Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Surprise visitors at Wissey Wetland

Nick Carter, Conservation Officer (Fens)

It’s always exciting to visit the developing reserve at Wissey Wetland, as you are never quite sure what new delights you will encounter. Thursday 21 February was no exception with the star sighting a lone Crane circling above the Hilgay site for several minutes before drifting off towards Hilgay. Although breeding in the Fens already, this was the first confirmed sighting at the reserve and demonstrates the attractiveness of the site in its early stages of development. 

The site also hosted two Green Sandpipers, which are probably overwintering. A large number of wildfowl, mostly Teal and Mallard but with some Shelduck, were present and hopefully some of these will stay to breed in the newly created ditch network. One pair of Egyptian Geese already had a brood of eight goslings in early February but there was no sign of these on the current visit.

Red Deer taken with a remote camera, by Arnie Cooke

Some remote cameras were also retrieved after being present for two weeks, on the Methwold side. Some interesting shots and videos have been recorded including Badger, Red (see above) and Roe Deer, Muntjac, Stoat, Weasel, Brown Hare and Grey Partridge, the last only rarely being recorded on the site. The cameras will give us some information about how species such as Badger and Red Deer use the site which will help in the design of the wetland site and its future management.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Bees Knees

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Buff Tailed Bumble Bee, Alan Price
March is the month when many queen bees emerge from hibernation so look out for large bumblebees buzzing around your crocus flowers in the garden on the first warm sunny days this month. If you are out walking in the countryside then stop by any willow trees that are in full sun –  their yellow fluffy  ‘pussy willow’ flowers (actually male catkins) are rich in pollen and nectar and bumble bees head for this early source of food from near and far. Willow trees can hum with the buzzing of dozens of bees but only when they are in full sun.

It is not news that our bees are in serious trouble: both hive bees and wild bees are facing problems not just in Norfolk but across much of the world. The massive decline in wild flowers and flower-rich meadows since the 1940s is undoubtedly on major factor. We have lost two of our 24 species of bumblebee from the UK in this period and other bee species are in severe decline. This is not just tragic for bees but pollinating insects, of which bees are probably the most important, are vital for us too. And that’s not just the value of the honey made by our hive bees.  It’s said the value of bee pollination in the UK is over  £200 million to British agriculture and the retail value of food pollinated by bees over  £1billion a year. So bee decline is something we need to all take seriously.

The European Commission have proposed a partial ban on three neonicotinoid  pesticides which would prevent their use on the crops most attractive to bees. The European Food Safety Authority found that there is a high risk to honeybees and possibly other pollinating insects from these widely used agricultural chemicals. You can find out more about this important issue and how to support the banning of neonicotinoids by visiting the BugLife website.

One thing we can all do to support bees is to ensure there are more flowers! Gardens which grow nectar producing flowers, especially if you can plan to have nectar available from March through to November by growing both early and late flowering, can have real impact on bee populations. Here is our webpage of downloadable, free gardening for wildlife leaflets. Research has shown that the impact of gardens on bees can spill out into the surrounding flower impoverished agricultural landscape for  at least 1km and also support bee populations through critical periods when nectar supplies have dwindled in the wider countryside.  So why not bring some buzz to your garden this summer by doing some bee-friendly planting? And if you really care about bees continue to bring pressure to ban the use of neonicotinoids of which the UK is a major producer and exporter.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

100 Species, Number 6: Herring

Red herrings and silver darlings

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

The herring is only a small fish, usually not more than 10 inches long, shaped for speed and with shining silver scales on its sides and belly. Out of the water its scales reflect a subtle rainbow of colours and like many fish its beautiful colouration deserves recognition but rarely gets a mention.

This is a species that has changed not just the history of Norfolk but possibly the world! Don’t believe it? Well read on! It’s a story of war, of global trading, of kings, queens and slaves and of course of human greed and folly, and all centred on the humble herring. The herring is a births, deaths and marriages fish – it has changed human and family history both through love and through tragedy. There are many families today whose parents or grandparents met only because of our obsession with this species. ‘No herring, no wedding’ was once a common saying in fishing communities.

Let’s start with Norfolk. Three of Norfolk’s four largest towns all have links with the former trade in herrings, but few would argue that Great Yarmouth owes both its origins and its growth to the North Sea herring. The town’s origins go back to the tenth century when this coastal sand-bank was first settled by herring fishermen. The fishing was good and Yarmouth gets a mention in the Domesday Book (1086) as the centre of the herring industry. At this time over the border in Suffolk the Manor of Beccles paid an annual tribute of 30,000 herring to the Abbey of St Edmund which was increased to 60,000 after the Norman Conquest. Henry 1 declared Yarmouth a burgh in 1108 for an annual payment of ‘ten milliards herring’.

