Friday, 16 February 2018

Visiting ‘our’ seals in Norfolk

By Dr Ben Garrod, Ambassador of Norfolk Wildlife Trust 

Grey seal, photo by Colin Eve
I have been lucky enough to have lived with wild chimpanzees in Uganda, followed walruses in Svalbard and surveyed humpback whales around Madagascar but there has always been a bit of an argument within the circles of biologists and conservations. The argument arises when many of us refer to ‘our’ animals when we work with them. Many say that they are wild and nobody should lay claim to them but I’d argue the opposite. By saying ‘my’ chimpanzees, I did see them as mine. And also belonging to Sippi, my senior field assistant; to Joy, the camp cook; to the researchers and tourists who visited and in fact, everyone everywhere. It’s my idea that by assuming a benign level of possession, we in fact increase a connection with the animals and from that, a sense of stewardship and ultimately, a vested care in what happens to an individual, community of species.

But it is not just those animals in frigid arctic waters or humid tropical forests that could benefit from a better relationship with humankind. Us Norfolkers are lucky enough to live in a part of the UK rich in terms of habitats and ecosystems, with a multitude of interesting and iconic species, many of which sit very close to the precipice of extinction. Something I always appreciated growing up in Norfolk is that close relationship with the surrounding environment we seem to inherently possess in our wild, wind stricken, coastal county. 

I remember the first time I saw a seal. I was on a beach on a walk in the tail end of winter. I delightedly watched as it splashed and dipped beneath the waters. Since that day some thirty years ago, I have watched this little stretch of coast around Horsey grow to become one of the largest and most important seal breeding colonies in the UK. I still visit every winter to see the pups being born and watch every spring as the big male grey seals tear chunks from each other as they battle for dominance. The thing I like most about it is that so many people who visit sites such as Horsey and Blakeney come away with a sense of real connection with the animals. So, I decided to ask a cross-section of people why they visit the seals in Norfolk and what they mean to them. 

Grey seal pup, photo by Peter Mallett
I started by asking broadcaster and presenter of BBC Look East, Susie Fowler-Watt why the seals are so special. “We are so lucky in Norfolk to have interesting wildlife all around us, but the seals at Horsey have to be an absolute favourite. We visit as a family, and the children love seeing the seal pups and learning about them. We often report on them on Look East, too - there was great excitement when the first grey seal twins were discovered there a couple of years ago.”

Many of the visitors do so either through curiosity or because it a lovely way to spend an afternoon but Natalie Bailey, the Producer from the Norwich Science Festival reminds us that a visit can be a great way to engage with science and the natural world. "Trips to see the seals have become increasingly popular and an annual tradition for many families. The visitor numbers at Norwich Science Festival this year demonstrates that there is an appetite to learn more about a whole range of science fields locally, and seal watching is another example of this. It raises awareness of the ecological issues surrounding our coastline and spurns conversation about this, which is fantastic."

Similarly, Dr David Waterhouse, the Senior Curator of Natural History for the Norfolk Museums Service marvels at just how special these iconic large animals are. “It's easy to forget that grey seals are our largest British mammal (big males can weigh up to 400kg, that's nearly 63 stone!). Because we lost most of our megafauna (such as mammoth and woolly rhino) after the last Ice Age, seal watching is the British equivalent of Big Game watching in Africa. In Norfolk, you can get incredibly close to these large but passive and intelligent animals. At Blakeney there are boat trips, but I've also had the privilege of swimming with seals at Waxham. They're so inquisitive and playful - you can keep swimming with dolphins, I'd rather swim with seals any day!” While swimming with seals is definitely not advisable for most of the year when either breeding or mating - David is an expert - but it does show just how inquisitive and intelligent these marine mammals are.

For most of us, the thought of an icy dip is not appealing and a visit to the sandy habitat of a breeding colony is more than enough. Julia Seggie is a committee member for the Friends of Horsey Seals, a group of dedicated and expert volunteer wardens who survey the breeding colony and ensure that the seals are not affected by the troops of eager visitors. As the number one winter attraction in Norfolk, Horsey attracted over 70,000 visitors last year and over 1,400 pups were born. It’s a unique experience to be able to see the seals in their natural habitat and for our wardens to be able to share this experience and educate members of the public about this special site is very rewarding. To witness the birth of a pup and share this with the public makes it that extra bit special.”

It is easy to see so many seals at a site like this and to think that everything is okay but like almost every marine species and habitat, seals are subject to the effects of changes in fish stocks and discarded household rubbish and fishing material. Brendan Joyce is the Chief Executive for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and shows us that it is not enough to just appreciate the seals around Norfolk but instead, they are deserving of our help. “I recall the time I was alone at Blakeney Point, just me and the seals. They were as curious about me as I was about them and I felt very much a guest in their wild world. These amazing and intelligent creatures seemed plentiful that day, but their existence is often precarious as they face many threats. We should be doing all we can to ensure their survival by protecting their fragile habitats.”

