We are delighted to announce the recent appointment of two Visitor Development Officers for the Stour Valley, Oka Last and Katherine Davies. They will be supporting the promotion of the River Stour Festival and we look forward to working with them. Here they tell us about their new roles.
We have recently been recruited to deliver the LEADER funded ‘Improving the Stour Valley for Visitors’ project, and part of our role will be to support the River Stour Festival in developing and promoting their fantastic programme of activity throughout the valley. We are delighted to be on board, and have enjoyed meeting the rest of the festival committee and learning about the history and ambitions of the festival. We are going to be supporting the festival in 2019 by promoting the programme of events online, assisting with leaflet and poster distributions, attending events and hosting stands to further promote other festival events, and helping the committee with administrative tasks. We also hope to be able to help with securing funding or sponsorship to continue the festival next year, and help develop and coordinate another exciting programme of events and activities for 2020. We are looking forward to being involved in the delivery of such a fantastic festival in such a special place! We know that the events that the festival curates and promotes are very valuable to our overall aim, which is to attract visitors to the valley, and encourage them to stay around for a little while and enjoy the wonderful things that the area has to offer.
Oka Last & Katherine Davies Stour Valley Visitor Development Officers
Our blog post today continues SB’s observations from her garden on the banks of the River Stour. There is plenty of new life in the garden….but predators are never far away!
I was walking through our vegetable garden when I heard a rustling ahead in the stand of dense bamboo beside the pergola path. I crept forward and saw a duck with a large brood of newly hatched ducklings all pushing their way through the bamboo heading towards the mill pond. Once they had safely made their way through I walked to a viewing area of the mill pond and saw the duck then making her way across the water with the brood closely following behind. There is a two foot sheer drop into the mill pond at the point she chose to access it. She was about halfway across the mill pond when I heard a plaintive, “cheep, cheep”, one of the ducklings had been left behind! The duck obviously heard this too and immediately stopped, turned around and the whole party paddled back to collect the straggler. Soon they were all heading off across the mill pond towards the island. We have not seen any of this brood since, it is a very tough world out there for the first broods of ducklings. The weather was cold and predators of ducklings abound.
We are always thrilled to hear the reed warblers
singing their song around the garden.
We eagerly await the first joyful notes emanating from the clumps of
bamboo and denser thickets around the garden which heralds their arrival, this
year it was on Easter Monday. It
ranks with the sighting of the first swallow or hearing the cuckoo across the
A hedgehog is visiting the feeding station near the
house and taking regular drinks from the low dish of fresh water. We have a camera set up to take photos
during the night of the area and we were so pleased when the disappearance of
the hedgehog food could be verified as being eaten by a hedgehog. A neighbour’s cat is also partial to
the tasty morsels so we needed the photographic evidence! Looking through the photos taken
is fascinating as we had no idea the cat was a regular visitor, for
example! Viewing the photos
of the previous night recently we saw the hedgehog moving around the terrace
and then, in the very last photo taken, a badger loomed. Badgers are well known as predators of
hedgehogs! We then had the
long anxious wait until the following morning to see whether the hedgehog was
still with us, or not…………..!
The dish of water is used by many of the birds who
come for food. The ducks dabble in
it, the starlings have a bath and most also have a drink too. I change the water several times each
day. The one footed robin I
mentioned last month has successfully raised two youngsters who are now
independent and are regular visitors to the bird table.
I have just seen what appears to be a large red damselfly resting on a rosebush. Sporting a vivid scarlet body it looked rather striking.
You may be wondering at the outcome of the arrival of the badger mentioned earlier. The hedgehog remains alive and well!
Today’s blog is written by Jules Pretty OBE. Jules is Patron of the River Stour Festival, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, and author of the 2017 book, The East Country. He will be giving a talk on ‘Nature and Health: How Green Minds Could Help Save Us and the Planet’ at the Quay Theatre in Sudbury on Sunday 2nd June at 7.30pm, followed by a book signing. For more information and to book tickets click here
We know now that
nature produces mental and physical health benefits. Even a five-minute dose of
nature brings immediate wellbeing. All activities work, and most people receive
an additional benefit from social engagement, doing things together. There is
something very ancient going on here: we humans evolved in natural
environments, learned to cooperate, shaped the land for food and resource. Now
we can measure how good this nature and social engagement is for us.
