Focus on the Valley Trail

Focus on the Valley Trail
June 30, 2014 Adrian Walters

The Sudbury Common Lands Charity is now into its third year of management of the Valley Trail as far as the lane to Borley Hall and Mill. The management provides an opportunity to improve access for walkers, cyclists (preferably with bells) and horse riders. So what is the charity doing there and why?

In 1865 when the railway extension to Long Melford was opened the line would have presented a new and diabolical scar across the south Suffolk and north Essex countryside. Nature, however, is a great healer and very soon the blank canvas of railway cuttings, embankments and margins created by hundreds of navies would have been colonised by plant species from the surrounding countryside. Ironically these species have now all but disappeared from that countryside as a result of the necessary advances in modern agriculture to feed a rapidly burgeoning human population.

Today the Valley Trail, as it is now known, provides a last remaining haven for some rare and declining species. The most serious threats to these, however, are neglect and subsequent scrub encroachment. While the railway was in operation and particularly during the steam era, the line was kept free of scrub and woody vegetation which encouraged a cornucopia of wild flowers and associated butterflies and insects to thrive. Today much of the trail is tree-lined with just a few fragments of those open grassland areas remaining.

Space does not permit a full description of the botanical interest so casually overlooked by most trail users but current management aims to dovetail access improvements with this conservation work. Woody vegetation is kept back from the trail in order to provide pleasant access as well as providing an opportunity for plants to colonise the margins. As the margins are cut and cleared the soil nutrients are reduced which encourages a more diverse and interesting flora. For example the pink flowers of common rest-harrow and yellow lady’s bedstraw are increasing rapidly and the first plant of a local speciality, Sulphur Clover is currently in flower.

Spring flowering meadow saxifrage also does well where there is not too much shading and on the dry banks and margins the nationally scarce lesser calamint thrives. This is very attractive to butterflies, bees and hoverflies.

Against all the odds, however, and with considerable help, the rapidly declining Deptford pink has survived scrub encroachment and shading and still grows at one location along the trail. Once a fairly frequent native wild flower this nationally endangered species has small but exquisitely pretty flowers. Allowing further scrub encroachment is just not an option if this member of the Dianthus family is to survive. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species is in touch with the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and it is hoped that plans for its future management will ensure the continued presence of this delightful flower along the trail.

In summary, the Valley Trail provides a superb corridor for wild flowers but these will not survive without annual conservation management.