Monday, 16 October 2017

Wildlife going off the rails?


Old railway lines in Norfolk can be fantastic havens for wildlife, according to project officer Mark Webster. As part of the County Wildlife Action project, the trust has been surveying a number of them for wildflowers, and we have been ‘chuffed’ to discover some real rarities at sites where steam trains used to rush past! So why not muddle along and go somewhere along the Norfolk Trails long-distance paths?
 
It can be a bit of a strange experience walking along the old railway lines that criss-cross the county. You can be feeling how tranquil the area is, far from the sound of traffic, and then suddenly realise that exactly where you are walking, and not so long ago, express trains used to rush along, perhaps passing a line of trucks filled with cattle on their way to market - or a seaside special would be taking hundreds of excited families from the midlands off on their annual holiday on the sandy beaches of Norfolk’s east coast.

Platforms and original fencing at Briggate
Honing old station as it was
One of the sites I’ve been working at is the old Honing station at Briggate, and it’s a fascinating place – an abandoned station where you can walk among the remains of the brick walls, stepping from ticket office to waiting room – and even into the ladies and gents, where you can still see the layers of paint where the Midland and Great Northern railway’s brown and cream colour scheme was covered later by the green of the Great Eastern railway company. The M&GN was somewhat affectionately known and the ‘Muddle and Go Nowhere’ railway, because of its tortuous route across country from one little village to another. This section of track didn’t even last until Dr Beeching swung his axe – it shut in 1959, but still the original wooden criss-cross fencing survives, along with the huge platforms, and remains of the signal box and cattle pens, now with brambles and nettles growing where once was a busy workplace.

And there is a lot of wildlife along this route too – recent surveys have recorded several species of bats feeding here, and there are surveys for fungi coming up on 18 October, and mosses on 8 November, both of which are open to the public to join, with absolute beginners welcome to come and learn about these often forgotten organisms. 

Small-flowered catchfly in Felmingham
Nearby at Knapton and Felmingham, there are substantial railway cuttings, amazingly dug by hand. And the work of the navvies is not wasted now, as the cuttings’ south-facing slopes have become hotspots for wildflowers and the butterflies that feed on them.  I was especially delighted to come across lots of the endangered small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica) here last summer: it’s a delightful little red and white flower which depends on the open sandy soil here.

Most of the old railway lines around North Walsham are owned and managed by Norfolk County Council, and there is more information about these and other walking routes here. Or if you would rather not explore these places alone, why not join one of the free activities run by our partners TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) which include some free short wildlife ID courses in October and November. The Mushroom Foray is led by county fungi recorder – and real enthusiast for his subject - Tony Leech. Find out more about these curious organisms.
 
Indoor events will include renowned wildlife cameraman Jerry Kinsley showing some of his stunning nature photos – and sharing the secrets of his success, which includes the somewhat surprising use of a skateboard – at Honing Village Hall on Tuesday 17 October at 7.30pm, and a talk by local railway author Nigel Digby on the M&GN at North Walsham Community Centre exactly a week later.  

For more details about how to join any of these walks and talks, please contact me via markw@norfolkwildlifetust.org.uk  or 07843 069 567, or see the What’s On pages of the NWT website

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

How should we approach rewilding?

John Hiskett, Senior Conservation Officer

Rewilding. The term is often used but the practice varies from less intensive management of existing nature reserves to George Monbiot’s vison of uplands and the large scale projects in continental Europe where whole landscapes are being returned to a pre-industrial farming model.

One model, closer to home, is that followed by the Knepp Estate in Sussex which I had the opportunity to visit in early September. Knepp covers 3,500 acres set in rolling countryside between The Weald and South Downs and has been developing as a rewilding project since 2002.


At first glance, Knepp appears to be like any other area of grazed farmland but it soon becomes clear that things are very different. Hedges are wide and sprawling and in early September covered in berries unlike the closely trimmed hedges of most farmland. Fields are largely unfenced and grazing animals are free to wander between them. Many fields are developing a patchwork of hawthorn and blackthorn dominated scrub with willow in wetter areas.


