There can be few cities in the country that has an area of lowland heath contained within its boundary: in this respect our fine city of Norwich may well be unique.
Mousehold Heath is a wonderful natural resource with all of its 184 acres surrounded by busy roads, housing estates and industrial areas, yet it remains a green haven right on our doorstep; its south western edge dovetailing almost into the very heart of the city centre. It is of course only a shadow of its former self, when its windswept wilderness stretched in an unbroken swathe between Norwich and the Broads, but it still has potential to contain a small scale mosaic of diverse habitats and associated wildlife. The fact that it remains at all is testament to the foresight of previous owners who gave the remaining land to Norwich City Council to look after on behalf of the populace of our fine city. Without this covenant, whereby no one entity has ownership, it is highly likely the area would now be under concrete. The plus side of this is that the area is now safe from development (although during the 1950s and 60s various bodies had a bloody good go at nibbling away at the edges); the negative side is that its true wildlife potential cannot be realised; this would mean excluding people and dogs from certain areas to facilitate grazing whilst removing large areas of invasive birch and scraping the topsoil to foster the regeneration of heather in others – emotive subjects. So, a kind of compromise situation has been reached whereby small scale, unobtrusive, scrub clearance and scraping has taken place on selected areas whilst also linking areas of open ground to provide corridors for those species dependant on such uncluttered habitat. It’s looking much better.
Norfolk County Archive map of Mousehold Heath
Note the extent of the heathland reaching towards Salhouse.
This is the building now housing Zak's restaurant. Note the absence of trees.
The Heath in Circa 1950
Open Heathland - Difficult to find nowadays.
View of Norwich from St James's Hill
Although the red-backed shrikes, nightjars and skylarks have long disappeared, birdlife is still of interest. A recent walk through the area known as long valley resulted in very close views of a pair of goldcrests busily investigating the underside of every leaf in a tangle of low brambles, a treecreeper hopping up the trunk of a birch like a tiny clockwork toy and a small party of mixed great and blue tits acrobatically suspending themselves from thin sprigs of hawthorn. Robins provided pleasant musical accompaniment everywhere we walked whilst long-tailed tits buzzed through the canopy. Jays, mistle thrushes and great spotted woodpeckers are regular sights during the winter months when sometimes small flocks of siskins take advantage of the myriad seeds of alder. On the more open areas kestrels eek a living and sparrowhawks can be found bathing in rainwater collected in a shallow depression. These dry, sandy, seemingly barren undulating plots come into their own in spring when willow warblers, blackcaps and the occasional whitethroat take up residence, filling the air with their sweet song, common lizards scurry through the heather and green hairstreaks decorate the coconut scented blooms of gorse.
Of course when we were kids Mousehold was our playground; bird’s nesting, tree climbing, den making became regular activities. We were the unwelcome invasion, the inevitable product, of building massive council estates on surrounding land. Small wonder the shrikes, nightjars and skylarks moved away. In fact even then in the mid-60s the wanton destruction of precious habitat was apparent, because ironically the very rough grassland we roamed over was in fact the greened-up spoil dumped there from the adjacent development. Smothering the heath in several feet of crap was obviously a legal activity then. That area is now the pitch and putt course.
The history and legal status of the site may be complex, but what is simple to understand is that unless future generations learn to cherish the area it will degrade and eventually become a dense tangle of scrub and thorn. The remaining heath will become overgrown with birch scrub and all flowers, that essential source of nectar, will be shaded out. It would be a shame to let this happen because lowland heath is such a fantastic habitat and even Mousehold in its present state supports some unusual and fascinating creatures, the diversity of which is only slowly being realised. Thankfully, and in no small part, due to European Directives on habitat preservation, we live in more environmentally enlightened times and with luck and access to appropriate funds the restoration work can continue and Mousehold will continue to provide a badly needed haven for our wildlife and for the citizens of our fine and beautiful city for generations to come.