Friday, 23 January 2015

The Broads National Park

On news that the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads will be known as the Broads National Park following a landmark decision today, Chief Executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust Brendan Joyce said:

“Norfolk Wildlife Trust is delighted that at last the Broads will get the recognition it deserves. Whilst this will emphasise the importance of the Broads as place to live, work and play, it will also serve to highlight the conservation and wildlife significance of this unique area.  

“This is not a formal legal designation and does not give priority to conservation as happens in other national parks, so the responsibility of the Broads Authority continues to be one of managing conservation, recreation and navigation in equal priority. However, we have long believed – and the scientific evidence supports this – that things are out of balance as far as nature conservation is concerned, as can be seen in poor water quality and insufficient effective management of wildlife habitats. We will continue to work in partnership with the Broads Authority to highlight these issues and secure a better future for wildlife.”

Alderfen Broad, photo by Richard Osbourne

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

January at Thorpe Marshes

Chris Durdin, NWT Thorpe Marshes

Words that came to mind on Monday’s walk around NWT Thorpe Marshes were ‘bleak’ and ‘mid-winter’. To say there was nothing to see would overstate it: a sparrowhawk dashed through as the group gathered by the railway bridge; a Cetti’s warbler sang; the odd snipe zigzagged away from unfrozen pockets within the marshes. But overall, you couldn’t help but look forward to spring.

Yellow brain
At least that was true until we reached a patch of wet wood. I may be the regular guide here but there’s still lots to learn. I know I’m not good on fungi, so it was great to have participants on the regular monthly walk who do recognise them… and in a few minutes found and named seven species. Velvet Shank, Hairy Curtain Crust, Oyster Mushroom, Blushing Bracket, Southern Bracket, Yellow Brain and Smoky Bracket… none is unusual, but wonderful names, and quickly added to our knowledge of what’s here.

There were plenty of birds on the gravel pit, St Andrew’s Broad, which certainly helps to give the reserve year-round interest. As naturalists we often seek what’s unusual, at least locally: on Monday that was a group of three wigeons. 

Gadwall, photo by Liz Dack
Gadwalls are a more reliable sighting here, and there are about 100 of late. This dabbling duck likes to feed by waiting for diving coots to surface with waterweed and then snatching it. But with only a dozen coots, bullying opportunities are limited and they must feed for themselves. With a close view of a gadwall, perhaps through a telescope, much of the bird’s apparently dull, grey plumage is revealed as rather dapper black and white mottling. Flashes of white when loafing or swimming expand when gadwalls flap or fly: the distinctive white speculum, part of the trailing edge of the wing. Not that identification at Thorpe Marshes is a challenge: mallards all but disappear here in winter.

The NWT Thorpe Marshes Wildlife Report for 2014 is now online at on There’s also a link there to a gallery of photos of the reserve’s many dragonflies and damselflies, and pictures of the first-winter Mediterranean gull that’s on nearby River Green by Yarmouth Road, Norwich.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A mid-winter visit to Ranworth

Barry Madden, NWT Volunteer

A mid-winter visit to NWT Ranworth Broad seldom disappoints and today it looked wonderful bathed as it was in the rich glow from the low-angle on a January sun. 

Black headed gull at Ranworth Staithe
First stop was to watch people feeding the ducks by the Staithe. Here the mallards are joined by a flotilla of coots, a pair of cantankerous swans and the ever present and watchful black headed gulls. These latter opportunists, visitors from the Baltic perhaps, mug the local wildfowl of their stale bread and buns, swooping and plunging with marvellous ease and sometimes plucking the morsel from the air before it makes contact with the cold water. Most were adults, some beginning to moult into their summer plumage sporting a mottling of brown head feathers amidst plumage of silver grey; one or two were first winter birds with smudged wing coverts and light orange beaks. All were hungry, but not for long if the steady procession of young children carrying plastic bags full of promise was anything to go by. The nutritional value of the starch and sugar on offer is debatable, but such activity sometimes represents the first, sadly maybe only, contact young people have with wildlife. If they revel in the frantic scrabbling of the ducks and hoot with laughter when one stands on the others foot in the melee and gets a peck for its trouble, then surely that can only be good? Lifelong love affairs with nature have been birthed from less.

