A history of birdwatching at Reading Sewage Farm

2 March 2005 (revised 4 January 2011) | Peter Gipson


Anyone who peruses the wader section in The Birds of Berkshire will soon discover the prominence of the site referred to in that work as Reading Sewage Farm. Besides uncommon and rare waders, Reading Sewage Farm attracted a variety of other unusual species, and in its heyday in the 1970s it ranked among the best birdwatching sites in Berkshire. Sadly, the parts of the locality that held most ornithological interest no longer exist. In later years, the main focus of attention had been its sludge-pits, which were situated exactly where the new Reading Sewage Treatment Works at Island Road have been constructed, immediately west of the Reading Stadium at SU707705.

Although the name Reading Sewage Farm is apposite, and likely to stick in future works on the county's birds, the site was generally known as Manor Farm, and appeared under that name in the majority of reports. No doubt there are still hundreds of birders up and down the country, including Bill Oddie, who remember visiting Manor Farm in the 1970s - perhaps to tick the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper or the Black-winged Pratincole - plus a number who visited it before that decade. Some of Britain's most distinguished ornithologists inhaled the pong of Reading's sewage, including B W Tucker, H G Alexander, W B Alexander, M F M Meiklejohn, D I M Wallace, K E L Simmons and J T R Sharrock.

One difficulty for this article has been that the boundaries of what observers considered to constitute Manor Farm contracted over the years, and became blurry. Had the Black-winged Stilts in 1922 been wading close to the railway at that time, they would certainly have been considered to be at the sewage farm, but had they been seen at the same grid reference in 1980, they would have been reported to be at Smallmead Gravel Pit and not Manor Farm. As a second example, a series of Grasshopper Warblers were located in the 1970s and 1980s on the plateau opposite the gates to the sludge-pits in Island Road, and were usually reported to be at Fobney Lock or Fobney Plateau but sometimes at Manor Farm. Located in the 1930s at the same spot, they would unquestionably have been recorded to be within the sewage farm. The decision has been made to exclude records specifically referring to Smallmead Gravel Pit or the Fobney Plateau area, since most observers did not consider these to be part of Manor Farm. However, other records from the Smallmead area south of the River Kennet, including Smallmead tip, have been included.

The inclusion of some of the less notable records in what follows has been rather arbitrary, and mention of a species in a list does not necessarily mean that all the records of that species have been included. It is hoped that this article will stimulate recollections among those observers who remember the sewage farm, and that an expanded version may be published, along with corrections and additions.


It may seem surprising today, but it took observers more than 45 years to discover the rewards of birdwatching at Manor Farm! The old-style irrigation beds of the sewage farm came into operation in 1875. Back at that time, "Whitley Manor Farm" was actually an agricultural farm that stood beside the Foudry Brook at the end of Manor Farm Road. It was said that one side benefit of the sewage was that it enabled the farm to sell very good quality vegetables! It had become known simply as Manor Farm by 1909. Not until 1922 would the sewage farm's birdlife be discovered by N H Joy (although a Dipper was reported at "Reading irrigation farm" around 1900).

(Incidentally, the fact that it took observers several decades to find a large sewage farm rich in birdlife shows how very thin coverage must have been in the Reading area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What chance of finding a transient Aquatic Warbler when they couldn't find a permanent sewage farm?)

The irrigation beds were constructed on the flood plain of the River Kennet, on flat land consisting of wet meadows criss-crossed with dykes. Like the nearby Rose Kiln Lane meadows of today, that area was probably already attracting waders and ducks when in flood, before it was irrigated. The beds covered a considerable area of about 160 hectares (400 acres), extending from the Reading-Basingstoke railway line eastwards to the Foudry Brook (where the A33 Relief Road runs today), and from the River Kennet southwards roughly to Smallmead Road. The higher ground between the Foudry Brook and the Basingstoke Road, which also belonged to the sewage farm, was usually put to agricultural use. During the First World War the irrigated area was temporarily given over to intensive cultivation.

