Have you visited Suffolk's 'hidden' 75-acre wildlife sanctuary?
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
While recreational activities were certainly limited during the height of lockdown, the one thing we could all rely on was the great outdoors.
Over the past 16 months, people have been spending more time exploring their local green spaces - from rolling fields, to stunning nature reserves and expansive forests.
But one Suffolk museum wants people to continue enjoying the beauty that nature has to offer, even as restrictions lift and life slowly gets back to normal.
Meet Tom Peer. He’s the conservation and kickstart officer at the Museum of East Anglian Life, and since taking up his post a few months ago, he has dedicated his time to helping raise awareness of the museum’s vast green spaces as well as improve the area’s biodiversity.
Spanning across 75 acres of land, the museum is home a variety of terrains and habitats - something Tom wishes to draw attention to.
“It’s a mix between agriculture and a nature park. We also have a number of different habitats, such as woodlands and grassy meadows. The grassy meadows have historically been used for grazing or hay cultivation, but have also been used to cultivate hops and willow, while the woodland is home to a lot of different wildlife.
“But people just don’t know about it, so it’s important to us that we show people how agriculture and wildspaces co-exist in harmony. Because we’re in the middle of Stowmarket, we’re this green oasis of wildlife, and as the river runs through our property, we’re what you’d call a green corridor. That means wildlife can move from one greenspace to another via the river.”
One of the ways Tom has highlighted the importance of this green haven is by spearheading the museum’s kickstart scheme, which helps combat unemployment in those aged 18 to 24.
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“We give people positions here, so those on the scheme have paid work. But we also make sure to train them with transferable skills, so at the end of their placement they can work towards building their career paths.
“We also give them a careers consultant and a professional developer, so we’re trying to provide them all the tools they need while they give us the manpower we need here on the site. Specifically down at the riverside, where we’re improving the biodiversity and experience for the public.”
Tom and his team have since worked hard to create a footpath down by the river, allowing visitors to explore the ground’s vast range of flora and fauna.
“There’s two main loops for people to enjoy. The smaller path goes down the main part of the river trail and cuts back through one of our hay fields, and we have an additional loop which goes through an old woodland. All of the work we’re able to do here on the riverside, a large portion of the funding is thanks to the ScottishPower Foundation.”
And what can visitors see once they venture down to the riverside?
“We’re incredibly lucky that we have animals such as river otters, badgers, and deer species such as muntjac here on site. We also have a number of birds of prey including kestrels and buzzards.”
Just a few weeks ago, Tom managed to capture footage of a pair of river otters for the first time on the museum’s grounds - proving that the town centre site truly is an oasis for wildlife.
“The presence of otters on our land indicates that our river is good and healthy, as they will only live in clean, fresh water abundant in food. This means our ecosystem is doing well and can support wildlife in the middle of Stowmarket.
“I’ve also recorded footage of stoats on the property, alongside rabbits and pheasants, who they all live in harmony with the livestock we have as well.”
Livestock on the museum’s property include a Suffolk punch, the oldest English breed of working horse; and Red Poll cattle which are also native to the county.
“In addition, we have lots of interesting trees here on site, but in terms of flowers, the most notable species that’s popped up recently is the bee orchid.”
Bee orchids are one of the country’s native orchid species, and while they are not as common as they once were nationwide, they can often be found right here in Suffolk.
“We have a lot of those around and they’re special to have as they’re usually few and far between.”
Following the ground’s recent revamp, Tom says visitors who have already checked out the site are surprised with how much of wildlife is located right in the centre of Stowmarket.
“We say if we had a pound for every time someone said they didn’t know the river trail was down here, we’d be able to fund all of the projects we ever wanted to. People are really impressed with what we have, and comment on how peaceful it is - you would never picture such a tranquil place right in the heart of Stowmarket. Like I said, people don’t know we’re here, but when they do, they’re blown away.”
As well as offering visitors a tranquil escape, the museum also provides a number of talks and experiences that are intended to show people the importance of agriculture here in Suffolk.
“If you come to the museum, every day at 3pm you can join in with the animal feeding, to learn more about livestock. We also have a few different programmes happening, such as have-a-go farming, where you can get hands on and find out more about ‘field to fork’ farming. We’re also going to be installing a bread oven in our water mill over the coming weeks - and the premise is to show people where their food comes from and what you can do with it.
“Combining all of this with the nature reserve at the bottom of the riverside is going to be really interesting, and I think it’s going to be quite a special site here in Suffolk.
“Especially after the year we’ve had, it’s quite nice to get a pleasant surprise and see what special things can be found in the midst of town. We want people to keep exploring their local environment – and to realise they don’t even have to go that far to do so.”