Ipswich: Mud proves glorious for riverside birds

The Orwell River between Princes St Bridge and Stoke Bridge at Low tide

The Orwell River between Princes St Bridge and Stoke Bridge at Low tide

Ipswich has rediscovered its links with the water over recent years with the development around the historic wet dock and the opening of the Orwell Country Park bringing more people to its foreshore.

But the main river in the town itself – which changes from the Gipping to the Orwell at Yarmouth Road where it ceases to be tidal – is an often overlooked gem. To a large extent this is as a result of the appearance of the tidal River Orwell.

At low tide swathes of mud are exposed which can be rather ‘fragrant’ on hot summer days.

Anything that has been thrown into the river is exposed, you can see old cycle frames, traffic bollards and supermarket trolleys that have not been fished out by the council or volunteers from environmental groups.

But while the mud might look unpleasant to us, to the area’s birds it provides a real banquet. The tidal nature of the river makes it one of the most important rivers in the country – and gives wildlife lovers in Ipswich the chance to see species that others can only dream about.

Ipswich was one of the first towns or cities in the country to see a colony of little egrets establish itself within the last 20 years.

You can often see these birds if you walk across the Sir Bobby Robson Bridge at low tide.

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The mud is full of millions, if not billions, of tiny creatures which are food for thousands of waders – including redshanks, oystercatchers, and egrets themselves.

At higher tide the river can attract other birds like grebes. A kingfisher has been spotted over the river near the town centre – although it would be more at home over the non-tidal, and therefore fresh water, River Gipping.

The borough council is responsible for maintaining the river, and the council’s leisure spokeswoman Bryony Rudkin said officials and councillors were well aware of the value of the river.

She said: “It is a fantastic resource, and people living in the new development beside the river with the bridge really appreciate this as part of their home environment.

“Maybe we should make more of the river in the heart of our town – explaining what is so special about the mud and the wildlife it supports.”

She said she would be looking at the possibility of putting up new notice boards on prominent positions like the Princes Street bridge.

Members of the Ipswich Wildlife Group regularly take part in river clear-ups – and during the summer there is a regular build-up of duckweed on the River Gipping.

The Environment Agency releases water through the Yarmouth Road weir in an attempt to clear as much duckweed as possible – it is a non-toxic plant that is harvested in Asia and used as nutritious food.

The Suffolk Wildlife Trust recognises the river as a vital resource for the whole county.

A spokeswoman for the Trust said: “The River Orwell may look dull and muddy but it offers some of the richest pickings for wading birds and wildfowl in the country.

“The intertidal mud is literally packed with juicy invertebrates which draws huge numbers of hungry waders every winter making it one of best estuaries in East Anglia for birds such as grey plover, redshank, turnstone and dunlin.”

The importance of the Orwell in the town was underlined during development at Felixstowe docks which could only take place after new habitats were created nearby.

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