Saturday, 30 November 2013

The tools of conservation

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Conservation is undoubtedly a tricky business. So many issues to think about; from the declines of wildlife in our wider countryside, so graphically described in the recent State of Nature report, to making difficult decisions about how to encourage more visitors to our nature reserves while at the same time ensuring those same reserves remain wild, unspoilt and havens for rare wildlife. With limited resources of both money and staff (and volunteer!) time then it’s essential we use the best conservation tool to achieve real conservation successes. But what are those tools?

My list may not be comprehensive but these are some of the tools that Norfolk Wildlife Trust, with the support of our members, local businesses, charitable trusts and local communities, can and does put to good effect.

NWT Cley Marshes by Anna Guthrie
Land purchase: NWT is of course well recognised for its exceptional nature reserves. And as a tool of last resort there is a lot to be said for safeguarding sites through land purchase. But this option does not come cheap. With the support or our members and supporters we have just successfully purchased 143 acres at Pope’s Marsh adjacent to our first and best known nature reserve, Cley Marshes. The cost? Nearly one million pounds. There are huge conservation advantages of course to owning a site. It is perhaps the only way to ensure that land can be safeguarded permanently for nature and gives a measure of control that few other conservation tools can achieve. There are downsides though: once purchased there will be annual costs to managing and wardening these unique and special places – potentially for ever. And of course nature reserves, however wonderful, cannot be the answer to declines of wildlife in the wider countryside.

Campaigns: Another conservation tool is campaigning to bring about better protection for wildlife through changes in legislation or changes in policy on key conservation issues. A good example of this is our support for the Wildlife Trusts national Living Seas campaign which has recently resulted in the designation of the first Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in England.

Photo by Tom Marshall
Education work: The future of conservation depends on a well-informed public who understand the importance of nature and care personally about living in a world rich in wildlife. Our work with Norfolk schools and families may at first seem far removed from conservation on the ground but without a new generation of people who understand the value of the natural world then conservation has little future. Norfolk Wildlife Trust is at the forefront of working with children to provide opportunities for direct, outdoor experience of nature which we hope, at least for some, begin a lifetime’s interest.

Advice to landowners:
Most of Norfolk is of course privately owned, whether as farmland, gardens or development land. Our conservation team, working in partnership with others, has identified more than 1,000 county wildlife sites (CWS) which are the very best sites for wildlife outside of SSSIs and formally protected nature reserves. Every year we offer free advice to the owners of these sites and seek to help owners value and manage these very special areas for wildlife. They are wildlife gems in the wider landscape helping wildlife flourish in the countryside and providing vital stepping stones linking nature reserves and SSSIs.

Silver studded blue butterfly, photo by Bob Ward
Planning Advice: Through our conservation officers, NWT keeps a watchful eye on proposed developments which might damage wildlife in Norfolk and by commenting on planning applications seeks to mitigate where possible impacts on wildlife. We can’t comment on every planning application but where developments are likely to impact on nature reserves, protected sites or County Wildlife Sites we will be a voice standing up for nature ensuring that proper regard is made to the presence of protected species and the need to protect wildlife habitats. With new housing schemes and road projects proposed in many areas of Norfolk and of course issues like quarrying and minerals extraction this tool will be an increasingly important one over the next few years.

Reintroductions: A tool which needs careful use and again is often a measure of last resort. NWT has played an active role in the reintroduction to sites of species ranging from pool frogs to silver-studded blue butterflies. For a small number of species which have low dispersal ability and depend on specialised habitats then reintroduction may be the only conservation tool that can bring these species back.

Living Landscapes: Landscape scale conservation is now increasingly recognised as crucial to delivering conservation that is sustainable in the long-term. It’s a tool to climate-proof our conservation work and give our wildlife the best chance of adapting to new climates and changed conditions. Not so much a tool as an idea it will (and is) changing the way we work putting increased emphasis on working with partners and thinking big to ensure that the needs of both wildlife and people get considered. We have recently begun a project, ‘Delivering Living Landscapes’, funded in part by Heritage Lottery Fund which will enable us to try out new ways of working with local communities to bring nature to the places where people live and work. 

