Will is the current warden of Wheatfen Nature Reserve, the Ted Ellis Trust. He has been there for nearly three years having taken over from David Nobbs in 2017. David spent 25 years managing the reserve, from soon after it was established.
I’m not a true Norfolk born and bred local as such; I actually started off in North Wales under the shadow of Snowdon. I spent four years of my life in Wales. I don’t really remember it much, but I think the mountains and the habitat have been imprinted on me. Whenever I go away I’m always drawn to thinking, ‘Where can I go? Where’s there a new range of mountains I haven’t explored, haven’t climbed?’
I then went to Lincolnshire from the age of four till the age of 10. Very different to Wales. I was right by the coast, by the Wash, in a small village called Bennington. Interestingly, for a person passionate about wildlife conservation, my father was a very big wildfowler. As I grew older this obviously became quite an interesting discussion between us. I’ve got my own conservation views that I was trained to have, in order to be a wildlife conservationist and a habitat manager, which at times differ to those of people who undertake hunting / shooting.
Dad used to take me out on the salt marsh miles away from the main land. We used to cross all the creeks, the dykes, the mud flats, in the middle of the night, and get right up towards the sea. He taught me how to call in birds, how to call down geese and ducks, something I still do sometimes. He taught me how to recognise the birds in the dark by the sound of their wings. This is something that many conservationists cannot do. With my back turned, I can tell you what species of wildfowl is most likely flying towards me and, again, I could probably call it in for some species.
I moved to Norfolk when I was 10 to Happisburgh, which is renowned for its crumbling cliffs that, unfortunately, slide into the sea. We were two miles inland, so we had a little while yet before we had to worry about moving.
Once again, this was a big change of habitat for me. I had a lot of freedom as a young lad to roam around and poke about in the woods. We were on the edge of the Broads, near quite a lot of rivers, so I soon became obsessed with fishing. I’ve always been quite determined and I’ve never been given anything in life, so I got a little part time job, I saved up all my pennies, and I got a little fishing boat. I spent about 10 years on the river Thurne going up to Potter Heigham, Hickling, Martham. I was completely obsessed with pike (Esox lucius), the big predator of the waterways. I managed to catch seven pike over the 20 pound mark. I know people that have spent many years after them and never quite got so many. It’s probably down to luck more than anything. I was obsessed; I spent three nights a week down on the river, all weekend I was chasing pike and other species.
At the age of 16 I finished school and had many family discussions about what I was going to do with myself. I tried to get into the army but failed the medical. Blood circulation in the hands let me down. They said I wouldn’t be able to handle the cold. I said try fishing the Norfolk Broads all winter, night after night without a tent, waking up frozen to the ground.
Wildlife conservation habitat management at Easton College
I did the two year wildlife course at Easton College, which was a diploma; the equivalent of A Levels. I absolutely loved it and ended up with a triple distinction, which is the highest grade; the equivalent of three A’s. I learnt so much and found the coursework a breeze because I was so in to it. I found it easy to research and to study.
I did two years work experience at the Broads Authority. I think that’s where my love of the Broads came from. We’d go out on a Monday on a small little boat, and we’d go up dykes, the rivers, canals, to the middle of nowhere, surrounded by reed beds and fen. We’d get very wet. It certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. We’d be surrounded by harriers, bitterns, bearded tits, and swallowtails in the summer. It was hard work; we’d be scrub clearing, reed cutting, dyke dredging; the usual bits and pieces you’d expect to get up to on the Broads to maintain the unique style of the landscape. It just suited me down to the ground. I passionately explained to my tutor at Easton College what I’d been doing with the Broads Authority, and he basically said to the whole class, ‘Well, Will, you was practically born in the bog’ and perhaps I was at heart!
Assistant Ranger at North Norfolk District Council (Holt Country Park)
When I finished college I took a role as Assistant Ranger at North Norfolk District Council. They had quite a few sites in North Norfolk: Holt Country Park, Pretty Corner Woods in Sheringham, Beeston Bump on the cliff tops, with its rare coastal grassland. I applied and by some wave of luck I got the job. I had free rein, basically, as the Senior Ranger was away on secondment, never to return.
I soon worked up to the Senior Ranger level and had half a dozen sites to manage. This was a lot of responsibility; a lot of trust was put in me.
