Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Thorpe Marshes in the 1960s

Chris Durdin, NWT Volunteer and naturalist

John Rushmere, now aged 93, farmed what is now NWT Thorpe Marshes in the 1960s. His memories were crystal clear when I went to see him to pick his brains about the recent history of my local nature reserve.

Marshland plants including yellow flag irises
have returned to Thorpe Marshes (Chris Durdin)
As a tenant elsewhere of landowners Crown Point Estate, John was offered the chance to put the unmanaged ‘Whitlingham Marshes’, as he knew them, into productive grazing. They were a mix of willowherb, sedge and other rough vegetation, plus reed in one corner, he remembers: much as for some of the ungrazed areas now.

He surveyed the ditches and organised their restoration, essentially the existing ditch network plus continuations into what is now the gravel pit, St Andrew’s Broad. A diesel drainage pump was installed adjacent to the existing tidal flap and the pump ran through the summer months. Summer water levels would therefore have been lower than today’s more natural levels.

There was a curious accident from that. The drainage pump’s inlet pipe in a ditch was raised when need be by a pulley set on a wooden tripod. One of the legs of that tripod took root and accounts for the poplar tree near the tidal flap.

All of Thorpe Marshes was ploughed, turned over a foot deep. Then it was disced, rolled and seeded, mostly rye grass plus some white clover and cocksfoot grass. That surprised me: the rich mix of marshland plants when I first knew the site in the 1980s suggested to me that the marshes near the railway line had never been ploughed. Some nitrogen was applied to ‘improve’ the sward; however, John told me, no herbicides were used. That must have helped grazing marsh plants to reappear later. Added to that, the RSPB’s restoration project at Lakenheath Fen showed how resilient a marshland seedbank can be if the right conditions are restored, in that case to fields that held poplar trees and later went under arable cultivation, including carrots.

The NWT’s British White cattle grazed Thorpe Marshes in 2017 (Chris Durdin)

From 1961, 80-100 Friesian cows were on Thorpe Marshes from May to September. These were all for milking, which was done with a mobile unit called a milking bail, sited for the summer on a concrete pad that remains in place.

I have been used to older, traditional breeds for the grazing of the marshes. I told John about the Lincoln Reds, Red Polls, Dexters and British Whites there in recent years. Friesians have a reputation of being less robust.

Were Friesians OK, “on that rough old marsh?” I asked.

“It wasn’t rough when we farmed it. Not a weed to be seen,” John said.

The Friesians were there until about 1969. Flooding and waterlogging meant the initial flush of good grass didn’t last. From about 1970 to 1975 there was grazing with mixed or beef cattle on site, allowing a little over a decade for a natural recovery to the conditions I discovered when I moved to the area in 1987.

In today’s terms, ploughing of marshland would certainly be regarded as environmentally damaging. That doesn’t mean I am judging John harshly: his initiative then was of its time. What we learn from these snippets of local history is that nature can be remarkably good at recovery, given the right conditions.

Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks on http://www.honeyguide.co.uk/thorpemarshes.htm

Friday, 22 December 2017

Answering the call: a year of wildlife festivals at Cley

As Norfolk Wildlife Trust's 2017 events programme comes to an end, Bayley Wooldridge looks back at this year’s event highlights: the four Cley Calling festivals. 

 To begin our celebrations for the year we had our first Cley Calling festival, Spring Song, tie in with International Dawn Chorus day.  The aim of the festival was to link the natural music and wildlife of the marsh to music and art that has been inspired by the marshes. On Friday night two sound artists spent the night in one of the hides in order to record the dawn chorus, which was broadcast live on the International Dawn Chorus website. The artists gave two free talks on Saturday morning about the process of capturing sound and played some of their recordings (which can now be found on Richard Fair’s website). Throughout the festival we hosted an exhibition called Confluence project, which showcased the work of three artists who take inspiration from waterways and coastlines in East Anglia. The exhibition was connected to Sundays evening’s performance, which involved a piano improvisation and a multi-media visual arts performance. The education centre was transformed with a grand piano and a dark space with ever changing images projected onto one of the walls. This was the most alternative event we had run at Cley and it was great to try something new within the space. 