Yarmouth’s medieval herring fair, described as the ‘noblest fishery for herring in Europe’, ran from Michaelmas (29 September) to Martinmas (10 November) and attracted merchants from across Europe. Statutes of Herring passed in 1357 meant that herring had to be landed at Yarmouth before they could be traded.

The herring industry was the basis for the growth of the whole community in Yarmouth. It provided work not just for fishermen but for sail makers, rope makers, net makers, coopers (barrel makers), fishmongers, curers, shipwrights, gutters and by the 19th century for tug crews, railwaymen, dock workers and engineers. The scale of the industry is almost impossible to imagine today. In 1722 Daniel Defoe visiting Yarmouth writes of 40,000 herring barrels being prepared and by the start of the 19th century Yarmouth was the largest herring port in the world. The peak was in the early 20th century with 900 million herring landed in 1913 and the average catch in the early 1900s being 530 million herring in the 14 week season from September to November. The record came in 1907 when 90 million herring were caught off Yarmouth in a single day with only space for 60 million to be landed the other 30 million were diverted to Grimsby. Scottish coopers in 1906 were making 2,009,014 barrels and 422,080 half barrels for the herring industry. 1,163 Scottish drifters (the herring boats) moved south to Yarmouth in the 1913 season and 1,359,213 cran of herring were landed. (1000 to 1,300 fish make up a cran) These were the days when you could walk from one side of Yarmouth harbour to the other on the decks of the drifters, and 10,000 seasonal workers, fishermen, fishergirls and curers swelled the population of Yarmouth for the autumn herring season.

So herring was big business and led to the growth of one of Norfolk’s four most populous towns but what of wars, weddings and changing world history? Surely too much to claim for a 10 inch silver marine fish. Well here are just a few ways that herrings have changed the course of our history.

Lets’ start with the Romans and the Vikings – they both fished for herring in Norfolk waters. So maybe the healthy diet of herring was in part responsible for all that conquest, raping and pillaging. More seriously the origins of the Hanseatic League originated in the regulation of the herring trade. Lynn of course grew before it became Kings Lynn as a Hansa port and both Norwich and Kings Lynn had medieval Hanseatic League warehouses from where herring were traded for wool, hides and beer, and even with Russia for timber. So important was the herring trade that the Hansa took control of the salt mines at Luneburg to dominate the herring industry through control of salt.

The herring has been described as ‘the potato of the middle ages’. It was the staple diet of both rich and poor. Yarmouth had to provide herring pies for Royalty. When the English army were besieging Orleans in 1429 500 cartloads of salted herring were despatched but the French got wind of this (maybe literally!) which led to the ‘Battle of the Herrings’. The English army at the battle of Agincourt was fed on salt herring. In more recent times you could equally argue that the British Empire relied on salt herring. There were exports to the West Indies of Yarmouth herring to feed slaves and keep them working and healthy: all part of the herring story.

Did herring enable us to win the First World War? Well they certainly played a part. Steam drifters from Yarmouth were requisitioned as mine-sweepers but more vital than that as in wars through the centuries it was fishermen who enlisted in the navy (49% of UK fishermen enlisted in the First World War). With their knowledge of the sea they played a crucial part, many dying to keep trade routes open and Britain a free country.

Through the centuries many fishermen have died in pursuit of the herring but equally many weddings, love-matches and births have also been the herring’s legacy. The annual migration of fisher-lassies from Scotland following the herring south to Yarmouth for the autumn fishing season took place for nearly a century. In 1913 6,000 women gutted 854 million herring in 14 weeks in Yarmouth. They worked long hours gutting 30 herrings a minute with their hands wrapped in cloth to protect them for salt getting in the cuts they sustained. A good fishing year swelled the marriage register and not all these girls returned to Scotland. The end of the fishing season in November was a peak time for marriages in Yarmouth.