The article by Wallis and Wood (1933) provides a valuable description of Manor Farm as it was in the years around 1930. The celebrated waders were drawn to shallow, muddy pools on the irrigation beds, the number of waders being closely dependent on the extent of the pools. The latter varied greatly, depending not only on the weather, but also on various alterations which were employed from time to time in the way the sewage was treated. There was a pronounced slump in both the variety and numbers of waders between 1929-1931 because of a lack of pools. A large amount of nettles and other rank vegetation covered the beds. Reedbeds were surely present, since Reed Warblers were "fairly numerous", although Wallis and Wood do not mention this. There were many dykes and brooks intersecting the irrigation beds, but hardly any bushes and hedgerows, and not many trees. Rows of pollarded willows lined some of the dykes and a few elms stood on the higher ground. The town's rubbish tip was situated in the north-east corner near Fobney Lock, where it was still in use until about 1970. The sewage farm was much like a bird reserve in that it was private property subject to little human disturbance, despite the presence of workmen, and there was very little shooting.

1922-1939: The excitement and decline of the large irrigation beds

Following their discovery in 1922, a relatively large number of observers came to visit the irrigation beds on at least one occasion, many being members of the Oxford Ornithological Society. It was a local birdwatcher, J L Hawkins, who most diligently watched them, throughout the period 1922-1935, and it was John Hawkins who found what could well have been one of the rarest ever birds to turn up in Berkshire. He stumbled upon a male Red-winged Blackbird in October or November 1927, but supposing it to be an escape, he did not even make a note of the date! Both the habitat and time were right for this to be a genuine vagrant from America, and apparently it was not a species kept much in captivity. What a pity!

As the list of notable records below shows, an astonishing succession of nine species were detected for the first time in Berkshire at Manor Farm in the space of two years, two more having been recorded on only one previous occasion. Five additional firsts for the county were encountered at the site between 1924 and 1935. Apart from the Little Gull, Water Pipit and Arctic Skua, all of the species added to the Berkshire list were waders. In fact, a fine tally of 28 waders was amassed at Manor Farm between 1922 and 1936, with Great Snipe suspected but eluding confirmation, and Knot, Oystercatcher and Woodcock missing.

In 1934, the sewage treatment process became fully mechanised, leaving the irrigation beds redundant. With no effluent being pumped into the beds, the pools gradually dried up over the next three years. They remained in existence long enough, however, to entice two county rarities in 1936, an Avocet and a Kentish Plover. Very few waders were reported in 1937, among the last being eight Dunlins on 11th April, and none in 1938. As the Reading Ornithological Club report for 1950 put it, "Manor Farm faded in a blaze of glory in 1936."

The scarcity of bushes, hedgerows and trees limited the number of species breeding at Manor Farm in the early days. The speciality at the time was the Shoveler, whose breeding in 1922 constituted the first county record of such. At least five pairs bred in that year, followed by three to four pairs between 1925-1927. Eight common nesting species were the Yellow Wagtail, Reed Bunting, Sedge Warbler, Mallard, Lapwing, Redshank, Coot and Moorhen. This last species was abundant: 2,000 were estimated in February 1927 and 500 accurately counted in one division of the site in November 1926! A summer count of 25 Redshanks was made on 14th June 1932. Tree Sparrows were common until 1925, nesting in the willows, but had declined somewhat by 1930, as suitable trees became scarcer through felling and pollarding (carried out particularly in the winter of 1926-27). Reed Warblers were fairly numerous in summer. Snipe were breeding regularly by 1932, though in the meadows rather than the irrigation beds. A single pair of Red-backed Shrikes bred in 1931 and 1932, and probably in most years up to 1927. The Whinchat was an occasional breeder. Although the Ruff has never been known to nest in Berkshire, two or three males in breeding plumage were seen displaying to females in the Aprils of 1932, 1933 and 1935. Interestingly, there was an absence of records for the Grasshopper Warbler between 1922-1939, which indicates that the old sewage farm did not meet the specialised habitat requirements of that species.