Next up was Summer Sea, a festival designed to celebrate life beneath the waves during National Marine Week. A talk by Paul Sterry and Andrew Cleave kicked off the celebrations; fascinating stories of their travels across the UK to document our coastal wildlife, combined with incredible microscopic photographs of elusive sea creatures, made their talk a brilliant start to the festival. On Friday evening we welcomed James Boyd (right) to Cley to perform his enchanting ‘Stolen Years’ piece. Readings from the log book of the Concord interwoven with seasongs and poetry left the audience feeling as though they were part of the Concord’s story. The remainder of the festival included a classy evening of Pimms, pizza and poetry featuring Kevin Crossley-Holland, a glorious sunny day of free marine-based crafts down at Cley beach, and a mysterious interactive puppet performance for all the family to enjoy. 

The lead up to Autumn Colours was slightly worrying for all of us at Cley, because the whole reserve was still looking as healthy and green as ever as we left the summer months behind! However once the festival kicked into full swing with the arrival of street artist ATM, we started to see some of the beautiful autumnal oranges and reds we were hoping for. Throughout the festival ATM painted a fantastic female marsh harrier on a mural outside the visitor centre (left), meanwhile a variety of autumnal events focused on health and wellbeing were taking place all over the reserve. We were visited by Laurie Parma, a wellbeing researcher from the University of Cambridge, who gave a fascinating talk on the relationship between wellbeing and biodiversity. To round off the festival, we finished with a peaceful yoga session looking out over the marshes, and an early morning ramble around the reserve followed by a delicious home cooked roast: a perfect end to a wonderful week.

Last, and by no means least, was Winter Skies. We began the festival with a lunch time talk from Dave Horsley, who shared his knowledge and photographs of migrating birds from the Arctic. That same evening, we were joined by the Norfolk Coast Partnership, who gave a talk on their Dark Skies project and their collaboration with Norfolk Astronomy Society, who took us out onto the terrace for some stargazing. Saturday night saw us welcome over 100 guests into the visitor centre for a performance by Brian Briggs & Jon Ouin, two of the four members of ex-band ‘Stornoway’. Brian & Jon performed a series of their old songs, which were influenced by birdsong and wildlife, and shared with the audience some of their most remarkable experiences with nature. Perhaps the most memorable of their songs was ‘Boom went the Bittern’, a song that Brian jokingly described as an audio guide to birdsong, with lyrics such as: ‘“Teacher! Teacher!” said the tits on the feeder’ and ‘“Chiffchaff! Chiffchaff! said its own name, and I wish they all did the same’. And finally, on the last day of the festival we hosted the chair of the Society for Storytelling himself; Paul Jackson. He told his winter tales for all the family to enjoy as everyone in the audience nibbled away on some mince pies and sipped at their mulled wine or hot squash. A brilliant afternoon to prepare us all for the festivities of the Christmas holidays.

We hope everyone who journeyed to Cley Marshes this year had a truly unforgettable experience, and we would be delighted to welcome you all back to our beautiful reserve in 2018. From all of us at Cley Marshes, we thank you for supporting our work, and wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. 

The Cley Calling festivals were made possible thanks to funding from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Roving Roadside Nature Reserves Surveyors

Norfolk’s roadside verges stretch for literally thousands of miles and are such an integral part of the landscape for many wildflowers, insects and small mammals that it is easy to take them for granted. Some verges contain plant species that, although once common, are now rare or scarce in Norfolk to include sulphur clover (Trifolium ochroleucon) and crested cow-wheat (Melampyrum cristatum). To help to protect them, these special verges are designated as Roadside Nature Reserves (RNRs). Under the RNR Scheme, they are managed to benefit the plants and animals that live there. There are currently 111 designated (as of last update, 2017) with a combined length of over 15 kilometres.

Norfolk County Council manages the RNR Scheme. They mark these areas with distinctive posts and strive to ensure they are managed for the species they are designated for. As with many wildlife areas, there is a lack of up to date information on the wildlife of these verges and so the work of Roger and Jenny Jones will be valuable in updating the information held on these special verges.

I hope you enjoy this post from two of our volunteers.

Emily Nobbs (Conservation Officer)


by Roger & Jenny Jones
Reviewing Roadside Nature Reserves (RNRs) can become addictive. We never know what we might find. The tour of inspection began in 2016 when we managed to visit 40 RNRs. It actually started because of our involvement in NWT’s Churchyard Conservation Scheme – there were quite a few RNRs adjacent to the South Norfolk churchyards we were surveying. Then we just started to add “a few more”.

RNR25, sulphur clover, photo by Roger Jones
e ended the year on a slightly downbeat note as RNR 59 seemed to be about to disappear under the Norwich Northern Distributor Road. The good news is that the new bit of road is now open and the bank is still there. We also understand that seed was taken from the plants on this RNR and will be distributed on a suitable site nearby.