In just the last
two generations, world GDP per person has tripled; in the affluent countries it
has quadrupled. This planet now produces 35% more food per person; infant
mortality has fallen from 150 to 50 per 1,000 live births, in affluent
countries down to 5 per 1,000. But here is the reckoning: we consume more, we
fill the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. We have more stuff, our lives are more
convenient, yet we are not happier. We have solved many infectious diseases,
yet we have stumbled into an era of savage health problems caused by our
behaviours. We have moved further from nature. The way we live today is killing
people in affluent countries – through cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2
diabetes, mental ill health, dementia and loneliness. We are living longer, but
are not sure it will be worth it.
Yet at the same
time, we know from the longevity hotspots what it takes to live well and long.
In Japan, where there are record numbers of happy centenarians, their cultures
encouraging healthy and tasty foods, regular physical activity outdoors, social
connections and continued cognitive engagement.
It surely is not
too much to demand a sustainable planet and contented people. We have
now developed a green mind theory to link the human mind with our brains and
bodies, and connect bodies through behaviours into natural and social
environments. We know this: environments shape bodies, brains and minds; minds
in turn drive body behaviours that shape the external environment. Recent
discoveries come from neuroscience and hormones, from loneliness to longevity
research, from nudge behaviours to choice architecture, and from many spiritual
and wisdom traditions.
The green mind
theory centres on a simple idea that the brain comprises two parts: one red,
one blue. The red brain is ancient, and centres on the bottom brainstem: it is
fast acting, involuntary, and driver of fight-and-flight behaviours. The blue
brain is more recent: it is slower, voluntary, the centre for learning, and
driver of rest-and-digest. The bottom brain reacts before you think and directs
the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The top brain is calming, directing the
parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). A mix of blue and red is best for health
natural selection built a negativity bias into your mind and brain. The
gatekeepers are the amygdala nuclei, deep within the brain’s temporal lobes,
and highly responsive to alerts. To miss one tiger in the bushes meant death to
an ancestor; to run 99 times out of 100 when there was no tiger meant survival.
The brain-mind thus evolved a default mode: fast, automated, fight-flight.
There is no moderation in the amygdala: it is on or off, responding before
thought. The blue brain contains centres for emotions, memory-forming and
bonding. In its cortex are abilities to learn, plan, make choices, and the
social abilities of empathy and language.
Our minds are
built from experiences, and we use the term ‘green mind’ to indicate that there
is an optimal daily mix of mainly blue, with some mild red. Too much red is bad
for health. In modern affluent economies dominated by material consumption and
the manufactured desires for always more, the red mode is over-active. Modern
life is lived on simmer, and now it is our thoughts that bring stress. When the
wolf knocks on the door, there are consequences. Evolution did not give us an
off-switch for the prefrontal cortex, so now today it is thoughts that bring
greater worries than the tiger. Today, most threats seem to come imagined
worries. Towards the end of his life, Mark Twain said: “I am an old man, and
have known many troubles; but most of them never happened.”
and attentiveness quieten the over-active brain and thus improve wellbeing.
Activities that are immersive and involve focused attention reduce oxygen
consumption, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and increase the release of
serotonin and dopamine: we feel better. Green minds are also more pro-social:
they build empathy and trust. Oxytocin increases bonding and understanding
between individuals. Increasing the circle of us might be a way to encourage
greater care for the planet, resulting in the emergence of greener economies.
When the green mind is quiet, the self is stilled. You are not those troubling
thoughts: they come and go. They are clouds on a still pond at dawn.
types of engagement increase regular attentiveness and immersion:
To make these
produce better health and more happiness, each of us needs to develop new
habits. This is always hard. It is why we know what should be good for us, but
so often fail to implement it. Good habits are difficult to develop, bad ones
hard to give up.
We need emphasis
on nature, social and craft engagements in neighbourhoods, schools, care homes
and health-care facilities. Charities and care organisations have a vital role
to play: promoting healthy engagement with nature as part of their mission.
Every child should be outdoors every day; every older person in a care home
should sit in a garden. Every economy should be green and pro-social. Now is
the time for a new ethic: the economy is the environment. Meanwhile, the idea
of the green mind offers routes to both wellbeing and a better planet.
