Saturday, 21 March 2020

A small haven amongst the gloom

In these grim times we are being reminded that being in touch with nature is good for us, mentally and physically. Although we are meant to drastically limit our social contacts, and in many cases avoid as far as can be achieved meeting anyone outside our household, we are also advised that a walk in the countryside can be beneficial. With spring properly under way our enforced inactivity provides a good reason to take a stroll across The Common: the chances of coinciding with many other people are slim, and there’s plenty of space for the necessary distance between people if you do happen to meet someone. Please remember to follow the social distancing rules and keep at least 2 metres apart from people outside your own household!

This season is always the best time to appreciate The Common, as it returns to life after a pretty dreary and unusually wet winter. Just today I have seen two hares having a run around (admittedly not on The Common, but in a nearby field), and a rather sluggish Common Lizard (which is better than a shrewish slug) basking on the boardwalk. The vegetation is in overdrive, with Lesser Celandines particularly lovely, and the birdsong is building up day by day. Already the first summer migrants are here: several Chiffchaffs can be heard calling in more of their friends, whilst the resident birds such as Wren, Robin and Song Thrush are in full voice. Despite it all, there is still joy to be had from a lark’s song cascading from a clear blue sky.

Evidence of all this activity can be seen on the whiteboard at the information point at the Lower Street end of the boardwalk. After a couple of months where not much was added, it is filling up again nicely. Recent bird sightings on The Common and nearby include Red Kite, Marsh Harriers seen from Long Lane, Buzzards, Sparrowhawks and Barn Owls. And that’s just the predators! Other notable recently spotted birds are Grey Wagtails, 20 Redwings perhaps on their way to breed in Scandinavia, and a singing Marsh Tit. No doubt plant sightings will soon be added, as they burst into flower, as the Snake’s Head Fritillary has just done.

Without a full description, the sighting of a Dragon might need to be taken with a substantial pinch of salt however!

The recent work to cut the reedbed nearest the Lower Street car park opened up a wonderful view across the site, made even better by the clearing of vegetation hiding The Beck. It will of course grow up again during the year, but it’s well worth admiring before it does.

It is at least fortunate that the cutting programme had finished for the time being, before Norfolk Wildlife Trust wisely decided that all their volunteering activities should cease. Our next work involving groups of people would normally be the Himalayan Balsam control, which last year happened on and off from May to August. It currently seems unlikely that the shackles will be off by May, but no doubt more will emerge on this topic as the Spring turns into Summer.

It won't be long before it looks like this again. So, enjoy The Common responsibly if you are able to, and keep safe and well. 

Friday, 14 February 2020

Dennis the Menace defeats us.

The plan was for a crack squad of dedicated bog snorkellers to venture once more into the swamp that is Area X on Sunday, to further rebuke the spreading scrub and open the place up some more, thus satisfying the fervent wishes of the folk at Natural England. Keen-eyed readers might remember that the working party held two weeks ago was intended to be the last of the current cutting season, but enthusiastic team leaders will not be denied, and plans were laid. However, we all know that the best laid plans can go pear-shaped, and this wild winter has another storm in store. With Dennis predicted to be the bringer of havoc and danger, caution prevailed and the crack squad was stood down. Here is Team Leader Kevin’s message:

“Dear Volunteers
The working party on Sunday 16th February has been cancelled due to the impending wild weather. We do not think it would be either safe or enjoyable and we value your participation in future working parties.

Sadly, there are no more working parties planned until later in the year; however, I am sure you will receive a call in due course to help eradicate the Himalayan Balsam. Until then, on behalf of NWT and the team leaders, thank you once again for all your support and hard work.


An altogether lovelier gathering of the Volunteers occurred on 6th February, when 18 of us formed a convoy to Cley Marshes, where the warden George Baldock took us on a guided tour of this premier wildlife haven. As well as doing a wonderful and demanding job at Cley, George also has the honour of looking after Southrepps Commons, and had invited us along for a spot of non work-related pleasure. And pleasure it was: after a chilly start the sun shone throughout, making us quite warm in all our layers of clothing.

We did a circuit of the original site (there was no time to look at the new section linking it with Salthouse marshes), walking eastwards as far as the East Bank, then down to the beach and back to the road via the beach car park.

We stopped several times for George to explain about how each part is managed, and I think it is fair to say that all of us, including those who knew the place well, gained new knowledge.

And we saw plenty of wildlife along the way, including good numbers of one of your correspondent’s favourite ducks (Wigeon), plenty of Brent Geese, and a very confiding female Stonechat, which gave us excellent views as it perched (out of mobile phone camera range) on top of a selection of gorse bushes. Not to mention starfish.

