Thursday, 31 October 2013

Hilgay: end of construction in sight

Nick Carter, Conservation Officer (Fens)

The pool being created in the SW corner of the site
The construction phase at Hilgay is coming to an end. Recent work by Fen Group has centred on the construction of pools which will remain reed-free and form refuges for fish. The reed-lined edges of these deep water pools will be an important habitat for bitterns and other birds searching for fish and amphibians. Despite the wet weather Fen Group have been able to form these pools using a bulldozer and an excavator, although the deeper they have gone the wetter it has become and the more difficult to work.

The finishing touches are being done to the abstraction system from the River Wissey and it is hoped to start filling the perimeter ditch and lagoon in November. The latter has to be filled in stages, checking the integrity of the bank to ensure there is no seepage or signs of instability. The electric pump, which circulates water back into the lagoon for re-distribution, is almost installed too. We are waiting for the meter to be installed in the next couple of weeks and for the pump to be tested. All of the sluices have been installed so we can build up the water levels on the site over winter which will not only aid spread of the reeds but also suppress the terrestrial plants, such as nettles, that have covered much of the site during development.

Over 45,000 reed plugs have been planted along the ditch sides, in chicken wire cages to reduce grazing pressure from deer and geese, to aid their spread across the site. The recent wet weather has helped them to establish prior to the winter. The reeds that were planted in 2012 by a Children’s Wildlife Watch group have established well and are seeding this year and small pockets of naturally occurring reeds are spreading. The locally-sourced reed rhizomes that were planted in the spring have survived the dry summer and the attentions of grazing brown hares, which are common on the site. These reeds will help prevent wave erosion of the lagoon banks as it is slowly filled over the winter.

Aerial image taken by Hexcam looking south east across the site, with the lagoon in the foreground
At the end of September Hexcam took some aerial shots of the site with their remote-controlled 'Octocopter'. These will form the start of a historical record of the site over time to show how it develops as the reeds spread across the site. The aerial shot clearly shows the extent of development and also highlights, in the foreground, the old ditch and drain network, which show up as straight lines criss-crossing the site.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Cley Catch-up: Weds 23 October 2013

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

One thing that can always be said about Cley Marshes is that you just never know what will turn up. I said this very thing to some people today as we accompanied the warden on one of his regular walks around the reserve. Sure enough whilst we were watching the large numbers of wildfowl assembled on Simmond’s Scrape, a lone swift flew over the hide. I rushed out (us birders can’t help ourselves) and was lucky enough to catch sight of the bird in my binoculars just as a rare shaft of sunlight illuminated the scene. The pale brown plumage tones spoke instantly of a pallid swift, but before we could get a better view it had jinked across the sky and scythed away to the west. What to do? Well luckily nowadays there is a sophisticated network enabling sightings of this nature to be instantly transmitted to the world; I radioed the event into the reserve centre and we waited to see whether someone else could track the bird down and confirm the identity. 

The pallid swift is not an uncommon bird globally – visit the Mediterranean area and you will see loads – but it is a very rare visitor to these northern latitudes and extremely difficult to distinguish from the more familiar common swift. Up to the late 1990s only two had ever been recorded in the county. Since then a sprinkling of sightings have been made, but it is still a prized autumnal tick, so good reason to feel quite happy with the morning’s events. It is always nice when we can show off our prized reserve as a remarkable place for unusual wildlife. Certainly the members of our walking group were pleased to add this bird to their list.
Lapwing, by Chris Mills
The swift was just one example of how subtle changes are now taking place around the marshes. Wildfowl numbers are building up well with most drake wigeon and teal having exited their ‘eclipse’ and sporting pristine, brightly coloured feathering. Essentially this moult brings them into their breeding plumage, and it is not uncommon to see courting displays during the winter months which allows pairs to be formed well before the spring exodus to their breeding grounds. The numbers of golden plover and lapwing are also increasing as continental birds migrate into the country to benefit from our milder climate. We also saw several flocks of starling fly across the reserve today, once again illustrating how populations of our most familiar birds are augmented by immigrants from foreign lands.

Golden plover, Dave Kilbey
I noted other signs of the revolving seasons: the reeds that are beginning to lose their vigour and now sport withered yellowing leaves; the beach that is now full of twisted seed heads where a few weeks ago flowers of yellow horned-poppy and Campion proliferated; the saltmarsh that now stands bare and brown, no longer covered in a hazy carpet of beautiful sea lavender. It happens every year yet still invokes a slight feeling of loss. But it is not only the natural inhabitants of Cley that are changing, it is time to say goodbye to the seasonal staff that enliven my walks around the reserve. No more friendly banter with Carl as he takes a break from strimming the profuse growth choking the footpaths; no more chatting to Chris at the beach car park whilst his lovely dog Meg beats her tail and begs for a bit of fuss. I’ll miss them.    

