Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Orchards East in Norfolk

Tom Williamson and Rachel Savage

Everybody seems to love an orchard: they tick all the boxes in terms of conservation. Like ancient woods or hedges, orchards lie at that fascinating interface of history and natural history, of nature and culture. And, whether laden with fruit in late summer, or bright with blossom in the spring, they have a strong aesthetic appeal. Orchards, and especially those managed on more ‘traditional’ lines - with tall trees and minimal use of herbicides - are an important wildlife habitat, a fact recognised by their definition in 2008 as a UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) habitat. They have a rich grass sward, are often surrounded by a band of scrub in the form of hedgerows – and above all have their trees, providing (in the best examples) an important reserve of dead wood as well as an abundant source of nectar. Rare fungi, wood-boring insects like the noble chafer, wild flowers, lichens and epiphytes all thrive in these diminutive wood-pastures. But their numbers have fallen catastrophically over recent decades.

Orchards East is a new initiative, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and based at the University of East Anglia. We are cooperating with a wide range of partners, such as the East of England Apples and Orchards Project and the county Wildlife Trusts, across the six counties of eastern England (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire – and Bedfordshire). We aim to record and research old orchards, to conserve existing examples and create new ones, as well as to provide people with the appropriate practical skills that are needed to ensure that orchards can be maintained into the future. 

One important part of this project is to map, and understand the history of, surviving orchards – both ‘traditional’ examples, attached to old farmhouses; and more recent examples, for even these, if long-established or neglected, can contribute significantly to biodiversity. Our programme of recording and research will be carried out in cooperation with local volunteers, who will seek out existing orchards – or the remains of orchards – in their local area, and perhaps research their history at local record offices. Subsequent, more detailed, surveys of selected examples will assess their wildlife significance. We are particularly interested in knowing the extent to which the presence of particular epiphytes, fungi or saproxilic insects is simply related to the antiquity of the individual trees present within an orchard, and how far to the age of the orchard site itself.

We are currently recruiting volunteers to help record orchards (everyone is welcome and you don’t need to be an orchard expert!), and – ultimately – the kinds of wildlife found within them. The project is being rolled out gradually across eastern England over the next few months, on a county-by-county basis, and our Norfolk launch will take place at the Green Britain Centre at Swaffham on 4 November 2017.

If you are interested in attending – or are unable to attend, but keen to be involved - then please contact the Project Manager, Rachel Savage, on Or take a look at the website

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Hedgehog season

Hedgehog, photo by Peter Mallett
This time of year you may see hedgehogs and be concerned if they need help and if so what to do. Time is of the essence – little hogs can die very quickly of hypothermia, so action is needed straight away.

Any hog under 600g will not make it through the winter – they are too small to hibernate, so will starve or freeze. Little ones, roughly the size of a tennis ball or just bigger are especially vulnerable. Here is what to do:
  1. Put the hedgehog in a high sided box or small animal carrier
  2. Give it a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel – if you don’t have a hot water bottle, then a plastic milk bottle or glass bottle filled with warm water is fine; if you don’t have an old towel, newspaper will do!  Direct heat is essential to stop hypothermia – a warm room is not enough.  Make sure there is space for it to get off the bottle if needed and keep the bottle warm – don’t let it go cold.
  3. Offer a small amount of meaty (not fishy) cat or dog food and fresh water.
  4. Keep the box somewhere warm and quiet – NOT a garage or cold shed.
  5. Ring for help or take the hog to the nearest animal sanctuary for help. Vets are often not able to offer the care that little hogs need, so an animal sanctuary is much better.
Hedgehog baby being weighed, photo by Elizabeth Dack
If the hedgehog has breathing difficulties, many ticks, fly eggs or wobbles when it walks, it is very sick indeed – tell the sanctuary this.

Ring us on 01603 598333 for local contacts or get in touch with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

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