So, I was in charge of a whole country park. It was a pine plantation. It was dark, it was dingy. There was no real wildlife, so we started to thin out the woods, and we drew up a management plan. We started to remove a lot of the pines and plant back some of the native shrubs and trees. We opened up all the pathways to allow light for various flowers and, by chance, the following summer after this, silver-washed fritillary turned up and by the end of the five or six years I was there we had the biggest population of fritillary in the county, and I think Holt Country Park still does. It also has white admirals. This success was simply from thinning out the woodlands and encouraging dog violets to thrive, which is what the fritillary caterpillars feed on. Putting in things like hazel coppice rotations also helped.
Holt finally got designated as a County Wildlife Site, which is your bottom level of protection for any habitat. We were on the way to SSSI (a site of Special Scientific Interest). We had great crested newts, various fungi, various rare orchids as well as these rare butterflies. The press were coming down to talk about these rare butterflies, so the council were getting plenty of attention as well.
However, I felt frustrated at the fact that it was decided not to have the County Wildlife Site by the council after all the hard work we had put in. We did it without expensive machinery because we were passionate about the wildlife. Looking back, councils have got lots of things going on, public amenities, sports, balancing the books from all the cutbacks, but it was still a big personal blow at the time. In the five or six years working there I’d learnt a lot, achieved a fair amount with the wildlife conservation, and perhaps it was now time to move on, as I couldn’t see which direction I was going to go in from then onwards.
Applying for the job at Wheatfen
I was very much in love with the habitats, and with the Broads of course and didn’t want to move away from Norfolk.
The Wheatfen job came up and my skills were all there but a lot of people have similar skills. I simply just told the truth. I said I’d done much of the work at Holt and these other sites and I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t take it on to the next level. I got an interview before quite a panel to sit in front of and be scrutinised by on your wildlife objectives. One of the trustees was Dan Hoare, who is senior in the Broads Authority, and we also had Richard Hobbs, who used to be the Director of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, as well as the Chairman of the Ted Ellis Trust, Dick Meadows, a former BBC documentary maker.
Of course, at this stage, apart from my Broads Authority work experience, I hadn’t officially managed a fen or a reed bed on my own, and I’d be the sole member of staff at Wheatfen.
They rang me that night when I was then on the way to do a badger talk; I used to chair the Norfolk Badger trust, another passion and another story. I was very nervous about doing this talk; I’m not a natural talker. I pulled over and answered the phone and they offered me the job the same day as the interview. That made my year. Something caught their eye, a bit of enthusiasm maybe. David Nobbs had retired at 65 after doing a fantastic job for 25 years.
Learning about Wheatfen and its history
My tutor at Easton College had happened to mention Wheatfen and its history and I read The People’s Naturalist by Eugene Stone about its previous owner, Ted Ellis, and his legacy. The next obvious step was to visit the reserve.
As part of my course, I was learning about these sorts of habitats, and how to manage them, so I went to Wheatfen. I wrote about what I’d seen in my wildlife diary. I was just thrilled to hear the cuckoo at Wheatfen because it’s been in serious decline for many years now. Decades ago, you’d hear it in every village. I never thought I’d be lucky enough to work at such a renowned reserve.
Wheatfen in the 20s and 30s was owned by a chap called Captain Cockle; fantastic name. He owned the estate, as it was then, for shooting purposes. It was for punt gunning and wild fowling. He was after the ducks and the geese on the Broads.
There are many quirky stories about Captain Cockle. He was very keen on making money from the site. Old Mill Marsh, near the little thatched hide is named because it used to have a mill powered by a donkey, going back many decades now. Every spring we cut back the vegetation and a line of daffodils comes up each Spring. You think, ‘Oh why are there daffodils on a fen?’ and it turns out that Captain Cockle planted them. It never did take off because the land is too wet for daffodils but, to this day, they still flower; they’re still just about tolerated in the wetness of the fen, and so we leave them. Yes, they shouldn’t really be there, but it’s a fantastic story, an attempt to make some money from the fen that never took off.
Many of the fruit trees in the garden, plus a couple dotted about by the board walk, were an experiment by Captain Cockle to see how well these trees grew, how they survived, and whether he could commercially sell the apples. Again, this never really took off. The trees struggled; they still survive but, again, it’s a bit too wet for them.
