Our Ranger at work on the Sudbury Freemen’s walk in July 2019

News from the Riverside – June

Whilst both farming and conservation work is carried out year round on the riverside to ensure that the aims of the management plans are met, it is really at this time of year that the fruits of many years of quiet and mostly unobtrusive work are most fully demonstrated. Some of that work is carried out with the assistance of the stalwart volunteers of the Riverside Projects Team.

Spring, in all her youthful exuberance, puts on an unsurpassed show that ought to revitalise the most jaded of spirits even in these most difficult of times. On the riverside this show is no mere accident and is achieved through working with nature by providing suitable levels of intervention. Even then, once habitat management is put in place, it can still take many years for wildlife populations to build up as they go through their annual cycles, although the effects of climate change are now very much in evidence. Unsuitable management can also lead to a rapid reduction in wildlife which is something which we continue to witness in the wider countryside where, as a result of the demands of an increasing human population, pressures are created to produce more food as well as build more houses, business parks, roads and railways.

Around two hundred and fifty years ago the Swiss-born French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perceptively observed that the development of civilisation is irreversible, and that modern life engulfs mankind. Yet in the long-term mankind cannot survive without nature. In 1926 the celebrated wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe asked, ‘when will men realise that green fields are among our most priceless and necessary possessions?’

The Sudbury Common Lands, photographed by Adrian Walters

A walk over the Sudbury riverside at this time of year will immediately inform the observant that traditional management continues and with it come numerous benefits. Indeed, the riverside has retained a somewhat Arcadian feel; the rustic peacefulness of the pastoral countryside working in harmony with nature. This has been particularly apparent in recent weeks with the recently returned cattle grazing the buttercup spangled pastures. Sights such as these really must be good for the soul whether consciously or sub-consciously which is perhaps why the riverside is so popular. An inner-city visitor viewing the bucolic scene from the Croft Floodgates once asked, ‘where am I?’ ‘The Sudbury riverside’ came the reply. ‘Oh, I thought I had died and woken up in heaven!’

As the young Ranger team takes on the manual work and the ‘old guard’ continues in a clerical capacity, it is noted that much of the job satisfaction of the past thirty years has been to help and harness nature to maintain and, where possible, increase her bounty. Successful conservation management is a matter of judgement based on long-term cumulative experience and within this Arcadian landscape there are still some real treasures.

It is not, however, just about conservation although that might be the driving force. It is about the wonderful riverside landscape and its association with artist Thomas Gainsborough, it is about the extraordinary history and the fact that the Sudbury Common Lands are among the oldest recorded grazing pastures in England and it is also about the intimate and little understood association with the Freemen of Sudbury. Indeed, it is because of the Freemen that the Sudbury Common Lands exist today, and the charity was set up to manage those lands and eventually much of the riverside in addition to the Valley Trail, Cornard Country Park and Shawlands Local Nature Reserve.

Apart from several hundred Suffolk Free Press and website newsletters over many years plus talks, guided walks and school trips this stewardship has been carried out relatively unobtrusively and the great and the good have not found their way to these parts but the Sudbury riverside is extremely special. Any countryside manager should bear in mind the words of William Morris who stated that ‘it has been most truly said that the land does not belong to us only. It is not our property to do as we like with it. We are only trustees for those who come after us.’ Indeed, the charity’s Trustees are all volunteers who oversee the management of Sudbury’s priceless riverside assets.

The Sudbury Common Lands Charity has now been in existence for one hundred and twenty-three years. There have been many challenges and the future will bring very many more, but Sudbury continues to be blessed with a beautiful riverside and every single person who uses ‘our meadows’ has a part to play in ensuring that their future is secured.

Adrian Walters (Clerk to the Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and Ranger)