Category: Conservation

Village Voices Nature Note: Save It And They Will Come

There’s a 1989 film called ‘Field of Dreams’ in which an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) converts one of his corn fields into a baseball stadium to relive memories of his childhood sporting heroes.  ‘Build it and they will come’, he hopes, and so they do.  There is a conservation equivalent to this in the ambitions of bodies like the RSPB, which acquire tracts of former farmland in the hope that our threatened wildlife will return to populate it.  ‘Save it and they will come’ is their corresponding motto.  In 1948, the RSPB bought Havergate Island (the only island in Suffolk) to protect the first nesting avocets to have returned to Britain since the mid-nineteenth century.  That too was a huge act of faith, but the avocets flourished and the site went on to attract a huge range of other wildlife including, most recently and excitingly, a colony of nesting spoonbills.  It was a similar story at RSPB Lakenheath, where since 1995 they have transformed the former carrot fields into a major wetland reserve which now has breeding bitterns, marsh harriers and cranes.  

An avocet
An avocet. Photo: Margaret Holland

These are both spectacular success stories, but we can all do our bit on a much smaller scale.  The residents of Shingle Street have just embarked on a modest community venture of this kind.  We have acquired an adjacent field, which was poor-quality grazing land, and are planning to turn part of it into a wetland.  Shingle Marshes, as we are calling it, is already home to skylarks, snipe and brown hares, but we plan to restore some ancient lagoons and channels to create new habitats for visiting waders and wildfowl – curlew, godwit, lapwing, teal and wigeon, maybe even a breeding avocet of our own one day.   We will also encourage a spread of fringing reeds for nesting warblers, reed buntings and (in my dreams) bittern, as well as water voles, harvest mice, dragonflies and rare aquatic invertebrates like the starlet sea-anemone.  The overall aim would be to protect what is already there and to restore the biodiversity of local species we have sadly lost over the years.

There is, however, also a second important conservation motto.  We must not only ‘Save it so they will come’, but then ‘Leave well alone’ if they do.   The whole field is readily visible from the road and sea-walls, but we shall need to protect it from any closer access by people and their dogs lest we end up destroying what we have just created.  In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

O let them be left, wildness and wet.
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet

Jeremy Mynott
February 2024

Blue Moon at Shingle Street

31 Aug 2023
John Dryden took this spectacular photo of the special Blue Moon at Shingle Street. Visitors often remark how clear the skies are and how many stars they can see, which is due, at least in part, to the relative lack of light pollution - let's endeavour to keep it that way!

Alde & Ore Whole Estuary Plan Event

Saturday 7th October 2023
Hoffman Building, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape Bridge, Snape IP17 1SP.

Informal drop in 11.30pm to 1pm
Presentations and Q&A 2pm to 4pm

Improvements to the Alde and Ore estuary flood defences.

The East Suffolk Water Management Board, The Alde & Ore Estuary Trust and the Alde & Ore Community Partnership are delighted to host an informal opportunity to chat about plans for increasing the resilience of the estuary flood defences against a catastrophic flood. This will include the progress of the Upper Estuary works and the development of the business case for the Lower Estuary. 

The team will be there from 11.30am to 1pm to discuss the whole estuary approach. 

Then, in the afternoon, from 2pm to 4pm we will be presenting an overview, exploring the project links and interdependencies between the Upper and Lower Estuary. We will outline of the work of The Alde & Ore Estuary Trust and the Alde & Ore Community Partnership, followed by an update on the progress of the Upper Estuary phase of the project. 

There will then be ample opportunity for questions and answers during a panel discussion. We do hope that you can join us. 

Village Voices Nature Note: The End of a Season

Daniel Defoe is best known nowadays for his desert island novel Robinson Crusoe, but he also wrote an important work on social history, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724). On his travels through Suffolk he records that he witnessed ‘infinite numbers’ of swallows gathering for autumn migration on the coast. We still see swallows and house martins (did Defoe know the difference?) gathering on the telephone wires here in September, often chattering communally as if to psych themselves up before take-off on their huge journeys south. It’s always a moving spectacle but it’s also an elegiac reminder that summer is drawing to a close for us too. Defoe’s birds weren’t on telephone wires back then of course, but were, appropriately, ‘congregating’ on Southwold church. They sometimes also use other buildings, as illustrated in this photo showing a host of house martins clinging to the Shingle Street Martello tower. The big difference, though, is that sadly we no longer see them in this abundance. Forget about Defoe’s ‘infinite numbers’ in 1724 – since this photo was taken in September 2004 the number of breeding house martins in Britain has declined by nearly 40%. Swallow numbers are down too, as are swifts, which have declined by a whopping 60% in the same period. Swifts are often confused with swallows but belong to a different family altogether – one called Apodes, literally ‘without feet’, because they only have stubby toes that couldn’t grasp a telephone wire anyway. All these delightful aerial acrobats are suffering from the same problem: a corresponding sharp decline in the winged insects on which they feed.