Our blog post today comes from SB with her Garden Clippings, seasonal observations from her beautiful garden on the banks of the River Stour.
As I write an early morning frost can be seen on the lawn through the window. We have had one or two cold nights recently and the resulting frosts have damaged newly emerging leaves on our cladrastis lutea (American Yellow Wood) and the Korean maple has also suffered. The heating is still on in the greenhouse for such cold snaps but regularly the door needs to be opened during the day when the temperature soars in the sunshine.
I fear I am behind with my seed sowing but I have planted out some onion sets
and I have Charlotte seed potatoes chitting which will soon be ready for
planting. The greenhouse is so
full of tender plants it is difficult to find space for seed trays too! My potting shed contains several flower
pots of dahlia tubers so space is limited there also.
A male pigeon is performing his courtship “bowing” to a somewhat
unimpressed female on the garden wall as I glance outside. The new sparrow terraces remain
unoccupied. We suspected this
would be the case for the first year but hopefully they will be more tempting
to the several sparrow pairs in the garden next spring. However, the original terrace has at
least one nesting pair in it.
Another pair have a nest in the honeysuckle trained up the wall beside
our front door. This has proved to
be a popular nesting site in past years too.
One of the robins resident here has only one foot. It seems to cope very well, the only
time one really notices the absence is when it is on the birdfeeder as the
affected leg dangles down while it grips on with the other. Robins are such
companions when working in the garden, appearing as soon as one turns some soil
or even when mowing the grass.
The large group of drake Mallard frequently seen sleeping or feeding in
the garden and the absence of the females is a sure sign that nesting is
underway. No ducklings thus
far. One nest situated out in the
reeds in the lake has been predated, the eggs all dispersed and eaten. The nests are vulnerable when the duck
is away and this nest was really quite exposed, albeit with water all around
The pair of swans were performing “natures calling” in the millpond on the 9th April. It is a rather beautiful event to witness as they conduct a mirrored “ballet” with their necks, so very graceful.
We are enjoying the first rhubarb of the season. It grows with such abundance and
speed. It is positioned in the
sheltered vegetable garden and is not forced.
Beneath the walnut tree we have made a spring border. The erythroniums have spread and are
now in flower along with primroses, pulmonaria and brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack
Frost’ to name a few. This border
needs weeding as there is ground elder and the sticky goosegrass, it has many
names, making an appearance.
We are yet to see a hedgehog, but wait in hope, and have created many
habitats for them around the garden.
At the weekend we were exploring the Glasgow Botanic Gardens and got
very excited when we spotted a hedgehog dropping on a path! The friend we were visiting
looked somewhat disconcerted by our enthusiasm for our discovery! Unlike the wonderful dawn chorus
we enjoy every morning here, Glasgow appeared to be rather devoid of obvious
birdlife, save for magpies, that seemed to occupy every open patch of
green. To return to the Stour
valley with all its natural variety is a source of infinite joy to us. SB
Our blog post today comes from Stuart Bowditch, sound recordist, who recently launched his project Confluent: River of Words. Read about his project and text installations here and be sure to listen to his podcast.
Confluent: River of Words
I am a sound recordist, artist and musician and my main interests gravitate towards people and place. Through working on socially engaged project The River Runs Through Us with painter Ruth Philo in 2017, I grew to love the Stour Valley and recently moved to Sudbury to immerse myself in the area and hopefully work on some more projects exploring its long and rich history and beautiful landscape.
This area of outstanding natural beauty does however need a lot of management and care and there are a lot of people, organisations and resources that are dedicated to keeping the valley and surrounding areas a place that we can all enjoy. In the spring of 2018, The River Stour Trust’s 50th anniversary, I was lucky enough to secure funding from Dedham Vale AONB’s Sustainable Development Fund for a new project Confluent: River of Words, to record, document and share the voices of those people whose hard work helps to maintain, conserve and preserve this unique landscape, for us and future generations, but also for the myriad of flora and fauna that share it with us.
I met with nearly thirty people, each with their own unique perspective on the area and working in a specific area or patch of the valley. I have included a list below of everyone who I spoke to and am grateful to them all for their generosity, wisdom and time.
