Time to act for the common good

Time to act for the common good

Sudbury Common Lands, photographed by Adrian Walters

All around on the water meadows there are signs that we have made it through what has felt like an exceptionally long winter.
It is there in the blackthorn’s frothy white blossom, which appears slightly before its leaves; in the frogspawn in the ponds and ditches on the Common Lands and the friskiness of the hares across the fields towards Borley.
All manner of birds let me know that change is afoot. The early morning song of the blackbird celebrates the coming of better weather; on the Valley Trail, the piercing chirp of the blackcap – the Nightingale of the North – provides a further clue, as does the increased activity of jackdaws on Friars Meadow as they patch up their nests.
More indications of the shift in seasons can be seen in the arrival of insects who all but disappear during the cold months. Bumblebees busy themselves at ground level, searching for early sources of nectar while the Brimstone – a harbinger of Spring – its yellow, buttery colour said to be why butterflies are so called, flits around ivy stands.
It is a wonderful time of year: an end to the dreary and dark. And just as nature is waking up, so we are emerging, blinking into the light, after a lockdown of inactivity.

As the weather improves, it is likely that many of us will make for the riverside, to enjoy the sun and nature at its best. Few towns are as lucky as Sudbury to have such natural bounties on their doorstep and more people than ever are making a conscious decision to spend time among it.
But with this privilege comes a responsibility to look after this special place.
There is a concept, which economists (please bear with me) call the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. It describes a situation where people have open access to a resource, such as the Common Lands, but are unhampered by formal rules that govern access and use. As a result, they act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users – this causes a depletion of the resource.
Heavy stuff, I know, but in essence what I am talking about is the direct opposite of working towards the common good. It is a theme I have returned to several times of late.
There have been a number of triggers.
One came a few months ago when we received reports of a dog attacking a swan on the meadows, something that happens several times every year.
Another trigger occurred more recently when incredibly homeowners who live near the Common Lands took it upon themselves to saw down trees and remove a length of hedge on the meadows, presumably to improve their view.
The idea of the Tragedy of the Commons reared its head again after a spell of hot weather at the end of March. People gathered on Friars Meadow to enjoy the unseasonally warm temperature but left behind bottles and plastic scattered across the space.

Why do things like this happen? Not through malice aforethought, I would argue. I suspect other factors were at play.
Maybe the dog owner was not paying attention, as their pet went too near a cob swan. It could be they did not know that these alpha males will stand their ground if it thinks its family or territory are threatened.
Perhaps, our neighbours were focussed solely on the outlook from their homes when they dismantled a hedge situated on a nature reserve – and could not see the bigger picture. Perchance they did not understand it was nesting season or mistakenly believed no-one would miss a few trees.
Could it be that those who came out to enjoy a balmy evening after months indoors got giddy with excitement and forgot to pick up their trash? Or thought that taking it home with them was somehow beneath them?

This is not meant to be a rant – no one likes one of them. Rather, it is a plea.
If we all acted carelessly like the examples above, our precious riverside meadows would be a waste land in no time.
The age-old laws governing the Common Lands are unenforceable in this age of civil liberty. Rather, their beauty and special character depends on all of us doing the right thing when we visit. This could mean curbing our own selfish desires and sometimes going out of our way, such as picking up litter someone else has dropped or putting our dogs on leads near wildlife and cattle.
It is down to us all to look after what we hold dear. Let us do it.

Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity

Mute swans at nest, photographed by Adrian Walters