Bure Valley Living Landscape, photo by Mike Page

These are just some of the tools that a conservation organisation like NWT can make use of but only if our members and supporters continue to provide us with two more tools - funds and support - without which we can achieve very little. We may well need to develop new tools as new challenges come our way. The balance of which tools to use: site protection, campaigning for legislation, education, advocacy, or habitat management will vary with each issue we face. I wonder if there are tools out there that we are not currently using which could be commandeered for the conservation cause? Could we perhaps work more closely with artists, writers and poets to inspire more people to take action for nature? Or dare I say it, could we even pinch some tools from the advertising and marketing world to get our messages more effectively to new audiences in less traditional and more inspirational ways? Perhaps we need to be able to use the tools of economics to value nature more effectively and ensure the services it provides us for free – clean air, climate control, flood prevention, gene-pools, pollination services and more – do actually get factored into balance sheets when decisions are made about land use and development?

One thing I am sure of is that we need more people to be out there using some of my tools listed above. Which ones can you use to help nature? Perhaps we should be investing in training more people outside of conservation, whether in business or in retirement to pick up a conservation tool and get outside and start helping nature locally.

NWT can’t save nature on its own but with enough people’s support we can make some very big differences. Try some of these tools for yourself. They might just become habitat forming...

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Beyond Blackbirds and Blue Tits: unusual garden birds to look out for this winter

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

House sparrow by Liz Dack
The results of various garden bird surveys highlight the birds we should all be seeing. But reading these lists can be disheartening – in the unpredictable world of birds it's dangerous to assume that the most commonly-recorded visitors will occur to order in everyone's garden. For example, in almost eight years living at my current Norfolk home (a semi-rural, edge of town setting) I have only seen a House Sparrow in my garden once – a fleeting event which caused great excitement despite the fact that the species can commonly be encountered a five minute walk away. Yet, during the same period a number of other species that many people would love to record on their properties have dropped in regularly to my tiny patch of lawn and its bordering jumble of overgrown willows. These birds – like the Green Woodpeckers that can regularly be seen hopping around – are always a joy, but that solitary sparrow caused my heart to race just that little bit faster. And that, I suppose, is one of the joys of watching for birds out of our kitchen windows; context is everything, and nothing is entirely predictable.

With that in mind, let's look at some of the scarcer candidates that might just be visiting your garden over the next few months. I don't mean the ultra rare – birds like the White-crowned Sparrow, a lost soul from North America that frequented a small strip of gravel driveway at Cley next the Sea in north Norfolk a few years back. No, I mean those species that can reasonably be expected to grace the average garden every now and then – depending of course on where you live, what trees and plants are in your garden, and above all sheer chance and luck.

The main contenders
Gold finch by Nick Appleton
Among the Chaffinches and Greenfinches that will visit most of our feeders this winter, there are a few other members of this delightful family liable to put in an appearance. Perhaps the most frequent to expect is the Goldfinch, now a top 10 visitor to many gardens, lured in by the promise of nyger seed and sunflower hearts. However commonplace this little finch becomes though, it should never be taken for granted – not with that stunning scarlet face and the patch of pure sunlight in its wing.

Other winter finches include the Brambling – the Scandinavian and central European cousin of the Chaffinch (think of a Chaffinch repainted in Autumnal orange shades); or the Siskin, a miniature Greenfinch with added yellows and blacks, a real scarcity for most gardens, unfortunately, but in some years and in some parts of the country (such as the southeast) a top 20 bird. Neither of these have quite made it into my own garden, though the incomparable bullfinch is always welcome in spring, even when it does feast on apple blossom. Occasionally it puts in a winter appearance too when times are tough; almost always in pairs: the vivid rouge male followed closely to the feeder by the drabber female.