In the 40s and 50s Ted Ellis was the curator for natural history at the [Norwich] Castle Museum. Captain Cockle came to the Museum with a fantastic display of molluscs he’d found in his dyke at Wheatfen. He asked Ted what they were and Ted of course helped him out, and got invited back to Wheatfen. He fell in love with the place and couldn’t believe the diversity of flowers; the flora, the fauna, there was nothing quite like it. He went back every week from that day onwards up until 1946, just after the war, and when Captain Cockle passed away, his wife Mrs. Cockle offered the house to Ted and Phyllis. They, of course, jumped at the chance, and snapped it up.
Ted spent the next 40 years studying Wheatfen and it’s largely because of him that we have over 10,000 species recorded at the reserve. We’ve added to that list since Ted passed away in 1986.
Ted was very much a scientist. He was undertaking research at the fen and wasn’t perhaps a hands-on land manager. He studied succession. He saw how a fen is lost with time because of things missing from the ecosystem. So if we’re going back several hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, there would have been beavers and there would have been a lot more wild grazing animals like aurochs. The beavers would have knocked the trees down, the aurochs would have kept the area grazed. So you would have had pockets of fen, and it would have constantly changed and adapted.
Ted recorded how quickly the willows took over the fen, how quickly flowers were lost, how the shade affected various species, and of course by doing that he learned so much about succession, and a lot of this is recorded in his book, The Broads, which looks at the natural history of the Broads and its wildlife. The research Ted did has really shaped the future of conservation in many ways, particularly around the Broads.
We’ve now got quite a big job to change the reserve. We’ve lost 90% of the open fen. Most of it now is wet woodland; willow carr, alder carr, and we’ve lost a lot of those rare flowers and therefore we’ve lost the associated invertebrates. The fauna comes with an open fen.
When Ted passed away in 1986, all of his friends and his family got together and wanted to recognise Ted’s achievements. He’d found about 10,000 different species at Wheatfen, which is still said to be the most recorded site in the UK, and he’d inspired countless generations to get involved in natural history. Of course, he was known for his TV, his radio, and his articles in the EDP all about wildlife. He was sort of a celebrity; a bit of a Chris Packham of his time, if perhaps not quite so out there,a quieter soul. To keep Ted’s legacy going, his family and friends formed the Ted Ellis Trust to keep Wheatfen open so people could enjoy it and continue to discover its beauty and its wildlife gems. They put together a strategy to bring it back to how it once was – a more open fen and employed a warden, now my role.
An Introduction to Wheatfen today
Wheatfen is 140 acres and it’s a mixture of reed bed, fen, wet woodland, and a little bit of dry woodland. Tidal dykes link to two Broads – Wheatfen Broad and Deepwaters. I never learnt to swim. I’ve been here three years now. I have fallen in many times and float rather well.
It is interesting because it is a tidal floodplain which protects Norwich and the surrounding villages from flooding. You get a very unique range of plant species that tolerate these tidal movements. Half the year you’re underwater, and the other half, in summer, you’re in a much drier environment. So, for a plant to tolerate these extremes they have to be quite specialist and therefore you get quite specialist invertebrates that feed on the nectar on the pollen or the plant itself, the leaves and so on.
Starting as warden at Wheatfen
When I started at Wheatfen, the main need was to draw up a management plan. David Nobbs, had his management plan all in his head. He had some fantastic ideas, but it all needed to be formalised, especially for grant applications and stewardship through Natural England. It’s pretty much got every type of protection imaginable on it, and you’ve got to be very careful on what you do on such a site. It is a SSSI so it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It’s also a Ramsar, which is a European Wetland Protection, and it’s a SAC, which is a Special Area of Conservation. I was keen to put my own stamp on the reserve.
I spent the first few months getting to know the site, and I got ideas from the volunteers, from the previous warden and so on, and we started to draw up a management plan. This looked at how to take the site forward over the next five years or so. It’s based on three principles, the most important of which is hydrology. The site floods, and the water quality isn’t good to be honest. There’s lot of agricultural runoff, you’re talking about nutrient enrichment from nitrates and phosphates which fen flowers hate. Things like nettles love it, and they thrive under such conditions, which is fine, and nettles have some wildlife value, but really you want these very rare fen plants to flourish, so you need to get the water off the site as quick as possible. You can’t stop it coming on, you wouldn’t want to stop it, because the plants need this wet-dry kind of habitat, but you need to drain it off just as quick. You don’t want stagnant water sitting on the fen.