I ended the day as I often do with a brief visit to Bishop’s hide. There, after an intense afternoon squall, the weather had softened to give way to golden autumnal sunshine. The scrapes were filled with birds roosting, preening, bathing or just loafing about. A lone curlew uttered its plaintive call and a flock of golden plover arrived in glistening formation. It was a tranquil scene which always serves to relax and soothe.

And yes, the bird we saw earlier in the day was indeed confirmed as a pallid swift. It was tracked eastwards around the coast with the last report at Felbrigg. We were very fortunate to see it – very soon, like the last vestiges of our summer, it will almost certainly be gone. 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

NWT Upton Broad & Marshes: late summer

Nigel Robson, Volunteer Bird Recorder for NWT and Mark Crossfield, NWT assistant warden for Bure and Ant

July may be regarded as a quiet month for observing birds at Upton whilst the special flora and insect life in the reserve provide much to see. On the grazing marshes the breeding activities of waders are over but some ducks may have recently-hatched broods. These are usually well concealed within the dyke system, and their presence is more often suspected than proved. However, a female shoveler was seen with 11 ducklings on 21st. By this date the autumn passage of waders was underway, as well as post-breeding dispersal. The same day, for example, produced a group of lapwings, an avocet, an oystercatcher, two redshanks, three green sandpipers, two common sandpipers and one dunlin on the marshes. On 24th a wood sandpiper and two greenshanks were at the river lagoons, followed next day by a curlew. 

Photograph by Mark Crossfield showing the wet marshes with Upton Mill in the background.

Evidence of light passage continued throughout August, but by this time the extended period of very dry and hot weather had depleted the area of standing water and opportunities for waders to feed. With the water levels high in the dykes an autumn maximum of five green sandpipers were counted on 3rd. Management work to improve the water retention of the eastern (Boat Dyke) marshes continues with some 40 snipe moved in arriving, accompanied by three ruff, one golden plover and a green sandpiper. A wheatear appeared on 29th, favouring bare ground around cattle pens.

In early September, the marsh hedgerows contained a few warblers on passage. A small group seen on 8th included whitethroats, a lesser whitethroat, a garden warbler and some chiffchaffs. On 11th a bittern flushed from the developing reedswamp at the river lagoons, and subsequently it was seen regularly in the marsh dykes until the month end. Boat Dyke Marshes continued to attract waders, with a flock of black-tailed godwits arriving – seven on 16th, five on 17th, and 11 on 18th when a separate group of three bar- tailed godwits was also present. Godwits have been rarely recorded at the reserve. We have previously noted black-tails only once, a flock of 19 in flight following the river in February 2009, and bar-tails very occasionally on the marshes with whimbrel during the spring passage. A skein of 40 pink-footed geese on 17th was an early reminder of the winter ahead. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

Norfolk in 100 Species, Number 8: Hawthorn

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Hawthorn, photo by David North
Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn Tree,
Who, finely clothed in a robe of white,
Fills the wanton eye with May’s delight.


More a shrub than a tree, too spiky and twisted to make decent timber for building with, yet this species, more than any other, is the thread that stitches our countryside together. Viewed from the air much of our Norfolk landscape is laid out as a patchwork tapestry of fields. Fields, that apart from in the flat, wet lands of the Broads and Fens, are most often edged with hedges. Hawthorn is the keystone species of Norfolk hedgerows beyond count. Tens of thousands of miles of hedgerows edging quiet country lanes and busy duel carriage-ways. Spiky lines of closely trimmed, or these days savagely flailed, hawthorns drawing the boundary lines between crops of rape and beet, barley and wheat, horse paddock and cattle pasture.

Lines across our landscape painted in the green of newly- opened hawthorn leaves in April, in the creamy whites of a million sweet-scented flowers in May and splattered with the pointillist reds of billions of ripening haws from September into winter. So commonplace is the hawthorn in Norfolk that perhaps we rarely notice or celebrate its significance. In fact where hawthorns escape from our hedgerows, forming patches of dense thorny growth on commons, or studding a neglected meadow with ‘wannabee’ trees, we give this species, along with its dark relative the blackthorn, the epithet scrub. Scrub, rather than being seen as baby woodland to be nurtured, is most often used as a derogatory term for land seen as unmanaged, neglected, or in need of tidying up. Nature has huge capacity and power to rewild our tamed ploughed lands and meadows in an alchemy that turns grass and furrow back to woodland. Scrub is just an early step in this natural succession.