Marsh tit by Bob Carpenter
 Other common visitors are Blue and Great Tits, two species with stunning plumages better suited to a tropical rainforest, a fact it's easy to forget given their familiarity. Less frequent is the Coal Tit, though most people (particularly those with conifers in close proximity to their garden) will manage to attract in this miniscule black-capped gem with a little persistence (and a lot of seed). More unusual still is the Marsh Tit, slightly larger and plainer than the Coal Tit and lacking its white central crown stripe. Its near-identical relative, the Willow Tit, is a theoretical possibility depending on geography, but Willow Tits are declining at an alarming rate across the country, making Marsh Tit the default identification choice (to be really sure listen out for the Marsh Tit's double-barrelled 'pitchou' call, rather than the buzzing scolding of the Willow – good luck with getting the birds to call when you want them to though).

What else could drop in? Well the list is long and varied... Green Woodpeckers, as mentioned earlier (Bagpuss's Professor Yaffle) are an increasingly common garden visitor, as of course are Great Spotteds – though the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, the sparrow-sized equivalent of the Great, is another species suffering a worrying nationwide decline and a very unlikely garden visitor to all but a privileged few...

10 more garden greats

Goldcrest, by Mali Halls
Goldcrest – the UK's smallest bird. Easily overlooked but always possible, particularly where conifers are present.

Treecreeper by Liz Dack
Treecreeper – another easy-to-miss bird due to its cryptic plumage and unobtrusive habits. It won't come to feeders, you'll have to keep watching those tree trunks...

Jay by Liz Dack
 Jay – a loud and raucous member of the crow family. Unmistakeable and often very obvious in the autumn and early winter when they're busy retrieving cached stores of acorns from lawns.

Redwing by Robert Powell
Redwing– cold winter weather is always likely to bring this pretty Scandinavian thrush into urban areas. Plant berry bushes and look out for the distinctive cream stripe above the eye and rather less obvious dab of orange-red on the side of its breast.

Fieldfare by Duncan Macnab
Fieldfare – another Scandinavian thrush. Bigger and darker than a Redwing, with lots of grey in its plumage. Loves windfall apples.

Tawny owl by Julian Thomas
Tawny Owl – by far the most likely owl to occur in gardens, though really you need mature trees nearby. Truly nocturnal and far more likely to be heard than seen: listen out for the familiar 'tu-whit, tu-whoo', as well as the more-commonly given 'ke-wick'.  

Blackcap by Ray Jones
Blackcap – a summer migrant that now winters in increasing numbers. Males have the black cap, though it's chestnut-brown in the female.

Pheasant by Liz Dack
Pheasant – a familiar bird of farmland which increasingly visit gardens, particularly those on the edge of rural areas. Embrace their vast appetite for ground-strewn seed and admire the male's stupendous plumage.

Grey wagtail by Julian Thomas
Grey Wagtail – a wild card this one, I could have equally have chosen the black and white Pied Wagtail. Just remember: any wagtail in your garden in winter that has a dash of yellow in its plumage is a Grey Wagtail. Common bird names can be so misleading...

Waxwings by Colin Coupland
Waxwing – the holy grail for garden birdwatchers. Varies enormously in numbers as a UK visitor from one year to the next (depending on the state of its food supply in Europe): some years there's a glut, some virtually none. To have any chance of getting one in your garden get planting berry trees – Guelder Roses always seem to prove very popular with these wavy-crested visitors.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

November Saltmarsh

by Nick Acheson, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

A Norfolk heath is a non-natural habitat. A chalk grassland is a non-natural habitat too. Even an ancient wood is a non-natural habitat. All have been shaped, maintained, harvested and farmed for centuries and are as much a result of human designs on the landscape as of nature’s processes. In Norfolk there are amazingly few habitats which are self-forming and self-maintaining – which therefore require no intervention from conservationists to keep them as they are – and almost all of them are associated with the sea, its winds, its waves and its tides.

