Last autumn stretched well into December with many trees and hedgerows holding their coloured leaves long after they would normally have fallen. This coupled with record breaking warm days has certainly made this winter shorter even if there is severe weather to come.
The fine conditions meant that, for a change, the ditching work to remove accumulated silt was swift and easy. The Sudbury Common Lands ditches in particular have taken a very long time to stabilise but now rush margins are beginning to hold the soil and reduce accumulations in the ditch bottoms. The cattle slow down the process of stabilisation every time they trample the ditch margins as some soil is pushed into the open water. Silted up ditches are of much reduced value to wildlife with nowhere for amphibians to spawn, aquatic insects to thrive or water voles to swim.
The de-silting or ‘slubbing out’ is rather monotonous work punctuated only by having to get off the JCB to throw back an occasional hibernating frog. Squabbling black-headed gulls in their white-headed winter plumage provide some light relief and the occasional grey or pied wagtail will drop in to check over the mud for a tasty morsel. The best day for the digger driver was on Freemen’s Great Common when a Jack snipe stayed all day hunkering down and hiding from view for most of the time until the digger bucket got too close for comfort. It would then rise up rather like a jump jet to a height of around two metres and fly horizontally for a short distance before dropping out of view again amongst the rush margins. Jack snipe, which are smaller than snipe, are not very common waders with only around one hundred thousand birds overwintering in the UK compared with over a million snipe.
Ditching work needs to be all things to all wildlife and has to be carried out very sensitively in order to retain the uncommon plants and yet provide open water suitable for a range of species. As time goes on the JCB should be required less frequently but the natural process of succession to dry land will always continue so this element of management will never be eliminated.