Friday, 30 September 2016

A travel diary of my trip around NWT reserves in South Norfolk

David Thompson, NWT Trustee

Start date: 10 May 2016
Return date: 13 May 2016
Approximate distance cycled/walked: 125 miles


It seemed like a good idea: to combine a staycation with a bit of birding, exercise, and getting to know NWT nature reserves better in the southern half of the county. May was selected as propitious. I would travel by bicycle and stay at inns on an itinerary starting and ending at my home in Old Costessey.

A good idea, then, except that rain had set in firmly by 9am, and my departure was delayed by the discovery that my telescope tripod –strapped to my back in a triangular back-pack - started knocking on my cycle helmet as soon as I pulled out of the drive.

I finally arrived at the Wayland Wood car park, wet through. I changed into walking boots, set off pushing my bike around the reserve (bear in mind that I had paniers laden with luggage - an easy target for opportunists, if left unattended). I bumped into two NWT employees endeavouring to get their vehicle out of a muddy rut. They had been removing copious quantities of ash from the burning of coppiced timber: no market, apparently, because the ‘ash’ can be contaminated with refuse – a bittersweet consequence of public access? I saw a few others, mostly dog-walkers, with dogs ‘on’ and ‘off’ leads.

Purple orchid
Anyway: Wayland Wood: a calm after the (rain) storm. Bird song, rather than bird flight. Chiffchaff, Thrush, Robin, Chaffinch, a pair of Blackcaps together with ethereal sightings of Mistle Thrush and Treecreeper, and a Buzzard easing itself off its perch into a gentle glide. Magical! Of course, there were also the tail-end Bluebells, and Purple Orchids.

I finally reached Thompson Common, but couldn’t get my ‘push-bike’ through the narrow gate intoo the NWT-controlled areas. So instead I took the Pingo trail to the south of the Common, eventually coming across an NWT sign to Thompson Water. A mysteriously quiet and secluded water body. Warblers chirping everywhere. Mostly, it was the sight of coot dotted about on the water on their nests, which was special. Swans, too, and a couple of Canada Gees flying in, making a lot of noise. This seemed like a natural place, and a cuckoo heralded its presence before I left.


It is clear to me that the secrets of the Breckland Reserves reveal themselves reluctantly. Hockham Fen, for instance: although only a few kilometres only from Chequers Inn where I had stayed, it took half an hour and conversations with several dog walkers finally to discover what I think must have been the ‘Viewing Point’ referred to in the Reserves Handbook. That said, however, the view over the mire against a misty backdrop of trees, was very tranquil – a perfect setting for the ducks, geese, swans and egrets that gradually revealed themselves.

Thence to East Wretham Heath. Access to the reserve areas is via specially large cattle gates, thank goodness! I could get my bike in (to push it) to the Hide. What struck me at East Wretham was the extraordinary number of corvids – black dots all over the heath and noisy crowds in the plantation. The sound of a cuckoo, and warblers near the hide, but not much else in evidence.

I took the Drove Road west as it seemed the most direct route connecting with the road to Lynford. Quite difficult riding – constantly up and down, deep ruts, puddles and soft ground. Cuckoos en route.

Weeting Visitor Centre: arriving ca. 3.30pm – at last the rainfall seems to be over -  bedraggled, hot, wet, desperately thirsty, and – I fear –wiffy! Sophie, the Centre Manager, gave me some pointers, allowed me to lock up my bike securely, and off I set. I was struck by touches like the raked paths through the trees to the hides and, especially, to the Forest Walk, which I took.

Saw two Stone Curlew from the West Hide, and was pleased to be able to show them to the ladies already in the hide through the telescope I had carried on my back from Norwich - some justification for the effort. An iPhone was the only camera but an attachment allowed me to use it in conjunction with the telescope. Visibility was poor and the floor of the hide prone to vibration, so the photographic results were correspondingly poor.

My most interesting spotting announced itself first as a loud song in the bush next to the visitor centre. I poked my head slowly into the bush, as the song continued. This was a lower register, more varied song than the Goldcrest. Finally, at 1.5m distance, I could clearly see the greenish back, and the yellow-orange head-stripe... a Firecrest. A UK first for me!


The ride from Thetford to East Harling via the Forest was delightful: Forestry Commission Forest Holiday Camps from time to time. The final leg via Quidenham to New Buckenham was positively alive with yellowhammers, singing their song (sometimes without ‘cheese’) and regularly displaying on the bushes beside the road.

