group of squirrels is known as a scurry.
Badgers are mainly nocturnal mammals and live in underground tunnels called a sett so it is hard to spot them. Badger setts vary from occasionally used “outliers”, which often have single entranced tunnels, to vast, ancient underground complexes with multiple entrances. They are very social and live in a group known as a cete or clan with 2 to 15 others. They can eat several hundred earthworms a night and are one of the only predators of hedgehogs, living up to 15 years in the wild and are protected by law.
The Roe deer, also known as Western or European Roe deer is a medium sized deer, reddish in colour in the summer, turning to darker grey in the winter. Well adapted to cold climates, they are our most common native deer and protected under UK law. They can be spotted in several locations along the line. A grazing animal, they prefer mixed countryside including woodland, farmland, open grassland and heathland. They eat buds and leaves from trees and shrubs, as well as ferns, grasses and heathers. Male deer are called bucks and female deer does.
Horses normally live around 25 years, that’s equivalent to 73 human years! Domesticated for over 5000 years, they have been used in warfare because of their agility and speed. There are over 300 breeds of horse. Did you know, horses can sleep both lying down and standing up, can run shortly after birth and gallop at around 27 mph.
With an average life span of 2 to 3 years, the fox has reddish-brown fur, a white chest and a bushy, white-tipped tail, called a brush. Its nose and ears are pointed. Foxes are widespread and quite common throughout Britain and a surprising number live in towns. They are active at dusk and during the night, searching alone for food they are scavengers and eat almost anything they can find including fruit, berries, earth worms, small mammals and scraps left out by humans. The red fox is the only wild member of the dog family with the female called a vixen and the male a dog. The male makes a barking noise with the female a spin chilling scream.