So, we had to look at dredging, and we had to write up a scheme for dredging the dykes and the broads sympathetically. We had to do surveys to see what was actually in the dykes. Looking back, Ted had found many ridiculously rare molluscs that live in some of the dykes and, guess what, some of them like a blocked dyke. You have to be very careful at Wheatfen. You’ve always got to think ahead, you’ve always got to look back to move forward.
Now, of course, the other big part was the scrub clearance work. Ted had watched the willows invade the fen and he’d studied the succession. Unfortunately, I haven’t got an army of beavers on me to remove the willows but I’ve got an army of volunteers.
We looked in the wet woodlands, the carr woodlands; we looked at these willows and some of this woodland that has been here decades and we sort of said, ‘Wow. This is phenomenal.’ The fungi, the lichens, the mosses. There’s one moss at Wheatfen you won’t find anywhere else in the UK. It hasn’t got a common name so you have to remember the Latin name: Timmia Megapolitana. That lives in these wet woodlands, so you think ‘What can we cut out? What can we remove? How can we get this rare fen to come back without losing other species’.
The final big part of fen management is reed cutting rotation and fen mowing.
I find mowing regimes fascinating. Mowing at different times of the year with various repeat cuts into the future can affect the plant species massively. The idea is that you want different heights, different thicknesses, different plant species to flourish and with that you get different invertebrates and different habitats for nesting birds. For example, a marsh harrier probably wants really thick, dense reed with a little bit of water underneath to deter predators from creeping across, but then rare fen flowers don’t want to be competing with thick, heavy reed. They’re going to get swamped out, shaded out, out-competed. So it’s about applying the right rotation, the right mowing regime in the right area to get this diverse mosaic of habitats. If you get it wrong you get a sea of nettles and undesirable species, and potentially the loss of the important habitat. So it takes a lot of thought, and you’ve got to link it all into your hydrology.
Wheatfen as a public attraction
The Ted Ellis Trust vision is based on Ted’s legacy of wildlife conservation as a public amenity and getting people to visit the reserve, as well as research and education. Wheatfen’s is unique in that it’s not a commercial reserve; we don’t charge for people to come round, we don’t have tea shops or that kind of thing. Everyone is welcome but they have to explore it in their own way.
The aim is to keep it as wild as possible and it needs to be peaceful and tranquil, with people coming in enjoying the reserve, but at the same time we can’t afford to have swarms of people where it gets to the point that paths are eroded and wildlife is disturbed. I think every nature reserve has the same problem really, and it’s a balance. We want lots of people to come and enjoy it, to find new species, but we’ve also got to keep the legacy of Ted going, with tranquillity and the direction of research. We want people to come and tell us what they’ve seen and what they’ve found. It might be a new species for the year, it might be a new species for the records altogether.
Some of the smaller dykes, the foot drains that criss cross the fens; the sort of arteries of the fen if you like, can be dredged by hand, by the big band of trusted volunteers that I have. I very much rely on the volunteers; they’re fantastic. You say to someone, ‘Do you want to come to Wheatfen and dig out a dyke during a cold, wet flooded day?’ With our volunteers we have plenty of banter and plenty of fun and games and tea and biscuits.
A lot of the dykes, then, are done by hand; the old fashioned way. We use the old dydles and the cromes. They’re very much still being used today, simply because they work.
Some of the bigger dykes are seemingly bottomless. If you push a stick in it goes down 10-15 foot and the silt seems endless in places. For these dykes, we have to get in machinery in, and again this is after intensive surveys. It’s about keeping drainage working; we don’t want Wheatfen to flood and hold the water, we want the water off as quick as possible. So we dredge a dyke each winter and each dyke is dredged every 10, 12 years. Dredging a dyke in the winter only amounts to about 5% of the whole dyke network, so you’re not ever going to lose anything and because it’s tidal you’ll be surprised at how swiftly the dyke is re-colonised by aquatic invertebrates and plants and so on.