The re-wilding experiment is driven by grazing animals, which include Old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, red, roe and fallow deer and Tamworth pigs, which are left to roam free within 3 large enclosures. These animals are frequently encountered but are fairly sparsely scattered throughout the project area. This has led to welcome but unplanned increases in the ecological value of the area. Benefits of the increase in scrub has resulted in Knepp currently holding one of the largest breeding concentrations of nightingales in Britain, and becoming the top purple emperor breeding site in the UK. In addition turtle doves, which are in steep decline elsewhere, are increasing.

The economic model at Knepp includes agri-environment payments, income from safaris and income from a camping and glamping site which has been established in recent years, along with income from sales of free range meat. This latter highlights a major difference between Knepp and other well-known rewilding projects such as Oostvaardersplassen in Netherlands. At Knepp numbers of grazers are controlled by culling with the resulting organic free range meat adding to the income of the estate, whereas at Oostvaardersplassen grazing animals are left to live and die naturally. However, the lack of predators means that numbers are very high, giving the impression at first glance of herds of animals in African savannah. As a result, Oostvaardersplassen has progressed from a landscape with large numbers of trees and areas of scrub, when I first visited 10 years ago to almost bare grassland due to overgrazing, as was apparent on a visit earlier this year. In comparison at Knepp where numbers are artificially controlled through culling, well wooded parkland is developing with high biodiversity value.

What lessons are there for re-wilding projects elsewhere? The different forms of re-wilding all have their place and new projects should seek to use the most appropriate model. Oostvaardersplassen is attempting to create wholly wild landscape but absence of predators means that numbers of grazing animals have increased to a level which some argue is having a detrimental effect on the ecology of the habitat. In contrast at Knepp and other similar projects there is a return is to a more extensively managed landscape that is rich in some of the biodiversity that has been lost over much of lowland Britain as a result of agricultural intensification in recent decades. However, this model may need to be modified in areas where sensitive and rare habitats require management intervention if they are to persist in their current form.

 

Although bigger is obviously better it would be possible to establish extensive management at a smaller scale than at Knepp and one could argue that NWT and others are already doing this in places such as Roydon and Grimston Common. A Living Landscape in a farmed lowland landscape could be made up of large nature reserves and areas of extensively managed farmland linked by wildlife rich ecological corridors.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Fungus Foray Fun



Fiona Roat, Breckland Local Group

The Breckland Local Group had a wonderful morning with Dr Tony Leech. he is a very enthusiastic, generous and knowledgeable guide.

On the day 32 species were found which included six new ones to the site records, bringing the site total to 208.

Although not new to the site or in any way rare, the Orange Mosscap (Rickenella fibula), pictured, is not easy to find at 1cm across, especially when there’s only one on it’s own!

We are already hoping to get Tony to guide us on a different site next autumn.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What’s wrong with the centre of Norfolk?

Mark Webster, Project Officer

Join us for a bat walk in NWT Foxley Wood
It’s a part of Norfolk that doesn’t get the attention it deserves but at least NWT hasn’t forgotten it… and neither have the Heritage Lottery Fund. A series of free events in central Norfolk (with more around North Walsham too) could be the ideal time for you to discover some hidden gems.

Ask people to think of wildlife in Norfolk and most of them will conjure up images of wading birds flying over our Northern coastline, or perhaps acres of reeds beside the world-famous Broads.  But there are lots of NWT reserves - and many other great places to see wildlife – right in the heart of the county. So often people get stuck in traffic jams heading for the seaside and they are going straight past some really wonderful woods, wetlands and heaths.

I often do a talk entitled “Rough and Common – the hidden wildlife gems of Mid-Norfolk” and every time I find that even people who have lived in the area all their lives are not aware of all the great places that they can visit on their doorsteps. I’ve been working in this area for two years now, and I’m certainly still discovering new places every month.

