Meet 5 people dedicated to protecting Suffolk’s countryside and find out how you can join them

PUBLISHED: 16:35 25 July 2020 | UPDATED: 16:35 25 July 2020

Constable Country is part of Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Picture: Callum Redgrave-Close/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Constable Country is part of Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Picture: Callum Redgrave-Close/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Helping to look after Suffolk’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty is inspiring, rewarding, a source of pride, and fun, say volunteers. Here’s how you can join them.

Roger Leeks, a Constable Country Volunteer Ranger. Photo: Dedham Vale AONBRoger Leeks, a Constable Country Volunteer Ranger. Photo: Dedham Vale AONB

In March 1970, Suffolk was officially declared beautiful. Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was established, followed two months later by Dedham Vale AONB.

For parts of Suffolk have this status conferred upon them was no small matter. Along with National Parks, AONBs cover almost 25 per cent of England’s landscape, where the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty is recognised as being of national significance. Suffolk’s AONBs embrace fragile coastal, estuarine and riverine environments, habitats where treasured plant and animal species – some of them rare and endangered – can thrive. They embrace historically important landscapes, towns and villages that are part of our rich culture and heritage.

For 50 years, Suffolk has successfully conserved and enhanced its AONBs, caring for them while at the same time encouraging all of us to respect, experience and enjoy them. Volunteers play an invaluable role and without their contribution this wouldn’t be possible. So, to celebrate their involvement, we asked volunteers to tell us why they volunteer for the AONB and how sharing their time makes a difference.

Charmain Berry, second left, with fellow AONB volunteers. Photo: Gill MoonCharmain Berry, second left, with fellow AONB volunteers. Photo: Gill Moon

Roger Leeks, Constable Country Volunteer Ranger

There I was, early February 2015, as the snowdrops heralded the dawn of another spring, sitting in my kitchen reading a short article in my local paper about Constable Country Rangers. The previous year I had had a health scare and had joined the local gym to while away the winter months and get some exercise. Whilst the social side of the gym was good, the monotonous grind of treadmill, bike and cross trainer was affecting my sanity. Better weather was on the way and I needed to get out, so I picked up the phone and dialled the number given for volunteers.

What a terrific decision that was. I have always enjoyed walking the countryside and exploring with our grandchildren. Now they were growing out of those wonderful years and I needed a new challenge. With a patrol area from Manningtree to Higham and Langham via East Bergholt, Flatford, Dedham and Stratford, there are probably more than 100 footpaths that need to be constantly monitored. Each one gives something different with regard to views, terrain, wildlife and nature. The autumn harvest from the hedgerows and the Christmas mistletoe are just a bonus.

I watch the families of swans, geese and ducks as they mature. The cormorants, herons and egrets add to the diversity of the area along with other species that frequent the waters. Keeping an eye on the cattle in the meadows helps the farmer care for them, a lame animal would be distressed and vulnerable.

Kate Osborne, beachcombing with children. Photo: Cerys Parker, Rainy Day MumKate Osborne, beachcombing with children. Photo: Cerys Parker, Rainy Day Mum

Collecting refuse is naturally a part of the task. The current situation has not helped this, but the area is blessed with villagers who take a pride in their environment and clear the meadows regularly. Guiding visitors is always a pleasure and it is a source of constant amazement to find out where they have travelled from to visit our local gem.

Read about the fragile future for Havergate Island

Rowan Black, Youth Ranger with the AONB. Photo: Emma BlackRowan Black, Youth Ranger with the AONB. Photo: Emma Black

Howard Leader, Stour Valley Volunteer

I have been working with the Stour Valley Volunteers since I retired some 14 years ago and have never regretted doing so. The volunteers are a very knowledgeable, experienced and hardworking bunch. One of the joys of volunteering is the amount you can learn from a good crew.

We generally work one day a fortnight, but often work the weeks between as well. Unlike most conservation groups we are not based at one site but work up and down almost the whole length of the Stour. We help support local volunteers at community nature reserves, landowners trying to sustain conservation areas on their land, as well as some county owned sites for both Essex and Suffolk. The sort of work we do includes raking mowed wildflower meadows, where using heavy machines would destroy the habitat, building otter holts to support the return of otters to our rivers, clearing sites of conifers grown last century for timber, to allow the regeneration of native species and re-shaping rivers that have been straightened in the past, to slow down the flow and allow for the return of fish and other aquatic flora and fauna.

We also help with keeping footpaths clear, replacing styles with kissing gates to improve access to the landscape, planting and laying hedgerows, planting trees, and coppicing trees as part of woodland management schemes.

