If you saw a planning notice near where you live or heard of proposals for gravel or sand extraction nearby the first inclination is to: object, organise a petition, stop it happening, stop it at all costs, we don’t want it here!
But is that in a local birders best interest. Many (most) of the best birding areas we visit were once gravel workings. Why do we visit them? Well, perhaps it is because their habitat is the most diverse in the area. Most of the rest is acro-desert with some woodland and piecemeal riverine valleys etc. Even the downland to the north and south are almost all down to arable with some grazing. There are some farmland birds most of which are in steep decline due to the pesticides used. In spring I once thought the pellets spread over crops were fertilisers, it turns out that they were mostly slug pellets.
The gravel pits I can first remembers were the Pyle Hill Pits on the town side of the airbase. There I would trespass to look for diving beetles and newts. Further extraction took place in the 1990s and for a couple of years Little Ringed Plover were present. The whole area was exploited for more gravel, then back filled with domestic waste, capped with soil and dotted with gas breather pipes to release the methane from the rotting waste. This year (2022) as I write this a specialist degassing contractor stabilising the area ready for 140+ houses to be built, probably next year.
A working gravel pit is where birds like Little Ringed Plover breed in the open gravel areas. Indeed, it was in such areas that the species was first found to be breeding in the UK in the late 1940s and 1950s. One of those areas was on gravel workings where the Bone Lane Industrial Estate is now, on the north side of Hambridge Road, Newbury across to the K&A canal. As a nine year old with a shiny new bike for my birthday I would ride from my home near Stroud Green along Hambridge Road to an oily stream just about where Bone Lane meets Hambridge Road. It was oily from the Hills gravel washing plant. When the plant was closed you could wander out on to the reed surrounded washings settling area, a very dangerous thing to do thinking about it; probably around 2metres of quicksand type material with a crust on top when it was dry! It was here in the 1950’s that some of my contemporaries told Lew Lewis our birding schoolteacher of the small wading birds that nested there.
Further on down the road at its junction with the A4 is Hambridge Lake an abandoned working then, fished infrequently by the Piscatorial Society. With no other pits nearby, it was the place to see diving ducks and leaning my bike against the wall of its feeder stream bridge I would count Tufted Ducks and, in the winter, Pochard. Occasionally scarce ducks turned up, one winter a Long-tailed Duck, a female or immature I think, spent a week or two there. In recent times the last known gravel workings were adjacent to Hambridge Lake now known as Bell Wood angling pit I believe.
Later when at Park House School trips with birding school mates were made to Aldermaston GPs another worked-out gravel pit that was abandoned at that time. The reason for visiting was to see Shoveler and feeding in the fields nearby, when not taking refuge on the GP, Wigeon. Later more extraction took place before the workings were again abandoned. Many may not realise that back in the latter part of the last century a Cormorant this far inland was a very rare occurrence, usually just one or two sighting of high flying birds in winter some years. Sightings became more frequent and eventually birds identified as the continental race bred at Aldermaston and it was from here that the birds we see now spread out from.
The next “new” GP that I am aware of was at Marsh Benham north of the railway and west of the road near the railway crossing. I was not active birding-wise at that time but understand that some interesting ducks were seen until it was filled.
The biggest gravel workings were at Thatcham when the area that was once part of the sewage works off Lower Way was excavated, the gravel washing plant being where the Nature Discovery Centre building is now located. After the workings in its immediate vicinity were finished the stream that ran down on the line of what is now Muddy Lane was diverted into the pit now known as Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre Lake. The lane level was raised with gravel and extended round to the bridge that took the Moors Ditch through the railway embankment; the ditch being diverted to a nearby overflow culvert through the embankment. The enabled plant access to what was said to be one of the biggest reed beds in the south of England. Planning permission was obtained to extract gravel by an astute Newbury Angling Club just after WW2 before any conservation regulation was in place. Despite opposition from many including, Ike Hawthorn (a former NDOC chair) and Newbury Ringing Group, in the 1970s gravel extraction began and formed the pits we know today including the Thatcham Angling pits east of the Nature Discovery Centre and those west towards Hambridge Lake not thought to much good bird-wise. When the gravel extraction was completed the gravel plant was replaced with a boat house, but this was not a commercial success and morphed into the building there now. The lake then known as Muddy Lane Pit was very productive bird-wise, holding large flocks of Tufted Duck, Pochard and other wintering waterfowl. Scarce ducks occasionally visited including sawbills and American Wigeon one winter. The ever increasing human activity there caused disturbance and most wintering birds move elsewhere. The hill to the west of Muddy Lane is actually domestic and commercial rubbish backfill from Newbury and Thatcham, and probably very volatile which is why it is fenced, before it was at the same level as Lower Way.