Saltmarsh on the north Norfolk coast
 In much of Norfolk the tide is a commonplace. The tide comes in and the tide goes out and those who love and use the sea – fishermen, sailors, beachcombers and rockpoolers – feel the tides run through their daily lives as keenly as other coastal creatures do. As Richard Girling puts it in his superb book Sea Change, ‘You can’t live in Britain and have no feeling for the sea. It is the amniotic fluid in which our civilization grew and was shaped.’ But do we really stop to consider the tide? It is caused – remember – by the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun, heavenly bodies which are respectively around 400,000 and 150,000,000 km from Earth. This alone is astonishing.

Yet the tide does more than astonish. It helps make two fascinating and oft-ignored Norfolk habitats. Two of the wildest, least human-led habitats in Norfolk at that: mudflat and saltmarsh. In areas sheltered from the intense energy of the waves, such as enclosed bays and the harbours behind spits, the finest sediments in the water – tiny particles of silt – are deposited at the top of the tide, where the water has least energy. These particles cling to one another and where they are not shifted by subsequent tides they form a tenuous, easily-moved mudflat. Where conditions allow, filamentous algae colonise the mudflat, followed by what botanists call glasswort and in Norfolk we call samphire. These plants stabilise the flat and encourage more silts and clays to settle. A saltmarsh is born.

Wigeon in Flight, photo by Nick Appleton

By autumn in a saltmarsh, summer’s riot of sea lavender flowers and even the happy flowers of sea aster are done. In many ways, though, this is the time of year when our saltmarshes come to life. As the marsh greys to tattered mounds of sea purslane and dull tangles of shrubby seablite, voices, colours and wild wings whirr in from the north. Here are the shrill whinnies of wigeon, copper-headed and snow-shouldered; here too the Slavic purr of the brent geese arriving from Siberian tundras. With them come blade-winged peregrines and minute muscular merlins: the feathered dramatis personae of a Norfolk saltmarsh in winter.

So this winter, seek out Norfolk’s wildest, least human-regulated habitats. Walk through a saltmarsh at low tide; listen to the tseep of meadow pipits and the happy burble of curlews; smell the nostril-stabbing tang of the year’s last sea wormwood. For even in our modern world, the wild is right around us, waiting to be explored.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Cley Catch-up: 20 November 2013

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes
It always fascinates me to realise that most of the birds we see at NWT Cley Marshes during the autumn and winter originate from foreign lands. Very few of the wildfowl, gulls, geese, larks, pipit and buntings on show are likely to pipe, tweet or squawk with a Norfolk accent. Being geographically speaking at the front line, it is quite often possible to witness a great deal of visible migration around the nature reserve if you keep your eyes and ears open. 

Starlings, photo by Barry Madden
Today, against the rare but welcome backdrop of an azure autumnal sky, a regular stream of starlings were passing westwards in small flocks of perhaps 20 or 30. A casual glance and it would be easy to dismiss these as local birds moving to better feeding grounds, but over a period of an hour I saw several hundred headed determinedly in the same direction; such a consistent passage could only be immigration of Continental birds. The movement continued all day long. 

Regular calls overhead from skylarks flying southwards made me think these too were probably immigrants, a supposition confirmed when I watched small parties of these wonderful songsters arriving off the sea as I walked along the shingle ridge. These birds could also have been of Continental origin, or possibly even Scottish bred birds moving to our milder lowlands.

A sizeable party of pink-footed geese from Iceland or Greenland were using the fields to the south-east of the reserve to feed. The scrapes, brackish pools and drains were full of Russian teal and wigeon. Lapwings from the Low Countries and curlews from Scandinavia were probing around in the stubble behind the reserve centre. A few German blackbirds could be seen whisking across the reed beds en route to our berry-laden hedgerows. And black-headed gulls from the Baltic were busy searching for any form of dead or discarded sustenance on the tideline.