Many people come to Foxley Wood for the bluebells in spring – well, I can certainly understand that, they are absolutely stunning – but they miss out on seeing orchids there later in the year.  And there are lots more NWT reserves to see check out the cluster of sites between Dereham and Reepham, but you can also enjoy many other beautiful green spaces, including these:

Mayfields Farm
  • Mayfields Farm at Themelthorpe is somewhere I have visited and worked at many times. There’s a great variety of habitats including grassland, a number of very different ponds, a small woodland and lots of species-rich hedgerow. 
  • Bawdeswell Heath County Wildlife Site near Swanton Morley is one of my favourite places, as I have a particular fondness for heathland restoration projects. Walk through the birch woodland, passing some veteran oaks, and you will come to two open patches where heather is thriving despite the constant pressure from bracken, gorse and tree seedlings coming in. There’s a car park on the busy Swanton to Bawdeswell road, making this site easily found. 
  • Carbrooke Millenium Green near Watton is a very impressive site for a relatively small village, with growing woodland, a maze, an orchard and a lovely pond. 
  • Other great places to explore in central Norfolk include Dereham’s own Neatherd Moor and the 60 acres of Litcham Common.

Bawdeswell Heath
If you still don’t fancy wandering around these places alone, why not come with us?  As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Norfolk Wildlife Trust in partnership with TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) are running a series of free short courses in central Norfolk (and, I should say, around North Walsham too).  Between 27 September and 10 November there are 11 chances to learn more about a wide range of different local flora and fauna, including bats, fungi, mosses, as well as discovering how to take great wildlife photos. 

There will be a bat walk at Foxley Wood, giving you the rare chance of exploring Norfolk’s largest ancient woodland at night. There are also two Mushroom Forays led by county fungi recorder, and real enthusiast for his subject, Tony Leech. 
 
Indoor events will include renowned wildlife cameraman, Jerry Kinsley showing some of his stunning nature photos, and sharing the secrets of his success, which includes the somewhat surprising use of a skateboard. Meanwhile, back outside, there will be two chances to find and identify some fascinating if oft-forgotten plants, the mosses, and see how marvellous these tiny plants really are! Just like the wildlife sites of mid-Norfolk themselves, we have all just gone past these ‘primitive’ organisms on the way to see something bigger, but they really repay closer inspection with a hand lens.


I’m really pleased to have got some real experts who are also great communicators to lead these sessions, so I do hope that you may be able to take advantage of some of these free opportunities to learn about local wildlife (and the history of the railways around North Walsham). 

For more details about how to join any of these walks and talks, please contact me via markw@norfolkwildlifetust.org.uk  or 07843 069 567, or see the What’s On pages of the NWT website.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Up the creek


Norfolk Wildlife Trust's David North explores Norfolk’s last true wilderness in a traditional crabbing vessel. 

Henry and My Girls, David North

Its 6.30am and I’m in Wells to meet Henry, and to board his restored crab boat, My Girls. It’s been blowing a brisk northerly for the last couple of days but fortunately the heavy skies and heavy rains of the last 24 hours have been blown elsewhere and the early morning sun is bright on Wells marshes.  And it’s the marshes I have come to explore.  Not many boats could attempt the narrow saltmarsh creeks that wind their way between Cley and Wells. And not many navigators know these creeks well enough to attempt the journey and find safe passage through this maze of sinuous, shallow and ever-changing channels. The great thing about ‘My Girls’ is her shallow draft. As long as we have a couple of feet of water under us Henry says we should be ok and that traditional crab boats were made for just this landscape.  So on a rising tide we are off, and with the town of Wells slowly disappearing behind us we head east towards Stiffkey and into a landscape as wild as anywhere on this planet.


Leaving Wells behind, David North
I love the North Norfolk coast – its wildlife and its wildness – and I think I know this coast quite well.   I have walked the marshes over many years and once was lucky enough to fly over them in a small plane, giving me a birds-eye-view and revealing intricate patterns invisible when you are on the ground.  But being in a boat brings a new perspective. Exploring the marshes on foot means being out at, or near, low tide.  Here in the boat we are out amongst the marshland on a rapidly rising tide. Everywhere is movement and change: what was solid land moments before becomes water. Water that moves in strange patterns with currents running both up and down a creek at the same time, creating swirls, mini-whirl-pools, upwellings, calm, oily flats and silver sunlit ripplings. 
 

