30 Days Wild - Reptile Hunt

5th June - How Hill, Norfolk

Young Grass Snake
As a young man I read books by such pioneering photographers and naturalists as Eric Hosking, Ted Ellis and Arthur Patterson. All spent much time in the Norfolk Broads at mystical places such as Hickling and Wheatfen where they could discover hidden places full of wonderful wildlife: bitterns, harriers, bearded tits, raft spiders and the like. I had then no means of reaching such locations, and even if I could there was no way I would have been allowed to tramp over sensitive private reserves. That privilege was granted to a chosen few: not to oiks like me.

Scroll forward forty years and things have changed. I found myself this evening wading through waterlogged reed beds and flower strewn meadows quite legitimately. Here I am in the middle of the very landscape I love with a passion, taking the easy route by following a beaten trail blazed by a deer through the lush wetland growth- the only sign of recent access - to investigate what may be sheltering under mats we had set out a few weeks ago to attract reptiles. All this courtesy of volunteering for the Broads Authority. I felt blessed.

The reason for our surveys is to develop a picture of the reptiles using the site (other surveys will look for bitterns, water voles and marsh plants) so that should any management work be proposed or outside development threatened there will be an informed view of what species are using the site and their relative population density. In this way proper consideration can be given to how such work should proceed (if at all) and appropriate mitigation measures put in place. That’s got to be worth doing I feel.

How Hill
We have four compartments to survey my colleague and me, two at Buttle Marsh and the other pair half a mile away at How Hill. We trudge in wellies and fleeces, protection against what is a chilly evening, to the first pair of compartments at Buttle one of which on previous visits was simply too waterlogged to consider entering. Tonight it seems a bit dryer, but this is hard to judge because what was almost bare ground in April is now transformed into an emergent reed bed reaching to chest height. We risk it and are immediately rewarded with a small grass snake that has sought shelter under the first of the strategically positioned mats of corrugated composite. We find a couple of common lizards under other mats, but no other reptiles. But this doesn’t matter because the anticipation of lifting the mats to see what lurks underneath is exhilarating. And despite the absence of reptiles, there are other things to find seeking shelter and warmth there; spiders, ants, caterpillars and once a lovely vole’s nest. Just being here is a great pleasure; to know we are possibly two of a very small number of people who will have the privilege to set foot on this marsh this year is something hard to put into words. There are few true wildernesses left in the U.K today, yet although this landscape is intensively managed, can be viewed from public footpaths and is quite small, in its own way it is as remote as the highest peak, the deepest glen, the thickest forest; for who would venture here on a whim? Trudging through the mire, every step splashing and wellies sucked into the gluttonous mud. This is what I was made for.

Aerial View of How Hill - Compartments are just above the centre point to the right of the river. 

We see other things; a bittern glides across the fen, probably a female on a feeding flight to or from its nest, a grasshopper warbler reels away from the depths, bright blue damselflies bounce from stem to stem as we disturb their rest and myriad tiny moths scatter as we pass. We find caterpillars of drinker moths and garden tiger, discover scat of fox and deer. This place is home to so much life and we’ve only been surveying for 40 minutes.

Vole Nest

Garden Tiger Larvae - The Woolly Bear 

Common Lizard

Red Ants - Myrmica rubra
We walk back along the towpath passing holidaymakers moored on the banks of the Ant, cooking sausages and burgers on small barbecues and sipping wine. We nod, smile and quip to a few before heading out to the meadows comprising the second of our duo of compartments. The adjacent fields here are quite different from those at Buttle. Here the reed growth is confined to the margins, the central portions being more open as a result of annual grazing by a herd of ponies. This doesn’t mean progress is any easier for the prolific growth of thigh high sedge hampers smooth movement. Despite the meadows being quite waterlogged we do find a couple more small grass snakes and a few common lizards, one of which is obviously a pregnant female. A cuckoo calls......