Cuckmere Valley’s future clouded in confusion

It is some time since the future of the Cuckmere Valley and the Haven featured in the local press, following the momentous “final” decision-making meeting held in Alfriston in June 2011 where a clear majority of those present and entitled to vote opted to support “Option D”, that to repair and maintain the valley and its flood defences as at present.

Since then, apart from the birth of the Friends of the Cuckmere, whose voluntary resources seem at present limited to monthly litter-picking at the Haven, the whole issue over the future of the Cuckmere has gone (ominously?) quiet. I am led to understand that recent meetings of the Cuckmere Estuary Partnership, the body set up some years ago to involve the various owners of the relevant land south of the A259 , including East Sussex County Council, Seaford Town Council and the National Trust, have been repeatedly postponed or cancelled.

After the meeting in June 2011 a long letter from Dr Jill Rosser and Tristram Hopkinson was published in the “Sussex Express” suggesting that they believed that despite a clear majority for “Option D” they felt the “flooding faction” had not given up their long fight to turn the valley into a salt-water marshland, a proposed paradise for bird-watchers but without many of the present access paths. A “Flooding-Lite” option which reconnected the meanders back into the tidal system without eliminating the main drainage channel, was also then being floated as a viable alternative. Months before the meeting, Dr Rosser and Mr Hopkinson publicly disassociated themselves from a consultation process prior to the June meeting which I think they believed was being effectively “orchestrated” by the pro-flooding lobby.

The “Flooding-Lite” option, had at the time superficial appeal to me especially as the “research” so assiduously carried out by the proponents of flooding seemed to suggest that the meanders were essentially dead water, brackish and without merit in their own right as a wildlife habitat. There has been a persistent and pervasive attempt to portray the meanders as being a short-term feature in their present state, which will at any time disappear through silting up. That does not accord to me with their presence in the valley now for well over 150 years. Also a recent visit makes it clear that the upper sluice-gate opposite the Golden Galleon is still operating effectively guaranteeing at least a degree of water flow into and out of the meanders.

At a meeting late last year of the Seaford Natural History Society, a guest speaker, wildlife expert Dr Chris Joyce from the University of Brighton, stated that thse meanders in their present state as a saltwater lagoon were an exceedingly rare and valuable wildlife resource in Sussex and indeed nationally. He believed that they had never been properly surveyed for rare wildlife - as an instance he cited the Ivell’s sea-anenome, a nationally endangered species. It seems strange to me that at the Alfriston meeting in June 2011 I cannot remember the iconic nature of the meanders in their present form being emphasised, particularly by the proponents of “Option C” (Partial Flooding of the valley), which was the option which came a distant second in the poll.

I visited the Haven recently and was appalled to find the west pathway to the Cottages virtually impassable having been churned up by heavy vehicles. Despite that even in winter a stream of visitors were keen to visit the site in its present format. Despite dire threats from the Environment Agency 10 years ago that the sea itself without any intervention would have broken through and reclaimed the valley, the Victorian defences which the EA have neglected for so long are still there doing their original job. Why on earth could not the seven-figure sums on endless studies, meetings, seminars etc since then have not been spent instead on a simple programme of maintenance? The mountain of paperwork alone (if compacted) would be sufficient to raise the canal banks I would have thought.

Seriously we need to have a public statement now from the Cuckmere Estuary Partnership as to what stage they have reached in implementing “Option D” nearly two years after the “final” vote was taken on this issue. This is a primary feature of the South Downs National Park and deserves not to be clouded in confusion as to its future.

Bob Brown, Seaford