What we call Eleven Bridges dyke was dredged back in March 2019. We surveyed it all summer, and we were pulling out dragonfly larvae, diving beetle larvae, and a lot of the molluscs drifted back in with the tide. So, the dyke really does heal up incredibly quickly. Back in the day the spoil from the dyke dredging used to be spread out quite flatly; along the edge of the dyke. You get a lot of nettles come up the following year so you just trim it down.
These days we’re banking it up in places, trying to help our water vole population. The flooding is so intense that they get flooded out each winter and so by piling it up in places, you encourage the water voles to move in and stay. You also encourage birds like kingfishers to nest, and at the moment we’ve got a couple of pairs whizzing up and down the dykes; that iconic blue flash which we all love to see.
Incidentally, last year, someone witnessed a sparrowhawk grab a kingfisher in midflight; a phenomenal observation. If you come around in the winter, and you see a dyke being dredged, it can look a bit scary, a bit dramatic. This is because bigger dykes are dredged by a barge with a digger parked on top. If you come back in the spring, though, you’ll see it all green over incredibly quickly.
A final point of dyke dredging: because of the flooding, which is getting worse with climate change, we put some of the spoil on the paths. We’re raising the height of the paths by about a foot in places, and by the summer of that year, it’s all grassed over again, you can get down there, and during some of the bigger floods you can still get round the reserve.
We cut the reed at Wheatfen but unfortunately it is of poor quality; we have fens rather than pure reed which means that all the flowers are mixed in. Come the winter you’ll see a sea of yellowing reed stems but mixed in will be all these heads, all these stems of all the rare fen flowers, so to cut all that back and dress it out to pure reed bundles would take so long and it wouldn’t really be commercially viable to then sell the reed. In some parts of the Broads, though, there’s still a lot of commercial reed cutting for thatching.
Most of our reed cutting is done by hand, occasionally with the old traditional scythes. It’s always nice to do it traditionally but there is a purpose to it. A scythe cuts slowly so you can avoid areas in the reed bed where you know there might be, for example, swallowtail chrysalis, or other rare species lurking. We do also use mowers, which in itself is incredibly difficult, because they going over wet terrain, they sink, and you wrestle them the whole time.
We stack a large amount of reed for habitat piles, and you get the grass snakes in there laying their eggs in the spring and also in there are all sorts of beetles and spiders and so on. So a pile of reed is itself a great habitat.
We do occasionally strip burn the reed. We pile it up into long rows and we burn it off. Some people might frown upon the burning of reed in this day and age, but when the reed is dead, most of the carbon is being stored in the roots, if not in the peat itself. Fens are massive carbons sinks, so we’re very much in keeping with green carbon sequestration.
The management plan dictates that I cut the fen areas on different rotations but the plan is very much adaptable. So, if the swallowtails are in one area over the summer, the caterpillars are feeding on milk parsley and the last thing you want to do is look at your management plan in the winter and cut it if it’s full of swallowtail chrysalis, and that is how they spend their winter.
If there are other things that come up then you might, for example, mow the bit before the bank, or the bit in front of it, and just adapt your management plan, tweak it. I think some people get a bit tied up with these set management plans that are set in stone. It does makes sense to have it set in stone for ease, and it certainly helps with countryside stewardship schemes when you’re trying to get grants, because you’re forced to set your management plan in such a way that it can’t be adapted. In terms of the future of the Broads, though, perhaps money shouldn’t be such a big priority if we are going to start losing wildlife.
Star wildlife at Wheatfen
A lot of people want to come and see the star wildlife, the harriers, the bittern in the spring booming away, the bearded tits. A lot of people travel to see the swallowtails in the summer. Of course they are only found in the Broads at the moment. We get people from as far as Scotland coming to see swallowtails.
There’s no end to the wildlife rarities at Wheatfen. I’ve mentioned the rare moss, Timmia Megapolitana, and there’s also a beetle here that you won’t see anywhere else in the UK. The beetle is called Galeruca laticollis. We’re not quite sure why it is here and how it spread. We do know that the larvae feed on meadow rue, which is a rare fen flower, and thankfully not a particularly fussy fen flower.
