We were very happy that Ranger for Sudbury Common Lands, Adrian Walters, gave up a few hours of his precious time to come for a walk with us around the landscape that he manages, and discuss the work that they do there as well as a great history of the area.
As is evident from our time there, most people use the lands for their own purpose, which nowadays mostly consists of dog walking, and the occasional angler. Adrian has noticed that some people don’t take much notice of their surroundings especially when they are listening to headphones and looking at mobile phone screens. This relatively modern behaviour will have a detrimental effect upon the passing on of information to the next generation and will eventually result in lost knowledge and people becoming progressively more disconnected to the land. Adrian said that 2012 was the best year in a long time as as it rained for a large proportion of the summer which meant dog walkers spent less time with their animals on the common lands. In that year the ground nesting Skylarks reappeared...it’s a very simple indicator of the impact people have on the environment.
However, there are lots of positives and encouraging signs however, and in no small part to the ongoing management of the land. The charity took over by Sudbury Common Lands in 1987 and employ Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) to maintain the health of whole area. This includes the grazing of 175 Red Devon cows, with steers/heffers in one field, cows with calves (which he called followers) in another, and occasionally a bull. Sometimes bulls from another farm escape into the common and have to be taken away before they cause havoc. The Ranger is responsible for dealing with the day-to-day management of the herd, including dealing with the public, as a way to encourage the herd owner to graze his cattle there. There is a Quinquennial pageant (2005, 2010 etc) to celebrate the letting of the cattle on to the lands in the spring, which is much easier than getting them off in the autumn, which takes 6 weeks of bribery with apples in buckets to get them into the corral. That number of cattle is very specific as it is just enough to maintain the level grass and other plants to a arrested stage without letting them develop to successional stage. This enables a much more balanced state for all of the plants and wildlife there. The ditches and culverts were reinstated when the charity began work here and have to regularly maintained as the cattle ‘poach’ the edges when they go down to the water to drink and if this was left the ditches would eventually become filled and dry out. The level and cleanliness of the water is carefully controlled by clever arrangement and connections to the river near to the mill. Their health is easily monitored by the presence of plants that grow there, which include Common stonewort and the rare tubular water dropwort. The water in the river is eutrophic (containing nitrogen, metaldehyde, phosphates etc) which is mainly from slug pellets and other farming chemicals, and also the sewage works. But, when yearly counts on rare pyramidal orchids started they found 18, and recently only stopped the year they found 2500 specimens.
Adrian also told us about the history of the land here which has been used for grazing for thousands of years. The Ranger of these lands used to be called the Hayward until 17th century, but was still the main person to manage livestock and look after the habitats. Oryx bones were found during some excavations near Ballingdon Bridge to confirm this fact. It has never been ploughed which means that it has a very special balance for all of the things that live here. Land that is returned from arable land to grazing land can take hundreds of years to become as suitable. Legislation can also cause havoc, as was seen with the field amalgamation of 1966 which saw lots of ditches filled in, land drained, hedgerows pulled up and huge piles of uprooted ancient oak trees burned. Mixed farming which used to be practiced accounted for the inclusion of wildlife, but modern monoculture farming doesn’t. Things are slowly changing and now small spaces, including roadside verges are being left for native plants to grow, which in turn supports lots of insects and birds. Gardeners too can help by having less manicured gardens. Entry Level Stewardship is now being considered for many more smaller areas.
Elizabeth de Clare, who once owned the nearby mill, lined the mill pond with clay so they could treat woven cloth, which was stretched on ‘tenter hooks’, in order to make clothes. The mill was also owned by the Clover family. The railway was built in 1865 but closed in 1967 and is now the Valley Trail, and you might be lucky and spot the rare Deptford Pink if you look closely enough. The old Bathing Place was open 1894 but closed in 1938, and people were scared with stories about typhoid in the water to encourage them to use the newly built Bellevue pool. Boys had to wear pink swimming trunks until they were competent swimmers, and then they could wear blue ones and be allowed from the shallows into the main body of the river. There used to be shackage rights on plot lands between August and February.
What we saw and heard:
Meadow and creeping buttercup
Meadow brown butterfly
Tubular water dropwort
Banded agrian and Four spotted chaser dragon flies
What you could see and hear if you visit:
Early march orchids
Reptiles on Cornard Riverside Meadow
20+ species of damsel and dragon fly