Our slice of Broadland, a rich mosaic of reed fen and low lying sedge beds where on the slightly higher ground lily carpeted ditches crisscross the lush grazing meadows, is proving to be a magical place to spend a couple of hours. When I say 'our' slice I mean rather the area we are lucky enough to be able to wander across looking for that most majestic of Norfolk insects the swallowtail butterfly. We, my fellow volunteer Roger and I, splattered, splodged and splashed our way through the thick reed bed a couple of weeks ago, getting hopelessly lost in the uniform, chest high luxuriantly growth to no avail. No swallowtails and perhaps more importantly no sign of the larval food plant, the delicate, quite unassuming, milk parsley. On our reconnoitre (see Willing Volunteer) we did find a few wisps of its frail feathery foliage fighting for living space, but it appeared that these plants had been out-competed by the far more vigorous Phragmites australis, or common reed to you and me. We did see many dragonflies, Norfolk hawkers amongst them; we espied other butterfly species and myriad other beetles, flies and bees, but no sign of our main quarry. Somewhat disappointed we eventually located the wooden bridge over the narrow dyke that led to our sweaty but grateful emergence into the dryer common area; our quest we thought a failure. But then a surprise, a delight, an adrenalin fused moment as a newly hatched, pristine swallowtail appeared in front of us greedily supping nectar from the flower heads of spear thistles. Like a couple of football fans whose team has put the ball in the net (he's passed the ball and he's hit that one as sweet as a nut) we elatedly fist pumped the air and proceeded to watch this rare and seldom encountered insect as it flew strongly from flower to flower imbibing sugar laden treats. As delightful as this encounter was it still did not constitute evidence of breeding. Swallowtails are strong flyers and can cover many miles on their flutterings; a partial success then.
The Dense Wet Fen
The Dryer Damp Common
Sedge Warblers are Frequent
Fast forward nine days and we are once again in search of this large yellow winged, black veined beauty. Not wishing to repeat our misguided meandering of the previous visit we decided to forego a crash through the reed bed, electing instead to traverse the more accessible areas adjacent to the fen proper. Here, on patches of slightly higher ground, some gorse and shrubs take hold from the tops of which yellowhammers, whitethroats and sedge warblers proclaim territorial rights. The clear water of the drainage ditches are lined with yellow flag, and the whole vista a patchwork of colour as ragged robin, marsh cinquefoil and cotton grass flower. After two hours, maybe more, of diligent searching we found what we had come to find. At the farthest edge of the plot, in one of the wetter stands, there on a small wispy sprig of an insignificant plant were four small, insignificant off -white pinhead sized balls. Eggs. Swallowtail eggs. Proof of breeding in this most magical remnant of what is still the finest wetland area of the whole country. I can't tell you how pleased we were, and still are, about this, but to further the footballing analogy perhaps ‘dead chuffed’ or ‘over the moon John’ conveys the general notion. In any event we were right royally pleased.
Marsh Cinquefoil Bearing Lovely Strawberry-like Flowers
Swallowtail Racing Toward Ragged Robin
Swallowtail EggIt may be small but what a wonderful insect will eventually result
Now we move forward a few more days to visit a habitat north of Norwich that could not be more removed from the fens to the east of our fine and excellent city. Friday dawned and found us at dusk in search of another unusual and hard to find insect. This one required a visit to the excellently managed Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Buxton Heath, a mix of dry heather heathland and wet boggy mire surrounded by pine plantations, that when eventually felled will hopefully allow reversion to further tracts of more wildlife friendly habitat. In one of the dell areas I remember stumbling upon a small colony of glow worms a decade ago, and our quest this evening was to relocate these luminescent creatures amongst the substantial acreage. After meandering along a few false trails that seemed to always end in boggy ground we eventually found our way to the higher, dryer area and within a few minutes had excellent views of nightjars floating close by on buoyant wings, uttering their distinctive chirruping flight notes. Others churred away from perches at indeterminable distance, and very pleasing it was to know these crepuscular summer migrants are still bouncing around the dusk skies of this area situate only a few miles from the city suburbs.
Although a sliver of moon was periodically peeping from a veil of scudding grey cloud, cloud that an hour previously had emptied voluminously, the darkness enveloped us quite rapidly after 10.30pm just as we reached the area where I thought I had seen glow worms so many years ago. Upon finding our path blocked by a metal gate and having had no sign of any brightly lit rear ends of small beetles, it seemed our adventure had reached a disappointingly dull end. But then low down in the damp grass we espied a pinprick of light, could this be what we were looking for? Well happily yes it could and having opened the gate we eventually found half a dozen of these strange little critters signalling for a mate; not overwhelming numbers but nonetheless satisfying.
I do like being on the heath on a sultry summers evening as dusk falls. There is an undoubted magic as the cast of characters from the day shift slowly become quiet and retire for the night, leaving the way clear for the night shift to take over. Whilst there is still light in the western sky you can watch bats flittering along the edge of a belt of trees, catch the grunts of roding woodcock as they patrol their territories, catch the familiar duet of tawny owls and like us witness nightjars feeding and glow worms mating. Superb.
In times gone by vast areas of lowland heath encircled Norwich. So expansive were these that whole armies of peasants could hide in them during the period of Kett’s rebellion. Many place names still bear evidence of past wildness: Blofield Heath, Rackheath, Mousehold Heath for example. Sadly that is pretty much the only tangible reminder we have of all those unbroken tracts of precious ling and heather. No amount of ‘Heath Farms’ or ‘Ling Commons’ can compensate for the loss. But we need not despair. Although compared to past glory we now only have small remnants, we do at least have those and they are being well looked after. Also it is not beyond hope that other areas can be salvaged as and when they become available. Certainly more sympathetic and enlightened attitudes of such bodies as the Forestry Commission give grounds for optimism. Who knows maybe one day in the not too distant future we may see some of these areas joined together to give us a better sense of what it once must have looked like. Hope so.