Grey seal at Horsey, photo by Norman Wyatt
With tens of thousands of visitors to breeding sites and through the success of TV series such as Blue Planet 2, which was the most watched wildlife series ever in the UK, it is clear that we are fascinated not only by the seals themselves but also nature in a broader context. We all marvel at the power of the large predatory seals and coo at the big-eyed pups but we need to give something back. Maybe the pledge to use less plastics around the home, or donating a few quid or telling our friends, family and kids just how important our local wildlife and their habitats are. 

Chief Officer for the Special Constabulary in Norfolk, Darren Taylor, who has visited the seals himself, reminds us that while we are incredibly lucky in having such an amazing wildlife spectacle on our doorsteps, we need to respect and treasure them. “It’s a real privilege to have hundreds of grey seals breeding in their natural environment on our Norfolk coast; however it is important to remember that they are wild animals and human presence can disturb them. We urge visitors to observe the good practice recommended by Friends of Horsey Seals who ensure the safety of both seals and visitors. They advise that members of the public keep a good distance away from the seals, including those in the dunes – they may look docile, but could bite. They also recommend that all dogs should be kept on a lead, that you stay within marked viewing fenced areas and respect other visitors and any direction given by the volunteers.”

It seems that most of us have been to a local seal breeding colony at some point and whether you're a scientist or a broadcaster, the magic felt at seeing the mischievous watery wildlife there is almost palpable. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles to see these wild places and it won’t cost you a fortune to visit but we still need to give these sites and the animals they house the respect they deserve.

  • Stay a good distance away from the seals
  • Look out for seals in the dunes and give them a wide berth
  • Be careful – seals have a nasty bite
  • Keep dogs on a lead
  • Keep to marked viewing areas and respect the fencing
  • Remember grey seals are wild animals and should not be approached
  • Respect other visitors

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Thorpe Marshes in the 1960s

Chris Durdin, NWT Volunteer and naturalist

John Rushmer, now aged 93, farmed what is now NWT Thorpe Marshes in the 1960s. His memories were crystal clear when I went to see him to pick his brains about the recent history of my local nature reserve.

Marshland plants including yellow flag irises
have returned to Thorpe Marshes (Chris Durdin)
As a tenant elsewhere of landowners Crown Point Estate, John was offered the chance to put the unmanaged ‘Whitlingham Marshes’, as he knew them, into productive grazing. They were a mix of willowherb, sedge and other rough vegetation, plus reed in one corner, he remembers: much as for some of the ungrazed areas now.

He surveyed the ditches and organised their restoration, essentially the existing ditch network plus continuations into what is now the gravel pit, St Andrew’s Broad. A diesel drainage pump was installed adjacent to the existing tidal flap and the pump ran through the summer months. Summer water levels would therefore have been lower than today’s more natural levels.

There was a curious accident from that. The drainage pump’s inlet pipe in a ditch was raised when need be by a pulley set on a wooden tripod. One of the legs of that tripod took root and accounts for the poplar tree near the tidal flap.

All of Thorpe Marshes was ploughed, turned over a foot deep. Then it was disced, rolled and seeded, mostly rye grass plus some white clover and cocksfoot grass. That surprised me: the rich mix of marshland plants when I first knew the site in the 1980s suggested to me that the marshes near the railway line had never been ploughed. Some nitrogen was applied to ‘improve’ the sward; however, John told me, no herbicides were used. That must have helped grazing marsh plants to reappear later. Added to that, the RSPB’s restoration project at Lakenheath Fen showed how resilient a marshland seedbank can be if the right conditions are restored, in that case to fields that held poplar trees and later went under arable cultivation, including carrots.

The NWT’s British White cattle grazed Thorpe Marshes in 2017 (Chris Durdin)

From 1961, 80-100 Friesian cows were on Thorpe Marshes from May to September. These were all for milking, which was done with a mobile unit called a milking bail, sited for the summer on a concrete pad that remains in place.

I have been used to older, traditional breeds for the grazing of the marshes. I told John about the Lincoln Reds, Red Polls, Dexters and British Whites there in recent years. Friesians have a reputation of being less robust.

Were Friesians OK, “on that rough old marsh?” I asked.

“It wasn’t rough when we farmed it. Not a weed to be seen,” John said.