House Martins on the Shingle Street Martello Tower, photo: Jeremy Mynott.

We’ve all noticed that ourselves. Think of the ‘splatter test’ – the number of insects smeared on your windscreen and headlights today, compared to the ‘moth snowstorm’ we used to drive through at night a generation ago. And how we miss what Tennyson happily described as the ‘murmuring of innumerable bees’. But there’s also a new factor now – climate change – and that may cause other dramatic changes. As the world’s climate heats up, the swallows’ journeys back to Southern Africa over barriers like the fast-expanding Sahara Desert become ever more arduous. Suppose the costs of long-distance migration no longer prove worth the physical risks and effort they have to endure. Perhaps the swallows might never come at all one year. Or suppose they were to come and stay over, taking advantage of our milder winters now. If we had swallows at Christmas, what would that do to our emotional responses – to swallows, spring and autumn? Are we at risk of losing the seasons as well as the insects and the birds?

Jeremy Mynott
6th August 2023

Parking Restored for 2023

All parking at Shingle Street is permissive parking on residents’ land. An area of this parking at the southern end of the hamlet, providing c10 parking spaces, was damaged during the dry summer of 2022 and visitors’ cars were becoming stuck in the shingle, requiring the spaces to be closed.

A Sustainable Development Fund grant from the Suffolk Coasts and Heath AoNB has supported residents to repair the damaged area and reopen the land to parking again.

The work was undertaken by 8 volunteer residents and involved: digging to prepare the ground, the supply and manual raking out of 18 tonnes of aggregate material and, finally, car-rolling to bind the material. It was a good workout for all involved, young and old alike, and, once finished (!), all said they enjoyed completing a great job together.

Preparatory digging
Raking Out

With our thanks to:

Suffolk Coast and Heaths

Background: Shingle Street receives in the order of c30,000 – 70,000 visitors every year yet it is one of the most fragile and sensitive areas for biodiversity within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AoNB. Visitors highly value their experiences at Shingle Street which provides significant wellbeing and tourist public value. Most visits (anecdotal >c95%) are made by car which are only possible thanks to parking areas provided by the residents’ community.

Village Voices Nature Note: remember, remember…

I’m writing this on the fifth of November, having just got in from a long ramble. It’s been a dull, misty day and it was already dusk by 4pm. I was reminded of a gloomy poem by Thomas Hood called ‘November’. You have to read it out loud in an Eeyore voice to get the full, dismal effect:

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –

Very evocative – except that it’s all wrong now. You need to remember that poor old Thomas Hood, who died at the age of just 45, wrote this in London in 1844 at a time when the city was often choked with thick smog and winters were much colder than now. None of his examples really apply today. We’ve just had some of the warmest autumn days ever, and I seem to have plenty of feeling left in the members that matter. Moreover, there are still green leaves on the trees. And I had to cut my lawn again last week – unthinkable even 50 years ago, let alone in Hood’s time. I also saw and heard quite a few birds today. Robins, wrens and a song thrush were all singing and the hedgerows were laden with autumn fruits for foraging winter migrants. Amazingly, I even saw a butterfly on the wing, too – a showy red admiral, nectaring on the late-flowering ivy. Indeed, some of last summer’s roses are still in flower, as well as next year’s daphne. It’s all topsy-turvy.

Daphne in flower. Photo: Juliet Johnson

You might think it’s nice to see some life and colour so late in the year, but in truth we know it’s a terrible warning, a disturbance to the natural order that is already a crisis in some parts of the world and is rapidly heading our way. The political news is full of trivial distractions – think no further than the MP for West Suffolk – but there is just one subject that should preoccupy us. It’s the one government leaders are discussing at COP 27 in Egypt as I write. Call it the Environment, Biodiversity, Sustainable Growth or what you wish, but I like the older and richer idea of Nature. No one ever wrote a poem to Biodiversity, but our literature, arts, traditions and whole culture are all saturated with references to Nature as the source of some of our deepest emotions. Not surprising, really, since we are ourselves a part of nature.

So, remember, remember the fifth of November, and put a bomb under the government – just metaphorically, of course.

Jeremy Mynott
5 November 2022

Village Voices Nature Note: Survival Tactics

You have to be tough to survive at Shingle Street – if you’re a plant on the shingle banks, that is. Just imagine. You’re regularly doused with salt spray, exposed to constant winds and parched by the sun; there’s no fresh water and almost no soil; while the shingle itself is unstable and constantly shifting.  It’s an extreme environment, a desert of stones.  Yet there is a community of plants out there that have evolved specialised tactics to cope with those harsh conditions:

  • Lie flat to shelter from the winds (orache and sea-pea)
  • Have very deep roots to suck up moisture (sea-kale, whose roots can go two metres deep)
  • Have shiny leaves to reduce water loss (sea-beet) or hairy ones (yellow-horned poppy)
  • Grow in matted clumps to bind you firmly to the shingle (sea-pea, stonecrops and sea-campion)

We are blessed by our thriving shingle bank colony of these rare and beautiful plants.  It’s one of the most important in Britain, which is why Shingle Street is designated an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). We therefore inspect the plants regularly to check on their condition and a dedicated team of local volunteers has just completed the latest detailed survey, whose results will appear in due course on the Shingle Street website.

