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Culture: A lasting relationship on the Valley Fens

For the last couple of weeks, the mornings have been whispering autumn.

A slight chill in the air, the sky a colder, icier blue. Yet, as much as the weather and the change in wildlife – the departure of the summer migrants and the eventual arrival of their winter cousins – human movements also mark the orbiting seasons in the valley fens. Because although these sites in the north of Suffolk were created by the vagaries of geology, the shallow valleys carved by ice and dripping with water that percolates through peat and chalk, it was their use for fuel and building materials that saw them survive through to the modern age. The long-lasting relationship between human and land creating perfect conditions for many of our now rare flora and fauna.

In the fenland meadows, the walkalong mowers are already out, repeating a process that has been carried out here for centuries. Although the cuttings are no longer crucial feed for livestock, a means of eking out a living from the land, the mowing is vital for wildlife – removing the rank grasses, rush and reed that will otherwise come to dominate. Without the mower cutting a path through the dew and the late summer growth, the scenes of spring, when the common spotted-orchids turn the meadows pink and the air is scented with the gentle orange of the common fragrant orchid, would not be repeated.

Steve Aylward (4889719)
Steve Aylward (4889719)

The end of summer is also when attention turns to the stands of saw sedge that grow at Redgrave & Lopham and the Valley Fens. These plants, once used for thatching, are now important for the incredibly rare fen raft spiders who make their nursery webs amongst their tall stems. By cutting the sedge on a four-to-five-year rotation, the longevity of the whole bed is increased and prevents a matting of the sedge that is less attractive to spiders and can close up their pools.

While the slip towards autumn and winter can sometimes feel melancholy, the moods mirroring the darkening days, there is always a feeling of excitement about the changing seasons in the valley fens. While the flowers and the heat may be gone for another year, soon it will be time for the starlings to gather and warm the soul with their mesmerising murmurations above Redgrave & Lopham Fen. The bustle of summer, with its songbirds and butterflies, replaced by the quiet beauty of the barn owl’s silent flight.

Matt Gaw

Media manager and editor of Suffolk Wildlife