The conversations have been edited in to a series of podcasts on the topics of Partners and Collaboration, Natural Beauty, Volunteers and Habitat. Whilst listening back to the hours of footage I collected some of the phrases and statements that contributors had made, a list of trees and all of the dragon and damsel flies that can be spotted at Foxearth Meadows, and turned them in to three text installations that can be found on two of the River Stour Trust boats ‘Rosette’ and ‘Edwardian Lady’, and also in the Granary Tea Room in Sudbury. The text installations will be visible until the end of the summer season and the podcasts are online now at www.stuartbowditch.co.uk/confluent
Contributors: Robert Erith, Robert Baker,Tony Platt, Lesley Ford-Platt , Catherine Smith, Simon Amstutz, Emma Black, Martin Gosling, Brenda Gosling, Sally Bartrum, Nigel Chapman, Dave Dignum, Cat Burrows, Arthur Studd, Mark Prina, Will Akast, Ben Norrington, Adrian Walters
AONB Volunteers: William Ford, Bob Smith, Lorna McGain, Howard Leader, Will Eden, Peter McGain, David Dale, Ian Thompson, Steve Pritchard, Deena Harding
post today is from SB with more of her interesting observations from her
beautiful garden on the banks of the River Stour. We hear of her spring
planting plans, including planting some delightful witch hazels which will
provide colour next winter.
The recent spell of unseasonably warm weather brought some early visitors to the garden. A butter yellow brimstone butterfly was seen on the 23rd February and a peacock butterfly sunning itself on the house wall. Several types of bee were out feeding on the flowers of the crocuses and Pulmonaria. We have several Pulmonaria plants dotted around, sporting white through to the vivid blue flowers of ‘Blue Ensign’, which are extremely popular with bees on warm days.
At the bird table either a marsh or willow tit was feeding on the seed
mix. According to our bird
identification book it is extremely difficult to tell them apart. It was a fleeting visitor as I have not
seen it since but we very much hope a pair will be nesting somewhere in the
The dead stalks of the nettles etc. that grow along the upper parts of
the riverbanks have all been scythed down and removed to the compost heap. We use a scythe as it seems more
appropriate than an intrusive and harsh strimmer along the riverside. We do not
cut the reeds but keep above them maintained at this time as it keeps the area
manageable. Soon it will be a mass
of wild plants including willow herb, hemp-agrimony and of course nettles. We encourage the wild plants on most of
the riverbank areas only keeping the more formal areas clear so that we can
enjoy the view of the river from the lawns.
We purchased some new plants for the garden at our annual early spring
visit to our favourite garden centre at East Bergholt. We have redesigned a corner in a
terrace area beside the house. The
assorted pots of ornamental grasses, all of which have seen better days have
been removed and we have replaced them with a large terracotta pot containing a
Magnolia soulangeana. We also
snapped up a Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) with an apricot coloured flower to
grow against a wall in our formal garden.
We already have a fabulous deep pink Chaenomeles which is currently
giving us a splendid display. Then
we succumbed to three Hamamelis (witch hazel). On the island we have a group of five Betula papyrifera
(Canoe birch), which have a pale orange-brown bark, Corylus avellane ‘Webbs
Prize Cobb’ are planted behind them. We intend to plant the witch hazels
which are mollis and varieties ‘Barmstedt Gold’ and ‘Arnold Promise’ at the
front to give, in time, a blaze of winter colour to accompany the catkins of
the hazels. I have been inspired
to plant more witch hazels by a recent visit to the delightful Green Island
Gardens at Ardleigh where they have a large collection of witch hazels adding
such form and colour to their garden in winter.
We frequently hear the otters whistling to each other after dark in the
millpond. The kingfishers are
regularly seen, a fabulous blue streak accompanied by a high-pitched
whistle. I was blessed with one
sitting on the hedge immediately outside our study window, I have never seen
one so close before and the colours were incredible. It was a brief rest for the kingfisher and then it flew off
across the millpond to its usual hunting spot on the fallen willow. SB
Our blog post today comes from SB with “Garden Clippings”, her seasonal observations from her garden on the banks of the River Stour. In this edition SB is surprised by an opportunistic visitor to the garden!