The story of Norfolk’s herring industry is one which we all still have lessons to learn from. For many centuries the practice of small wooden sailing boats setting nets at sunset to catch the herring as they rose from the depths to feed near the surface at night, though dangerous and a hard life, was also sustainable. Steam drifters from the early 1900s worked in much the same way heading out to work the seas up to 40 miles off Yarmouth – the most abundant seas were north-west of Cromer at Smith’s Knoll. However better technology and bigger ships meant that a great industry died through greed and the silver darlings no longer swam is single shoals more than two miles long. A change to trawling and purse-seining meant the herring could be hoovered out the sea at any depth and a combination of more engine power, bigger boats and electronic equipment to find the fish meant there were no refuge areas for herring in the North Sea. In the 1960s the Norwegians alone had 259 purse-seiners each capable of taking 1,000 tons in a night operating in the North Sea. By the early 1970s it is estimated that 75% of the entire North Sea stock could be taken in a single year and a combination of the British, Danes, Dutch, and Norwegians emptied the North Sea of herring. In 1977 the EU closed the North Sea herring fishery which led to a partial recovery but on nothing like the scale once sustained. Issues including illegal fishing, by catch, and a lack of will by politicians remain an issue though the welcome news just this month (Feb 2013) that the EU may ban discards and regulate North Sea fisheries on a more sustainable basis is decades overdue.

If you have followed this story I hope you will agree that the herring, Yarmouth’s silver darling, deserves its place in the hundred species that have changed Norfolk’s history. It’s a story of greed and the end of a Norfolk industry that once employed thousands. A story that we still need to learn from if we are to create sustainable seas and much needed Marine Conservation Zones. Let’s remember the silver darling, campaign for sustainable seas and hope one day the great shoals of herring will return to the North Sea.

P.S. And finally a red herring! The red herring was smoked whole and smoked long. So long that a single red herring could be used to lay down a false trail that would mislead a whole pack of hounds. They would literally be following a red herring.

Friday, 22 February 2013

January at NWT Upton Broad and Marshes

Nigel Robson, Volunteer Bird Recorder for NWT

These accounts of birds at Upton Broad and Marshes are based only on my observations unless otherwise mentioned, usually from between two and four visits a week, at different times of day and covering parts of the reserve (predominantly the grazing marshes). At best I hope from this to provide a snapshot of which species occur when and where, and how they are responding to changes to the habitats (planned and unplanned), climate variations, agricultural influences and any others factors.

During the first half of January, the reserve had generally low numbers of the typical birds wintering in Broadland, despite the grazing marshes remaining suitably saturated and holding many flashes of open water. Lapwings, golden plovers, winter thrushes and starlings were sporadic, and no more than a handful of duck and Bewick’s swans visited. On the other hand, cranes were regularly drawn from their winter stronghold immediately across the river at St Benet’s Level to the recently-created scrapes in the west of the reserve. During this period, St Benet’s Level provided for good numbers of lapwing, golden plover and Bewick’s swans (115 and 8 whooper swans on 6 January). The mixture of arable (maize cropping) and grazing marsh there is clearly favourable to these birds, and also to winter flocks of linnets and skylarks not found in such numbers in the reserve. This example of the interdependence of wildlife on the wider landscape illustrates the need to work with surrounding landowners, as embodied in NWT’s Living Landscape Initiative in the Bure Valley.

Green Sandpiper, photo by Julian Thomas
The daily movement of cormorants flying over the reserve in late afternoon to their roost at NWT Ranworth Broad provided an impressive spectacle, with formations totalling up to 1,000 birds. Other winter visitors seen throughout January included a green sandpiper, two redshanks and a peregrine. The reserve staff had a single sighting of a hen harrier. A small number of meadow pipits frequented the soke dykes, and inhabitants of the reed swamp beside the river were a few scattered reed buntings, an unobtrusive group of bearded tits, the odd Cetti’s warbler, and of course the ever-present wren which calls from all corners of the reserve.

Away from the marshes in the undrained fen, a work party on the Doles was completing the planned clearance of sections of scrub and alder carr to reclaim herbaceous fen. This nationally-rare habitat contains some of the floristic diversity for which the reserve was designated SSSI. It is the stronghold of the grasshopper warbler and water tail, but otherwise its avian diversity is limited. There will be winners and losers as a consequence of these changes. The elimination of a large area of mixed scrub around Little Broad will reduce the number of breeding willow warblers and the potential for a breeding long-eared owl, both species being strongly reliant on those conditions in the Broads.

The species composition and numbers of waterfowl using Great Broad in winter vary, and daytime counts during the months before and up to mid-January were low. The WeBS count on 13 January is indicative of this, amounting to 55 birds of 7 species. But with the snow and freezing conditions that followed, activity increased. On 17 January the Broad was 90% frozen, and the count was 120 birds of 7 species. Mallard was, unusually, the most numerous at 65, and duck included a drake pintail. Six days later, the Broad was 85% frozen and the count 244 birds of 8 species with teal most numerous at 169. In the surrounding woodland, woodcock were relatively plentiful.