Taking advantage of the fine weather, I spent most of the afternoon around the western edge of the reserve. Here a fine kingfisher was feeding in one of the narrow channels; an almost unreal vivid blue whir amidst the dank and dying reeds. A local bird at last and surely the most beautiful. It disappeared as swiftly as it had entered the scene, but such a sight always lifts the spirits.
Black brant, photo by Barry Madden
However my main goal here was to try and track down a black brant (Eastern Siberia) amongst the large party of dark-bellied brent geese (central Siberia) that were feeding on the roadside fields. This proved to be a quite difficult task, not aided by the bird in question being hunkered down and obscured by vegetation. Eventually those gathered were put out of their misery and this rare but regular visitor to the Cley area began strutting around with its close relatives. Only then could the darker overall plumage, the diagnostic bright white flanks and prominent neck flash be fully appreciated. Having locked on to this vagrant, it was heartening to be able to point it out to curious members of the public that could not fail to be impressed by the large numbers of geese present, but were quite understandably unaware that Cley Marshes was playing host to yet another rare visitor.  

Golden plover, photo by Barry Madden
The Eye field played host to yet more visitors from abroad in the form of a sizeable party of roosting golden plover. These spangle-plumaged waders probably originate from northern Europe and provide an eye catching spectacle carpeting the grassland or gyrating across our wide Norfolk skies when flushed by some predator.

I ended the day, as always, in Bishop’s Hide watching the brightly coloured female marsh harrier preening itself atop an elder bush prior to spending the night roosting nearby; this another local bird and mother to the three youngsters that fledged last summer. They are nowhere to be found and haven’t been seen for some time. Why? Well, they are probably wintering somewhere in the Mediterranean. One way or another Cley Marshes represents a truly cosmopolitan nature reserve.

Monday, 18 November 2013

November flowers

Chris Durdin, NWT Thorpe Marshes

Whisper it quietly, but November can be a rather dull month at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Sure, some winter birds have arrived, like snipe and meadow pipits on the grazing marshes. But, as often as not, there are no wintering ducks on the gravel pit we call St Andrew’s Broad – numbers build up when winter begins to bite.

So on November’s monthly wildlife walk, I set a challenge to those who came: how many species of wild flowers can we find? Not leaves or dead stems, but actually in flower.
Meadowsweet, photo by Chris Durdin
The answer was surprising: 32. Granted, some of these were flowers of disturbed ground that you might find anywhere, such as white dead-nettle and black nightshade. Proper marsh flowers included water chickweed and some immaculate meadowsweet. The daisy family – ‘composites’ in the eyes of botanists – was easily the most numerous group, with ten species from sow-thistles to yarrow.

The five umbellifers on the list are a curious mixture. Two were genuinely late species to flower that may linger until frosts arrive: upright hedge parsley and angelica. Two others, cow parsley and hogweed, are spring flowers that often throw up autumn flowers when vegetation is cut, such as on roadside verges or, like here, on the riverside footpath. The fifth was giant hogweed, that potentially invasive alien, controlled by the NWT reserves team in the recent past but growing again.

The list of 32 November flowers and details of monthly walks are on

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Hickling Broad wetland restoration

John Blackburn, Upper Thurne Warden

The last phase of an exciting wetland restoration project is taking place at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad National Nature Reserve. The project is funded by the WREN Biodiversity Action Fund and is part of a long-term plan to restore, extend and improve 77 hectares of rare fen habitat within the Bure Valley Living Landscape and re-connect areas of floodplain with the Broad.

Reprofiling the old IDB dyke
NWT Hickling Broad is situated in the upper stretches of the River Thurne, and is the largest expanse of open water in the Broads. It has been managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust since 1945 and now covers an area of approximately 600 hectares which includes the largest of the Norfolk Broads. A rich wetland mosaic includes floodplain, fen, wet woodland, open water and reed bed. The variety of habitats and the rare wildlife they support have led to this site being given a multitude of international, European and National conservation designations. 