We have had a sparrow terrace nest box on our garage apex for several
years now and this is being used regular by house sparrows and occasionally
great tits. As we have a larger
number of house sparrows in the garden we decided to make our terrace into a
sparrow street and have added two more terraces providing a total of nine
nesting sites. The new boxes may
not be used this spring, we shall have to wait and see.
Pruning is being done as the weather allows. The several clematis around the garden have been cut down
and progress is being made on the climbing roses. We have a large pergola with various roses, a pale pink
Montana clematis, fragrant summer jasmine and a white wisteria twisting its way
through the roses. We are
gradually training it along the length of the pergola. Pruning this large area is quite
a challenge but well worth the effort, particularly for the wisteria which
rewards us with a mass of cascading white flowers to walk beneath. We do not prune the jasmine or the
clematis. Although following
severe winters we have had to cut the jasmine hard back to regenerate it.
Today, as no frost is forecast, I have been cutting back our five buddleia on the butterfly bank, all different shades of mauves and a white when in flower. Two sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and a variegated box elder, which need hard pruning to keep them a reasonable shape as they put on a large amount of growth each year. One of the sambucus nigra is located close to our group of three mature silver birch which are underplanted with snowdrops. It has been a windy day and the snowdrops looked fantastic jingling their numerous heads in the breeze. The strong wind had caused numerous sprays of fine birch twigs to tumble from the trees. I will be gathering these up as they make excellent kindling for our wood burning stove, even straight from the garden they burn fiercely and only a small amount is needed to light a fire.
We feed the birds suet blocks in a metal, cage like feeder. The blocks seemed to be consumed at
quite a rate and regularly needed refilling. Despite an almost constant coming and going of great tits,
blue tits and long-tailed tits we were suspicious they were not alone in
appreciating the fine dining on offer.
The “extra guest” revealed itself this week – I glanced out of the
window to see a bank vole tucking into the suet block! Accessing the feeder via a very narrow
branch which conveniently rose up in front of the feeder providing the vole
with the perfect route to the food.
After eating its fill it disappeared in a flash down the branch and into
the dense foliage of the hedge behind.
Amazingly, it had climbed around twelve feet through the ivy-clad
forsythia to reach the feeder! SB
Happy New Year! Our first blog post of 2019 comes from SB with “Garden Clippings”, her seasonal observations from her garden on the banks of the River Stour. She tells us about the wildlife coming to her garden, including a very unusual visitor!
We planted a new witch hazel last spring and despite watering as much as
possible throughout the drought its leaves withered and died late summer and we
feared we had lost it to the dry conditions. To our delight we now see flower buds have formed and the
witch hazel is alive and well. All
those buckets of water were worthwhile after all!
The bird table is very busy with a good size flutter of sparrows also blue tits, long tailed tits, coal tits, great tits, robins, green finches, goldfinches, a female reed bunting, lesser spotted woodpecker, starlings, blackbirds and the occasional sparrow hawk swooping through. On the island we have had a new sighting, a water rail (see photo). We have the reed beds there and dense vegetation along the riverbanks which it prefers. Our reference book informs us that it feeds on insects and their larvae, crustaceans, worms, fish and even other birds, together with roots, berries and seeds. I have heard a strange call when walking around the island and perhaps the water rail has been responsible. The reference book states its weird cries have been likened to those of a screaming pig!
Nocturnal visitors to the garden of late include badger, fox, muntjac,
stoat, otters (a family of three have been seen) and the occasional rat and
Welcome signs of spring greet us as we walk around – crocus and daffodil
are making an appearance and we have aconites and snowdrops in flower. The willows are sporting fabulous
catkins, furry ovals of silver along their upright stems, which look stunning
against a blue winter sky when the light catches them. The hazels have cascading clusters of
catkins. In the border the
hellebores are about to enchant us with their pendulous flowers, so worth
stopping for a moment, lifting a flower to admire the beauty within. SB
As we approach the shortest day, it is an excellent time to look at the night sky, especially on clear nights. Our final blog post of 2018 is written by David Murton of The Commission for Dark Skies. He tells us how to best enjoy the night skies in the Stour Valley and highlights the importance of preserving dark skies.
