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!

No comments:

Post a Comment