The final phase of the wetland restoration project will see the much welcomed Landfill Community Fund grant spent on enhancing the Upper Thurne Living Landscape vision of creating a more natural functioning wetland habitat. 47 hectares of drained marsh land will be ‘re-wetted’, allowing water levels to raise to their natural level and extent. A series of shallow pools will be created or enhanced for wading birds. 2.5km of dyke will be re-profiled to enable emergent vegetation to develop,  and a further 330m of dykes that currently do not have good water flow will be restored.

Improvements and modification of grazing infrastructure including fences, gates, culverts and corrals will allow for on-going conservation grazing and site management.

Whiteslea Marshes bund to retain higher water before being full
The wider conservation project work at Hickling has involved close partnership working with many organisations including Broadland Environmental Services Limited (BESL) and the Inland Drainage Board (IDB). BESL has been involved with the managed realignment of a section of floodbank and this will facilitate a gradual transition to a more natural floodplain reconnecting the site to the broad. The IDB has worked closely with NWT realigning drains and installing new structures and water controls on the site to improve water levels and their management for biodiversity.

And with the higher water

Raising water levels on the drained marshes and installing infrastructure to facilitate the managed retreat of flood defences enables a gradual sensitive transition. This pragmatic response to the impact of climate change and sea level rise aims to create the space within which habitats and species like swallowtail butterflies can adapt and thrive into the future. Nationally scarce species such as marsh fern and greater water parsnip will also benefit from this ground-breaking work.

The on-going management of the site will involve raising water levels and then allowing the water to lower naturally, reflecting a more natural wetland system. Conservation grazing with cattle and ponies will ensure a mosaic of habitat is maintained. As stock move across the site they maintain the vegetation through grazing pressure allowing delicate species to thrive. NWT currently manage 24 Konik ponies, a breed that are especially adapted to enjoy wetter conditions.

Gadwall, photo by Steve Bond
Open water is key for overwintering wildfowl like teal and gadwall. New open water will establish and enhance the existing high wildlife value habitat found within the unreclaimed floodplain fens in Broadland. This will also add to the highly successful 100 Acre reed bed work carried out in 1999, which saw the successful breeding of bittern, an endangered and UK Priority Biodiversity Action Plan Species. The bittern has suffered notable decline due to loss of reed bed and freshwater habitat which it depends on. Its success at Hickling Broad highlights just how special the site is as reserve for wildlife. These habitats are often missing from the Upper Thurne catchment which is largely embanked and will complement the existing small areas found at Martham and around the western margin of Hickling Broad.

The project design and improvements will ensure that these fragile habitats are safeguarded for the future. All of which will reinforce existing populations of key species for their long term survival and attract larger populations of species such as bittern; common crane - one of Europe’s largest birds with a wingspan of 1.8 - 2.2m -  marsh harrier and Norfolk’s iconic swallowtail butterfly.

As well as improving the quality of the habitat for wildlife, visitors to the reserve will have a much improved experience being able to view both new and enhanced pools from the current Cadbury and Seckers Hides and Observation Hut. Raised flood banks and bunds, although modest in height will in turn elevate the visitor just enough to dramatically increase the field of view across the site.

Currently at Hickling 

A phase of the Wetland Restoration Project will mean the closure of Seckers and Cadbury bird hides until the new year. Visitors will also observe four excavators constructing bunds and culverts and bird scrapes as part to this project. This will mean that whilst the boardwalk path to the broad will remain open it will not be suitable for wheelchairs as a section has been removed to allow machinery access and replaced temporally by an earth bank, NWT apologies for any inconvenience.

For more details, please ring NWT on 01603 625540 before your visit. Thank you for your understanding.