Next a stroll along the boardwalk that leads through the NWT reserve. The wet woodland Carr was at first eerily quiet, seemingly devoid of life, but standing still for a few minutes soon changed that impression. First to show themselves were a small charm of goldfinches quietly teasing seeds from high in the alders above. Closer inspection of the tree tops revealed one or two siskins amongst them and, delight of delights, a lovely pink hued redpoll. A flight of chaffinches cascaded into the lower branches, closely followed by a buzzing party of hyper-active long tailed tits. A tree creeper scuttled up a slender birch trunk and a distant nuthatches fluty chirrup gave a hint that maybe spring isn't too far away. And then a robin, and another and in the distance a third uttered its thin warbling song. There is much to appreciate here; be patient and the wildlife won't disappoint.

Ranworth, photo by Mike Page
Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s visitor centre at the end of the boardwalk, unique in design and an aesthetic masterpiece, was closed for the winter, its anchor chains straining to hold the building steady against the choppy waters whipped up by a strengthening nor-Easter. But good views of the broad could still be had by taking advantage of the specially constructed raised platform nearby. From this elevated vantage point many wildfowl could be more easily seen. Rafts of wigeon had gathered to rest, the chestnut heads of the drakes glowing against the rippling grey water. These visitors from Iceland or Russia will spend much time feeding on the grazing marshes hereabouts, perhaps at Upton where Norfolk Wildlife Trust has made great strides to ensure the low lying floodplain is ideally suited to the needs to wintering wildfowl. Interspersed amongst the whistling wigeon were smaller numbers of teal, shoveler and mallard. Several cormorants, wings spread heraldic, dotted the far shore and a distant marsh harrier battled the swirling air currents in its quest to find an unwary meal to sustain it through another cold winter night. The wind here has nothing to obstruct its path - time to move and seek some shelter.

The walk back to the staithe first took us through the reed bed which although small is well managed for its surprising range of wild flowers and invertebrate life. Of course none of this was on offer today, but what glorious compensation was to be had by the sight of thousands of backlit seed heads dancing candle-like in the breeze. I've tried on several occasions to capture this atmospheric scene with my camera, but have never obtained a satisfactory image; it is only worth experiencing at first hand. It won't be long before NWT reserve staff come along to cut one side of this area of reed to allow important plants like milk parsley, beloved by the swallowtail butterfly, to flourish.

The visit ended with a cup of tea at the church cafe and a walk through the churchyard where a mole had been busy burrowing under the conservation patch. Turn left at the church gate and you complete the circuit. Ranworth is a small village but has a number of year round attractions. It is a well-functioning mosaic with Norfolk Wildlife Trust playing a key role in this true living landscape. Pay a visit, you will be well rewarded.

Friday, 9 January 2015

A long-standing vision for a new year

Brendan Joyce, CEO Norfolk Wildlife Trust

As we all emerge from the Christmas break like hibernating animals, shaking off the all too common common cold -  which I swear seems to be lasting longer than it used to - and considering the reality of our well intended New Year’s resolutions, I thought I would do a bit of crystal ball gazing into the year ahead.

The first thing I see is not so good I am afraid. It is the annual risk we face of more sea flooding at Cley and possibly elsewhere and I always think of the next two or three months as the danger zone. This time last year we were in complete lock down at Cley, partly due to the December flooding but also the tragic US air force helicopter accident which claimed the lives of Staff Sgt Afton Ponce, Capt. Christopher Stover, Technical Sgt Dale Matthews and Capt. Sean Ruane. But we recovered from the floods and have achieved great strides there since. I have no doubt that if we do have further storm surges this year, and I hope we don’t, we will once again recover.

Bittern, photo by Liz Dack
And now I see much better things… the completion of the Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education Centre and its grand opening, setting the beginning of a new epoch for the Trust as it moves towards its 90th anniversary working for and protecting wildlife in Norfolk. I can see the practical completion of the wetland creation project at Hilgay, where a new wildlife haven of water, reed bed and wet grassland is being created and we then move to the second phase, creating new wetlands.

Now I see the general election results… I can’t quite make out which victorious face it is standing outside Number 10, but I do sense that there will be a renewed effort towards the conservation and protection of our fragile wildlife and the environment. Why? Because it has to happen and nature itself will force our hand. 

Perhaps it is understandable, predictable even, that concern for the environment would slip down the political agenda, as it most certainly has, due to the economic problems that have affected every nation and most individuals. We tend to put our own short term economic welfare and wellbeing on a higher priority than other concerns, such as welfare, poverty and health, and especially environmental health and sustainability. But we must also realise, and history informs us, that this is folly, even more so in the light of the overwhelming proof of climate change, however caused, which threatens not our planet, but our own existence on it. You just have to look at the mounting and irrefutable evidence of our impact on the atmosphere, natural resources, ecosystems and individual species. It is compelling and deeply unpalatable. But I sense that this is the year when we will see a major re-emergence of individual and political concern for the environment and a growing acceptance that our own health and wellbeing and that of future generations is best served by placing the environment at the centre of policy and sustainable development, not as an afterthought. And this does not mean a return to the stone age or a blockage to progress, but investment in new technologies and new economic possibilities.