New Buckehham Common: thankfully, possible to push a bike around the Common, and to negotiate the cattlegate at the crossing over the stream. I explored the north side only, including the main pond, buttercups, orchids (including the green-winged orchid) and various water plants. Saxifrange and Cowslips but not many showing birds. Linnet? A pair of Greylag Geese looking very much at home, and an egret flew in just as I was leaving.


My route to Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe took me NE along lanes between low hedgerows and directly into the wind, which made the going difficult. On one leg, I was again accompanied by yellowhammers.

At the Wood, I was able to get my bike through the gate, and do the ‘nature trail’ circuit –Wild garlic (Ramsons) everywhere, along with bluebells and early purple orchid. Blackcap and chiffchaff singing. A great spotted woodpecker and maybe a flycatcher. Evidence of coppicing, and – of course – the area of new hornbeam planting protected by an electric fence.

From Lower Ashwellthorpe Wood, I cycled northeast to Hethel Church to view the country’s smallest nature reserve; Hethel Old Thorn. The interpretation panel was partly obscured by (what I assume was) cow parsley.

So that concluded my visits to eight NWT sites, and all that remained was the cycle ride home. I would definitely consider doing it again, but next time making enquiries beforehand about ease of access for bicycles (for pushing, not cycling). I would also reconsider my method of carrying the tripod!                                                                 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Autumn ivy watch

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

For a few weeks in September and October, and sometimes as late as early November, ivy comes into flower. Mix sunshine, shelter, golden-yellow, pollen-rich flowers and a heady scent and you have an irresistible insect magnet. Ivy flowers in the sunshine quite literally hum with life.

In my garden what initially attracted me to look more closely at the feet deep ivy that adorns, and possible holds up, one old wall were the butterflies. Not quite clouds of butterflies but still the best show of red admirals and commas I have seen this year and with them a couple of painted ladies which seem to have been in short supply this summer.

With up to six red admirals nectaring on just a couple of metres of ivy-clad wall this made me head indoors to grab a camera and quickly return of course. Red admirals are beauties, their upper wings strikingly patterned in red, black and white but I think my favourite photo was one showing their beautiful complex camouflaged under-wings.

Ivy flowers seem irresistible to commas and red admirals but look more closely and the flowers are busy with many smaller insect visitors, which like the larger butterflies are drawn here by a rich autumn bonanza of pollen and nectar. 

Like many people interested in wildlife I can readily recognise most butterflies, some dragonflies and a few beetles. But that’s about it! With apologies to better entomologists here is my beginners’ guide to insects visiting ivy flowers.

Comma butterfly
  1. Butterflies
    let’s start with the easy group and at least in my garden it’s red admirals, commas and painted ladies that can’t resist an ivy feast.
  2. Honey bees
    strangely bumblebees seem largely to ignore the ivy but honeybees delight in its yellow pollen and that’s the clue to recognise them. If it’s bee-like and flying away with a load of pollen attached to its leg it’s a honeybee. The proper name for this area on the bee’s leg is pollen basket.
  3. Wasps
    most of us can recognise a wasp and for good reason! But they are useful pollinators too and can’t resist the ivy. Strangely though they seem to spend most of their time cruising up and down and rarely settle on a flower. Any explanations?

  4. Ladybirds
    perhaps our best known group of beetles! The ladybirds on my garden ivy were all harlequins and they did seem to be feeding on the pollen. Do other ladybirds do this?

  5. Hoverflies
    this is where it gets tricky as there are many kinds of hoverflies and some species are really good mimics of honeybees, wasps or even hornets. Unlike bee,s hoverflies have short antennae, broad waists and massive eyes. They also, like other flies, have just a single pair of wings unlike bees which have two pairs. Not a lot of help though as try counting wings when these insects are in flight. Impossible!
  6.  Flies
    my final group which may not be terribly good taxonomy but you know what I mean. My garden ivy attracted flies galore. Some with green metallic bodies (greenbottles?), others which most of us might call house flies and some larger ones with brown on the wings. If you are a fly expert do comment and tell me the species. But look closer and there are myriads of much, much smaller flies. This is where I just step back and wonder at the sheer diversity of insects which share our world and our gardens. 

Why not do your own ivy watch this autumn and see if my observations tally with your own. All you need is a sunny day, a few minutes of time, and a patch of old ivy decked in sunny golden globes. 

Enjoy your autumn insect watch!

Monday, 26 September 2016

The Ovington Ramblers: Brett's Wood and Thursford Wood

Today we visited two very different woods close to each other off the A148 Fakenham to Holt Road. Both have small off road parking places.

