Each time the floodwaters arrive on the meadows, it is like a world transformed.
The acres of green are replaced by a magical waterscape, which draws people to its edges, staring in wonder: “I remember when this was all grass.”
There’s been plenty to gawp at down by the Common Lands over the past few weeks as Storms Babet and Ciarán arrived in quick succession, dumping months-worth of rain in a matter of days. The downpour from Storm Babet, in particular, saw the cattle hastily removed in the days before and, as the River Stour overtopped, brought the highest water levels I think I can remember seeing on the meadows since I moved to Sudbury 17 years ago.
The picnic tables at Mill Acre were half-submerged, water was streaming over the path at the floodgates and the power of the torrent raging past the bridge at the salmon leap brought a thrilling edge to these normally tranquil parts.
As I walked near the Mill Hotel on the Saturday morning, I stopped to talk to several people about the flooding they had seen in villages nearby. I heard reports of water encroaching into houses in Long Melford and Cavendish while the football pitch in Clare was reduced to a playing area fit only for water polo. In the village of Debenham in mid-Suffolk, near where the River Deben rises before flowing along a prolonged ford through the village, I read that some people had to spend the night sleeping in the community centre because they couldn’t make it home.
In the week that followed I travelled further afield with my work, hearing how council staff had worked throughout the night in Matlock, Derbyshire to pump surface water off roads while the River Derwent, which runs through the town, hit record levels in height. In Bewdley, Worcestershire, the awe-inspiring River Severn rolled past bankside Georgian houses, just kept at bay by a hastily-constructed temporary flood defence wall.
Unlike many communities where flooding has become a common problem, how lucky are we to have the water meadows wrapping around the west and south of the town, taking all the excess water that comes our way. The land serves as a natural temporary reservoir that holds water until the Stour drains away the surplus.
All over social media, I’ve seen comments akin to: ’Great to see the meadows doing their job’ etc. Townsfolk know they are blessed, especially as these types of deluges are predicted to become more frequent as climate change plays havoc with the Gulf Stream. If people are not moved by the wonderful nature and wildlife that the meadows offer, then the value of the so-called ‘ecosystem services’ they provide in terms of protecting homes and businesses is beyond doubt.
And not only do the Common Lands provide relief for Sudbury, the flooding upriver in places like Long Melford and Clare would undoubtedly be worse if the meadows weren’t where they are, relieving the build-up of water in the northwest of the Stour Valley.
Great white egret
One of the additional bonuses when the meadows flood is the arrival of flocks of waterfowl, who serve to bring an extra touch of enchantment to the scene. Black-headed gulls congregate in groups with some whirling around the sky as if in celebration of the watery gift; mute swans paddle past serenely in places where for most of the year they can only waddle; cormorants dive for food in locations they would otherwise fly over.
There wre also reports of a great white egret being seen on the Common Lands this time – hopefully a precursor of more visits by this magnificent bird, which is the size of our heron but coloured a brilliant pure white.
Little egrets can be seen aplenty on the meadows but I’ve only seen its much larger cousin, the great white egret, on several occasions in East Anglia and never in Sudbury. But, according to the most recent report from the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (2021), published this month, this stunning species is in the process of colonising the UK because of climate change and conservation actions, which have helped push their breeding ranges further north within Europe. Great white egrets, says the report, now breed from 14 sites across southern areas, and the UK population is now thought to number 53–59 pairs.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if at some time soon a great white egret took up residence here.