Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Ovington Ramblers: Thetford Heath

Maureen Simmons

Breckland Thyme

Our walk today took us to Thetford Heath.  The temperature was hovering around 0 deg, but it was a bright day with some weak winter sunshine.  The vast Norfolk skies, dotted with clouds, were particularly stunning.

The trail around the heath provides a pleasant walk and is easy to follow.  It took us about an hour and a half, with lots of stops along the way to admire the scenery and investigate the tiny plants among the grassland.

We were very lucky to spot the rare Breckland Thyme, which you can see in the photo,  a tiny wonder mixed in with the moss and heather.  Unfortunately it is not in flower at this time of year, unlike the gorse – forever in flower and covered in frost!

Lichen covered the old oak trees and we found numerous patches of lichen on the ground in many beautiful colours.

Coffee back at the car was very welcome on this cold day, but we all agreed it was an excellent morning's walk.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Ranworth in winter

Barry Madden, NWT Volunteer

Ranworth, a small and pleasant village in the heart of Broadland is a lovely place to stroll around on a bright winter’s day. I visited earlier this week savouring the blissful peace of the season. Gone now are the pleasure craft jostling for a berth at the busy staithe, the cruisers, canoes, day boats, and dinghies. Gone too are the steady stream of holidaymakers keen to take a short adventure through a freshwater swamp and visit the NWT Broads Wildlife Centre sited at the terminal point of a 500 metre Boardwalk. Gone are the screeching terns, the arrowing hobbies, the chuntering reed warblers and twittering swallows. But all is not still: a new cast of characters has moved in to take advantage of the tranquility. Birds of all kinds are using the unmolested waterways and wet woodland as a winter sanctuary; somewhere to rest and feed to survive another day. Come with me for a walk through this wildlife haven and together let’s see what we can find.

Our first stop is to search through the massed assemblage of twigs and branches forming the canopy of the swampy carr, lichen encrusted and bare of leaf. This matrix plays host to many small birds: blue, great and marsh tits busily fuss through the tangle searching tirelessly for small spiders and insects hidden from winters chill; robins, wrens and chaffinches occupy the lower tier where they root around in the undergrowth for small invertebrates, snails, and fallen seed; a few goldfinches twitter amongst themselves as they raid the topmost branches of an alder, their vibrant red faces adding a touch of the exotic. As we reach the transition from woodland to more open reed fen, blackbirds flush from a guelder rose clucking sulkily at our unwelcome intrusion. Fieldfares chuckling overhead in search of bright hawthorn berries to plunder remind us that winter has truly arrived despite the brilliance of the blue sky and the vibrant scarlet of the guelder fruits.

The open broad holds large rafts of wildfowl; showy shoveller, timid teal and grey-glossed gadwall, whilst all the time the piercing whistles of wigeon echo across the misty water. A buzzard spirals in from the south it's brown and white chequered underside catching the light from the mid afternoon sun. It drifts across the broad causing mass panic amongst the ducks and coots that take to the air on a multitude of flickering wings. But this raptor had no designs on them, it is intent only on quartering the farmland on the far side for carrion or perhaps an unlucky rabbit: easier pickings by far. A marsh harrier that appears a few minutes later is a different story and loiters with intent above the milling throng of startled water birds. It too is unlucky on this sortie and eventually moves into the distant reed beds in the hope of surprising more isolated prey.

As we stand close to the visitor centre a lone bullfinch flies above us uttering its distinctive mournful ‘phew’ and a small flock of siskins dance above the alders wittering excitedly to each other. The reason for the appearance of these hitherto well-hidden finches soon becomes clear in the form of a sparrowhawk that glides low across the channel moving silently and swiftly from one patch of scrub to another as it hunts with deadly purpose. It seemed such a short while ago that we could watch hobbies hawking dragonflies here, but their winter absence helps us to appreciate their summer presence; their return next April will be all the more welcomed for it.

The explosive song of a Cetti's warbler shakes us from our reverie and turning we catch the massed heads of dancing reeds set ablaze by the lowering sun. A dazzling spectacle and one that seems to typify this Broadland landscape; a Living Landscape of diverse habitats, fen, woodland, open water and farmland weaved together to form a rich tapestry where wildlife can find sanctuary.