Maintaining the wildlife
Every species has its own niche, its own requirements, and if I was to cut an area at the wrong time of year, remove all the meadow rue, I’d then lose one of the rarest beetles in the UK. The last three years we’ve be filling the woodlands as well as coppicing it. We now have a good head of silver washed fritillaries, and white admirals have come back after having been missing for a 70 years and a decade respectively. This recovery is simply because we’ve let some light in, we’ve thinned the wood, and we’ve encouraged the food plants to grow for these butterflies. Of course, wildlife always responds.
We’re now in the third year of the management plan. We’re seeing swallowtail numbers slowly increase, we’re seeing milk parsley plants (swallowtail food) spread to new areas. We’re seeing an abundance of things that perhaps we wouldn’t have seen before in Ted’s era, with his study of succession. We’re opening up new areas and a lot of the rare flowers are coming back.
We’re trying to work with nature really. Many years ago you would have had animals grazing vegetation down and you would have had beavers removing trees and that’s why it works when management is done correctly. You’re replicating natural processes.
This year we had three otter cubs, which is fantastic. They are somewhat a disputed animal, even within wildlife conservation. Of course, in the 50s, 60s, otters were very rare in the Broads. They’d been exterminated by man, and they were then brought back. Looking at Wheatfen as a single, unique habitat, the otters don’t seem to be having any detrimental effect on the fish stocks. There’s lots of these rumours: they’ll eat this, they’ll eat that. Well, Wheatfen is abundant in moorhens, water rails, pike, bream, and no end of other fish within the dyke system. Of course people also love to see otters in the Broads.
The dykes all flow in different ways, and in different strengths, and this means that within the dykes there’s a big range of dragonfly species. The larvae live in the dyke for a year or two. One of the interesting ones which has really taken off across Norfolk in the last 10 years is the Willow Emerald. When you’re doing a guided walk you’ll say that dragonflies always land with their wings open and damselflies with theirs folded back. Of course there’s always one which has to upset everything and in this case it’s the Willow Emerald. He is a damselfly, and he lands with his wings open. The Willow Emerald lays its eggs not on the water, or on vegetation within the water along the water’s edge, but in overhanging branches from willow, as well as other tree species we’ve now recently discovered. Back in the day you would have sided all your willows back along the dyke. You’d have wanted lots of light to hit the dyke to encourage aquatic plant growth, but nowadays you’ve got to check your willows and look for the small scars along the fresh reed growth to see if the eggs might be within the plant.
Another particularly rare dragonfly here is the Norfolk Hawker. It’s a stunning brown dragonfly, out in June, with clear wings and big green goggly eyes. A lot of people come to see the Norfolk Hawkers. On our annual swallowtail day last year, a big event, we were on Home Marsh enjoying the swallowtail, and the Norfolk Hawker took a Swallowtail out in midflight, plunged down into the reed bed, probably to feast on it. You’ve got two rare things fighting it out.
You’ve lost a rare butterfly because of a rare dragonfly. Of course, there were a few grumbles from the swallowtail enthusiasts.
The early morning is a good time to see herons; harnsers is their old Norfolk name. Ted Ellis was often likened to a heron. He had a bit of a long scrawny neck so they say. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why the heron is the Wheatfen logo for the Ted Ellis Trust. We talk about the chemical destruction of the countryside but, certainly in the summer, you stand anywhere on the fen and the buzz from the ground is deafening. The invertebrate life is absolutely phenomenal.
Non-native species at Wheatfen
There are a few species we don’t really want at Wheatfen, particularly mink. They were originally reared for their fur but, of course, people decided it was cruel to keep these animals in captivity. They were let loose and released into the wild by activists. This has been devastating for many species, including water vole. The trapping, removal, or killing of any animal in the UK is always a sensitive subject. Some conservationists say there’s no need to harm anything, others will say ‘Well, it’s all out of balance. We haven’t got wolves so deer numbers are out of control, and they’re grazing woodlands to death. Minks shouldn’t be here, they are here and they’re killing water voles. If we don’t step in we’ll lose some incredibly rare, iconic native species.’ So, unfortunately, we do have to trap mink. We use a live, humane trap. We can then safely dispose of them in a very quick fashion. It’s an animal that can cause a lot of devastation for our native species.
