Between 1968 and 2000, over 3.5million tonnes of sand and gravel were extracted from a site just 5 miles from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, an act which could have been devastating to the landscape and wildlife. But, since the mid-1980s the commercial site management worked with the local Wildlife Trust in a unique partnership which was ahead of its time, not to restore the habitat, but to actually rehabilitate and enhance it.
When the last pit closed in 2000, part of the rehabilitated site was already so significant that it had already become a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The whole site was donated to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust by CEMEX in the same year, and they have continued to expand and develop the site, with the aid of a grant from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund and legacy gifts, creating a marvellous network of hides and paths within what is now the 128-hectare Lackford Lakes reserve.
As part of the SSSI designation, 105.85ha were seen as ‘favourable’ with eight individual units, including the sailing lake. The notable features being the aggregations of non-breeding birds, assemblages of breeding birds, the outstanding dragonfly assemblage for which it is rightly famous, and for the supported variety of birds, which encourage the photographers and birders from far and wide. In fact, there are now many more photographers than birders at Lackford, as evidenced in the hides to the sounds of machine-gunning shutter fire (a small distraction).
Whilst specialist telephoto lenses are de rigour in the hides, it is actually possible to get some great shots with the minimum of equipment, so the keen amateur naturalists should not be discouraged. All the shots in this blog entry were taken either with the Fujifilm XT-2 and 16-55/2.8 lens, the Canon PowerShot SX700HS compact, or even my iPhone! I have included the settings in the captions for your reference.
Obviously, as you can see from the photos, I was blessed with extraordinary bright light which added use of fast shutter speeds to capture insets and birds whilst maintaining a lower ISO and without compromising on the depth of field. The downside of this was the high levels of contrast and the danger of bleaching out the lightest areas on occasion, and even shooting with the compact set to -1/2 stop wasn’t enough to save some of the images, sadly.
Although I had gone with the view to a relaxing birding morning out, I was able to get some good scene setting shots with the Fujifilm combination, but also, due to the excellent placing of the hides close to the wildlife, some good close-up shots of the birds behaviour also. Being able to extend my birding visit to include some photography also meant I ended up being one of the first cars on-site and one of the few still remaining when the visitor centre closed at the end of the day.
Even with the short lens on the Fuji, I was even able to get some decent close shots of the geese which were feeding just outside of Steggall’s Hide, which also provides a shelter for the sheep which graze this area.
I was also able to get some close-ups of plants and general location shots:
The reserve is certainly one of the best ones I have experienced for close-up views, and has reasonable visitor facilities which would only be improved by adding some lunch options to the small cafe menu (cake and drinks is nice but not enough for the all-day birder).
I did try some photography of birds and insects with the Canon, and whilst the results were very good when the images were in focus, it was very difficult to get reliable shots of anything that didn’t remain quite stationery. This was mainly due to the appalling slow focusing abilities, and the macro setting was completely ineffective.
I would certainly recommend using an DSLR over a compact, but I would not be discouraged from attempting photography with a good compact or bridge camera, just be prepared for a good few out of focus shots or shots focussed on the background rather than the subject. With digital this isn’t a problem as you can fill a memory card at no cost other than your editing time, but with film this could be a more costly issue.
My longest lens with the Fuji for this trip was just 55mm (82mm in 35mm equivalent), which was certainly long enough to get some good shots, but they would include a reasonable about of background. Of course, contextual shots are actually very interesting, often more so than just frame filling portraits. I think you’d easily get away with a medium telephoto from many of the hides, unlike many RSPB reserves which demand 400-600mm+ for anything decent.
The layout of the reserve is also fairly accessible, with ramped access wherever possible, and fairly even surfaced paths, although some could be heavy going for those pushing wheelchairs and I could easily see this becoming even more difficult in wetter conditions. Suffolk of course is a very dry county with a chalk based soil so it maintains good stability longer than most.
The sailing lake shares the access road, which is bumpy and potholed, but the sailing does not seem to disturb the birds half as much as the driving of the sailing lakes users might scare visitors. The Slough is generally very quiet with most photographers in the Double Decker trying to get shots of the elusive Kingfishers for which Lackford has become, rightly, famous. Personally, on my previous annual visits, I have only ever seen a Kingfisher from the remoter Steggall’s hide (twice) but I was informed a pair were nesting right outside the visitor centre. This had evidently afforded some reliable views with the benefit of a cup of tea!
You’ll struggle to get a mobile signal throughout, although it is intermittently available as attested by the sudden maddening beeping as it catches up with your emails and messages at various spots. If required, if you really can’t leave it alone, Bess’s Hide is the best place to be (or it is if you’re on EE anyway).
No dogs are allowed on-site.
The terrain is a mixture of wooded areas, reed beds, lakes, and meadows, bordered by a neatly scalped golf course, a road, and the river Lark. In late summer it is still possible to get good numbers of birds, so it is a good place for the birder as well as the photographer, however it is the damselflies and dragonflies which astound in summer. There are also some larger mammals, aside from the semi-resident sheep, in the form of grey squirrels and, spotted from Steggall’s, even a fox.
If you are sitting in Steggall’s minding your own business before being interrupted by monstrous knocking noises do not be alarmed. The semi-resident sheep use it as a shelter and are under the floor! They are a horned variety, with a bit of an attitude, and they like to let you know it.
My list for the first hour was impressive, and over the course of the day ended with 32 species seen with good views. Many more were heard or glimpsed.
Mute Swan (with four signets)
Mallard (male in eclipse)
Black Headed Gull
Gadwall (also in eclipse)
Great Crested Grebe (with chicks)
Blackcaps (breeding pair, with food)
Magpie (in the car park)
Common Whitethroat (female)
I would imagine a more experienced birder would come away with far more, as would locals who could learn the likely locations and calls of their own patch more than the visitor would.
I was delighted to see that there was less ‘cock-waggling’ (one-up-man-ship over photographic/birding kit) as we say in my home parts, especially than at many reserves (Aberdeenshire I am looking at you…), and also that birders and photographers were happy to talk and aid species identification with each other. It was also very good to see that you could hire binoculars and this, coupled with the friendliness of natives, meant that new visitors could share the experience without the usual feelings of being intimated by all the ‘gear’.
Lackford Lakes is a reserve close to my heart, because I grew up just a few miles up the road, and when it was an active quarry. It was on my cycle route on a Sunday with my Dad quite frequently, and I wonder what he would make of it now (sadly, he had several years of ill health before he passed away in 2006, which meant he missed a lot of the really impressive redevelopment and expansion that has occurred).
As a year round reserve it is bringing people from the neighbouring conurbation’s back in touch with nature and providing a sanctuary that is visited by people on their way home from work, as well as providing a home for nature of course just outside of a very large market town. Power to thy elbow Suffolk Wildlife Trust, power indeed.