The Thurlows

Village News & Information

3. Natural History JEREMY MYNOTT

Thurlow enjoys a very diverse and interesting wildlife, mainly because of the varied habitats the two villages offer. I deal here with both Thurlows together, since from the point of view of the wildlife (as opposed to the parishioners) the human boundaries are quite arbitrary and, indeed, invisible. The dominant natural feature is, of course, the River Stour. Water is so important to all life that the river is probably the reason Thurlow was founded just here in the first place, and it not only sustains within it many kinds of fish (and interesting invertebrates like the freshwater crayfish), but also attracts a wide range of birds and animals, including of course our star bird, the kingfisher. Thurlow Lake is also a magnet for birds, with its resident ducks, geese, heron and other waterbirds and with many rarer visitors on passage and in winter. We also have arable fields, pasture, copses, woods, meadows, gardens and even (less glamorously) our own little sewage plant , which is an important site for wagtails, warblers and other insect eating-birds attracted by the abundance of flies and by the green sward. All these different environments are like little worlds of their own, with their local inhabitants, habits and cycles and we are lucky indeed to have such a wealth of them.

The bird life is particularly rich. In the last 15 years I have recorded no fewer than 115 different species here, which is a lot for such a small inland village. I've given the complete list at the end of this article, annotated to show whether each is a resident, a seasonal visitor or a vagrant. About 80 of these could be said to be regular, but in addition to the familiar species we do occasionally get a real rarity, like the splendid woodchat shrike which in June 1995 somehow found itself in the hedgerows of Thurlow rather than the olive trees of the Mediterranean.

But for the most part the cycle of seasons has a satisfyingly familiar course. If the year begins with a cold snap there will be an influx of 'winter thrushes', driven south in search of berries and softer ground ­ in particular noisy bands of fieldfares and redwings from Scandinavia. In the hedgerows there will be foraging groups of mixed species ­ long-tailed, great, blue, marsh and coal tits, goldcrests, treecreepers ­ all flocking together as better protection against predators like sparrow hawks and kestrels (both resident here). In our gardens the hungry visitors to the bird table will include not only such familiar residents as the robin, blackbird and song thrush (though this last is getting worryingly scarcer) but also greenfinches, maybe greater spotted woodpeckers and (in recent years) the acrobatic siskins, which are little finches from the pine forests. Meanwhile, if Great Thurlow Lake isn't actually iced over it will be harbouring various winter duck ­ tufted duck, pochard and occasionally teal, gadwall, wigeon or shoveler ­ as well as the resident coot, moorhen and heron. And on the open fields the rooks and wood pigeons will be joined by roving flocks of lapwing, gulls and golden plover.

By early February we'll be aware of a change in the light and an increase in the volume of bird song. The mistle thrush will have started in January, in fact, and the robin and wren sing throughout the winter; but they will now be joined by the dunnock, great tit, blue tit and song thrush; and the greenfinch and chaffinch will be tuning up too. The different species keep to quite a strict calendar of birdsong and I have added a chart to illustrate this at the end of the article. The timing seems to be controlled by both the light and the temperature so it varies systematically in different parts of the country. By the first week of March in Thurlow, at any rate, the blackbird, skylark and yellowhammer will have joined the chorus; and then, in mid-March, by a yearly miracle of long-distance migration the first of our summer visitors can be heard singing sweetly down by the river - the chiffchaff.

That heralds a stream of arrivals from the south, again in a regular sequence which goes something like this: chiffchaff 20 March, willow warbler 8 April, blackcap 10 April, swallow 12 April, house martin 20 April, cuckoo 21 April, whitethroat 4 May, swift 5 May, turtle dove 6 May, and finally the spotted flycatcher 20 May. It isn't always quite so precise, of course, but it's usually there or thereabouts. Interestingly, I've noticed that in recent years the dates are getting a few days earlier. Is that global warming? Doubtless the authors of Thurlow 3000 will be able to tell us! The other thing we must all have noticed is how many fewer there are of many species, especially the seed-eaters like skylarks, buntings and even the once-abundant sparrows, all of whom have suffered the combined effects of herbicides, pesticides and 'improvements' generally. Thurlow 3000 may also, I fear, document a blander and bleaker world if we do not take a larger view of what constitutes progress.

