For the good of the common
PUBLISHED: 13:41 21 October 2014 | UPDATED: 13:41 21 October 2014
Ross Bentley takes a stroll on Sudbury's Common Lands and experiences a scene that has remained virtually unchanged since medieval times
Records of cattle grazing on Sudbury’s Common Lands stretch back 800 years, but it is believed these wonderful water meadows to the west of the town have supported stock for at least the past millennia.
Due to ancient access rights, members of the public are also allowed on the land, which hugs the River Stour as it winds its way through Sudbury, and today many use it to walk their dogs or simply as a peaceful haven away from the stresses of modern life.
But as the town’s population has grown and more people have become aware of this jewel in Sudbury’s crown, managing the land for the cattle as well as for the flora and fauna that inhabit the pastures, has become increasingly challenging.
At the forefront of this delicate balancing act is Adrian Walters, a ranger for the Sudbury Commons Lands Charity, which looks after the land. Despite this increased pressure from people, Adrian has overseen huge improvements in the way the Common Lands is managed for nature conservation and to attract a diverse array of wildlife.
“Ultimately, we are here to manage the land on behalf of the people of Sudbury but the challenge is to retain the ancient traditions of this farmland in the face of a rapidly changing society,” he says.
“Part of this is about estates management, but increasingly it’s about education, so people understand with access to this special place comes responsibilities and a need to respect it.”
And if you spend some time here, you start to realise what a ‘special place’ it is.
In recent decades, old ponds and ditches that criss-cross the land have been restored and have been instrumental in the re-appearance of the water vole. Frogs and grass snakes are now a common sight while different species of dragonfly can be spotted in the warmer weather. There’s an abundance of water-based plants such as Common Stonewort – which only flourishes where the water is clean and free of pesticides – while the rare wetland Tubular Water Dropwort – a designated priority species under the national BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) scheme is extensive.
As for the wonderful birdlife that calls the meadows home – you can take your pick. On any given day you may be lucky enough to spot herons, little egrets, kingfishers or reed warblers while the many swans are omnipresent.
Central to the land’s delicate ecosystem is the use of cattle to graze the land. Over 100 cattle roam the common lands each summer, creating a pastoral scene that has become iconic in this idyllic corner of west Suffolk. They are owned by John Coleman, a well-known figure in Sudbury whose butcher’s stall on the market is a local institution. The cattle are crucial because their incessant grazing holds the land at a specific point in its succession, creating open pasture land. This type of habitat used to be a common sight in Suffolk but now only a few pockets remain as farming practices have changed and land has gone under the plough.
That is why the charity is so keen to ensure the cattle stay – take them away and the land would soon become scrubland, then secondary woodland.
To help ensure the animals are looked after and people have the opportunity to learn more about the meadows – a team of volunteer rangers have been enlisted. Most of them are regular users of the common lands who have undergone training and agreed to sport a uniform when they are out and about.
Adrian continues: “The volunteers’ role is twofold – to be a point of contact for the public when they have questions and to keep an eye on the cattle- both in terms of looking out for diseases and lameness, but also to deter anyone who may be worrying the cattle or letting their dogs run off a lead near them.”
In the six years the rangers have been operating, reported problems have decreased while anecdotally Adrian says he has received praise from visitors who have been impressed by the local knowledge they are able to impart.
He adds: “Our team is made of people who love and cherish the common lands and want more people to share their passion. It really is an inspiring example of people from the community taking responsibility for their surroundings.”
So, if you in Sudbury and fancy a walk on the meadows look out for a volunteer rangers. They will be only too happy to chat.