We did observe several changes.  The sea kale is now very abundant, popping up everywhere like huge cauliflowers.  The sea pea has spread too and there are large drifts of it in new areas.  Its clustered purple flowers fade to blue later and are then succeeded by succulent seed pods, which are said to have once staved off starvation on the Suffolk coast during a famine in the seventeenth century (but they can cause paralysis if eaten in quantity, just in case you were tempted).  Scattered amongst these are other shingle specialists like orache (much scarcer this year), sea beet, sea-campion, curly dock, viper’s bugloss, buckshorn plantain, stonecrop and the striking yellow-horned poppies (beautiful, but classified as a toxic weed in North America, and containing hallucinogens).  

The most striking change, however, is in the expansion of the grasses that now cover the shingle ridges nearer the houses.  That is evidence that the banks have accumulated depositions of soil and have to that degree stabilised – with the further benefit that hares and skylarks are now exploiting this new emergent habitat, along with various butterflies, moths and bush-crickets.  That’s all the more reason to ask visitors to help us conserve this precious environment. For there is one other tactic these vulnerable plants need to survive, this one more under our control than theirs: 

  • Don’t get trampled on.

Thank you.

Jeremy Mynott
5 July 2022

Village Voices Nature Note: a Local Success Story

I see that the Minsmere bird reserve is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.  Congratulations!  It’s a haven for all kinds of wildlife, of course – some 6,000 different species at the last count – but its long history has been especially associated with one particular bird, the avocet, surely one of our most charismatic national species.  Avocets are quite unmistakable.  They’re tall, graceful wading birds, a picture of elegance with that pied black-and-white plumage – both bold and delicate at the same time, like fine porcelain.  They have unusual upturned bills, which they swish from side to side, sifting the saline pools for small crustaceans and invertebrates, and they have those lovely long legs in an extraordinary shade of pale blue.  Even the name sounds attractive.  It’s derived from the Italian and sounds so much more elegant, as you might expect from the Italians, than the old English names of scoop-bill, clinker, yelper and barker. Avocets are impossible to miss if you are near a colony, since they keep up a chorus of soft fluting calls should you approach too close.  In fact, if they think their chicks are threatened they can become quite aggressive and the avocets turn into exocets, dive-bombing the intruder. 

Even if you’ve never seen a real avocet you must have seen an image of one, since they have long been the official RSPB logo and appear everywhere on their badges, signs and products.  This was a very shrewd commercial choice by the RSPB, since not only are the birds beautiful to look at but they are also the perfect symbol of a great conservation success story.  Avocets disappeared from Britain as a breeding species in the nineteenth century, as a consequence of human persecution and wetland drainage, but they miraculously reappeared in 1947 just after the end of the war, ironically returning to a habitat of flooded farmland and marshland which had been deliberately created as part of our coastal defences.  They found their own way back to the Suffolk coast at two places:  Minsmere, which is now the premier RSPB reserve in the country, and Havergate Island in the Ore estuary, where they bred successfully under conditions of high security (the RSPB even had a secret code name for the place – Zebra Island’).  Since then avocets have spread along the East Anglian coast in suitable habitats, but they still need our protection in the breeding season, especially from uncontrolled dogs on the local seawalls – we had a tragic incident at Shingle Street a few years back.  Let’s help preserve our avocets as a happy symbol of national recovery and regeneration – the return of a native. 

Jeremy Mynott
11 May 2022

Recent Reports

28 Apr 2022
The booklet, Knowing your Place: Wildlife in Shingle Street gives an introduction to the main wildlife habitats in Shingle Street and has at the back a complete list of all the birds, mammals, butterflies, moths, flowers, dragonflies, grasshoppers, spiders, crustaceans, insects and other categories of wildlife recorded here. The big Biodiversity Survey has more detailed and technical information on these, too. In addition, there is a monthly ‘Nature Note’ in Village Voices, which forms a kind of running commentary on the seasonal year with other reflections on the local environment more generally. You can access a selection of these articles by calendar date here. Visitors are also encouraged to send us their their own sightings of interest by using the contact page here.
Jeremy Mynott

Current conservation activities

30 Jan 2022
As part of our conservation objectives, a working-party representing the residents of Shingle Street have been in discussion with neighbouring parishes about how best we can manage growing visitor pressures into the future, so that that we can continue to welcome respectful visitors, while at the same time protecting this vulnerable landscape and its special flora and fauna from thoughtless human behaviour. The entire beach, for example, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which means it is ‘an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage, disturb or destroy any land, flora or fauna’ within the site and it is our responsibility as owners’ to ensure adherence to these legal protections.  We are therefore trialling a number of practical protective measures, as described in this June 2021 report in Village Voices, and we will be making regular reports of a similar kind on our progress with these and other initiatives.