Chronological list of notable records 1922-1939:

1940-1969: The rise of the sludge-pits

Little birdwatching was done in the Reading area during the Second World War, and very few reports came from Manor Farm until 1948, when several non-wader species were noted during the autumn. Although a few further reports in the following year indicate that the site was being visited, the first wader to be recorded after 1937 appears to have been a Spotted Redshank in December 1950. There continued to be very few records of waders in the early 1950s, all as it happens for April: four Stone Curlews in 1951, a Common Sandpiper in 1953 and Manor Farm's first Little Ringed Plover in 1954. It is not clear from the reports when the sludge-pits familiar to observers in the 1960s and 1970s came into operation and started to attract waders, but these isolated occurrences suggest that this had not happened by 1954. However, six reports of waders were published for both 1955 and 1956, and ten for 1957, five of the total referring to Dunlins. This revival suggests that 1955 was the year in which the sludge-pits became operational, or in which they began to be covered by observers, although this is far from certain. Indeed, there used to be two other small sludge-pits on either side of Island Road, the one on the north side still being in use in the 1960s, and the wader records in the 1950s may possibly relate to these, or other pools.

The sludge-pits known to observers in the 1960s were a slightly skewed oblong in shape, although this wasn't obvious on the ground. They averaged about 410 metres long, about 150 metres wide at the south end, though more like 170 metres wide at the opposite end, and covered some 6.5 hectares (about 16 acres). They were divided into two by a low bank, the north pit occupying some 60% of the total area. There were reedbeds on both pits, rank vegetation and a few bushes, as well as large areas of sludge. The expected stench was everywhere, although it tended to fade away during the 1970s. The embankment surrounding the pits was grassy in winter, with scattered waste and debris, becoming overgrown in summer; it was inhabited by rats and weasels, and delicious shaggy ink caps grew there, one lot soiling the OS map in my haversack! For reasons of safety, the site was enclosed by a tall fence, topped with barbed wire, access being gained via padlocked metal gates in Island Road. (It was secure enough to withstand penetration by any element of society except for the SAS and the ROC!)

The sludge-pits were somewhat elevated above Island Road and the surrounding fields, which were cultivated with cereals in summer, but left bare or as meadow in winter, when they often flooded. There were floods on occasion in summer as well. Hares could sometimes be seen in the fields from the sludge-pits. Between the latter and the Foudry Brook was an oblong, rough field that somehow managed to disguise its true identity as the top of a disused rubbish tip. A row of willows along a ditch divided the sludge-pits from the rough field and formed a screen.

Besides the revival in waders stopping at Manor Farm again, the period between 1940-1969 was noteworthy for the recording of one or two other species, including Montagu's Harrier and Spotted Crake each on two occasions, Pink-footed Goose, Corncrake, and nesting Black Redstarts. The rarest species of all, however, deserves a fuller account.

The tantalising episode began on 25th October 1967. Peter Standley noticed that among the handful of Dunlins present, one looked a bit different: similar in shape but slightly smaller. Dismal light, however, prevented a definite identification from being made. Fortunately, it was seen again by Peter and five others four days later, who after studying it for some hours came to the conclusion that it was a Western Sandpiper! Their observations mounted to rule out a Dunlin. It differed not only in being smaller, but in having a shorter bill, showing more scaly upperparts, a white eyestripe, a less distinct wing-bar, and uttering a "cheet" call-note. Whatever it was, it was a rara avis! But confirmation of its identification the following morning was thwarted: there was no sign of the bird. It was submitted to the British Birds Rarities Committee as a Western Sandpiper, but they were unable to accept the record. At that time, the species was hardly known in Britain, and notoriously difficult to distinguish from the Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Another frustrating episode came two years later, in early September 1969. A wader was seen by several observers that more resembled a Great Snipe than a Snipe, though not definitely either species. It looked bulkier than a Snipe, darker, and with more heavily marked underparts, but its identity remained unresolved.

Chronological list of notable records 1940-1969:

The 1970s: A decade of rarities and changes

The experience of birdwatching at Manor Farm would change dramatically between the start and the end of the 1970s. In 1970, an observer could stand at the sludge-pits, and from this elevated position look across the sweep of low-lying fields to Smallmead Farm or the railway, a kilometre in the distance, with little else of human constructions or activities to intrude. And to get to the sludge-pits, he could turn left at the end of Commercial Road, drive 200 metres, park, and then, with a sense of anticipation, walk a short way to cross the small bridge over the Foudry Brook and pass the muddy pool from where a Green Sandpiper might rise towering, step up the foot-worn bank, traverse the rough field and after taking a careful step or two down, stoop through the secret hole in the wire fence, climb back up and walk to the pits! To some degree there could be a feeling of seclusion at Manor Farm, of being outside the town and away from people.