It’s not widely appreciated, but the night skies within parts of Stour Valley are as dark as anywhere in the UK. However this situation is under constant threat from encroaching development and uncontrolled lighting with its associated light pollution and sky glow. Recent surveys have shown a 2% increase in the artificially lit area every year. If nothing is done we are in great danger of losing the splendour of the Milky Way and the stars for our children forever.
Many of our National Parks and AONB’s are now classified as Dark Sky Reserves and Parks by the International Dark Skies Association, giving them some protection from this blight and the Dedham Vale Society are looking into applying for Dark Sky Park status for their area. To aid in this, they have been conducting an extensive night sky survey to establish how dark the skies actually are and which areas are in need of improvement.
This will be about ensuring the right light in the right place, not stopping all external lighting. Unnecessary or inefficient lighting costs millions of pounds and tons of CO2 pollution every year and simple changes can make a huge difference, not only with regard to astronomy, but also wildlife and our own health.
Dark sky tourism is becoming a big business, with people travelling long distances to be under dark skies. Hopefully increased awareness of the quality of the Stour Valley’s dark skies will encourage holiday accommodation providers to embrace this opportunity to gain much needed off season trade, being only an hour from the M25.
If you have never before experienced the wonders of the night sky, I would highly recommend that you take time to do so. Just choose a clear night, without too much moonlight, and find yourself somewhere dark away from streetlights. You won’t need to travel too far in the Stour Valley to find ideal places. Your eyes will need around 30 minutes to become properly dark adapted allowing you to get the best views. If you need a torch use a red light one, such as a bicycle rear light, as this won’t spoil your dark adaption.
There are some great apps available for your mobile phone or tablet to help you find your way around the sky and explain what you are looking at. If you have a pair of binoculars, make sure that you take them with you. You will be amazed what you will be able to see with them, from the Andromeda galaxy and the moons of Jupiter, to the mountains and craters of the moon.
Above all please support the efforts being made to ensure that these splendours are still accessible to future generations.
The Commission for Dark Skies
Thank you to all who have contributed to the River Stour Festival blog this year and to all who have followed the blog. We are busy planning for the River Stour Festival 2019. In the meantime may we wish you all Season’s Greetings and best wishes for the New Year.
Our blog post today comes from SB as she tells us about her beautiful riverside garden in November.
Our garden appears to be situated in a frost hollow and as a result we have had to scrape the frozen car windscreen on two or three early mornings recently. Regrettably the fabulous display of dahlias was reduced to limp flowers atop blackened stems during one overnight frost. I have since cut them all off to a few inches above the ground and covered them over with a deep blanket of straw. In the past I have dug up and overwintered some of the more prized tubers but I am leaving them all in situ as I have lost none of the plants left out overwinter for the past few years and storage space is limited. The greenhouse is full of tender plants now tucked away for their winter sojourn.
It was necessary to have some major tree surgery carried out to a large willow with many diseased or dead branches which were in peril of falling onto a bridge below. The bridge was designed and built for us by a good friend who sadly passed away at an early age. The bridge is a great asset to the garden and allows a circular walk around the island. We are reminded of our friend when we walk over it and we certainly didn’t want it damaged during a gale. The willow will regenerate from the trunk and stumps of branches. We now have an enormous pile of future firewood and the whole space has been “opened up” allowing more light into the area of water adjacent to the willow. A white waterlily which has not be flourishing of late should now benefit from the additional light. We had a bonfire of all the small, unusable brush but anything which could be “logged up” has gone onto the firewood pile. Very little has been wasted.
Piles of windfall apples and quince surround the base of the trees. Many were picked but with such a heavy crop unfortunately many were left on the trees, partly due to us being away on holiday at the time of harvesting. Timing a holiday with a productive garden is never easy! However, the moorhens, blackbirds and robins are all enjoying the feast. Wormlike creatures are slowly breaking down the quince plus the voles and mice who come from below to tuck into the fruit lying above their burrows. We have had a sufficient harvest of the crop so we are happy to share with the other residents of our garden.
There are still several insects to be seen in the garden including bees, wasps and the occasional butterfly. I spotted a red admiral only yesterday in the vegetable garden.
I have tulip bulbs to plant in pots on the terrace and several dozen wallflowers to fill the bed beside our gateway. It is good to be thinking of spring and what one will be growing or changing next year. SB