At this time of high summer, out on the riverside pastures the cattle are fattening well as they eat down the acres of herbage. The visual impact of the spring flora has long since passed and apart from some wonderful stands of welted and nodding thistles the pastures look rather uniform and uninteresting. This, however, is not the case with the various ditches that thread their way through the grasslands. Look closely at them for they are teeming with interest and life.
In fact, at this time of year, the ditches are the life-giving arteries of the pastures. They harbour a rich and diverse flora, and a range of creatures, dependant on an aquatic environment for at least part of their life cycle, such as the dragonflies highlighted in last month’s news.
Whilst the dragonflies are a delight to watch as they go about their business, the ditches harbour a lot of wonderful flora too. Much of it is common but there are a few interesting species such as Flowering Rush, Tubular Water Dropwort, and the shy Skullcap.
The Flowering Rush is a particularly tall and statuesque plant topped with an umbel of attractive pink flowers. This species has slowly colonised the ditches and puts on a stunning display through July and into August. It favours shallow ditches with muddy bottoms so is very much at home where the cattle stamp or ‘poach’ the soil along the ditch margins.
Following many years of river engineering and dredging this plant became very restricted in its distribution, but it most certainly thrives away from the main river. Even though dredging of the Stour is now largely a thing of the past, the rush does not seem to have recolonised but that may be because other vegetation has taken advantage of the period of respite to colonise the open stretches of water.
Branched Bur-reed, Common Club Rush and Yellow Waterlily now cover large areas of the various river channels through the Sudbury Common Lands, providing varied and attractive habitats. The ditches are ever-changing as the vegetation encroaches over the open water to choke them and exclude sunlight. Rotational management with a JCB is necessary to maintain the richness and prevent successional development to dry land which was the case in the 1980s before restoration works were carried out. A newly created ditch will also contain different plants to a mature ditch so the JCB bucket is used to maintain a mosaic of newer and older habitats.
Adrian Walters, Clerk to the Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and Honorary Freeman of Sudbury