Back in the 60s there were coypu here. Coypu are rodents and look like large rats. They were here before my time, but I’ve read much about them, and they were known for undermining the river bank. They’d burrow in and they’d eat all the roots and tubers of various plants. Interestingly, they’d eat the roots as well as the tuber of cowbane. Should a cow eat this plant; it’s an umbellifer so it looks a bit like a cow parsley if you like, it would kill the cow within an hour, but the coypu loved it, and used to chew on them. This was linked to the decline of this rare fen plant. Luckily, back in the day, in the 60s, a staple dietary food for Ted and Phyllis was coypu casserole. They’d trap them up, knock them on the head, cook ’em up, and they were apparently very tasty. Many people who stayed in the house, with the Ellis’s, enjoyed this delight.
We have a lot of Chinese Water Deer across the site. They shouldn’t really be here; they’re not a true native, although it is said that East Anglia now has more Chinese Water Deer than China itself. So, we have a duty of care to look after them. You do hear lots of different stories about these technically alien species. Some say they perhaps might eat crane’s eggs or bittern’s eggs. I’ve not witnessed it myself. I have witnessed this deer grazing the reed, grazing the vegetation, allowing different flowers to develop and so in a way it’s positively affecting the flora of Wheatfen. So there are pros and cons really, with any of these species.
Ted’s Flora introductions
There’s still a few relics from Ted’s experimenting here. In the 30s he was trying to bring back the large copper butterfly, which was once widespread in the fen, in the Broads. It had long disappeared due to drainage and lack of management and so on. The caterpillars feed on water dock which was plentiful here, but Ted was looking for a late nectar source. It was quite a late summer butterfly, and he decided to plant broad-leaved ragworts, which certainly do not belong in East Anglia at all. It looks like a normal ragwort; it’s a similar flower with lovely yellow flower clusters, but the leaves are broad leaved, and overall very different. Although it’s not native, it still grows, it still flourishes, it doesn’t out compete other plants and so we leave it.
Just behind the house on the bank by Home Marsh are some sand leeks, which Ted brought over from Guernsey. He was born and lived in Guernsey for 10 years. With a lot of these plants, perhaps it was a memory of home, of where he came from, but there was also often a scientific reason behind them, particularly the hemlock water dropwort. This he planted on the fen. It’s another umbellifer, so it has a lovely white flower head, but it’s incredibly toxic. The tubers look like fingered parsnips, and if you wanted to get rid of someone, you could dish up one of them to someone and they’d probably be dead within 10 minutes. Ted studied the fungi that attacked these umbellifers; the seeds, the flowers, the tiny rusts and smuts that other people perhaps wouldn’t think to look at. Tiny, minute fungi species that feed on these other plants.
Ted introduced a lot of these things but they weren’t always invasive. They were controlled experiments. He knew they wouldn’t spread, he knew they wouldn’t cause trouble to other species. It’s nice to keep that story going.
Ted’s wildlife philosophy
Part of his legacy was not tidying up too much, and this links in to a story I was told at college. You often see these beautiful cards, post cards, magazines, with beautiful bluebell woods and there’s not a single bit of wood on the floor, there’s not a twig, it’s just a lovely purple carpet, which is completely not natural. Ted said ‘Nature would leave a wood chaotic, there’d be standing dead trees, lying dead trees, there’d be bushes, there’d be honeysuckle, there’d be bramble, ferns and so on’.
That’s how he wanted the reserve to be managed; he didn’t want it tidied up. So, when you walk round the woodland at Wheatfen it’s very much like that. You see honey fungus killing off large trees quite quickly and you think ‘Well that’s a shame that tree is dying’ but it’s nature; it’s going to be a home for various invertebrates, for owls, for bats and so on.
There’s a big famous beech tree we have down Sluice path. It’s perhaps 300 years old and it’s got a massive ganoderma bracket on the side of it, which is rotting out the tree and killing it off. Ted would have looked at that and said ‘Yes, that’s a natural process. That’s habitat’.
Wheatfen and education
A big part of Ted’s legacy is education. He wanted his research to continue. This covered education for all ages and a big part of my job is leading guided walks around the fen and throughout the year. Some of the walks are aimed at plant identification or mammals, birds, and we do a dawn chorus. It’s always great to have people coming round and sharing the experience, sharing knowledge. I’ve done lots of talks for various naturalist societies going through some of the things I’ve covered earlier and about the management and the future of the fen.
