Monday, 16 October 2017

Wildlife going off the rails?

Old railway lines in Norfolk can be fantastic havens for wildlife, according to project officer Mark Webster. As part of the County Wildlife Action project, the trust has been surveying a number of them for wildflowers, and we have been ‘chuffed’ to discover some real rarities at sites where steam trains used to rush past! So why not muddle along and go somewhere along the Norfolk Trails long-distance paths?
It can be a bit of a strange experience walking along the old railway lines that criss-cross the county. You can be feeling how tranquil the area is, far from the sound of traffic, and then suddenly realise that exactly where you are walking, and not so long ago, express trains used to rush along, perhaps passing a line of trucks filled with cattle on their way to market - or a seaside special would be taking hundreds of excited families from the midlands off on their annual holiday on the sandy beaches of Norfolk’s east coast.

Platforms and original fencing at Briggate
Honing old station as it was
One of the sites I’ve been working at is the old Honing station at Briggate, and it’s a fascinating place – an abandoned station where you can walk among the remains of the brick walls, stepping from ticket office to waiting room – and even into the ladies and gents, where you can still see the layers of paint where the Midland and Great Northern railway’s brown and cream colour scheme was covered later by the green of the Great Eastern railway company. The M&GN was somewhat affectionately known and the ‘Muddle and Go Nowhere’ railway, because of its tortuous route across country from one little village to another. This section of track didn’t even last until Dr Beeching swung his axe – it shut in 1959, but still the original wooden criss-cross fencing survives, along with the huge platforms, and remains of the signal box and cattle pens, now with brambles and nettles growing where once was a busy workplace.

And there is a lot of wildlife along this route too – recent surveys have recorded several species of bats feeding here, and there are surveys for fungi coming up on 18 October, and mosses on 8 November, both of which are open to the public to join, with absolute beginners welcome to come and learn about these often forgotten organisms. 

Small-flowered catchfly in Felmingham
Nearby at Knapton and Felmingham, there are substantial railway cuttings, amazingly dug by hand. And the work of the navvies is not wasted now, as the cuttings’ south-facing slopes have become hotspots for wildflowers and the butterflies that feed on them.  I was especially delighted to come across lots of the endangered small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica) here last summer: it’s a delightful little red and white flower which depends on the open sandy soil here.

Most of the old railway lines around North Walsham are owned and managed by Norfolk County Council, and there is more information about these and other walking routes here. Or if you would rather not explore these places alone, why not join one of the free activities run by our partners TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) which include some free short wildlife ID courses in October and November. The Mushroom Foray is led by county fungi recorder – and real enthusiast for his subject - Tony Leech. Find out more about these curious organisms.
Indoor events will include renowned wildlife cameraman Jerry Kinsley showing some of his stunning nature photos – and sharing the secrets of his success, which includes the somewhat surprising use of a skateboard – at Honing Village Hall on Tuesday 17 October at 7.30pm, and a talk by local railway author Nigel Digby on the M&GN at North Walsham Community Centre exactly a week later.  

For more details about how to join any of these walks and talks, please contact me via  or 07843 069 567, or see the What’s On pages of the NWT website

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

How should we approach rewilding?

John Hiskett, Senior Conservation Officer

Rewilding. The term is often used but the practice varies from less intensive management of existing nature reserves to George Monbiot’s vison of uplands and the large scale projects in continental Europe where whole landscapes are being returned to a pre-industrial farming model.

One model, closer to home, is that followed by the Knepp Estate in Sussex which I had the opportunity to visit in early September. Knepp covers 3,500 acres set in rolling countryside between The Weald and South Downs and has been developing as a rewilding project since 2002.

At first glance, Knepp appears to be like any other area of grazed farmland but it soon becomes clear that things are very different. Hedges are wide and sprawling and in early September covered in berries unlike the closely trimmed hedges of most farmland. Fields are largely unfenced and grazing animals are free to wander between them. Many fields are developing a patchwork of hawthorn and blackthorn dominated scrub with willow in wetter areas.

The re-wilding experiment is driven by grazing animals, which include Old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, red, roe and fallow deer and Tamworth pigs, which are left to roam free within 3 large enclosures. These animals are frequently encountered but are fairly sparsely scattered throughout the project area. This has led to welcome but unplanned increases in the ecological value of the area. Benefits of the increase in scrub has resulted in Knepp currently holding one of the largest breeding concentrations of nightingales in Britain, and becoming the top purple emperor breeding site in the UK. In addition turtle doves, which are in steep decline elsewhere, are increasing.

The economic model at Knepp includes agri-environment payments, income from safaris and income from a camping and glamping site which has been established in recent years, along with income from sales of free range meat. This latter highlights a major difference between Knepp and other well-known rewilding projects such as Oostvaardersplassen in Netherlands. At Knepp numbers of grazers are controlled by culling with the resulting organic free range meat adding to the income of the estate, whereas at Oostvaardersplassen grazing animals are left to live and die naturally. However, the lack of predators means that numbers are very high, giving the impression at first glance of herds of animals in African savannah. As a result, Oostvaardersplassen has progressed from a landscape with large numbers of trees and areas of scrub, when I first visited 10 years ago to almost bare grassland due to overgrazing, as was apparent on a visit earlier this year. In comparison at Knepp where numbers are artificially controlled through culling, well wooded parkland is developing with high biodiversity value.

What lessons are there for re-wilding projects elsewhere? The different forms of re-wilding all have their place and new projects should seek to use the most appropriate model. Oostvaardersplassen is attempting to create wholly wild landscape but absence of predators means that numbers of grazing animals have increased to a level which some argue is having a detrimental effect on the ecology of the habitat. In contrast at Knepp and other similar projects there is a return is to a more extensively managed landscape that is rich in some of the biodiversity that has been lost over much of lowland Britain as a result of agricultural intensification in recent decades. However, this model may need to be modified in areas where sensitive and rare habitats require management intervention if they are to persist in their current form.


Although bigger is obviously better it would be possible to establish extensive management at a smaller scale than at Knepp and one could argue that NWT and others are already doing this in places such as Roydon and Grimston Common. A Living Landscape in a farmed lowland landscape could be made up of large nature reserves and areas of extensively managed farmland linked by wildlife rich ecological corridors.