The prospect of losing a 50-acre field in the middle of Bury St Edmunds to a hotel and leisure complex, led to the formation of the Bury Water Meadows Group in 2013. The so-called Leg of Mutton had enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the town for a thousand years. Those campaigning and founding members knew it was worth fighting for, since the Local Plan 2031 was committed to building 5000+ houses in Bury and this expansion really highlighted the urgent need to preserve as much of what was left of the floodplains and water meadows which had no doubt attracted the medieval settlement in the first place.
The River Lark and its tributary River Linnet run alongside the Leg of Mutton field and some of the floodplain has survived undeveloped. Not only was this green space under threat of development and neglect, but the Lark and the Linnet are Suffolk’s only ‘chalk streams’ which are globally rare and precious habitats. About 200 of them exist in the world, 85% of those, running through southern England and East Anglia. To have two in one town, is almost unique.
Chalk streams are lovely lowland rivers characterised by crystal-clear water, a distinct flora and rich aquatic life. All have been modified in some way over the centuries, but despite weirs, impoundments and abstraction, the best still supporting fine aquatic flora and fauna; though not so the River Lark – the story from pristine chalk stream to a polluted, over-abstracted, de-natured imitation of its former self – tells a tale of disastrous ecological abuse which Bury Water Meadows Group (BWMG) is addressing as one of its main aims and objectives.
Instead of giving up the campaign after the field was ‘saved’, BWMG looked to see what it could do to highlight the rivers and their environs. A Tale of Two Rivers – An Illustrated Walking Guide the Rivers and Water Meadows of Bury St Edmunds was written to help residents learn about the great heritage and important ecology on their doorstep. In order to attract funds to organise meetings and litter picks, membership was offered and local councillors, supportive of the aims of the Group, offered locality grants to buy equipment and enable to Group to prosper.
BWMG first became involved in work parties in early spring of 2017, when volunteers were asked to plant 50 European White Elms which Butterfly Conservation had gifted to West Suffolk Council. White Letter hairstreaks had been hit badly when millions of elms succumbed to Dutch Elm disease in the 70s and 80s and their food source became scarce. This butterfly prefers Wych elms for breeding and larval feeding; the new elms are less susceptible to the disease so they may be able to support this declining species. BWMG was in the right place at the right time to organise volunteers from within its membership.
At about the same time, the Government was devolving its responsibility for delivering the Water Framework Directive (WFD); again BWMG was in the right place at the right time to be able to host one of the sub-catchment partnerships under the umbrella CamEO organisation (Cam and Ely Ouse Partnership). The vision being, that organisations with an interest in their local rivers, would undertake community-lead river restoration and management projects in the area in which they lived and worked. Since BWMG was now host of the River Lark Catchment Partnership (RLCP), it was able to use its growing volunteer work force who were trained in water safety and got to don waders and get into the rivers. They also learn new skills such as kick sampling for monitoring river invertebrates, key indicators of river health.
In 2017 and 2018 sections of the River in the Abbey Gardens were restored using revetments of coir planted with marginal plants and bundles of woody material to stabilise the eroding bank. An award-winning fisherman working with the RLCP directed operations and funding came from Anglian Water’s Flourishing Environment fund.
BWMG volunteers were in full swing implementing a new management plan for Ram Meadow when Covid 19 struck and the orders were to stay at home. The designation of this neglected, nettle-dominated green space as a Local Nature Reserve and only the second in West Suffolk, is another goal of BWMG. Small tentative work parties started again in June 2020 and as the autumn arrived some of the 1600 plus metres of overgrown ditches that drain the site were cleaned taking 50 volunteer hours to achieve this. This transformation and that of the start of 7-year rotational coppicing and cleaning out the ‘scrape’ – a hidden shallow body of water created in the 1990s as mitigation for the Tesco superstore – have really got the volunteers keen to participate; BWMG is happy to report that more volunteers exist than it has jobs for them, at the moment.
On a blistering hot August day last year, five volunteers joined Butterfly Conservation again to learn how to scythe. When volunteers are out in the meadows scything – there are now 14 trained and more training sessions planned – many of the residents out for a walk with the dog, stop to ask questions. We tell them scything is kinder to wildlife, smaller areas can be mown leaving more flowering plants for pollinators and creating a mosaic of habitats for wildlife, it makes us more independent so we can mow areas when it’s best for nature and it reduces our reliance on polluting petrol-driven mowers which helps in the fight against climate change; all these benefits help to mitigate the other big emergency we humans face, that of ecological collapse. It is extremely reassuring to hear that the new Parks’ Manager, who scythe-trained with us, has a similar vision. She has taken the idea of using scythes to her superiors at West Suffolk Council, so her rangers and gardeners can carry on the good work that BWMG volunteers started.