But this would only last for a year or two. The screen of willows along the ditch was felled in 1971; and the ditch was filled in. The rough field was razed about 1974. Why? Nothing less than a speedway stadium was built, right next to the sludge-pits! Reading Speedway Stadium, complete with car park, opened in 1975. It is not clear to what extent, if at all, these changes were responsible for the apparent decline in the numbers of waders after 1970, but they certainly took away the feeling of seclusion.

One or two interesting species turned up in the rough field, including two wintering Quail in December 1970, a Corncrake in September 1972 and a Short-eared Owl which came down to roost in the field at dusk in November 1972. In January 1971, Zbig Karpowicz and myself, hearing that a Quail was present but having no idea where, set about systematically trampling through the entire rough grass. I don't know who was more surprised, the Quail or myself, when we succeeded in making it fly up rather than run away from us! Zbig would have the further good luck in September 1972 to flush a Corncrake while crossing the field on his way to see the Bluethroat! In the mid-1970s, an area of gravel with small pools lay north of the stadium which appealed to Little Ringed Plovers and, on one occasion, a Little Stint.

A separate development in the early 1970s altered the Manor Farm landscape to a considerable extent. Some nice meadows, viewable from the sludge-pits in a south-east direction, fairly soon became the victim of a new rubbish tip, after it came into use in 1971. The meadows, when flooded, could sometimes be good for such wetland species as Pintail, Wigeon, Teal, White-fronted Goose, Snipe, Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit. The tip continued to spread throughout the 1970s, consuming fields towards Smallmead Farm, with the consolation that it produced a handful of records of Glaucous Gull. Neither the ugliness nor the noise of the Smallmead tip did anything to enhance the birdwatching experience at Manor Farm!

Some 800 metres to the west of the sludge-pits, within the confines of the original sewage farm, Smallmead Gravel Pit tripled in size in the early 1970s. A 600-metre long pit alongside the railway line was excavated just north of the existing four small pits.

But something more detrimental than the construction of Reading Speedway Stadium or the encroachment of the rubbish tip happened at Manor Farm during the 1970s. The amount of effluent pumped into the sludge-pits was reduced and then stopped. The pits became increasingly dry and the waders increasingly unreliable. Manor Farm, upon whose ground hundreds of twitchers had gathered on certain sunny summer days in 1975 and 1976, had turned rather gloomy for birders by 1979.

One of the most familiar faces at the sewage farm in the 1970s was that of Norman Hall, who would often be there - cloud, wind, or rain - in the late afternoon. Between 1969 and 1974 he made regular counts of the species present and subsequently published a detailed analysis of the waders present in the Reading area during the course of the year, the analysis drawing heavily upon his data for Manor Farm.

While in the early 1970s birdwatchers were generally devoting their energies to the sludge-pits and surrounding fields, a University of Reading research team was conducting an extensive study at the treatment works located at Manor Farm Road. Between 1969 and 1973 the five-strong team headed by Don Broom was studying the behaviour of many hundreds of Pied Wagtails that roosted on the filter beds. Over 3,000 wagtails were ringed with three colour rings and local observers were requested to look out for them anywhere in the Reading area. Almost all of them were found feeding within 12 km of the roost, and all without exception kept returning to the same feeding site day after day throughout a particular winter. Numbers at the roost peaked at about 1,400 in December 1971, but exceeded 2,000 in January 1973.

A shadow was cast after the Health and Safety at Work Act was passed in 1974. Word spread among despondent observers that access to the sludge-pits was going to be prohibited because the treatment works could not accept responsibility for visitors' safety in that potentially dangerous site. The hole in the fence was going to be repaired! In the event, arrangements were made in 1976 for birdwatchers to call in at the works at the end of Manor Farm Road, pick up the key to the padlocked gates in Island Road, and enter the site at that point. One advantage of this less convenient situation was that on returning with the key, observers could record their sightings in a log book kindly provided by the treatment works after Keith Pritchard and myself had approached them with a view to supplying a log book of our own. To my knowledge, in the entire history of the sewage farm, permission to enter the irrigation beds or the sludge-pits was never denied to birdwatchers, a kindness which was much appreciated. Predictably, it wasn't too long before another hole in the fence was made in the same place (allegedly the culprit brought his own wire-cutters!), which some observers resumed using.

