Alton Water – a haven for wildlife
Alton Water is the largest County Wildlife Site in Suffolk and is owned and managed by Anglian Water Services Ltd. It is the largest area of inland water in Suffolk and the fourth largest reservoir owned by AWS. Having been site manager and head warden at Alton for nearly twenty years, up until my retirement in 2015, it is only natural that I should include this album of some of the more iconic wildlife to be found on this site.
Alton Water is a County Wildlife Site primarily on the basis of the numbers of winter wildfowl that use this site. Alton has held county records of coot, and tufted duck. It is also one of the main breeding sites for great crested grebes in Suffolk. . Turtle doves, barn owls, ospreys and most of the British grebes and divers make use of the habitat. The surrounding scrub has proved to be excellent habitat for spring migrant birds with perhaps the nightingale being the most important. Many seasons have seen over 30 singing males holding territories.
Key habitats at Alton.
Not surprisingly Alton Water is comprised of mainly inland water and extends to nearly 400 acres. It is a comparatively recent reservoir formed by the construction of a man made dam across the natural valley in the 1970’s. At its deepest point it is around 65 feet but has numerous natural inlet bays with shallow water and well vegetated banks. Once building works had been completed much of the surrounding surplus land was sold back to the original land owners. This reduced the habitat to relatively narrow bands comprising a draw-down zone, vegetated margins and surrounding scrub.
A number of pockets of woodland were planted at Alton during the construction of the reservoir. These were primarily to enhance the landscape rather than the wildlife. Typically the trees choose were of a similar species, size and age. As was popular at the time, they were planted in long straight lines at regular intervals. Oak, beech, sweet chestnut and cherry were used
The naturally light and well drained soil around Alton Water has lead to the development of a patchwork of heathland scrub. Gorse and bramble has naturally regenerated in these areas and allowed to continue. The has greatly favoured many summer migrant bird species, most notably the nightingale. Similar species such as whitethroat, blackcap and many warblers have also thrived. Alton is now one of the best places in the country to still enjoy the beautiful song of a nightingale. Early May usually offers the best opportunities.
Much of the grassland at Alton Water can only be described as species-poor amenity grassland. It is managed primarily for visitors to enjoy picnics, excellent views and ball games. Some wildfowl, mainly geese, do use this area for winter grazing. Grassland on the dam is also popular with migrant birds and well worth a look. Yellow wagtails seem to especially enjoy this habitat. The grassland tends to hold high numbers of insects that have been blown by the wind to this particular zone.
Habitat Creation Schemes
Alton Water has benefited over the years from some innovative habitat creation schemes. Additional habitat has been provided over the course of time with ponds, wildflower meadows, sand martin and kingfisher banks all having been created. A very successful project providing breeding rafts for common terns has been in existence for many years. Well over 100 young terns have been successfully fledged each year from these rafts. The vast majority of these have been ringed by the local warden.
Anglian Water has continually revised their Management Plan over the years, detailing how the land can best be used for the benefit both wildlife and people.
Woodlands have been brought into management after many year of neglect. Rides and glades have been created to allow light to penetrate and wildlflowers and butterflies to prosper. Several planting schemes have introduced a greater range of tree species and a greater range of ages. Sycamore and turkey oak have been reduced whilst at the same time oak, rowan and cherry increased.
Several areas of grassland are now managed at Alton using a traditional hay regime. This reduces the proportion of coarse grasses and increases the diversity of plant species. Skylarks and Meadow Brown butterflies have benefitted enormously. Visitors have also been able to enjoy some excellent views of the water from the circular path. Encroachment of willow has been rapid and extensive resources have been required to maintain a patchwork of habitats around the reservoir.
Alton Water Volunteers
For over twenty years a local community group of volunteers have supported Anglian Water in their efforts to maximise the conservational value of Alton. They carry out regular surveys of butterflies and birds and routinely feed important data into a variety of national monitoring schemes. Each year they record butterflies over the summer season along a 5 km set transect.
Many of these volunteers have undergone further training and have gained skills in mink surveying, tractor driving, chainsawing, brush cutting and butterfly surveying, to name just a few! Their continued and enthusiastic support ensures that the wildlife value of Alton continues to grow and be appreciated by all visitors.
Visitor Information for Alton Water
Alton Water is open to the Public everyday of the year, excluding Christmas Day. It can easily be reached from nearby Ipswich, lying between the villages of Holbrook, Stutton and Tattingstone.
It can be accessed from a number of car parks situated around the perimeter. There is a circular track of 8 miles shared between walkers and cyclists. In addition there is a further 2 mile track north of the only public road that crosses the water. This is kept for the exclusive use of walkers and anglers. The two main car parks are situated at Stutton just off the B1080 where a Pay and Display system is in operation. The car parks at Lemons Hill Bridge, Tattingstone, are currently free of any charge. Public toilets are available at Sutton where there is a cafe and Cycle Hire shop. Check opening hours as these are seasonal.
There are a total of four bird hides open to the general public free of charge. Two are sited at Larchwood with one looking north up the reservoir and the other looking east across the reservoir. They are within a few yards of each other but a fair way from the nearest car park.(1/4 mile) Excellent views of a couple of tern rafts and a kingfisher bank can also be enjoyed. A bird feeding station is also actively maintained where brambling and redpolls often visit over the harsh winter period.
The other two hides are also close to each other and can be found by following the track for about a mile south from the Tattingstone car park along the north-eastern edge of the reservoir. Extensive reprising has created a series of islands and gullies loved by the visiting wildfowl. The sand martin vlff is also in view and several common tern rafts and also close by.
Water Sports Facilities
A very popular water sports centre is located at the southern end of alton water reservoir. Open to members, the Public can hire a variety of water craft including, sailing dinghies, kayaks, paddle boards and windsurfers. They have their own car park and limited refreshment facilities. Visitors can also enrol in practical training courses to gain new skills and qualifications in subjects such as power boat handling, sailing and navigation.