Beefstead fungus in Thursford Wood
First we went to Brett's Wood, the larger of the two and one of NWT newest reserves. A former conifer plantation, the area is being restored to woodland. It is a very peaceful place and the pathways are wide and easy to walk. You can see areas that have been opened up to enable light to the woodland floor, which is encouraging new growth of plants and saplings. A large and exciting work in progress.

In complete contrast and just along the road is Thursford Wood, one of the last remaining ancient wood pastures in Norfolk. Hundreds of years ago the pasture was grazed by cattle with a few trees that were pollarded at two metres from the ground, so the new growth couldn't be reached by the animals. You can easily spot the ancient oaks and still see where they were pollarded, although this practice ceased around 1800.  Some of these trees are thought to be 500 years old!
Ancient oak

Lichen like tiny flakes of snow
Autumn is my favourite time of year and at the moment Thursford Wood is a feast for the senses.  Woods have their own distinctive smell and during autumn it is more pungent as you feel the damp rich loam beneath your feet. The sight of the ancient oaks, gnarled and magnificent, spark the imagination of times long gone and seeing many fungi in all shapes and colours was an added bonus. The sound of birds singing, no longer to attract a mate, but – it seemed – just for the joy of it, altogether made this a magical and memorable walk for us all.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Local Wildlife Sites: a day in the life

Helen Baczkowska, Conservation Officer

After 17 years of working with County Wildlife Sites (CWS) in Norfolk, I can truly say that no two days have ever been the same. Monday this week started with a visit to a patchwork of grassy fields registered as a Local Wildlife Site in 1985 and unvisited by Norfolk Wildlife Trust since. A few of these old sites that have not been re-visited still exist here, usually where contacts for owner have been lost and often where original survey data is a bit scant; since these distant days, more rigorous standards of survey and strict criteria for assessing sites have been put in place, allowing us to have a more robust system that is easier to defend in planning cases or situations like this. 

The owner here is a young dairy farmer, keen to improve his grazing by re-seeding and hence triggering an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) from Natural England, one of the few bits of statutory protection that can help County Wildlife Sites when changes to management are being considered. The grassland turned out to have been improved long ago and, typical of floodplain grazing land in Norfolk, was largely species-poor fields with wild flowers restricted to the ditches; here marsh bedstraw, great bird’s foot trefoil and St John’s wort all flourished. The farmer had a good feel for this old and lovely landscape, with its small fields and tall thick hedges, enjoying the wildlife there and putting in place several measures to protect the river and its banks. Fortunately, in this case, the species-rich areas can be retained and the rest of the grassland managed for cattle, creating a pleasing compromise for all concerned.

Local Wildlife Sites provide stepping stones for species
The rest of the day included setting up a meeting with a contractor to install “invisible” fencing on common land (this involves cattle wearing a collar that gives them a slight shock when they stray too close to an underground cable) and discussing a couple of planning applications with a colleague. On one site, we have opposed proposed development on a mosaic of ancient wood and heath, whilst on the other the re-location of an isolated pond seems the best option in the face of new housing. I also prepared a talk for a Norfolk Wildlife Trust local group, looking at the Claylands Living Landscape area, which is characterised by a high number of woodland and meadow Local Wildlife Sites, with significant populations of great crested newt, water vole and barbestelle bat. 

A phone conversation with a smallholder, who raises beef cattle on her LWS, focused on her application for Countryside Stewardship Grants; since the early 1990s, these have been a cornerstone of support for the owners of LWS across England. Budget cuts and uncertainty over agricultural support from Europe has given rise to a worries over the future of these schemes, which can run for either 5 or 10 years and provide financial help with the unprofitable side of caring for wildlife areas. Helping landowners through the labyrinthine paperwork needed to get into these schemes has long been a feature of my work, but the reward is being able to get the best out of the grant and a few years’ security for wildlife.

Many Local Wildlife Sites are species rich
Now it is late summer, survey season is over and in the coming couple of months, I will be typing up the heaps of scribbled notes from this year’s round of re-surveying existing CWS and surveying new ones that have come to light; this year my new sites include an old parish flint quarry, now covered in scrub and a little meadow with common spotted orchids.  

After 17 years, I still feel passionately about these sites, about the wildlife they support and the stepping-stones they provide for species moving through the landscape. LWS are often hidden gems, tucked out of sight and without public access, but they are richly deserving of the help and support they get from the Wildlife Trusts and their many partners.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Thorpe Marshes: dragonflies and damselflies

Chris Durdin, NWT Volunteer

Pretty damsels
Willow Emerald Damselfly (Chris Durdin)
Lurking with binoculars to get good views of pretty damsels seems, at first hearing, a little suspicious. But the explanation at Thorpe Marshes is innocent enough: the object of my attention is the Willow Emerald Damselfly.