Shingle Street in the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB.  Pictures: Sue RusackShingle Street in the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB. Pictures: Sue Rusack

The work can be quite hard at times, but there are always lighter tasks to be done. We often work in areas not normally open to the public and eat our picnic lunches in the wild surrounded by some wonderful landscapes. And leaving a site, looking back and seeing how we have improved it, can be very satisfying.

Oh, and we have a lot of fun as well!

Kate Osborne, Beachwatch Organiser

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I run a not-for-profit company taking people beachcombing to inspire them about Suffolk’s precious, but incredibly fragile, shingle beaches. Unfortunately, you can’t beachcomb for treasures without finding things that need clearing up too.

Getting a lot of joy from beachcombing, it’s natural for me that I volunteer for Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB as a Beachwatch Organiser, co-ordinating quarterly beach cleans and surveys. Volunteers who come along are always surprised by what we find. Essentially if humans are using it and it’s made of plastic, you’ll find it on a beach.

I think people see beaches as quite static things, but they are always changing. The joy of a beach is that with two tides a day there are always new treasures deposited. Sadly, this also means that twice a day a whole new load of rubbish washes up too. So, cleaning a beach can feel like a never-ending task, but it’s a great way of getting the rubbish out of our oceans.

As you head towards the coast, there’s a lightening and opening up of the sky and you know that the sea is ahead – it never fails to excite me. I complain that it’s always windy on Suffolk’s beaches but there’s nothing like it for blowing away all the extraneous, noisy ‘stuff’ in your mind. It’s lovely to walk off the beach with a clear head. Add to that the evocative crunch of the shingle as you walk across it, with the ghostly trickles following behind you as the stones fall back into your footprint.

So, I get to experience all that while doing a good thing and it’s a great feeling all round. I get to give back to something that gives so much to me. Yes, sometimes it can be overwhelming if you find a lot of rubbish, and sometimes I despair. But that’s balanced by the always lovely and enthusiastic people who show up and get stuck in. Working with others on something is always extra inspiring!

Rowan Black, Youth Ranger

I’ve been a Dedham Vale Youth Ranger for five years now. I joined the group as I wanted to meet like-minded young people who enjoyed nature and the outdoors. The group meet every month on a Sunday morning at Flatford. We work with staff from  the National Trust, Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre, RSPB and the Dedham Vale AONB and do a variety of practical conservation management work such as coppicing, raking cut wildflower meadows, path clearance, dead hedging and tree planting. We also create habitats such as bug hotels and stag beetle pyramids.

Every year we take part in the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean where we clean and survey a 100m stretch of beach at Mistley. We also undertake educational activities such as tree and wildflower identification as well as rural crafts like making spoons and willow hurdles.

The leaders make the sessions fun and educational and you feel that you’ve made a positive contribution to local wildlife and the landscape, which fills me with pride every time I visit where we have worked. Through this volunteering I was made aware of the Fields Studies Council’s Young Darwin Scholarship, an initiative to encourage and support young people who have a real interest in the natural world. This, plus my voluntary experience, has helped to narrow down what I want to pursue in future as well as giving me valuable work experience in the field of conservation.

Sadly, I am moving on from the Youth Ranger group as I am going to university to study ecology and conservation biology but I look forward to joining other volunteer conservation efforts in the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley in the future.

Charmain Berry, Beachwatch Volunteer

I have volunteered for AONB and really enjoyed my experience. To anyone who has some time on their hands I would encourage you to volunteer. Everyone is very friendly – if you are new you usually work alongside a regular volunteer, so you learn what needs doing as you go. I found it very rewarding to think I had helped in a small way to preserve and keep places for posterity – to get out in the fresh air – for me a good extension following a hip operation to get fitter and put my hip to good but careful use. If you have spare time and enjoy out and about volunteer now!

Want to join them?

Nowadays the prospect of volunteering must compete with so many other activities as we live increasingly busy lives. The benefits of volunteering can be enormous, not only to people in need, worthwhile causes, and the community, but to the volunteer themselves. The right match can help find friends, connect with the community, learn new skills, and even advance your career. Volunteering can reduce stress, combat depression, keep you mentally stimulated, and provide a sense of purpose. Giving in even simple ways can help improve your health and happiness.

The AONB offers a range of opportunities for volunteers to help protect the landscape, wildlife and heritage. They are always looking for people to join the volunteer team whether they can help on a regular basis or on one off projects, involvement doesn’t have to be on a practical level either. No matter what your age, background, interests and abilities there are volunteering roles to suit everyone.

If you’d like to help the AONB would love to hear from you. You can get in touch by emailing schaonb@suffolk.gov.uk or dedhamvale.project@suffolk.gov.uk. Or visit one of the AONB websites for more information suffolkcoastandheaths.org or dedhamvalestourvalley.org.

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