Rangers are far from being alone

STEVEN RUSSELL was keen to find out what the Ipswich wildlife rangers do, so they took him on a nostalgic trip back to Bixley HeathJOE Underwood pointed to some grey strands and bemoaned: ”I'm 25, and look at my hair! That's the price you pay for being passionate about conservation and having a job as wildlife's best friend.

Steven Russell

STEVEN RUSSELL was keen to find out what the Ipswich wildlife rangers do, so they took him on a nostalgic trip back to Bixley Heath

JOE Underwood pointed to some grey strands and bemoaned: ”I'm 25, and look at my hair! That's the price you pay for being passionate about conservation and having a job as wildlife's best friend.”

The cause of this angst is dog-walkers who let their pets frolic off the lead across Bixley Heath.

It's an appealing slice of the country in the town. Unfortunately, it's also a site of special scientific interest and home to birds that nest close to the ground.

A lumbering labrador or rampaging retriever, however cute and innocent, can scare off parent birds and put their young at risk.

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The trick is getting the message across. Signs are not always read, or are taken down by vandals. Sometimes, people prove too stubborn. Joe, a wildlife and education ranger with Ipswich council, has had to speak repeatedly to some dog-walkers.

As if on cue, he spots a woman throwing a stick into the middle of the heather for her pet. He's many times pointed out the error of her ways. Not far off is a man acting similarly. “I've spoken to him as well,” sighed the beleaguered ranger, a confessed bird-nerd. “What is wrong with people? Urrggh!”

The site is valuable because it combines heathland with scarce swamp vegetation. Sandwiched between Bucklesham Road, the Broke Hall estate and a corner of Ipswich Golf Club, it's part of the sandlings that run from Felixstowe up to the Lowestoft area.

Dig down and you'll hit pure sand. Nutrients rapidly drain through while nettles and brambles struggle to gain a foothold, but heather loves it - and heather is wonderful habitat for those ground-nesting birds we want to encourage.

Even dog poo is bad for the heathland, because it increases the nutrients in the soil and gives unwanted flora and fauna the chance to establish themselves.

“I'm hated over here, because I actively go and dig daffodils off the heath,” laughed Joe. “The heath is not a flowerbed! Daffodils don't support lizards and slowworms!”

Thirty-odd years ago, as a child who didn't know any better, I used to run here with playmates from Broke Hall. We called it The Swamp. Turns out that's what it is, at least in part.

Joe said it's very rare to have heathland and swamp on the same site. Swampland is a nesting area for birds such as grey wagtails, while snipe will overwinter there. Both are on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' amber list - not among the species needing urgent help to prosper, but in the next most critical group.

Rangers remove the invasive bulrushes and willow herb so the greater tussock-sedge, the most important swamp vegetation, can thrive.

The public often finds it hard to understand how some sites are managed in this way, by stopping nature in its tracks, because it often looks as if officialdom is killing healthy plants.

“People say 'Why are you cutting down trees?'” admitted Joe. When you explain that this is a sycamore tree that supports five insects

and this oak tree supports about 500, they're usually fine.”

At Bixley Heath the pesky willow is a particular pain where the stream widens out into a reedbed.

This is a prize, supporting birds such as reed bunting - it's on the red list - and the sedge warbler.

He explains about the willow: “If we just left it, it would eventually take over the whole reedbed and shade it all out and it would be lost.”

There's actually a bit too much water flowing at the moment and that's threatening to dry out the precious reedbed. Vandalism has allowed water to run over the side.

Luckily, because Bixley Heath is part of a high-level stewardship scheme, it attracts money from Natural England - the government's environmental management arm.

Cash has also come from the rangers' Ipswich council budget and Suffolk county councillor Russell Harsant's locality fund, to finance an improvement project costing more than £3,000.

Sixty tonnes of clay is being brought in to raise the bund by about 30cm. This will keep the water in. Hogging will go over the top of the bund to restore the path.

The work will also improve life for some treasured residents - by stopping water sloshing over their loos!

Just before last Christmas, an expert from Suffolk Wildlife Trust discovered water voles living on the edge of the site and using part of the stream as a latrine.

Once widespread across Britain, Arvicola terrestris - to give it its official name - has suffered a major decline, picked off by mink and suffering because of changes in farming and flood control practices.

When grass is cut around their habitat on Bixley Heath, the edging is left to provide good cover for the animal.

Tricky old job, being a ranger. So much to consider...

“It is rewarding, though,” smiled Joe.

“When you see something rare nesting in a hedge you've planted, it's really nice.”

FORGET those jobsworth parkies who used to appear on the pages of Beano and Dandy comics, keeping The Bash Street Kids and Korky the Cat in line - they're nothing like the rangers you'll find in Ipswich today.

When the borough's service began perhaps 20 years ago or more, rangers had more of a traditional security-type mandate.

However, over the years it's developed into the wildlife and education-focused role.

Nowadays, there's a separate park patrol service monitoring the town's open areas and maintaining security.

Matt Berry, team leader of the wildlife and education rangers, says their remit covers any park and open space within the borough boundaries, including lots of small open areas and recreation grounds as well as big expanses such as Christchurch Park.

The aim, in a nutshell, is to improve sites' value to wildlife. The rangers take part in school visits and host guided walks and talks to spread the gospel.

They've also developed an activity pack that can be used independently by teachers and youth group leaders.

With many interested in ecology and conservation, the ranger's role is a coveted one. Between 20 and 30 people applied for the latest vacancy, with seven interviewed.

“It's an attractive job,” said Matt. “You're not going to get rich doing it, but it's a nice existence.”