FEATURE: Sudbury Common Lands ranger Adrian Walters sheds light on 30 years of caring for 'jewel in town's crown'
House martins are skimming for insects over the mill pool. Adrian Walters watches them dive and dart across the water. “What a wonderful sight,” he says.
Scenes like this have been the backdrop to his job for the past 30 years but, for him, they never lose their magic.
How many of us could gaze at our workplace and say as he does: “Every day here has been like another day in paradise.”
The martins carry on swooping and feeding, while cows graze on the water meadows where Adrian has spent three decades as common lands ranger.
He describes them as Sudbury’s jewel in the crown ... also the title of his third book on the subject, which will be on sale as soon as the coronavirus crisis allows.
This summer, he is stepping down as senior ranger and passing the reins to a younger team. He will still be clerk to the common lands trustees, and an invaluable source of advice to his successors.
The trustees manage the land on behalf of the Freemen of Sudbury. Adrian has been made an Honorary Freeman, which was one of his proudest moments.
These days, the benefits of being out in green spaces are well known. But he wishes more people would pause to look a little closer at nature’s wonders.
Then they would notice the ladybirds on the thistle, the damsel fly resting on grass by the riverbank, or the hovering kestrel.
“It’s about life’s simple pleasures,” he says, “not the sophisticated things. But the human race has disconnected from nature.
“It’s about eyes and ears. You need to listen and look. I’m a countryman. I like to know what’s going on around me.”
Some of what he sees is worrying. He talks about “the great thinning” – the term for the gradual decline in wildlife populations. “They are going slowly but, because some are still around, people don’t really notice. It’s almost imperceptible.”
House martins, for instance, are slowly declining. Their fellow migrants, swifts, scything through the air above the meadows at breakneck speed, are down by 50 per cent.
“It’s partly due to loss of nesting places,” says Adrian. “New roofs mean they are excluded, and can live out their lives without breeding. But the solutions are so easy ... nestboxes.”
He lives in Lawshall with his wife, Teresa. Their son, Ollie, is a field service engineer for a company that provides testing equipment for hospitals and laboratories.
“When he visits, we usually get the moth trap out and enjoy a session identifying and photographing what we have attracted,” says Adrian.
The Suffolk he sees today is very different from the one he knew growing up on a farm in the late 1950s and ‘60s. “I remember how it was and how it changed driven by government and the post-war need for food security.
“Before, the hedges were big and blowsy. There were no flails or hedge trimmers. You coppiced it in rotation so there was always somewhere for the wildlife to thrive.
“But my dad did what everybody else did. Grants were there to amalgamate fields and rip out hedges. I saw the huge funeral pyres of oak and ash trees. The primrose banks disappeared. It became a less interesting countryside.
“The farmers delivered what they were asked. Now we need to get back to stewardship. What wildlife wants is untidy,” he adds.
Adrian taught English as a foreign language, then returned to his roots as a horticulture instructor at a special needs school, before getting the Sudbury ranger job.
The landscape of the river meadows, framed by thickets of willow trees, has a timeless beauty you might assume is centuries old.
“People think it hasn’t changed, but it has, enormously,” he says.
When he arrived, there were very few trees, the river had been largely cleared of vegetation in a flood alleviation scheme and the ditches had all but disappeared.
Trees were planted – goat willow, white willow, osier willow, crack willow. “We were years ahead of the curve with riverside planting,” he says. “Vegetation over the water, and under the water ... all that is habitat – cover for moorhens and otters, nest sites for birds.”
Caring for the meadows does not mean letting nature run riot. They have to be managed. “We’re working hand in hand with nature, not fighting her or trying to drive her into submission,” he says.
In 1993, he put the ditches back with a JCB. They must be regularly dug out to give open water, or they would disappear again.
Now, flowering rush dazzles with mopheads of pink blossoms above the delicate white flowers of the rare tubular water dropwort.
In spring, buttercups carpet the meadows. Recent droughts have cut the number of early marsh orchids, but he says they will come back.
His deep love of wildlife is matched by forensic knowledge. “I’m learning all the time,” he says. “It’s certainly a case of the more one knows, the more one realises the enormity of what one doesn’t.”
Dipping a net in the ditches, he can name every speck of life that darts through the water.
There are one or two of which he is not absolutely certain ... but only because he does not have his glasses.
He empties the net into a tray revealing a huge variety of life ... a fish less than an inch long “probably a stickleback”, a lesser water boatman, two kinds of snail, tiny pea mussels and a horse leech – “they don’t suck your blood, only medicinal leeches do that”.
Lurking in the water weeds are some voracious predators – like dragonfly larvae, which spend years underwater before emerging for a few glorious weeks on the wing.
He does not manage to net a baby dragon, but scoops up a diving beetle larva ... “equally ferocious.”
A few minutes later, he and his fishing net are on a rescue mission ... called to the aid of a dog owner whose collie has dropped his ball in the river.
Most plants are welcome on the meadows. Only a few species must be controlled or the land would become ungrazeable.
He pauses by a clump of thistles and stinging nettles. “Thistles are a fantastic ecosystem – there’s blackfly here for the ladybirds to feed on,” he says. “Underneath the foliage, you’ll have voles nesting. Later, goldfinches will eat the seeds.”
He parts the nettles and young grasshoppers leap away. How do you tell a grasshopper from a cricket? “Crickets have much longer antennae.”
On the meadows the trees have grown, and the ditches have been colonised. “Everything you see I’ve had a hand in,” he says. “My heart and soul are in this.”