Norfolk’s most famous hawthorn is the Hethel Old Thorn. Its reputed to be over 700 years old. One of the oldest hawthorns in England, now protected by Norfolk Wildlife Trust on one the world’s smallest nature reserves just 0.025 hectares in extent. To find this venerable thorn you need to first find Hethel Church. It lies on the edge of a peaceful Norfolk South Norfolk village some 7 miles south-west of Norwich and just a few miles from Wymondham. Five minutes walk along the public footpath from the church, past a small sedgey pond, takes you into the cattle-grazed field within which the thorn is protected by a circular fence.

NWT Hethel Old Thorn, photo by Richard Osbourne
Veteran hawthorns do not retain their size as they age. The Hethel Thorn today has shrunk in size and stature with its trunk now split and twisted. Descriptions made by in the eighteenth century measured the trunk at 13 feet around. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century many props supported its larger branches but these are long gone.

Lone hawthorns were once seen as faerie trees. There are tales of meeting the Faerie Queen by a lone hawthorn bush and being led to the Faerie underworld only to emerge after just a few hours to find that many years have passed in our world. So, if you visit the Hethel Thorn, be on your guard. I found plenty of rabbit holes under the Thorn but fortunately didn’t fall down any.

Perhaps surprisingly for what is usually a small shrub the hawthorn is steeped in magical traditions. Some say that of all our native trees the hawthorn is the species most enshrined in myth and legend. Sacred to the White Goddess across Europe its primary association has been with birth and fertility. There is a beautiful legend that the Welsh goddess of the hawthorn, once walked the empty universe and her white track of hawthorn petals became the Milky Way. At Hethel local villagers no may longer erect a maypole each May Day and sadly no Hethel maidens now celebrate the return of nature’s fertile season and the time of growth by dancing around the Thorn. But this tradition is still remembered.

Enough of magic. Here are some hard facts of ecology and landscape history that should more than justify the hawthorn’s place in our list of species that have made, and continue to make, Norfolk. In England during the Parliamentary land enclosures between 1750 and 1850 more than 200,000 miles (320,000 kms) of hedges were planted and almost all were of hawthorn. In Norfolk Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson record in their recent book Hedgerow History that 97% of hedges in Norfolk contain hawthorn making it by far the most widespread hedgerow shrub. Norfolk Parliamentary enclosure acts most often stipulate the planting of ‘quicks’ or ‘ quicksets’, the quickthorn being the quickest thorn with which to make a good hedge. As elsewhere in England Norfolk enclosure hedges were of ‘quickthorn’, the hawthorn. Don’t however assume that all hawthorn hedges are of recent origins there are probably Norfolk field boundaries, sometimes marking the line of Parish boundaries, that go back millennia and some hawthorn hedged field boundaries in the Broads and West Norfolk may be similar or in parts identical to field boundaries in use during Roman times.

Without our Norfolk thorn hedgerows our wildlife would undoubtedly be poorer. The majority of county’s small songbirds, our chaffinches, dunnocks ( or in old money hedge sparrows), blackbirds and song thrushes, are hedge nesters. And what better hedge than a thorn hedge to protect your nest and eggs? Our hedges are corridors for wildlife to move along, and not just our birds, for without our thousands of miles of road and field-side hedgerows our small mammals from hedgehogs to bank voles and from shrews to stoats would be much rarer. In May hawthorn in flower nectars not just bees but an almost unimaginable diversity of small flying insects from hoverflies, to flower beetles. In autumn the hawthorn’s red berries provide food during autumn and winter months for resident blackbirds and song thrushes but also for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of winter migrants that arrive on tired wings having crossed the North Sea. From fieldfares and redwings, chaffinches and brambling to rarer migrants such as waxwings the haws are vital food for survival. It was a tragedy on unimaginable scale that stripped so much of Norfolk’s and England’s landscape of its hedges in the year between the 1960s and the 1980s. Taking with them not just so much wildlife but also so much meaning and so much history written in lines of hawthorn from our countryside.

We have much to thank the hawthorn for. A species that links the cultural and farmed landscape to the truly wild. A species steeped in history and tradition. A species too often denigrated as mere scrub that is key to the future on declining birds such as nightingale and turtle dove. A species that in its primary role in Norfolk’s hedges defines ownership and maps the landscape history of so much of our County. A species that has played, and continues to play, a key role in so many of the stories that have shaped our land.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

A potential County Wildlife Site

Helen Baczkowska, Conservation Officer

A local naturalist emailed NWT concerned about an area of land near his home, somewhere he and others have walked for years, but where now, he has heard, the owners may want to make changes to the management. A search on Google Earth revealed a large open area and the kind of secondary woodland common to old heaths between Norwich and Cromer, lying on the arc of sandy soils that run north of the river valleys and in a scattered line to the coast. Once these were the sheep walks and commons that made Norfolk wealthy from wool; now only fragments remain as in the past 300 years commons have been enclosed and improved or planted with vast acres of conifer forest.