The Friesians were there until about 1969. Flooding and waterlogging meant the initial flush of good grass didn’t last. From about 1970 to 1975 there was grazing with mixed or beef cattle on site, allowing a little over a decade for a natural recovery to the conditions I discovered when I moved to the area in 1987.

In today’s terms, ploughing of marshland would certainly be regarded as environmentally damaging. That doesn’t mean I am judging John harshly: his initiative then was of its time. What we learn from these snippets of local history is that nature can be remarkably good at recovery, given the right conditions.

Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks on

Friday, 22 December 2017

Answering the call: a year of wildlife festivals at Cley

As Norfolk Wildlife Trust's 2017 events programme comes to an end, Bayley Wooldridge looks back at this year’s event highlights: the four Cley Calling festivals. 

 To begin our celebrations for the year we had our first Cley Calling festival, Spring Song, tie in with International Dawn Chorus day.  The aim of the festival was to link the natural music and wildlife of the marsh to music and art that has been inspired by the marshes. On Friday night two sound artists spent the night in one of the hides in order to record the dawn chorus, which was broadcast live on the International Dawn Chorus website. The artists gave two free talks on Saturday morning about the process of capturing sound and played some of their recordings (which can now be found on Richard Fair’s website). Throughout the festival we hosted an exhibition called Confluence project, which showcased the work of three artists who take inspiration from waterways and coastlines in East Anglia. The exhibition was connected to Sundays evening’s performance, which involved a piano improvisation and a multi-media visual arts performance. The education centre was transformed with a grand piano and a dark space with ever changing images projected onto one of the walls. This was the most alternative event we had run at Cley and it was great to try something new within the space. 

Next up was Summer Sea, a festival designed to celebrate life beneath the waves during National Marine Week. A talk by Paul Sterry and Andrew Cleave kicked off the celebrations; fascinating stories of their travels across the UK to document our coastal wildlife, combined with incredible microscopic photographs of elusive sea creatures, made their talk a brilliant start to the festival. On Friday evening we welcomed James Boyd (right) to Cley to perform his enchanting ‘Stolen Years’ piece. Readings from the log book of the Concord interwoven with seasongs and poetry left the audience feeling as though they were part of the Concord’s story. The remainder of the festival included a classy evening of Pimms, pizza and poetry featuring Kevin Crossley-Holland, a glorious sunny day of free marine-based crafts down at Cley beach, and a mysterious interactive puppet performance for all the family to enjoy. 

The lead up to Autumn Colours was slightly worrying for all of us at Cley, because the whole reserve was still looking as healthy and green as ever as we left the summer months behind! However once the festival kicked into full swing with the arrival of street artist ATM, we started to see some of the beautiful autumnal oranges and reds we were hoping for. Throughout the festival ATM painted a fantastic female marsh harrier on a mural outside the visitor centre (left), meanwhile a variety of autumnal events focused on health and wellbeing were taking place all over the reserve. We were visited by Laurie Parma, a wellbeing researcher from the University of Cambridge, who gave a fascinating talk on the relationship between wellbeing and biodiversity. To round off the festival, we finished with a peaceful yoga session looking out over the marshes, and an early morning ramble around the reserve followed by a delicious home cooked roast: a perfect end to a wonderful week.

Last, and by no means least, was Winter Skies. We began the festival with a lunch time talk from Dave Horsley, who shared his knowledge and photographs of migrating birds from the Arctic. That same evening, we were joined by the Norfolk Coast Partnership, who gave a talk on their Dark Skies project and their collaboration with Norfolk Astronomy Society, who took us out onto the terrace for some stargazing. Saturday night saw us welcome over 100 guests into the visitor centre for a performance by Brian Briggs & Jon Ouin, two of the four members of ex-band ‘Stornoway’. Brian & Jon performed a series of their old songs, which were influenced by birdsong and wildlife, and shared with the audience some of their most remarkable experiences with nature. Perhaps the most memorable of their songs was ‘Boom went the Bittern’, a song that Brian jokingly described as an audio guide to birdsong, with lyrics such as: ‘“Teacher! Teacher!” said the tits on the feeder’ and ‘“Chiffchaff! Chiffchaff! said its own name, and I wish they all did the same’. And finally, on the last day of the festival we hosted the chair of the Society for Storytelling himself; Paul Jackson. He told his winter tales for all the family to enjoy as everyone in the audience nibbled away on some mince pies and sipped at their mulled wine or hot squash. A brilliant afternoon to prepare us all for the festivities of the Christmas holidays.

We hope everyone who journeyed to Cley Marshes this year had a truly unforgettable experience, and we would be delighted to welcome you all back to our beautiful reserve in 2018. From all of us at Cley Marshes, we thank you for supporting our work, and wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. 

The Cley Calling festivals were made possible thanks to funding from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.