We have a very successful forest school at Wheatfen which is run by Rose Hoare, Ted Ellis’s granddaughter. So it’s still very much in the family, which is fantastic. The kids are about three to seven years old. Once I went to show them some swallowtails and they knew more about butterflies than I did; these very young students, children, so it’s absolutely fantastic. Once Rose asked if they could give me a hand on the fen. I thought I’d cut a bit of reed then get them to rake it all up. I did about half an acre and the kids came along and cleared it up within minutes! Absolutely phenomenal. They got stuck in, they fell in, they all got wet, but they had a great time. And hopefully they learnt a bit about fen management as well.
We get lots Easton college students on their work placements, just as I came many years ago for the Broads Authority, and they come once a week and they do a bit of everything. Over the summer, nesting season of course, we’re not really doing habitat management so they learn about butterfly transects. We’ve also got a very good relationship with the University of East Anglia, and we’ve had several students since I’ve started at Wheatfen. We had great fun setting them trail cameras up around the reserve looking at the water deer, the foxes, the otters and so on. The only problem was, is, I didn’t quite know where the student, Sam, had set all his cameras, so if I was caught short I had to be a bit careful …I don’t think he had any videos of me.
This summer we had another two students, again from the UEA, Suzie and Hamish, and they studied milk parsleys which is the food plant for the swallowtail. Milk parsley is a funny one. If you speak to five different wardens of different fens they’ll tell you various ways to manage for it, and no one really knows. Perhaps it’s something to do with moisture, hydrology, nutrients. They started that research this summer, which will be ongoing into the future. If we know how to get milk parsley to grow, we can plant milk parsley elsewhere. In the face of climate change, in the face of the potential loss of the Broads, we can then perhaps move fenland habitat elsewhere and therefore the swallowtails, and the other associated species.
Climate change and Wheatfen
Two thousand years ago, during the Roman time, the Broads was mainly one big great estuary. Much of the Broads would have been salt water and mud flats. It would have been a fantastic habitat for waders. At the time the sea level was still dropping, and we learned how to drain the land, particularly in the last several hundred years. Because of that we have what we have now – the Broads. Of course, it’s largely man-made, with the peat being dug for the Broads. Internationally, it is incredibly important because of its diverse, unique range of species, and we certainly don’t want to lose it.
A lot of people, when they think of climate change, they think of sea level rise. This would therefore lead to the loss of the Broads as salinity increases, as natural defences like cliffs disappear.
At Wheatfen we’re very lucky to have a couple of scientists, Alice and Andy. Alice is from Royal Holloway University of London, and Andy is from Leeds University. The whole of Wheatfen is now rigged up with data loggers, within the dykes, within the peat, and every 30 they’re minutes measuring salinity, nutrient levels, tide fluctuations and so on; even how the water moves on and off thefen through the peat. So, in 5, 10 15 years’ time perhaps we’ll see an increase in salinity levels. We don’t want to see that of course, because we’ll start to lose a lot of the fen flowers, but at least we will have some concrete data, some science to say this is becoming a problem and we need to do something about it.
The Broads Authority are very much involved in this project, and very keen to get the results, so that they can then shape their future management objectives.
We don’t really know how the Broads might be affected in 50 or 100 years’ time, but we can continue to research what we’ve got at the moment. The more we learn about the Broads, the fens, the habitats, the more we can perhaps recreate these habitats elsewhere. Perhaps we can start looking at stepping reserves back and re-introducing species elsewhere where they once perhaps were, but have been lost. It’s a worrying time, but at least we’re going the right way about it. We’re continuing with the research, trying to get some facts together and monitoring all of our species that at least highlight potential changes.
Future plans for Wheatfen
We’re in the third year of the five year management plan and the successes are tumbling in, mainly because of a fantastic group of volunteers that have been undertaking the work.
A lot of the rare fen flowers that perhaps were just small clumps are spreading elsewhere, so it’d be great to see these plants continuing to spread, to thrive. Things like marsh pea, marsh ferns, milk parsley and so on. If you get the milk parsley to spread hopefully we’ll see the increase of the swallowtail butterflies as well.
Perhaps I don’t have a goal for the individual species, but rather the habitat as a whole. If we can get the health of the habitat to improve, then we will see the increase of those populations anyway.
Will Fitch (b. 1990) talking to WISEArchive on 5th December 2019 at Wheatfen.
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