Suffolk Wildlife Trust chief executive Christine Luxton reflects on trust's 60th anniversary
Leaf buds are breaking open and the water, rippled by a breeze, reflects a bright blue sky dotted with clouds. On a sunny spring morning, Lackford Lakes nature reserve looks picture perfect.
Chiff chaffs chatter in the woods, and from a bramble thicket comes the liquid sound of a nightingale... yes, they do sing in the daytime.
The reserve is one of more than 50 cared for by Suffolk Wildlife Trust. They range from coastal marshes to ancient woodlands to tiny wildflower meadows.
For 60 years – since the fight to save a precious fenland habitat led to its formation – the trust has protected the county’s natural heritage.
It has not only acted as a guardian, but has conserved, restored and educated, ensuring we can all continue to enjoy every kind of landscape that Suffolk has to offer.
And the role of its protected places is now not only to preserve those individual habitats, but to inspire people to make more space for nature in their lives.
As the trust reaches its 60th anniversary this month, something very much on the mind of CEO Christine Luxton is the wildlife everywhere that used to be so abundant and is slowly slipping away.
“Over the 60 years since the trust started, the nature reserves have managed to save rare things and wonderful wildlife,” she said.
“They are little pockets of richness but what we need is to link them up across the county. What we have lost is that abundance of nature as a whole.
“We don’t want it to just be in reserves, we want it spilling out into the countryside and our gardens.
“Remember when you drove and your windscreen would finish up covered in insects, and you saw so many moths in the headlights. That doesn’t happen now.”
She said different farming methods had been a big factor, as well as changes in the way people lived.
“Sixty years ago people would have had a veg garden, and would not be tarmacking over their front gardens to park cars.
“It has been a gradual shift, that gradual degrading of nature from everyone’s lives.
“We notice when something changes instantly, but not if it’s a gradual shift. Each generation takes what they see now as normal.
“The real challenge for us going forward in wanting to get nature back in that abundance is, get it back to what?
“This is where places like nature reserves come in to inspire people and showcase what it could be like.
“That’s where our learning activity is so important. It’s about society embracing the need for change. Farming is about what we as consumers drive. We need to decide how we want it to be.
“If you put value on nature as a society we will have the drive to bring nature back.”
She hopes the Covid lockdowns which gave people more chance and incentive to get out into nature might have helped.
“We have to be hopeful that what this last year has given us all is an experience of our local patch and experiencing where we live and what’s special.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could come out of this awful year we have had with our eyes more open to nature – it’s a chance for a reset, to make space for nature in our lives. Let it take the lead and fill that space.
“What makes the trust special is a recognition that people need nature – the learning aspect is really important, and it is not just about children.
“We are custodians of Suffolk’s natural heritage. All our reserves are free, supported through the subscriptions of members but open to everyone to enjoy which is really important to us.
“We have learning experiences from babies going for walks with parents, to toddlers, families and schools.
“The Wild Teens groups help on the reserves as well as learning, a transition group into early adulthood and adult learning.
“Bradfield Woods and Redgrave and Lopham Fen are really good for adult courses like art course inspired by nature– watercolour and photography.
“We also do plant identification and birdsong, Also at Bradfield Woods we have woodcrafts, and field craft, reflecting the place and the season.”
Christine became chief executive last summer, but having worked for the trust in fund-raising and and education for 20 years she already knew it inside out.
“If I hadn’t, it would have been a really challenging time to take over,” she said.
The trust started life at Redgrave and Lopham Fen – an area of peatland in north Suffolk since recognised as one of the most important nature sites in Europe.
Today, preserving peat in its marshy state is an environmental priority because if it dries it releases carbon contributing to climate change.
But that was not the case in the late 1950s when a borehole was sunk in the fen to boost the local water supply.
The handful of Suffolk wildlife enthusiasts who banded together to save the fen were decades ahead of their time.
Their campaign led to the formation in 1961 of the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation, which later became Suffolk Wildlife Trust.
“There was a realisation they had to save it,” said Christine. “They realised it was unique, and what would be lost if it wasn’t protected.
“It took many, many years. There was a transition period where the water company was pumping water back into the fen while the borehole was still operational.
“It was a big commitment by the water company to make it happen. The nature reserve was established in 1965, but it was not until the 1990s that the borehole was finally turned off.”
Some of the trust’s biggest sites such as Redgrave and Lopham Fen, Bradfield Woods, Lackford Lakes, Knettishall Heath and Carlton Marshes are known as its gateway venues and have car parks and toilets.
Lackford Lakes and Carlton Marshes also have visitor centres, and the Lakes, created from old gravel pits, has a coffee shop and tempts its patrons with the offer of ‘kingfishers and cake’.
Spread over more than 150 hectares, it has a range of habitats including reed beds, where starlings roost, and woodlands.
“Gravel extraction finished in 2000, and we took over the site prior to that. The gravel company gifted it to us and since then we have bought some adjoining land,” said Christine. “As each bit of digging was finished, we were gradually taking the lakes over.”
Bradfield Woods between Bury and Stowmarket – one of Britain’s finest ancient woodlands – is another hugely important piece of natural heritage saved from destruction.
“In the late 1960s there was little legal protection for woodland, so around that time a big swathe of Bradfield Wood was cut down, and local efforts managed to stop the rest.
The Royal Society for Nature Conservation bought the woods and gave them to us.”
Today, visitors to the woods can enjoy its springtime carpet of bluebells and wild garlic, and walk under the canopy of trees.
The coppiced woodland is home to mammals, birds and insects including the stoat, yellow-necked mouse, dormouse, badger, garden warbler, blackcap and willow warbler and 24 species of butterfly.
Winks Meadow, near Metfield, is one of the trust’s smallest reserves, a three acre site which has more species of orchid than any other meadow in Suffolk. Christine describes it as a little gem.
Other sites include Arger Fen, near Bures, famous for its bluebells, Cornard Mere, Groton Wood, and Black Bourn Valley, former agricultural land near Thurston which is being rewilded.
Framlingham Mere, with its surrounding meadows and ancient castle backdrop, is considered by many to be the best view in inland Suffolk.
Reserves are maintained and staffed by a team of 70 employees with the help of 1,400 volunteers who take on tasks from fund-raising, helping on reserves, delivering the trust’s magazine, and working in visitor centres.
It costs £3 million a year to run Suffolk Wildlife Trust. “We have shown over the last year how vital nature is to us, so wouldn’t it be lovely if people decided to give their support to us as a 60th birthday gift,” said Christine.
A live webinar celebrating the trust’s 60 year history, takes place on Monday, June 14. For details, a map showing the location of all the reserves, and more information on the trust and how to join go online to www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org