The main breeding species of note around the sludge-pits in the 1970s was the Whitethroat. This decade completely outshone the era of the irrigation beds for national rarities, and the month of August claimed most of them. There was a Ferruginous Duck in August 1970, both a Purple Heron and an Aquatic Warbler in August 1972, and much rarer, a Black-winged Pratincole in August 1976. However, the award of Best Month Ever At Manor Farm has to go to August 1975.

Zbig and Jan Karpowicz and myself discovered the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper on the afternoon of 17th August 1975. Several local observers who came to confirm it that evening, however, remained unconvinced of its identity. Fortunately Bryan Bland, who happened to be working in Reading at the time, provided confirmation the following day. There were times when a throng of twitchers were packing the embankment around the sludge-pits, generally to be rewarded with good views of the rarity. This invasion was to have a most unexpected consequence. The day after the sandpiper was last reported, C J MacKenzie-Grieve and M Coath, who had travelled to see it, came to be scrutinising a fall of warblers in the trees along the Kennet on the northern border of the original sewage farm, among which they detected another rarity, a Bonelli's Warbler sp.! This vagrant from the continent, now officially treated as two species, hardly ever ventures into inland counties. After these two Berkshire diamonds came three lesser gems: a Spotted Crake at the end of that month, and Tawny Pipit and Pectoral Sandpiper in September!

The Black-winged Pratincole in August 1976 could be difficult to track down with its variable resting behaviour and roving flights around the sludge-pits and Smallmead Gravel Pit, and it did not afford close views to some twitchers. Early on the morning of Saturday 7th August I remember seeing dozens of them roaming the fields in the vicinity of Smallmead Farm, though certainly without the permission of the farmer. For two hapless twitchers in particular, plus their non-birdwatcher companion, taking this liberty would soon become part of birding folklore. According to Mark Cocker's full account in Birders: Tales of a Tribe, as the farmer appeared on the scene driving his tractor, Clive Byers, Dick Philby and their mate fled to some bushes beside the sludge-pits embankment, behind which they lay low. But the tractor, which was pulling a muck-spreader, came close to the bushes and stopped. After setting up the muck-spreader for operation, the farmer duly drenched the bushes and twitchers with viscous pigs manure! Then he stood, spanner in hand, swearing profusely at them. They circumvented the raving rustic and made their escape across the fields to Smallmead Gravel Pit, to the applause of the twitchers on the mound there! Clive and Dick did tick the pratincole.

In fact, as far back as the late 1960s, relations between the farmer and local birdwatchers had become prickly after a party trespassed on his land to view a distant flock of Bewick's Swans (that was the rumour, I think). This was a shame, as he gave me permission in a quite straightforward manner to cycle along his farm track, which saved me quite of lot of time travelling between my home and the sludge-pits, although I often had to race along that track with his vicious Jack Russell yapping hard on my heels and trying to bite me! One birdwatcher exclaimed he'd like to propel that Jack Russell into space! In August 1972 the farmer allowed me to search some ditches and a small pit, not visible from the sludge-pits, for the very elusive Purple Heron (I spent hours of that school summer holiday not seeing that bird!). But woe betide anyone he caught accessing his property without permission: one local birdwatcher alleged that he shot at him! Towards the end of the 1970s, however, he mellowed in his attitude, declaring that all that birdwatchers had to do was to simply ask him first before entering his land, although this possibly had something to do with the fact that he was standing as a candidate for the Conservative Party in the local elections!

The start of a committee meeting of the Reading Ornithological Club in April 1978 was delayed for a very good reason: there was a Kentish Plover to be ticked at Manor Farm! I don't recall thinking at the time that this would be the last exceptional wader to be recorded there, but sadly it was.