Big skies across the Marshes, David North
We ground several times, but, on a rising tide, its usually just minutes before, with Henry at the tiller, our outboard swings us back into the current and eastwards towards Morston.  There are ancient wooden posts that jut from the mud that could easily punch a hole in a keel and in one place a low bridge where we must duck as we pass under.  From the boat of course there are those fantastic huge landscape views across samphire and sea-lavendar-decked marshes and those huge North Norfolk skies, horizon to horizon, above.  These will be familiar to all who love these marshes but for the moment, as we navigate creeks barely wider than the boat, it’s mud that holds my attention.   

'Cauliflower and mashed potato' mud, David North
The English language lacks enough words for mud: there is mud here with the texture of cauliflower and mashed potato. There is mud, shiny, smooth and silvered by sun. There is mud that is black, and brown and grey, and even orange in places. There is mud that sprouts miniature cacti forests of samphire and mud patterned with footprints of shelduck and redshank. There is join-the-dots mud, pricked with sowing-machine regularity, by the beaks of now invisible waders. As the tide rises towards its high it becomes harder to see the edges of the channels that our boat, My Girls, most move within. It’s strange to see just the tops of marsh plants waving over a sea of water. There are forests of sea asters, apparently floating, their flowers not quite open yet, but hinting at yellow and purples soon to come.


Oystercatchers, Blakeney Point, David North
Then a change of scene. We are out into open water and catching the full force of swell from those preceding days of northerly winds. It’s exhilarating, and if not quite a roller-coaster, certainly enough to make me hang on tight until we enter calmer waters in the lee of Blakeney Point.  There are black and white oystercatchers at the seaward end of the spit, roosting out the high tide which has covered their feeding grounds. A more careful look reveals dunlin, grey plovers and a single black-tailed godwit amongst them. The lives of these waders is driven more by tide than by day and night. They will feed all night if that’s when the tide is low and muddy feeding grounds are exposed.  There are common seals hauled up on the Point, but the seals that follow us across Blakeney Pit are greys, heads bobbing above the waves, giving us searching, curious Selkie stares before diving, only to bob up again even closer.


Half-way house, David North
We pass inland, or should that be ‘inwater’, of the bright blue National Trust former lifeboat house and then, sail now rigged,  past ‘half-way house’, the watch-house, where once  ‘preventative men’, the early coastguards, pitted their wits against smugglers of brandy, baccy and geneva (gin). I wonder if there are still smugglers today, but sadly, if so, then it’ more likely drugs or human trafficking that’s plied. A sad  reflection on today’s world.   There are gulls and terns that fly over the boat with raucous calls; black-headed, herring and great-black backed gulls and both common and little terns.  Little terns are one of my favourite birds, elegant, graceful with and almost ethereal beauty as they hover before plunge-diving for small fish. I’m not alone in admiring them. It was Simon Barnes who described little terns as ‘what black-headed gulls dream of becoming when they die and go to heaven’.


Coming in to Cley, David North
Our journey ends navigating the newly dredged, but still narrow, river channel through waving reeds to disembark at the quayside next to Cley windmill.  So what will I take away from this voyage though North Norfolk’s wild marshes under the lovely terracotta sails of My Girls.  What I value most is the privilege of time spent in a truly wild place where the only sounds are wind, waves and the calls of curlew and redshank.  Salt-marshes are truly wild: shaped by the forces of nature, scorched by summer sun, swept by winter storm.  Places that are home for waders, seals and some highly specialised and very fascinating plants, but where we humans are never quite at home. Fleeting visitors, like me, that pass through on an adventure, always aware that tide and change makes these challenging places to explore.
Wild places, like these Norfolk saltmarshes, are rare as hen’s teeth in our modern world.  In North Norfolk we have some of the finest, least spoilt and most extensive saltmarshes in Western Europe.  Priceless!  Let’s make sure they, and their wildlife, are protected and valued as one of Norfolk’s most precious assets.



 Exploring  the saltmarsh coast:

Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves at Holme Dunes and Cley and Salthouse Marshes are great places to see some of the wildlife characteristic of North Norfolk’s coastal marshes.

The North Norfolk coast path between Wells and Cley follows the top of the saltmarshes providing great views over the marshes.


Under sail, David North
If you are interested in exploring the creeks by boat then details of how to book a trip with Henry on his restored, traditional crab boat My Girls, and other coastal adventure trips can be found at www.coastalexplorationcompany.co.uk