Warblers bring an air of magic to a day spent working on Cornard Mere

Stephen Grainger, Michael Hardy, Simon Lee - part of the working party at Cornard Mere

Stephen Grainger, Michael Hardy, Simon Lee - part of the working party at Cornard Mere - Credit: Archant

Cornard Mere is one of Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s smallest reserves but its size belies its importance as a rare habitat in this corner of the county. Ross Bentley joined a small working party to find out more about this special place.

Views of Cornard Mere

Views of Cornard Mere - Credit: Archant

I had to work hard to get my first view of Cornard Mere.

I was handed an antique scythe; a curved blade attached to a worn handle, and asked to cut a path from the roadside entrance to the water’s edge. Before me stretched an 80-yard no-man’s land of waist-high nettle, thistle and willowherb.

I had joined the small working party who care for this wee piece of paradise in west Suffolk.

Every first Sunday of the month they meet here to volunteer their muscle and help keep these 15 acres – one of Suffolk Wildlife Trusts’s smallest reserves – in the best shape possible for the many and varied wildlife species found here.

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The only two months of the calendar they do not congregate are April and May, so as not to disturb the breeding birds. Thus, the towering vegetation that had built up and my Herculean task.

Stunning vista

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Sweat was dripping off my nose as I triumphantly swept away the last nettles and raised my head to take-in the well-earned vista. It was stunning, worth all the effort and more. Here was a secret mature wetland habitat on the borders of the urban conurbation of Cornard.

Views of Cornard Mere

Views of Cornard Mere - Credit: Archant

On the water ahead, two Canada geese slowly drifted across in front of a sweeping backdrop of reed beds. Close by, over the shallow edges, a broad-bodied chaser dragonfly busied itself exploring the wet scrub. Meanwhile, a proud mother Mallard shepherded an impressive 11 chicks into the cover.

Ecologically important

There are two theories that explain the existence of Cornard Mere.

Some believe it to be an oxbow lake, a body of water that over time has become separated from the nearby River Stour. Another premise is that the mere is the result of a kettle hole - a watery hollow created when an ancient buried block of glacier ice melted out.

Beyond the debate over the mere’s geographical history, its ecological importance is uncontentious.

Reserve warden Robin Ford, who has been involved in the mere’s upkeep for over 35 years, informs me that it is the only large reed bed found in the Stour Valley.

Its significance has been recognised for generations: renowned early eighteenth century botanist, Joseph Andrews – a stepbrother to Robert Andrews of Gainsborough’s Mr and Ms Andrews fame - was a frequent visitor.

Robin Ford at Cornard Mere

Robin Ford at Cornard Mere - Credit: Archant

His herbarium, all 12 volumes of pressed flora, is now held in the Natural History Museum - over 10% of the plants within originate from the mere.

Contemporary botanists can still, literally, have a field day -I saw golden dock and wonderful clusters of greater yellow cress on my tour.

Water levels

The morning’s work completed, our small band went for a stroll along the footpath to the side of the reserve in order to get a closer view of the reeds. What better way to spend your time than out in nature with like-minded individuals, each contributing their expertise and insights - and the sun was shining to boot.

Assistant warden Mark was a mine of information – he said the main work here involves cutting back the willow trees that constantly encroach on the wetland, and cutting the reed to encourage new growth and insects that birds like sedge warbler and reed warbler feed on.

The water levels on the mere fluctuate – in the late summer they retreat so the working party can get out among the reeds to do their work. Birds like sandpipers and greenshank drop in to enjoy the exposed mud while grass snakes make their home in the reed bundles left by the team.

In recent years the water levels have remained high, which is bad news for some of the plants and flowers that flourish on the moist margins but good news for the bird life for whom water affords protection. Water rails, little grebe and shoveler call this place home.

Magic in the reeds

But the real magic started as we drew closer to the reeds.

We’d already heard the loud outburst of a Cetti’s warbler and the scratchy call of a sedge warbler before a reed warbler darted from the reeds into a nearby field of rye then shot back, zooming back and forth from one form of cover to the next.

Then it alighted on a reed stalk a few feet from us, its buff-coloured chest and throat puffing out as it let forth its rasping churr. If that wasn’t enough, a reed bunting then joined proceedings showing off its distinctive black and white head as it clung atop a swaying reed.

It was a wonderful five minutes of activity – a small insight into the precious wildlife Cornard Mere supports.

When I returned home I looked up the word mere in the dictionary.

One definition is that it is an Old English term for a pond or lake, related to Dutch meer ‘lake’ and German Meer ‘sea’.

A second definition says the word is “used to emphasise how small or insignificant someone or something is.”

Relatively small, yes, but definitely not insignificant.

Robin and Mark who run the working parties at Cornard Mere are looking for new volunteers to regularly help them with their work maintaining the habitat at the reserve.

Numbers have dwindled over the years and the need for extra hands is most pronounced in late summer, September-time when there is a small window available to cut the reed.

Visit www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/reserves/cornard-mere to find out more.

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