Chronological list of notable records 1970-1979:

The 1980s: The demise of the sludge-pits

As the sludge-pits continued to dry up in the early 1980s, so did the records. Although in 1980 and 1981 some observers were no longer bothering to visit Manor Farm, it was still receiving coverage. The decade began ominously enough in 1980 with no reports at all of four types of wader generally present at some point during the year - Dunlin, Ruff, Jack Snipe and Greenshank - and apart from Wood Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank, no reports of any of the less common waders such as stints, godwits, Curlew or Whimbrel. Moreover, the two Spotted Redshanks in 1980 were in the fields, not on the sludge-pits, and there was just one report of a probable Water Pipit. By 1982 and 1983, the only wader being reported was the Green Sandpiper. Even so, the last wader to be associated with the name Manor Farm turned out to be the Ringed Plover, three of which were found on 3rd March 1984.

During the 1980s, some gravel excavation took place between the sludge-pits and Smallmead Gravel Pit, to make way for the dumping of rubbish there, as the tip spread round towards the River Kennet. A mixed wasteland of rubbish, mounds, pools, rank vegetation and tracks resulted; it managed to yield one or two Wood Sandpipers (unpublished), Whinchats and Grasshopper Warblers, the last of which may have bred in some years. During the first half of the decade the large flock of gulls on the tip was regularly examined and photographed by Tony Croucher, whose diligence paid off with the discovery of Berkshire's first two Ringed-billed Gulls, just a week apart, in 1984. His persistence also led to the discovery of at least two Mediterranean Gulls and an Iceland Gull.

It appears that the last three published records to mention Manor Farm all concern the Grasshopper Warbler: three were heard reeling in April 1987, one in May of that year, and three in April 1989. However, all of these apparently involved birds that were actually reeling on Fobney Plateau, although under good conditions they would have been audible from the sludge-pits.

I paid my last ever visit to the sludge-pits on 11th July 1988, years after my previous one. It was not difficult to negotiate the wire-mesh gates in Island Road and enter. The banks around the pits were overgrown, the reedbeds on the pits dense and more extensive than I had ever known. The parched and cracked sludge looked bleached in the July sun. The entire site appeared birdless. The only relief was provided by the reeling of a Grasshopper Warbler to the west, hidden in the mass of vegetation bordering Smallmead Tip (inadvertently not published) - a worthy species to register on that last ever visit to that historic site.

Chronological list of notable records 1980-1984:

The Manor Farm area in the 21st century

The area demarcated by the Manor Farm locality in the 1970s now looks quite different. The sludge-pits have been replaced by the new Reading Sewage Treatment Works, which were opened in March 2004, superseding the works at Manor Farm Road. Work to develop the site had begun in 1998, and included removing the sludge in the pits and filling them in; the south part had been filled in and grassed over by 2001. Between there and Longwater Avenue, a thick screen of trees has been planted. To the west of the fence surrounding the new works is a low-lying channel that connects the lake at Green Park to the River Kennet, alongside which a new public right of way has been created.

Several developments occurred at the end of the 20th century that completely transformed the area to the south and south-east of the sludge-pits, following its alteration from fields to rubbish tip during the 1970s. The Madejski Stadium and adjacent retail park opened in 1998, the A33 Relief Road was driven through in 1999, and the Green Park business park is still undergoing development in 2006. As though an unimportant matter in the background, the last relics of the Manor Farm era - the old works at Manor Farm Road and the twin narrow bridges over the Foudry Brook - were demolished in 2005. At least that brook still flows as a commemoration of those sometimes wonderful, even magical, days. And ironically, Reading Speedway Stadium, whose initial construction took much away from the Manor Farm experience, now stands by association as its most conspicuous reminder.

There are signs that the new small lake at Green Park has inherited some of the characteristics of the parent sewage farm, for it has already produced seven species of wader, including Black-tailed Godwit, as well as Garganey, Little Egret, Wheatear and Whinchat, and most characteristic of all, a mystery small crake! Perhaps it won't be too long before Spotted Crake and even Bluethroat are confirmed there!

While the Burnthouse Lane pits face the prospect of being filled in, another site much nearer to the old sludge-pits is presently being converted into a wetland reserve. The island just west of Fobney Lock bounded by the River Kennet and the Kennet and Avon Canal is to be managed as a reserve featuring wet meadow, shallow pools and reedbeds. In the recent past this site has suffered some disturbance, especially by youths, but assuming that this can be checked, it could become a smaller-scale Manor Farm, with a similar potential to attract rare waders and hundreds of birders!

Principal sources

© 2005-2007 Peter Gipson