It’s also known as the Western Willow Spreadwing and the first photo shows where the spreadwing name comes from. The second photo, below, shows how the urge to mate can lead to confusion: it’s a male Common Emerald grasping a female Willow Emerald.

Common Emerald male and Willow Emerald female (Derek Longe)

The distribution map for Willow Emerald in the Atlas of Dragonflies in Britain and Ireland, published in 2014, shows lots of spots in coastal Suffolk and Essex and just the odd one in east Norfolk. But that’s already well out of date: they are in much of Broadland and records are increasing in west Norfolk, the Fens and as far west as Northamptonshire.

That was the gist of the story I explained to last week’s group on the monthly walk at Thorpe Marshes, perfectly timed, I hoped, for this late season damselfly. We know the best spots to see them, on perches over open ditches. Some surface vegetation, such as frogbit, is fine, but once ditches get clogged up with lesser water parsnip and other vegetation the damsels move.

However the best time to see a Willow Emerald here is during the afternoon on a still, sunny day. This morning it was partly cloudy and breezy and the star of the show I had talked up was out of sight.

Orange balsam (Chris Durdin)
Still, the supporting cast was strong. There were blue-eyed Migrant Hawkers, Ruddy and Common Darter dragonflies; various butterflies and other insects were enjoyed along with a host of late summer flowers such as hemp agrimony, water mint and orange balsam. This last species is less dominant than Himalayan balsam, which happily is not established here.

We’d done the circuit round the marshes and, around noon, returned to a favoured spot near the start of the walk. The sun was out now and there it was: a male Willow Emerald on territory, and helpfully still enough to get my telescope onto it. The walks always seem to have a mix of regulars and new attendees and it was especially nice to hear the appreciation of the new people of this fine view. Comments showed that they could see why I am little bit in love with this pretty damsel.

There are certainly 20 Willow Emeralds at Thorpe Marsh this year and probably quite a lot more. After the group had gone, two of us watched one from the railway bridge where you enter the reserve. This one was jostling with a Common Darter for a favoured perch. The Willow Emeralds tend to move if a bigger hawker comes close as they may be prey, but it was striking how similar in size this large damselfly was to the small darter. The dragonfly was twice displaced by the slim damselfly, but the bulkier darter won the tussle in the end.

20/20 visions
The Willow Emerald is the twentieth species of odonata – dragonflies and damselflies – at Thorpe Marshes this year. This is two more than our regular 18 species. The new ones are Small Red-eyed Damselfly and Broad-bodied Chaser, though neither was confirmed as breeding. The NWT’s management last winter restored ponds and created patches of open ditch. The latter is where both new species showed; there were several sightings of Broad-bodied Chaser in June and July, often perching on the same twig.

Twenty is an impressive total for our fairly small – 25 hectare – nature reserve. Ever since Pam Taylor, Norfolk’s dragonfly guru, suggested to me that 20 species makes a ‘good site’ the pressure has been on to reach that total. And now we have.
Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of these and recent sightings on the reserve are on

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Threat to wildlife from carpark and sports area at UEA in Norwich

Brendan Joyce, CEO Norfolk Wildlife Trust

The article by Mark Cocker in Saturday's EDP reinforces our own strong concern regarding the proposal of the Norwich Rugby Club and the UEA Sportspark to construct pitches and car parking spaces along with a two storey function building, in the Yare Valley between UEA and Colney Lane.

Male Migrant Hawker at UEA, photo by Michael Sankey
We are concerned that the scale of this development will lead to further degradation of local wildlife habitats along the Yare Valley, whilst at the same time lessening its value as a quiet haven for local walkers. This area of the valley is already well used by local people and any further loss of semi-natural green space should be avoided, particularly as there will be even more recreational pressure once new housing is built at Cringleford.

Whilst the proposers state that it will be possible to mitigate for the majority of impacts on protected species, they downplay the impact the development will have on the broader value of the valley as a wildlife corridor. The Yare Valley in Norwich is recognised as a key green corridor in the Greater Norwich Green Infrastructure Strategy and the proposed development will further weaken the integrity of this corridor. The area on the UEA side of the river is protected by County Wildlife Site designations and managed for the benefit of wildlife whilst at the same time allowing access to the general public. However, the south side of the river has suffered from piecemeal loss over the last 20 years, as the area between the river and Colney Lane has increasingly been developed for sports facilities.

The current proposals will be a further step in destroying the naturalness of this area and should not go ahead in their present form.

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