Celebrating 60 years of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust

The county’s dedicated wildlife conservation charity has achieved a huge amount since its formation in 1961, but with threats to nature multiplying, its greatest challenges are yet to come.

So, this is where it all began for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.

I am in the depths of Redgrave and Lopham Fen in the north of the county, not far from Diss.  It is a wonderful sprawling 400 acres of wet and wild, which, back in 1961, a small group from the Suffolk Naturalist Society identified as a precious landscape that needed preserving.

They established the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation, the forerunner of the SWT, and made this spectacular valley fen their first reserve.

And from these humble beginnings, the Trust has come a long way in the past 60 years. Today, as the nature charity celebrates its diamond anniversary, it oversees 50 reserves of varying sizes and is supported by 28,000 members. The organisation boasts nine learning centres across Suffolk and is helped in its important conservation work by 1,400 volunteers.

I think of some of the SWT reserves near to where I live and the memorable wildlife encounters I have had: the stunning bluebells of Arger Fen; the magical butterfly glades of Bradfield Wood; the shimmering beauty of kingfishers at Lackford Lakes; a reed warbler belting out its song at Cornard Mere. These are some of the most exquisite places in the county – saved and now cared for by the SWT.

Redgrave and Lopham Fen Image: Steve Aylward

Wildlife everywhere

Thank Heavens the SWT took control of Redgrave and Lopham Fen, which at one point was in danger of drying out as man-made boreholes drained the aquifers below.

Here, wildlife is everywhere: a trio of buzzards cry out overhead while a fallow deer reveals itself from the undergrowth before disappearing into the woods. Gangs of buntings and long-tailed tits flitter among the tall thin alders, which together with clusters of mature willow sprout from the watery shallows like a mini-Everglades.

Water reed the colour of straw sways in the wind, the feathery tails catching the sun. Their colour complements the buff of the wild ponies who rest in a group by the path. A coot screeches; a goldeneye duck dives under the water; greylag geese clatter and honk across the sky.

There is so much going on, however I am here too early in the year to see some of the rare plants that still grow on the fen, like common butterwort and marsh fragrant orchid. There is no chance either of seeing the scarce fen raft spiders that skulk on the surface of peaty pools at the height of the summer.

Fen raft spider Image: Adobestock

Mass participation

It is an enchanting visit and days later I telephone SWT’s current CEO, Christine Luxton, to ask her how the Trust has changed in the past 60 years.

“The people who started the Trust, the group who were inspired by Redgrave, were committed naturalists and, to a certain extent, lone voices,” she tells me. “They were visionary and recognised that if they didn’t act to preserve our precious natural places they would slip away.

“Today, the Trust is a mass participation movement. Nature matters to everyone and we as a society recognise we need to protect nature – and that this is a time of emergency.”

This is because while interest in nature has grown in the past 60 years, so the threats to wildlife have multiplied also. The period since 1961 has seen the farming sector intensify production and witnessed an acceleration in house and road building. For example, Suffolk’s key trunk road, the A14, did not exist in 1961.

“People now realise that there is a downside to this development – we realise we are on the edge and that unchecked growth cannot continue,” adds Christine, who tells me the Trust intends to build on the success of the past 60 years by encouraging as many people in the county to make space for wildlife and rewild communal and private areas.

Vital next decade

Suffolk Wildlife Trust CEO Christine Luxton Image: Sarah Groves

SWT has adopted the United Nations target and has an aim that 30% of the land in Suffolk will be in recovery for nature by 2030.

“We have saved most of the county’s precious places and now have these fabulous nature reserves,” Christine continues.

“These are the arks from which we hope wildlife will spread out into the wider countryside and into our towns, villages and gardens – through churchyards, schools, roadside verges and business parks. By creating more wild space, by building these networks we hope to expand the sheer abundance of wildlife by giving a space for wildlife to move around.”

“The next decade is vital and we need to enable others to do their bit for nature, such as community groups, businesses and farmers. But if we act now our target is achievable because today there are so many people who want to play a part in saving wildlife.”

Species thriving under Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Nightingales return to Black Bourn Valley

Nightingales made a comeback to SWT’s Black Bourn Valley reserve near Thurston in 2020 after an absence of 25 years. The summer migrants occupied an area of thick impenetrable veteran scrub, which affords protections from predators, and it is strongly believed that they successfully bred.

Now nightingale have found the site, it is hoped this exquisite songster will return and SWT staff will be monitoring their progress this year.

Nightingale Image: Chris Gomersall

Dormice and purple emperors at Bradfield Woods

No butterfly is more charismatic than the purple emperor, an insect that until recent years has been missing from Suffolk. Now this magnificent flyer is returning – a county stronghold being SWT’s Bradfield Woods reserve.

Thanks to sensitive coppicing and work to enhance glades, visitors in July may be lucky enough to see males displaying in the high canopy of the oaks, marking and patrolling their territory and competing for females.

The coppicing work is also essential to support the rare hazel dormouse, which thrives in woodlands with a varied age structure. SWT’s monitoring in Bradfield Woods, suggests populations of this vulnerable mammal are stable.

Purple emperor Image: Jorn Heller

Fen raft spider saved at Redgrave

Redgrave and Lopham Fen is one of the only places in the UK to find the fen raft spider. The spiders hunt on the water surface of peat pools but are capable of diving and capturing prey under water. They have been observed tackling prey as large as stickleback fish, dragonflies and damselflies.

The drying out and scrub encroachment on the fen due to the adjacent water abstraction borehole put the spider at significant risk of extinction on the site. This was resolved by a restoration project, which culminated in the relocation of the borehole in 1999.  Since then, habitat restoration, including digging new turf ponds, has allowed a slow expansion of the spiders’ range on the site.

This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Suffolk Magazine.

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