Apart from a brief sojourn to university I have lived nearly my whole life in Crawley, Sussex, this means that as a birder I have only really had one local patch to explore – obviously most birders will get through a few birding patches in their life whenever they move home. My patch is known as Gratton’s park (for reasons long forgotten) and I admit that I have only been visiting it for the last few years and probably not as much as I should do; despite it being a ten-minute walk from my front door.
Crawley is actually very nicely situated because although large, it is completely surrounded by countryside and it would only take a twenty minute cycle in any direction to be rid of the sixties architecture and be enveloped in ancient farms or woodland. Consequently Gratton’s park is only separated from rural farmland by a raised A-road on its northern flank – this means that it attracts more interesting birds than other parks in town. Of course you only find this out if you spend a good few hours walking around it, which means you have to go slowly because it isn’t exactly the size of Hyde Park – about one and a half football pitches would cover it.
Originally part of a large area of farmland, studded with copses and striated with mature hedgerows, it was later cut off by houses and landscaped in the fifties as part of flood-prevention measures. This involved canalising much of Gatwick Stream which runs through the park and the construction of earth banks to try and keep the water where it was wanted. The straight concrete channel that funnels the stream is particularly brutal-looking and it wouldn’t take an environmental assessor to conclude that the biodiversity of the stream has been gravely affected by this short-sighted construction. With no small amount of irony I watched last year as the Environment Agency undid the mistakes of the past by carving out an entirely new ‘natural’ meandering course for the stream – now running through the center of the main field. This (also ironically) was part of flood-prevention measures; the new side-winding stream can hold more water, flows slower, improves stream health, improves natural habitat, and most crucially allows the stream to flood in a place where it does not directly damage human habitations and prevents flooding downstream. This was something of a significant event in the parks history, it is now much more attractive to humans and wildlife and I look forward to seeing it mature and improve with time as nature moves back in.
Gatwick stream has really had more than its fair share of human intervention; it has been redirected more than the two times I have mentioned, for centuries ago a small channel was dug to the west of the main stream, behind what was then the local mill. Hazelwick Mill had a large pond to supply it; this was filled with water from Gatwick stream which, after use, ran along the man-made channel through the park to re-join the main water course. That mill is long gone but the mill leat remains, now a mere trickle bordered by mature trees which separates the two fields of the park.
The whole point of a patch is that you get to know it like the back of your hand; you know what species breed, migrate through, winter and what occasionally drifts through there. Gratton’s park is not a nature reserve, but it has its merits; there is a small but mature (and I suspect ancient) copse of mixed woodland with an even older stream running through it, there are two large fields – one of which has a good number of wildflowers in summer and there are a few hedges. Certainly the most productive area is the woodland; I know where the Kingfishers nest in the river bank, I have heard Stock doves cooing in spring, Great spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches have their nest holes here and Buzzards have wheeled overhead. Redwings congregate here in winter, bank voles scurry in the wood and I once saw a weasel running along a log, I have watched Beautiful Demoiselles flutter above the stream in a ray of sunshine. When it comes to wildlife, there is always more there than a casual glance will reveal, a naturalist is well rewarded if he has patience and gives up enough hours to wandering through a seemingly empty wood or field.