The Sudbury riverside placed, as it is, adjacent to the old market town, is eminently accessible to a large number of people on foot. It also attracts considerable numbers of visitors from elsewhere in Suffolk, North Essex and further afield. This is very good news because the riverside brings a great deal of pleasure as well as enormous benefits for mental and physical wellbeing. There is no disputing that. There is, however, a trade-off against how much wildlife might be seen on a visit because of disturbance. Fewer people would mean more wildlife.
Although some years ago now, the closure of the grazing lands as a result of the dreadful Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001 brought some surprises in terms of visiting birds. For example, small flocks of lapwing took to feeding on North Meadow Common and common snipe also fed out in the open rather than lurking along ditch margins. Generally, however, high flying birds that can sometimes be seen ‘eying-up’ the inviting riverside pastures, then deciding to move on without coming down. This is because of the almost constant movement of people and dogs enjoying the area.
It is possible, however, with some thought, time and possibly a JCB too, to improve matters so that some of these potential visitors will drop in even if it is only for a short while. The scrapes and wet areas are particularly attractive to waders and every winter there are still a few common snipe that feed along the ditches. The much rarer Jack snipe (i.e. small snipe) can also be found but it is a bird that must literally be disturbed by the JCB bucket when removing silt from the ditches. The nice thing about the Jack snipe is that, unlike the common snipe which zigzags away skywards, it will only fly a short distance before dropping down into thick vegetation where it disappears from view. It may be there, but no one knows. Most other birds prefer to be out in the open where they can see potential predators approaching from a long way off.
Everyone is familiar with the herons and little egrets that ‘patrol’ the ditches for prey or stand long hours in some corner of the pastures or resting on a tree branch. However, very recent and unusual bird sightings on the Sudbury Common Lands have included a great white egret and a flock of black-tailed godwits. The great white egret, similar in size to the common Grey Heron is still a relatively infrequent bird in this country although it is now a breeding species. It demonstrates that the Sudbury riverside does provide the habitats that are suitable for these wetland species, but disturbance means that their visits can be fleeting. Occasionally, however, they are captured on camera before they leave for quieter spaces.
The dunlin is another wading species that drops in occasionally. These are much less flighty than other waders and can be approached quietly without them taking to wing at the first sign of movement. During the spring migration, common sandpipers also call by to ‘refuel’ on their long journey northwards. So, although there is no guarantee that an unusual visitor might have dropped by, it is always worth keeping an eye open for the unexpected.
Adrian Walters, Clerk to the Trustees of The Sudbury Common Lands Charity and Honorary Freeman of Sudbury. The SFS would like to thank Ryan Deal for the beautiful photograph of the great white egret.