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  

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

A week of coastal experiences at NWT Cley Marshes

Amanda Schrem recently completed a week's work experience at NWT Cley Marshes and discovered what a lot goes on  at this busy visitor centre and reserve.

Amanda on the beach at West Runton
On my first day, we started off with the mandatory staff health and safety procedures and paperwork. Once that was done, we went to Sheringham for the Coastal Creations event, which involves collecting various interesting objects from the strandline and using them to make art. It was great fun and I learned a lot about all the objects found on the strandline, for example that mermaid's purses are actually egg cases, that cat sharks exist in Norfolk and something that looks like dried seaweed but is actually a type of animal called hornwrack, smells like lemon when first washed up.

In the afternoon we went up to Cley beach to collect some plankton samples, as preparation for an upcoming sea dipping event- this was something I had never done before.

A bit of 'Marine Mayhem'
On the second day, I went on "A Walk with the Warden" event, which included birdwatching. I learnt a huge amount about the history of Cley and, as a complete birdwatching novice, the difference between an avocet and a black-tailed godwit.  In the afternoon I worked on reception. This was completely new to me and a bit daunting at first but I ended up really enjoying it. On day three I had the morning off! In the afternoon I invented some arts and crafts that children could make during the "Marine Mayhem" event on Saturday. I made a fish out of a recycled bottle and tissue paper, and an 'egg-box rock pool'. I also did some odd jobs in the office, like laminating. In the evening, I got involved with the "Coastal Stroll and Supper".

Rockpooling at West Runton
In the morning of the fourth day, we ran the Rockpooling event at West Runton. There were a lot of people and it was great fun, I hadn't been rockpooling for years. Someone caught a scorpion fish, which was fascinating to see! It was great learning about other life in the rock pools as well,  a highlight was seeing a velvet swimming crab. In the afternoon I helped set up the room and organise tea and coffee for the afternoon talk on "Life between the Tides".

Day five was the day of the "Marine Mayhem" event with crafts and activities for families. I was helping out with that, doing things like using the badge machine and helping with the recycled bottle craft.

Puppets from the Norfolk Girl puppet show
On my last day of work experience, we set up the "Norfolk Girl" event, an interactive puppet show based on a chapter from the book "Mystery of the Mystery Mist".  In the afternoon I organised some event promotion and designed some news posters for upcoming events.

Overall, I had a very interesting week that gave me a great insight into work on and around a nature reserve. I would like to thank all the staff at NWT Cley Marshes, in particular Rachael Wright, Cley Community Education Officer for organising my fantastic week!

For more information about events and activities at NWT Cley Marshes visit

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

What are the chances of that happening?

Life is full of coincidences and Norfolk Wildlife Trust volunteer Derek Longe had a special and rather unusual encounter with a special insect at NWT Thorpe Marshes one evening...

Imagine a damselfly flying well after eight o'clock at night.  It lands onto a photo in a published article about the same species at the same nature reserve. Slim chance you may say? Improbable? Well this actually happened!

Here is the photographic proof - 

Willow emerald damselfly admiring a picture of itself, Derek Longe
Mating willow emerald damselflies by Tabs Taberham
The damselfly in question was a male willow emerald damselfly seen at 8.16pm on 19th July 2017 at Thorpe Marshes NWT reserve.  This is a recent coloniser being seen first in Suffolk in 2007 and is rapidly spreading across the south-east of England. The peak emergence time is in August/September and most records range from July to October. This year the first seen nationally was back in June in Essex. Some had been more recently sighted around the local Norwich area so that was not an unexpected species.

Local naturalist and NWT volunteer, Chris Durdin leads monthly walks around Thorpe Marshes NWT reserve.In July, the regular walk is moved to the evening (the June one also) to take advantage of the longer daylight hours. That afternoon was particularly warm and humid, the evening temperate remained above 20C during the duration of the walk.
Warm enough for insects like damselflies to be still active that late in the day.  

At a point where this species has been sighted in previous years, Chris stopped and explained about the willow emerald damselfly and the various tree species it oviposits into. He then mentioned that I had witnessed a pair egg-laying into bramble last September on the reserve and that I had an account of this unusual event recently published in the journal Atropos. Having the article on me, I handed it to the others to have a look at. Whilst one of the group Ann Greenizan had it in her hands to read, a male willow emerald Damselfly magically alighted onto the article photograph. He stayed there just long enough for me to get a couple of photos before flying off, disappearing into the windblown vegetation.

This species has been variously described as "this stunning damselfly","an elusive beauty","enigmatic" and "unique". In my eyes, this surreal combination of real life and printed matter reinforces that "specialness" to me of the willow emerald damselfly!