Before returning home we can take a diverting stroll through the churchyard where blackbirds and songthrushes are busy gorging themselves on the berries of ancient yews. These birds, quite possibly migrants from Scandinavia or further east, swallow the berries whole allowing the nutritious succulent red flesh to be absorbed whilst the poisonous seeds pass through without being digested. They seem intent on stripping the bounteous fruits with maximum haste. Competition is fierce and they are all engaged in a race against time and each other.

But Ranworth hasn’t quite finished with us yet, for as we gaze up into a roadside ash a lovely kestrel peers down at us unafraid and unfussed. He is soaking up the last mellow rays of the afternoon sun; his rich buffs and brick reds glowing, his black eye sparkling. This bird like all others lives from day to day, unknowing of what the following dawn will bring. Today with bright blue skies and an unseasonal mildness comes relative easy living; tomorrow with bitter winds, rain and cold could come starvation.

Ranworth has done us proud and our visit at this quieter time of the year has shown real beauty and an escape, albeit temporary, from the rigours of our modern world. The wildlife is grateful for the wildness and so, I hope, are we.

All images by Barry Madden

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Close Encounters of the Owl Kind

Nick Carter,  Wetland Project Officer

I paid my first visit of the year to the Wissey Wetland on Wednesday and had an immediate surprise. As I drove down the entrance track a short-eared owl flew across in front of the vehicle. I stopped and thought I might get a decent flight image but the bird then very co-operatively landed the other side of the ditch running alongside the track. It allowed me to get very close and take some of the attached images. The bird obviously spied something flying over at one point, which I didn’t see. 

Short-eared owls have been recorded occasionally on the Methwold and Hilgay sites before but this gave the best views.  After visiting the very wet Hilgay site and checking all was ok I saw a barn owl which I wasn’t able to photograph. However the short-eared owl was still hunting around the access track quite near the entrance so I stopped to watch it. I then realised that there were two short-eared owls hunting. So a nice welcome to the site for 2016 and another surprise on leaving it.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The Ovington Ramblers: Hockham and Wretham

Maureen Simmons

A small group of friends (5 of us in all) have decided in our 20th year of walking together that we will try to visit all the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves in their 90th Anniversary year. So we braved the cold wind and showers and started out on our adventure.

Turkeytail fungus at Hockham Fen
We first went to Hockham Fen, which includes Cranberry Rough. This is quite hard to find, but we met a kind Thetford Forest Warden who pointed the way. He explained that about a thousand years ago Cranberry Rough was a huge lake, which silted up over the next 500 years and was eventually filled in. Now, however, the land is reverting to its original marshland and is the home of a variety of newts and wildfowl. Cattle graze the area in a way that supports the wildlife and benefits the ecology. We had to tread very carefully as the bogs can be very deep and dangerous. We stood and watched a buzzard overhead whilst listening to the geese honking.

We continued on to East Wretham Heath. Not many rabbits were brave enough to venture out today, but we did see a few white tails bobbing about. It's amazing to see how low they crop the grassland, helping to make the Brecks so unique, with a population of rare birds, plants and insects found virtually nowhere else in England.

Ringmere at East Wretham
We arrived at Langmere (one of the two large lakes at East Wretham) and looked out of the hide to see it completely dry – after all the rain we have had recently!  The level of this mere fluctuates in an unusual way with the underground water, reaching maximum depth in Summer and slowly dropping again through Autumn and Winter. Luckily the other lake, Ringmere, provided water for a variety of wildfowl including swans and mallards. The NWT flying flock also arrived for a drink.

A bracing day, with much to see, even in mid-winter. Next week we are off to Thetford Heath.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Norfolk’s first marine conservation zone: a glimmer of hope in troubled waters

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Today Defra announced the designation of 23 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). The welcome and long-awaited inclusion of Norfolk’s chalk reef, the Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds as it’s more properly known, means that Norfolk now has its first MCZ. But what does this actually mean? And will it really bring benefits for wildlife or local people?

On hearing the news that our chalk reef, perhaps the longest such area in Europe, was to gain recognition in this way I am feeling buoyed up with hope. It’s a great feeling! For anyone working in conservation, hope is more than important, it’s an absolute essential.  Hope that we can make a difference. Hope that beautiful places can be saved. Hope that threatened species can become just a bit less threatened and hope that enough people will care to make our politicians and decision makers understand that wildlife matters and protecting wild places is an essential, not a luxury. 

