Thursday, 10 January 2013

100 Species, Number 2: Norfolk Reed

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!

Gerard Manley Hopkins

What would the Norfolk Broads be without reeds (Phragmites australis)?  Different that’s for sure. The Broads with no ‘whisper to the wind’ is pretty unthinkable. No reeds, then no bitterns, no bearded tits, no reed warblers serenading us each April and May, no reed-thatched cottages, no history of reed cutting or reed cutters with their lighters and half lighters to quant the reed to village staithes. 


The same could be said of the Fens and parts of the Norfolk coast where reed fringed dykes are inextricably part of what makes their landscapes special.

So we owe quite a lot to this one plant species both in nature conservation and landscape terms. This, our tallest grass, thrives with its feet in water and its silver panicles in the sky.  Ecologically it’s what we call a pioneer species so left alone it reclaims wet places turning shallow lakes, first into watery reed beds, and then, with each year’s growth, and what an abundance of growth, builds up in layers, creates the conditions where trees such as willow and alder can grow. Lake becomes reed bed, becomes wet woodland, becomes dry land.  It’s not just people who change habitats, nature invented change long before we did and that’s exactly what has happened in much of the Norfolk Broads. Ironically it’s by fighting nature on our nature reserves that some of our habitats for bitterns, marsh harriers and bearded tits are protected. We cut the reed, often at more expense than it can be sold for, but this keeps the habitat wet, reedy and open rather than dryer and wooded. Some Broads have simply vanished through this process of natural succession. Look at old maps if you don’t believe this and you will find most Broads are now much smaller and shallower than 100 years ago. 

Reeds grow almost across the world, a very successful species that thrives in both freshwater and brackish. Probably a good thing given what we know of rising sea levels and the low lying nature of the Broads. 

Everyone in Norfolk has probably seen reeds, or at least I would like to think that’s true, though the reality may be that many people have never visited a wetland. However far fewer will have spent time just experiencing a reed bed environment? Have you? Stand or sit quietly surrounded by reeds. The feel is different in every season. Even the sound the wind makes in the reeds changes with the seasons. Rich in birdsong in spring with the low, light- green growing shoots of new reed contrasting with taller, dry, yellow-brown stems of last year’s growth. A humid green jungle complete with biting insects ( food for swallows and warblers of course ) on still summer evenings. A dry, brittle world of silver-headed stems in winter, which at sunset, for a few magical moments, is sufficed a warm pinkish-red as the last rays of winter sun set a cold fire to each reed.

Reeds create a unique wildlife habitat full of amazing creatures adapted to this strange and demanding wet world; none stranger than the bittern, which may feature in a later ‘100 species post’. Reeds also create that special quality to any landscape that they dominate. They whisper secrets to the wind of wild, wet places and of the wild creatures that live there. Secrets of pasts and futures; of things that have been and may be. Secrets of a world that for most of us remains mysterious and hidden. Why not spend some time listening to the voice of the reed and see what messages it has for you?

‘You must live in the reedbeds, if you would realize the witchery of the marshes and their mystery.’

(E Turner Broadland Birds)

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