The Ordnance Survey map revealed that this is open access land, crossed with bridleways and footpaths, so a quick look before we tracked down the owners seemed wise - maybe the land would prove to be County Wildlife Site quality and worth some further investigation, but maybe not. So, on a sunny October day, I met the naturalist, in the company of Nicola Dixon - Conservation Volunteer and botanist.
Meadow Vetchling
We discovered a feast for a wildlife enthusiast's eyes - an open area of largely acid grassland, with fine grasses, common century still in flower, sheep sorrel and a few late speckled wood butterflies. Thousands of tiny spiders ran through the grass, some of which seemed to groom on more neutral soils, with black knapweed and meadow vetchling. To one side was wet alder woodland, rare outside of river valleys and here associated with a dried up pond - was this a pingo, we wondered, a pond remaining from the time when glaciers were retreating back and forth across this landscape, leaving hills and hummocks and hollows?  We found heather still flowering on the edge of the woodland and in one corner a curious mixture of birch woodland with purple moor grass and sphagnum moss; this is a plant community not common in Norfolk and the sphagnum alone is note worthy.  Close to the birch wood was a damp area, probably where a chalky spring rose to the surface, with blunt-flowered rush, marsh and fen bedstraws, tawny sedge, water mint and great bird's foot trefoil.

I can't name the site just yet, not until we have tracked down the owners and, hopefully, persuaded them to let us do a proper survey in the spring - mapping all the habitats and listing the plants we find. Hopefully they will let the site become a County Wildlife Site, opening the door to free advice from NWT, to finding grant aid and reputable graziers or contractors. This site would have been eligible for the government's Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, which provided owners of special places like this with financial support to manage the area in the best way for wildlife. The Scheme is currently suspended, pending spending reviews in both Whitehall and Europe; NWT are at present working with The Wildlife Trusts at a national level to lobby and negotiate for the Scheme to be revived, ensuring that it will continue to offer the best deal for wildlife and a means to ensure that areas like this get the care they need and deserve. 

In the meantime, while we wait for spring, we try to unravel the history of the site; it appears to be registered common land, which explains why it is mapped for open access.  Ploughing, fencing and making major changes to the site would be difficult legally on such land and this is a further area NWT can offer advice on. Fayden's map of Norfolk, drawn by hand in the 1790's, shows that this was once part of a much larger common, much of which was probably acid grassland or heath. These fragments are crucial stepping stones in a Living Landscape, part of a patchwork of habitats that add up to a larger, more connected place for wildlife and hence worthy of our time to find out more and work with the owners - all that and of course the joy of finding a hidden place, full of wildlife!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Half moon highlight

Chris Durdin, NWT Thorpe Marshes

caddisfly Limnephilus flavicornis

 One of the challenges of recording wildlife at NWT Thorpe Marshes is that the penny has dropped that I know rather little about a lot of wildlife, especially invertebrates.

Happily, help is on hand with the NWT’s Wildlife Information Service. It helped me last October when on one our monthly guided walks there were hundreds of brown insects flying around, especially on the edge of the gravel pit, St Andrew’s Broad. I worked out that they were caddis flies. In response to a photo, I learned they were probably
Limnephilus flavicornis, known by anglers as 'cinnamon sedges'.

Most of us have heard about the extraordinary underwater cases of caddis fly larvae: using sticks or stones to protect themselves from predators. Seeing them is a different matter.

The synchronised emergence of adult caddis flies is one opportunity, a literally short-lived phenomenon when the adults mate, lay eggs in the water or overhanging vegetation, and die. Looking again at my photos, I see they lack the proboscis of a moth: most adults don’t feed.

Well, it happened again last Sunday, 6 October. Dozens of what looked like brown moths were fluttering clumsily around, landing on rushes and other vegetation.

Limnephilus lunatus
This time, having looked carefully at a photo, I am suggesting an ID without the help of the Trust’s expert. I think it is the rather similar Limnephilus lunatus – the lunatus specific name coming from the half-moon shape at the end of the wing. But I’m happy to hear from any NWT blog readers who know better!

For help with identification, you can email photos to

More wildlife news from NWT Thorpe Marshes and details of monthly walks on

Chris Durdin