I first became aware of Brimpton GPs when a music teacher at school with a passing interest in birds told Lew Lewis of the gravel extract at the back of his house in the village. Visits here first produced the usual waders etc. Some of the original workings were back filled and reverted back to farmland leaving two pits now known as Shalford Lakes. A gravel plant to the east of these lakes next serviced what is now Woolhampton GPs and also Midgham GPs north of the railway. This pit complex has been the source of many rare sightings including divers, Least Sandpiper and Penduline and Bearded Tit.
Further up the road at Aldermaston north of the A4 more extraction formed what was known as the Marley Tile GPs and Beenham GPs all now filled in. At the latter pit a Wilsons Phalarope was seen. Also a little further on is Padworth Lane GPs a fairly recent gravel workings now abandoned that is currently the main Goosander and Redshank gathering area.
Another gravel working was at Thatcham opposite the Newbury Angling Pits on the south side of the canal and was first known as the Racecourse GP but is now known as the Lower Farm Trout Lake. It could be viewed from the WW2 pill box on the K&A canal before the scrub around it had grown. One year the trout farm stock became infected, and the pit was drained to sterilise it. As it was late summer the muddy areas exposed were ideal for wader passage and I remember counting about six Wood Sandpipers there once. A year or two later gravel extract began at Lower Farm including the fields where the holiday village is now and that was back-filled with the gravel washings. A condition of the permission was to provide a hide and wildlife refuge at the remaining pit, and this is the main focus of recent birding. Unfortunately, I understand this condition expires in 2023. This heavily watch pit is the source of many of the recent rare and not so rare species to landlocked West Berkshire. Some other workings east of Lower Farm GP that included some experimental reed bed regeneration now form the Carp commercial angling outfit with the Trout Lake. Further extraction proposed east towards Chamberhouse Farm and that included a pits to be ceded to BBOWT to become part of the Bowdown Reserve faltered due to the 2010 economic collapse when the need for gravel was much reduced, the permission has now lapsed I understand.
Apart from the gravel pit complex just outside our area south of Theale the only other pits I know of are located somewhere a few miles northwest of Newbury (can’t remember exactly where) that for a year or two held Little Ringed Plover and that reverted to farmland also it is the only other known working west of Newbury. There was a small dry pit near Headley in Hampshire long overgrown.
Current legislation for mineral extraction requires that the land is returned to its former use so the likelihood of any further disused gravel pits in the future is much reduced.
The following is a list of scarce species sightings associated with the aforementioned gravel pits (note this it is from memory as is this article as a whole, a comprehensive article would require more research):
Brent Goose, Red-Breasted Goose, White-Fronted Goose, Bewick’s Swan, Whooper Swan, Ruddy Shelduck, Mandarin Duck, Garganey, American Wigeon, Pintail, Red-Crested Pochard, Ring-Necked Duck, Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Common Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Goldeneye, Smew, Goosander, Red-Breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Turtle Dove, Red-Necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Oystercatcher, Avocet Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Turnstone, Knot, Ruff, Sanderling, Dunlin, Little Stint, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Jack Snipe, Wilson’s Phalarope, Grey Phalarope, Wood Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Kittiwake, Sabine’s Gull, Little Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Caspian Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Sandwich Tern, Arctic Tern, Black Tern, Red-Throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Shag, Bittern, Cattle Egret, Great White, Egret Osprey, Marsh Harrier, Wryneck, Red-footed Falcon, Hobby, Penduline Tit, Bearded Tit.