In high summer the birds are at their most active, with a dawn chorus of full symphonic proportions, parents feeding 2 or 3 broods of seemingly insatiable young, screaming parties of swifts in the evenings and the echoing conversations of owls by night. But in August there is a bit of a slump. Most birds go into moult and for self-protection behave rather quietly and secretively. Even the robin stops singing for a while. Then before you know it the long journeys back south begin again, more-or-less in reverse order. It's rare to see a swift after 10 August but the chiffchaff may still be with us and singing until the end of September. Then on frosty nights in late October you hear the flight calls of fieldfares and redwings flocking in against the hard weather further north. And so the cycle begins again.

Butterflies and flowers too follow their own, interrelated cycles. The first þowers of the year are the aconites, and the best display is in the lovely garden of the Old House by the bridge, often as early as the very first week of January. There is then the familiar succession of snowdrops, celandines, crocuses, daffodils and cowslips. Most of these early flowers are yellow, maybe the better to attract the early pollen-seekers and pollen-spreaders like the first bees and butterflies of the year. Four of our common butterflies actually hibernate over winter ­ the brimstone, peacock, comma and small tortoiseshell ­ and it's not uncommon on a sunny day in early March, or even February, to see the first yellow brimstones gliding around in a sheltered corner. Most of our other common butterflies spend the winter protected in a chrysalis and emerge in April or May when there's a greater range of flowers available, and these are later joined by some migrants from Europe like the red admiral and the painted lady, the latter of which in some years (like 1996) arrives in vast numbers flying, incredibly, all the way from Africa on those delicate wings. Regular but less common visitors include the comma, speckled wood, holly blue, meadow brown, orange tip and large skipper. Anyone with a vegetable patch also knows the common ('cabbage') white, and if you have in your garden nectar flowers like buddleia, michaelmas daisies and ice plants or larval food plants like the holly and the ivy, you may well attract some of these other beautiful species. Some 30 different butterfly species in all are found in Suffolk today. But butterflies generally are on the decline, for just the same reasons of agricultural change, habitat destruction and urban development that are threatening the flowers on which they depend and everything else in this sensitive food chain.

The mammals ought to be easier to see than either the birds or the butterflies, you would think, since at least they are large, relatively slow-moving and resident. But in fact, and for just the same reasons, they are much shyer and better concealed. We have plenty of foxes, of course, whether in spite of or because of the hunt; and there's no shortage of rabbits, hares, grey squirrels and hedgehogs. But you have to watch more patiently actually to see the moles (rather than just their hillocks) or even to catch sight of the numerous roe deer and the muntjac, let alone the voles (two kinds), mice (three kinds), shrews (two kinds) and the stoats and weasels that prey on them. There are occasionally badgers too, and otters are re-establishing themselves further down the Stour, so there's also a chance of once again glimpsing these exciting animals one day. 

Black Poplar (Temple End Road)Our flowers are, fortunately, still too numerous to mention separately. For those who would like a comprehensive list and have access to the Internet there is a useful database of plants listed by postcode on www.nhm.ac.uk/science/projects/fff/. That shows a remarkable total of no fewer than 374 flowering wild plants, bushes and trees in the cb9 postal area alone, including 60 annuals, 33 biennials, 179 perennials, 32 marsh or water plants and 38 trees or shrubs. Not all of these will be in Thurlow, of course, but a fair number are. Good places to look are in all the unsprayed areas: the churchyards, the river banks, the ditches and the 'waste' ground that hasn't yet been tidied up in the lanes or at field edges. If you stroll regularly from the village up the Carlton Road you can watch a nice succession of flowers, starting with the lovely display of aconites in the Old House from early January, snowdrops in the Walks in February, celandines and cowslips in the ditches from late March, primroses in April, and so on, through to the frothy meadowsweet on the banks in August.

 And you can also see a grand selection of our native trees, including our solitary (and venerable) black poplar, one of only 2000 left in the British Isles, and such native hardwoods as the beech, ash, alder, willow, maple, oak, lime and cherry. Look out also for the stands of ancient oak in Trundley Wood, the mighty limes on Pound Green, the wych elms on the drive to Little Thurlow Hall which have survived both hurricanes and elm disease, the white poplars soughing in the breeze at the end of the Drift, and the horse chestnuts along the Walks.

But every part of the village has its own vistas and its own natural history, all linked and interdependent. It is for a Millennium volume such as this to remind us how fragile, precious and irreplaceable all this is. We have need to be watchful, in both senses of that word: first, just literally to see and hear what there is around us in all its variety and richness; and secondly to guard it, lest we impoverish the natural world, and ourselves, in the name of material progress.

 Taken from pages 29 - 32

Appendix 1 - Species of birds identified in Thurlow, 1982 - 1999

Appendix 2 Song chart of the weeks in which species are singing regularly in Little Thurlow

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