Common Teal, photo by Chris Mills
Snow blanketed the grazing marshes for many days in the second half of the month, whilst the river lagoons, subject to tidal influence, stayed partially unfrozen. Like the broads, they became the focus of activity, attracting up to 200 teal, accompanied by small numbers of mallard, gadwall, shoveler, tufted duck , pochard and a shelduck. A pair of pintail also settled in for a stay, the drake probably being the same bird seen on Great Broad. A scattering of snipe occupied the edges. Wigeon were frequent over-flyers from the adjacent Oby marshes but they are as yet reluctant to land on the reserve’s lagoons and marshes, possibly being outside their “comfort zone”.

With grey skies and cold winds persisting, the pattern remained set to the end of the month.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

What makes a good environmental educator?

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Passion, enthusiasm and an ability to communicate one’s own relationship and understanding of nature to others is a good starting point!
It’s easy to inspire others about wildlife at NWT nature reserves such as Hickling Broad, Holme Dunes or Cley Marshes: these are spectacular nature sites with a fantastic diversity of species, landscapes and habitats. 

Wildlife watcher, by Emma Bradshaw
The test of a good environmental educator is not that they can teach here but that they can take a common daisy growing on the edge of a school playing field, or a tatty, gappy hawthorn hedge on the boundary of a housing estate, and enable a young person to see these everyday things in entirely new ways. To see a common daisy in such a new way that it changes a young person’s perspective on the planet and on their own relationship with nature. Wherever and whenever we have opportunities to teach about nature we should be able to quite literally open people’s eyes to the everyday and commonplace in their environment in totally new ways: for every pupil to notice for the first time at least six new things in their school grounds which they have walked past every day without really ‘looking’. Teaching that enables children to understand their local environment from new perspectives. To see the world from an earthworm’s perspective and understand what Darwin first truly ‘saw’, that our lives are not only linked through evolution to an earthworm’s – we are literally fellow travellers and family members – but also to see the earthworm as a crucial part of our own life support system.

Children may only be 20% of our population but they are 100% of our future. If we fail to connect them to nature, to enable them to build their own personal relationship with wildlife and wild places then conservation has no future. As individuals we always care most for those things, people and places that we have a personal relationship with. If our children – if a whole generation who no longer play outside – fail to develop a relationship with the natural world, then conservation is doomed and we have failed.

Did you know that 64% of children today play outside less than once a week? That 28% haven’t been on a country walk in the past year and 20% have never been to a farm and  have never climbed a tree?  Fewer and fewer children can recognise even common species of wildlife around them. Even species like oak trees, blue tits and buttercups are unknown to them. Wildlife Trusts including Norfolk Wildlife Trust see opening children’s eyes to nature as just as important to the future of conservation as buying nature reserves. Education remains at the core of any sustainable conservation strategy. 

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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Living Landscapes: A Natural Health Service

David North, Head of People and Wildlife 

I like the term Natural Health Service and not just because it makes a good acronym. I like it because it reminds me that wildlife, and the Living Landscapes that support wildlife, aren’t just beautiful, they are also vital to our health. And that makes them important for everyone.

There are two ways in which Living Landscapes provide a Natural Health Service. The first is by directly benefiting human health, and the second is through their role in sustaining our life support systems. In the modern conservation jargon the latter is called ecosystem services, though I prefer to think of it simply as maintaining a healthy planet.

So Living Landscapes keep us healthy and keep the planet healthy, which makes sustaining our Natural Health Service pretty important. And like that other NHS keeping it all working doesn’t come free! 

It’s only recently that the links between nature conservation and human health have really been recognised but though some people are still a little sceptical it’s really not so surprising that our well-being depends on contact with nature. After all for most of human history our lives were intimately bound to nature, our footsteps on the planet were just that, footsteps, and our day to day survival depended on understanding where in the landscape to find foods, natural medicines and shelter. In short everything we needed to survive had to be foraged for , hunted for or gathered, and an intimate knowledge of the landscape could, and did frequently, mean the difference between life and death.