In 2017, there weren’t as many RNRs adjacent to our churches. Nonetheless we wanted to carry on and we mapped out RNRs near to places we were likely to visit. That led us to another 23. In some ways we hoped to be better prepared. We now had full citations for many of them, which should have been better than a mere list with grid references. However, we found that, in several instances, the marker posts showed different places to the maps in the citations. So, which was right? It boiled down to a best guess.

RNR1 proved difficult; we had largely wanted to visit because in was No 1. We had been to the location in 2016 but failed to find it. All we had to go on was a grid reference. We were sure we were in the right place but there were no marker posts. Which side of the road were we supposed to look? In 2017 we tried again with the benefit of the citation map. We were in the right place last year. But we still couldn’t find the key species, Dutch Rush (Equisetum hyemale). To be honest, we were uncertain what exactly it looked like – never having seen it before. There is another RNR that highlights Dutch Rush. Curiously, that one does not have marker posts either – but we think we found Dutch Rush. A conundrum to be solved in 2018.

Then at RNR5, we found something that ought not to exist. The site is quite lengthy and covers both sides of the road. When visited, it comprised largely long, rank grass. Then an oddity caught our eye. A single plant with double yellow flowers. Searching in the undergrowth, it proved to be a meadow buttercup. We have never seen a double-flowered one before. Later research at home led us to a cultivated variety with double flowers; but how did it get to be on a long and lonely RNR?

RNR26, crested cow-wheat, photo by Roger Jones
astly, we set off in search of a great rarity. Early in 2017, the charity Plantlife issued a paper about disappearing wild flowers and the importance of roadsides for certain species. Amongst other things, it featured crested cow-wheat. The stronghold, if a handful of sites can be so described, is in Cambridgeshire where it exists largely on roadsides. And … there is one site in Norfolk, RNR26. It’s hard to find just a few plants in the long grass and it looks very vulnerable. But the search is worth it, the flower has a certain exotic look to it.

If you are interested in surveying Norfolk's wildlife have a look here on our website. Or if you fancy volunteering with us and sharing your skills, whatever they may be, have a look at our volunteer section.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Orchards East in Norfolk

Tom Williamson and Rachel Savage

Everybody seems to love an orchard: they tick all the boxes in terms of conservation. Like ancient woods or hedges, orchards lie at that fascinating interface of history and natural history, of nature and culture. And, whether laden with fruit in late summer, or bright with blossom in the spring, they have a strong aesthetic appeal. Orchards, and especially those managed on more ‘traditional’ lines - with tall trees and minimal use of herbicides - are an important wildlife habitat, a fact recognised by their definition in 2008 as a UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) habitat. They have a rich grass sward, are often surrounded by a band of scrub in the form of hedgerows – and above all have their trees, providing (in the best examples) an important reserve of dead wood as well as an abundant source of nectar. Rare fungi, wood-boring insects like the noble chafer, wild flowers, lichens and epiphytes all thrive in these diminutive wood-pastures. But their numbers have fallen catastrophically over recent decades.

Orchards East is a new initiative, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and based at the University of East Anglia. We are cooperating with a wide range of partners, such as the East of England Apples and Orchards Project and the county Wildlife Trusts, across the six counties of eastern England (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire – and Bedfordshire). We aim to record and research old orchards, to conserve existing examples and create new ones, as well as to provide people with the appropriate practical skills that are needed to ensure that orchards can be maintained into the future. 

One important part of this project is to map, and understand the history of, surviving orchards – both ‘traditional’ examples, attached to old farmhouses; and more recent examples, for even these, if long-established or neglected, can contribute significantly to biodiversity. Our programme of recording and research will be carried out in cooperation with local volunteers, who will seek out existing orchards – or the remains of orchards – in their local area, and perhaps research their history at local record offices. Subsequent, more detailed, surveys of selected examples will assess their wildlife significance. We are particularly interested in knowing the extent to which the presence of particular epiphytes, fungi or saproxilic insects is simply related to the antiquity of the individual trees present within an orchard, and how far to the age of the orchard site itself.

We are currently recruiting volunteers to help record orchards (everyone is welcome and you don’t need to be an orchard expert!), and – ultimately – the kinds of wildlife found within them. The project is being rolled out gradually across eastern England over the next few months, on a county-by-county basis, and our Norfolk launch will take place at the Green Britain Centre at Swaffham on 4 November 2017.

If you are interested in attending – or are unable to attend, but keen to be involved - then please contact the Project Manager, Rachel Savage, on Rachel.Savage@uea.ac.uk. Or take a look at the website www.orchardseast.org.uk