Most of the marshland on either side of the river (locally known as “basins”, a reference to the process by which it was reclaimed) has for many years been given over to seasonal grazing, much of the livestock being moved to the drier uplands in winter. The commonest breeds are Sussex cattle and Romney Marsh sheep, regularly crossed with black-faced Suffolks, for earlier maturing lambs. However the installation of pump drainage in the 1970s made it possible to grow arable crops, mostly wheat and oilseed rape, in much of the lower, eastern part of the valley.

Besides permanent grazing, the uplands are also farmed for hay or silage, for arable crops, and for the intensive production of apples, pears and cherries. Hops are still grown in the parish of Udimore, but no longer in the Brede Valley itself, where now only the field marks of former hopgardens can be seen, some hop plants still surviving in the hedgerows, and the white-painted cowls of oasts, now nearly all converted into houses.

For many years the valley woodlands were managed too, by coppicing, to produce the fencing materials, hop poles and charcoal needed on individual farms. Most of this has now ceased, management these days being more often for game shooting. However, the Woodland Trust hopes to reintroduce some coppicing in Brede High Woods (an extensive part of the upper Brede Valley catchment area). Once established, this will be one of the largest of the Trust’s extensive system of reserves. For further reading see our links on Oasts and Brede High Woods.

The many oasts still to be seen in the valley show how widespread hop growing used to be. Their function was to dry the green, newly-picked hops and prepare them for use in brewing beer. The hops were spread out on a woven-horsehair-covered slatted floor in one of the square or round kilns - square kilns were simpler to build, but less easy to work with. By turning to face downwind, the white-painted cowl created a good draught for the charcoal-fired furnace below - charcoal for this purpose was regularly produced on at least one local farm within living memory.

Once the hops were dried, and thoroughly cooled on the adjacent cooling floor, large shovels called scuppets were used to scoop them through a circular hole in the floor into a large tough Hessian “pocket”, into which they were tightly packed down by a powerful rack-and-pinion press. The pocket was then sewn up with needle and cord and lowered into the stowage area. Now weighing about 75kg, it was numbered and marked with the name of the farm, ready for despatch to a firm of hop factors, for onward sale to a brewery.

Formerly, many of the hops never left the farm, but were used for home-brewed beer, which used to be an important part of a farm worker’s pay. For this reason even the smallest farms would have had oasts, many of which have long since disappeared. Most of those which have survived have now been converted into houses, their spacious cooling floors and stowage areas making them ideal for this purpose.

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