Stonechat watching people at Cley, photo by Pauline Greenwood
What next is emerging from the mist? I see people. Young and old. I see the Wildlife Trusts leading in ways that we had not imagined before to reconnect people to the wonders and benefits of the world outside our man-made environment. I see people feeling a much greater sense of understanding and purpose in getting away from their computer and TV screens and discovering a more interesting world outdoors, where we more truly belong. Not to say that digital technology is wrong, far from it. We are experiencing a technological revolution that is more amazing and exponentially developing than the industrial revolution. But just as people realised during the industrial revolution that some aspects of it were having a very bad effect on us, and that we needed more green space, better health and cleaner air to breathe, so too we need to redress the balance with the current revolution which threatens our connection and identification with the real world. We will get there I am sure, because we have to, unless we prefer the kind of nightmarish artificial future world envisaged in so many science fiction books and films. I doubt it. But there is much work to do to encourage us all into a better balanced direction.

Natterjack toad, photo by Karl Charters
What else can I see? Bitterns, cranes and marsh harriers at Hickling Broad and Upton Broads and Marshes. Skeins of geese flying and avocets and godwits feeding at Cley Marshes. Nightjars and hobbies at Roydon Common and on the Tony Hallatt reserve, marsh orchids at Rush meadows, bee orchids at New Buckenham Common, swallowtail butterflies on Ranworth Marshes and natterjack toads at Syderstone Common and Holme Dunes. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. I see our nature reserves flourishing with wildlife and I see other landowners, organisations, local communities and individuals working together to help rebuild our broken ecosystems because they want to and can see the relevance and purpose to their own lives and wellbeing.

Common tern
The last things I see is somewhat hazy at present. I think it is a new plan. It looks like a lot of work; a lot of writing and consultation. A lot of meetings spanning the whole of 2015, but culminating in a document which celebrates our 90 years of nature conservation and setting out a vision for the next 90 years. And I am there too. Having served 20 years. I wont be there for the next 90 years, but l hope, with the permission of our 35,000 members, our council of trustees and our excellent team of staff, to lead us through to the next epoch of saving Norfolk’s wildlife for the future. 

Friday, 2 January 2015

The mid-winter quirk of the calendar

by Nick Acheson, NWT Wildlife Evangelist

Dunlin, photo by Steve Bond
There is a special thrill to watching birds in early January as everything you see is new. On New Year’s Day the same liver-headed wigeon drakes which cropped the grass at Cley the day before are new again, with the virgin year. So too the clay-backed dunlin pottering over the mud and the sad-voiced golden plover hunkering in a tight flock in the ploughed field by the visitor centre. All these old friends and many others are new friends again thanks to this mid-winter quirk of the calendar.

For many East Anglian birders NWT Cley Marshes is a compulsory port of call on New Year’s Day. This peerless nature reserve, the oldest in the county Wildlife Trusts movement and still among the most celebrated, has such a range of habitats and attracts such a diversity of birds that it is a birder’s default choice for starting another year’s pilgrimage through Norfolk’s splendid birds. 

Bearded tit, photo by Ian Steel
As January’s stabbing wind sets Cley’s reeds a-rustle, birders listen for the tiny chimes of bearded tits, hoping to see one of these minute moustachioed mandarins hopping through the damp litter at the brittle reeds’ feet. In summer these lovely birds feed on reedbed insects but in winter they are forced to forage for reed seed. As the birders wait a weird shriek comes rhythmically, half a dozen times, from the reedbed and all eyes search for a water rail, its beak incongruously dried-blood red in this winter-dulled landscape of browns and greys.

The birders hear a purring murmuring gargling overhead as a flock of brent geese flies in to the scrapes. These are dark-bellied brents, which breed in summer in the Russian tundra and migrate
Brent geese, photo by Dave Kilbey
each winter to East Anglian coastal marshes. Their life in the saltmarshes here, feeding on salty plants and encrusting their continent-crossing plumage in brine, means that every day they must come to the freshwater scrapes to bathe and drink. From the hides at Cley gloved and woolly-hatted birders can see into the lives of these and many other migrant waterbirds – pintail, shoveler, teal, pink-footed geese – each with a different journey in its wings.