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.

Useful links:

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Volunteering and Art

Angela Collins, Volunteer coordinator

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Woodman who is a volunteer in the NWT Community Wildlife Action Project surveying Heckingham churchyard, to ask her about her experiences volunteering within the project. This Heritage Lottery funded project is helping individuals learn about or improve their plant ID skills so that they can provide accurate surveys for Norfolk churches and County Wildlife Sites, in order that management statements can be written and consequently habitats improved. 
Anna is currently doing a BA honours course in illustration and had hoped that the survey work would tie-in with her course, which it has very well. The surveying and talks she has attended has given Anna inspiration for future projects and she has been able to produce some stunning artwork based on her church surveys. She is currently focusing on grasses; drawing them in great detail, and using microscopic and digitally manipulated photography for her illustrations. “When I started I wasn’t aware there were different grasses.” She views her churchyard as being a whole new world to be looked at. 

Anna has been able to attend training sessions with local plant experts, and has worked with other members of the Heckingham Community Surveyor team, and feels that her plant ID has increased enormously during the first year of the project. 

“During the surveying, I have collected, pressed and photographed plant, grass and leaf specimens and have been laminating them so they can be handled and closely examined and have now begun to practice setting them in resin. I have been mapping the Heckingham site and drawing the plant, grass and tree species as well as photographing the site and church inside and out. It's been great fun!”

One of the great aspects about volunteering is that as well as helping Norfolk Wildlife Trust, individuals are usually able to gain some benefit for themselves, whether it be supporting a course, working out career options, getting exercise, socialising, learning more about wildlife or many other personal benefits. At the end of this season we will be able to report back to the church what is in their churchyard and how best to look after it to benefit wildlife with special church advice. It is fantastic that as part of this Anna has been able to use what she is learning to support her art, I very much look forward to seeing what Anna produces next year in the second year of the project and her final year at University. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Ovington Ramblers: Martham Broad

Martham Broad is part or the internationally important Upper Thurne Living Landscape project area and has survived as a working wetland for generations.

It was yet another beautiful day when we made out visit.  We parked the car in the small car park at the end of the village of West Somerton and first took the northern footpath along the River Thurne. This lush, fertile area demonstrates the importance of working together with wildlife, as could be seen by the large dredger in the main river, and diggers clearing the many dykes, all with the aim of providing the best possible habitat for wildlife.

We started off on the northern footpath and within minutes we were surrounded by dragonflies and damselflies of all colours and sizes. Never had we seen so many at one time. Particularly abundant were the very large hawker dragonflies, darting around to within a few feet of us. Such a shame they wouldn't stay still for a photo opportunity! There were plenty of butterflies to spot including red admirals and peacocks.

In no time at all we saw our first bird of prey, a hobby which circled around and flew into an abandoned windmill.  Next we saw the first of many marsh harriers; long golden legs dangling as it followed the dykes searching for food. Shortly after we were alerted to another marsh harrier by the rising of a flock of terns who had seen the predator before us. We also stood and enjoyed a kestrel diving and swooping over the reedbeds right in front of us.  All this happening and we had only been strolling for half an hour!

We went back to the car for a welcoming coffee break before setting off again on the southern footpath. This was a very different experience from the open north side as we followed a pretty path around the broad and through woodland carr. Along the way you can stand right at the edge of the broad and see shoals of fish in the crystal clear, unpolluted water. We counted over 40 swans in this stretch.

We finished off the day with a late lunch in the Kings Arms in Martham; a delightful pub overlooking the village pond. Thank you NWT for a fabulous day out.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Dragonflies at Hickling Broad

Barry Madden, NWT Volunteer
Away from the brisk westerly breeze sweeping across the swaying mops of fading pink hemp agrimony, apart from the rustling of thousands of swaying reed stems, we found a sheltered spot in the lee of gnarled and twisted birch. Here was the domain of the dragonfly. Atop every dead stem a common darter perched, its multi-faceted eyes scanning the area around its chosen observation point for potential prey or a mate. We watched these four winged predators as they sparred, hunted and courted, arrowing through the warm August air on their short-lived mission to foster another generation. We were quite mesmerised by these jewels of the insect world; wings glistening, backlit against the burning sun of high summer. With the aid of binoculars every minute hair on the dragonflies legs could be seen, every vein on the paper thin wings, every hexagonal lens of their bulbous, rich brown compound eye. The challenge of course was to photograph these sparkling miracles of nature and do justice to their form; an impossible task really, but we felt compelled to try and capture something of their ethereal beauty and record the moment.

The venue for this spell of insect photography was the wonderful Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Hickling Broad. I can remember the first time I espied this rather special place. On that occasion it was from the high ground near Martham on a pristine June day the best part of half a century ago.

Me and my young friends had spent the day aimlessly cycling along country lanes with no particular destination in mind and here we were taking a breather whilst overlooking the famous Broadland haven. Eric Hosking was to blame for us having knowledge of this place; his autobiographical work ’An Eye for a Bird’ had enthralled us and filled our young minds with visions of exotic places and even more exotic birds. But the most interesting aspect of the book (borrowed regularly from the local library) was the whole chapter devoted to Hickling, a place held dear to his heart and one this pioneering photographer visited regularly during the war years. Within this chapter were accounts of intimately close encounters with bitterns, bearded tits, harriers, both marsh and Montagu’s, as well as anecdotes concerning other species we had hardly heard of let alone dreamed of seeing. But it was getting late, the sun slowly lowering into the western sky and we had 20 miles to cycle home. The reserve was tantalisingly close but its exploration would have to wait for another day.