Hope is what keeps me fired up to work for wildlife and fortunately working for NWT, though we all know how horrendously daunting the global issues and threats facing wildlife are, there are always things happening, places protected and species helped that bring glimmers of hope. For me, and I’m sure for many others who have supported our Living Seas campaigns, signed fish scale petitions, and attended our marine events, our first Norfolk MCZ is also a symbol of hope. Hope that the tide is changing for marine conservation and that the future may bring wiser and more sustainable use and better protection for marine wildlife. What also brings hope is that so many people care, and care deeply, about an environment which they may never see, about wildlife which for most of us can only be experienced through images and film taken by divers.

Yet so many of us do care. So many joined together as Friends of Marine Conservation Zones, to campaign for these MCZ designations. Let’s all feel a little bit more hopeful today and celebrate the recognition of yet another wonderful Norfolk wildlife habitat or national and international importance. Hope is a good thing it gives us the energy to do even more for wildlife.

Tompot Blenny, photo by Rob Spray
But what will this new designation really achieve? What will it mean for the colourful sea slugs (nubdibranchs), the extraordinary anemones that wave their tentacles in the current, the smiling tompot blenny in its chalk lair, and the shoals of bib that dart in and out of white chalk arches and seaweed encrusted crannies. Though of course blissfully unaware of our human designations, of Defra, or even of NWT, will this MCZ in anyway affect their lives? 

The designation will at minimum mean that the chalk reef area is better protected against any future damaging developments. And that the area’s wildlife is better monitored ensuring that existing activities are sustainable and cause no harm to the reef’s stunning and diverse wildlife. Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, which monitors activities in other areas of the Wash and Norfolk coast, will be responsible for ensuring that the MCZ is managed sustainably The designation will certainly encourage further studies of the reef’s wildlife which can only help as currently we know so little about the species that live there. Divers have already discovered a species of purple sponge new to science and unknown anywhere else in the world and doubtless there are many more exciting discoveries still to be made.

However what we already know demonstrates just how special Norfolk’s marine reef is for wildlife, supporting  an incredible diversity of species, including endangered European eels and species such as bass which are in decline in the North Sea. Just imagine. If the chalk reef and its wildlife were on land, easy to explore and view then without doubt not only would the area have been protected long ago but it would be a major attraction to visitors, a place of wonder and awe and extraordinary beauty.  One of the wonders of Norfolk and at last, though out of sight it’s no longer out of mind.

So what about people? Will this MCZ designation make any difference? The politicians answer would  be, ‘that depends’. It depends on ensuring that MCZs are not just ‘paper parks’, a line on the marine map that is largely ignored. There is of course still much work to be done. Marine wildlife, just like wildlife on land, needs enough protected areas to thrive in and more sustainable use of the wider environment. In the jargon this is what is meant by ‘an ecologically coherent network’ or MCZs. There are now 50  MCZs nationally and just six in the North Sea. All will contribute towards a network of areas which is urgently needed to ensure a healthy future for our seas. But we need more to complete the network, and not just the current  handful in the North Sea.

As Joan Edwards, head of Living Seas at The Wildlife Trusts has said: "We are pleased by this Government’s commitment to addressing the decimation of our seabed over the past century, and to delivering an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas. This second step towards the completion of a ‘blue belt’ in UK seas is crucial in turning the tide on the state of our seas but there’s still work to be done. We look forward to working with Government and stakeholders to ensure these 50 MCZs are properly managed and to achieve the much-needed ambitious and comprehensive third and final tranche. This will be the start of turning our over-fished, over-exploited and currently under-protected waters back into a healthy and sustainable environment.”

I do hope that like me you will feel joy in this glimmer of hope in the troubled global waters of marine conservation. So, yes let’s celebrate Norfolk’s  first MCZ, but let’s also use our glimmer of hope to inspire us to increase our efforts to secure Living Seas.

If you would like to find out more about what you can do to help then please go to . to sign up as a Friend of Marine Conservation Zones.  It’s free and your details will never be used by anyone else, or for any other purpose. Or to learn more about the Cromer Chalk Shoal visit to explore how  we are working to protect North Sea wildlife.

Photos by Rob Spray