 Nobody is suggesting that the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were either happier or healthier that ours today. However what is suggested is that hard wired into us, through our evolution, in our very genes, is a need for contact with green spaces. This hypothesis is known as biophilia and was developed by E O Wilson in the early 1980s. However today there is increasingly hard scientific and medical evidence that contact with green spaces is good for us; good for our physical health and good for our mental well-being. It has even been shown that patients in hospital with even a view from a window onto trees and green-space recover faster from operations than those who look onto bare ward walls. Walking in green spaces has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and promote happiness, whereas walking through city streets and shopping centres did not have the same results! There is now a mass of hard evidence to support EO Wilson’s original biophilia idea. Maybe that’s why so many of us spend so much time and money on our gardens, and on bringing green plants into our homes and offices. Perhaps we all have a deep-rooted need for contact with nature.

Today there is also a mass of literature on the costs to society of life-styles which are very disconnected from nature. Some link the current crisis of obesity associated with western lifestyles to this, and others make a link to the increase in depression, which even affects our children today. Whatever the explanation it does seem we value high quality environments which enable contact with nature, even to the extent that houses with a view of water, mountains or a park, fetch much higher prices than identical buildings with views of just more buildings, roads and concrete. It is now accepted by the NHS ( the one we all pay taxes for, with doctors and nurses, not the nature one!) that people recovering from mental health problems and depression can be prescribed positive time spent walking in nature or actively helping conservation project. Here in Norfolk we have some very successful examples. Norfolk Wildlife Trust has worked over the past few years with a fantastic group called Discovery Quest which has very successfully done this type of work helping people recovering from mental health problems. If you would like to read the evidence that nature and high quality natural environments can be good for human health here are a few links to just some reports showing this:

So Living Landscapes which increase access for people to nature, bring nature and green spaces to the places we live and work, and enable people more easily to reconnect to nature can and do bring huge health benefits.

However there is another, and perhaps even more important, way in which Living Landscape are part of a Natural Health System. This is through their key role in providing the ecosystem services which we depend on - whether it’s our wetlands acting as water storage areas, helping prevent flooding and like sponges releasing water during droughts, or our salt marshes free of charge providing sea defences against rising sea levels. Living Landscapes underpin our economic activities, whether through mopping up air pollution and cleaning our air as our forests do efficiently, or by pollinating our food crops, which the bees and other insects which thrive in wildflower rich meadows, do for us free of charge. We all depend on Living Landscapes and Living Seas to regulate our climate, to freely recycle our wastes, and to keep our planetary life support systems working smoothly. It’s no coincidence that now we have drained so many of our wetlands and canalised our rivers, disconnecting them from their floodplains, that increasingly we hear on the news of flooding to towns and villages.

The bottom line is that too long we have failed to pay in to our Natural Health Service and now we are suffering the consequences both in terms of human health, with obesity, depression and lack of well-being, and in environmental health, with increased floods, climate change and erosion of soils just some of the consequences. Of course when we suffer these environmental catastrophes the costs are unavoidable both in human suffering and in financial terms. Isn’t it time we started some serious investment in nature’s NHS by rebuilding our Living Landscapes. The benefits to all of us, and to quality of life, are beyond reckoning. Recently it was estimated that the costs of saving all existing species, saving biodiversity on a global scale, would be around £50 billion annually. Does that sound a lot? Its less than one fifth of our global spend on soft drinks and ice cream!

For more information

So perhaps the idea of saving species and restoring Living Landscapes is one whose time has come.

I, for one, certainly hope so, and taking local action by supporting Norfolk Wildlife Trust Living Landscape projects is one of the best ways you can start to help.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Battle of Ringmere

 Assistant Field Officer Breckland: Paul Waterhouse

Ringmere at East Wretham Heath is thought to have been the site of a great battle between the Saxons and the Danes. This battle took place in 1010 and Ulfcetel, the leader of the East Anglia armies was defending the lands against Thorkell the Tall and Olaf the Stout’s Viking army. 


This winter the Brecks reserve team have had their own battle of Ringmere, although this time not against the Vikings. Over the past month we have made a start clearing scrub from around the perimeter of Ringmere. 

For many years now Ringmere has been enclosed by scrub mostly gorse and broom, but also willow and birch which has had a negative effect on the condition of the mere by adding nutrients and also preventing grazing. Looking back at old photos form before World War 2 Ringmere was once open much like Langmere is today. 

... and after!
We have gathered a small army of our own but this time armed with loppers and bow saws. Our work placement students from Easton College have been working hard on a Monday and also a number of large volunteer groups have been out to help. Most of the heavy work has been done with chainsaws and tractors have been used to remove the scrub from the mere. Although, we still have a way to go but you can see in the pictures the difference just a few weeks and some hard work makes.