As it happened that day was many years in the future; the 1980s in fact when I began to visit the area regularly to watch the harriers and cranes coming in to roost at Stubb Mill, then simply a raised muddy bank, exposed and lonely. And it wasn't until I started working for NWT much later still that I got to know the reserve better. Of course much has changed since the days of Hosking. NWT now manages a vast area of this unique landscape allowing public access to much of it year round. Summer boat trips take eager eyed visitors to secret niches where otters, spoonbills, waders and purple hairstreaks can be seen, whilst the Visitor Centre ensures a warm welcome. But the essential wildness remains; acres of reed interspersed with shallow creeks where the billowing sails of river craft glide sedately past. Wide open skies punctured by silhouettes of wind pumps and stands of wet woodland. Broadland at its most evocative.

For all that, it can sometimes seem an empty place, frustratingly devoid of the bird life for which it is renowned. But then a brown spangled form will rise from the reeds and fly over your head, a bittern moving between feeding stations. Or yelps from lapwings will alert you to a passing peregrine. A feeling of being watched will make you look up into the spindly oaks to find a pair of fledgling tawny owls curiously gazing down at you and a gang of bug hunting children, or you will find a swathe of marsh thistle where swallowtails dance supping nectar. Or as today you will chance upon a quiet, sheltered spot where a swarm of dragonflies entertain you with their aerobatics beyond anything man can, or ever will, be able to achieve.

We were privileged to have a brief encounter with creatures whose world we will never fully understand and whose pedigree is eon. Soon this year’s generation will succumb to the gathering chill of autumn but for the next few weeks they will buzz around this excellent nature reserve completing their life cycle. Go look, go experience their mastery of the air, go to simply celebrate their existence, go because you can. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Ovington Ramblers: Booton Common

Continuing our mission to visit every NWT nature reserve this year, today we went to Booton Common.  This area of rich fen and wetlands is just a short distance from Reepham and lies in the valley of a tributary of the river Wensum. It is quite difficult to find but, once you see the unusual village sign, it is down the narrow lane on the opposite side of the road.

The reserve is grazed by ponies, cattle and deer. Although we didn't see any of these animals, there was plenty of evidence of their presence here. However, managing to survive was a nursery of young alder trees which love the boggy ground.

We enjoyed the abundant butterflies and wildflowers including heathers, meadowsweet, buttercups, purple and yellow vetch, ragged robin, campion, euphatorium, and water mint all enjoying the damp  ground. One surprise was a lovely white thistle – the first 'albino' thistle we had ever seen!

We have now visited about two-thirds of the reserves.  Those remaining are the furthest away, so it will have to be a full day out each time, with lunch at a local pub. Isn't retirement just great!

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Work experience at Cley

Oscar Conway

I applied to Cley Marshes work experience week because I felt it would give me the perfect opportunity to know what it is like to work around nature and on a reserve. Seeing as this is what I would prefer to do later in my life, a week of interesting and inspiring activities ‘woke me up’ to the great work environment and range of tasks and jobs needed to run a reserve.

After arriving and being introduced to the site, team and common wildlife found on the reserve, I helped out with a school visit. This involved myself and other volunteers explaining the conservation work going on at Cley and other Norfolk areas to the children. I helped out with the activities they participated in, like pond dipping and beach exploration.  This gave me a chance to improve my confidence for interacting with people of various ages as the school group consisted of different age groups.

As well as this, the activities also allowed me to be out on the reserve where I could also enjoy my passion for nature and wildlife spotting. Species I observed at Cley included: spoonbill, bearded tit, dunlin and many more. I managed to fit in lots of time to observe birds and wildlife between my time working. This might have been on the till with a few other volunteers to answer people's questions, give tickets out to reserve members and first-timers and deal with purchases made by visitors in the visitor centre. This was extremely enjoyable because of the satisfaction from helping people and because it was generally fun to use the till.

Other tasks I really enjoyed at Cley were the mornings out on the reserve with the warden and volunteers where I helped put up signs, collect grass-cutting equipment from the storage facility and clean different areas of the reserve. It was great to experience the ‘hands-on’ side of looking after Cley and nature as a whole. One of the vital needs for running a nature reserve and visitor centre is a brilliant and friendly team and this was certainly the case at Cley.

Overall, the week on the reserve was a fantastic experience, it was both useful for learning new skills and highly enjoyable throughout. 

We are fortunate to be able to offer work experience at Cley where we have a Community Education Officer, unfortunately we are not able to offer work experience weeks at our other reserves.  If you are interested in a career connected to conservation and would like to do your work experience at Cley please see our website for more information and an application form (scroll down to the green feature box).

Monday, 8 August 2016

Crafts and Curiosities at Wells Carnival

Ellie Howell, Cley Marketing Intern

On Monday 1st August Community Education Officer Rachael and I went to Wells Carnival for an afternoon of marine inspired creativity and learning. 

While the stalls were not due to open when we finished setting up, there were lots of children eager to explore and to create. 

With ties to the Wildlife Trusts’ Living Seas vision, we wanted to discover what in particular makes the seas valuable to the families that came along. We also wanted to get them thinking about what helps and what harms our marine environment. 
We spent the afternoon creating wildlife pictures with natural materials found on the beach. We decorated crabs, fish and starfish with sea lettuce, crab claws, horn-wrack and other things that wash up on the shore. The children also enjoyed making jellyfish from the plastic materials we’d scavenged on the beach. 

Grandmother Angie Richards who travelled from Romford to spend time with her grandchildren said the activities were ‘fab for teaching and educating children on sea life and the environment.’ Her grandchild Ruby said she’d like to make fifty more for her bedroom!

There was also a display of marine objects for inquisitive minds to discover with items such as belemnites over 900 million years old. It was also a chance for the families reacquaint themselves with objects of childhood memory – mermaid’s purses (or egg cases as they are more scientifically known), razor shells, whelk eggs, cuttlebones and horse mussels.