Here are some more photos from that visit:

Now we have dealt with Valentine’s Day (one of the entirely artificial dates given out as the start of Spring), I think we can say that the season has begun to turn. As Spring turns slowly into Autumn (not my phrase, but Bob Dylan’s), the Commons will again return to life, and all the shades of green imaginable will be on show together once more, beautifully setting off the Cotton Grass, Orchids and the almost 400 other plants so far discovered here. If you don’t already visit regularly, why not make this is the year to start?

And finally for now, on the way back from the last working party, a group of doughty volunteers were snapped having spotted a hole, which they are still looking into.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Return of the Bog Snorkellers

There were no distinguished guests at our working party today, but we still had 18 celebrities: the regular volunteers who turned out in very un-promising grey and drizzly weather. It had rained heavily overnight, after what passes for a dry spell in this wet winter, so the ground was back to being a quagmire.

The cut reeds that had been left awaiting our attention a fortnight ago had become as sodden as the ground, and therefore heavy and unwieldy to pitchfork onto the sheets.

Nonetheless, we all seemed to have fun, due I think to that sense of camaraderie that comes from almost drowning together in liquid mud. No falls were reported this time, although your correspondent was close to tipping over face first into the goo as he bent over a sheet. It would have been hilarious to some, but fortunately my almost Olympic-standard sense of balance thwarted their twisted amusement. At the time, I was at the dump site, in the company of the crack winching team. Here we see the long piece of string connecting sheet to winch. So far away were those sheets that we had to make rare use of an extension rope too – very exciting, to winchers at least!

After we had endured some rain, we cheered ourselves up in the usual way - we had some tea (or coffee, for the more on trend people, tea apparently being out of fashion). Here we see John pensively leaning on his pitchfork, casting a wistful glance at the gathering group.

It struck the said John that the piles of material dumped over the last couple of working parties give a graphic representation of the amount of effort required:

By the end of the session, a wide-open vista, cleared of rotting vegetation, had emerged. Spring is not far off, and in no time at all the reeds will have re-grown. This particular area won’t be cut again for another four years.

It’s funny what you learn when you are up to your necks in muck: Noel confessed that his washing machine is called Bert, and Bert gets a lot of hard work to get through:

The splendid number of volunteers we are blessed with lately allows us to carry out more than one task in a session, and this time a group returned to the Bog Snorkelling paradise known so affectionately as Area X, in order to knock back more of the scrub there. Here are some intrepid volunteers trudging off to that benighted spot.

Julie now takes up the story:

Here is what we faced:

 We set to sawing and lopping the branches - and worse still, the brambles.

Everything was stacked and woven together to form a ‘hedge’ for wildlife to utilise. (John has Scottish heritage, and is clearly considering a spot of caber tossing!)

Kevin said to take a picture of John slashing but I think it looks more like he’s playing hockey!!!

Then it was time to pack up and head off back, leaving lots more to do next time…

Here is Margaret’s message of thanks:

Once again, an enormous thank you to all who turned out today. It started off all mizzley and ended up dry and grey.

The reed that had been left was very wet and heavy and not easy to work with but the clearance is fantastic. The winch team has certainly perfected their art. Make the most of the sight as you will not see it again for four years. Thanks to Ken for replacing the broken board and also to the X rated team who were slashing away in area X.

Kevin has the bit between his teeth as is keen to hold another working party in area X in two weeks’ time. There is absolutely no expectation for people to turn up as I think we have said that this, if not the one before, was the last working party of the season... oops!

The main reason for continuing is that it will clear a good area for dumping next winter’s reeds and it is a job easier done now than later.

Thank you.

I can now go and watch the rugby with a clear conscience. (Shame that didn’t go as well as the working party -Ed)


Sunday, 19 January 2020

Cold wet mud, by George!

Defying the ire of the security services, which seem to think caring for the planet equates to an act of terrorism, a hard-core corps of environmental volunteers emerged from their cosy homes on a chilly-starting but eventually sunny day to frolic in the mud on Southrepps Common. The day before, Radio 4’s ‘Saturday Live’ programme had extolled the delights of working in and/or playing around in mud, which might perhaps have partially explained the excellent turnout of 24 volunteers, including the splendid Ken, another volunteer for NWT, but usually to be found at Cley marshes.

The last working party had left a lot of cut material that there had not been enough time to clear, so those super-keen volunteers had plenty to work on whilst the crack winching and dragsheet team worked out what to do with the long bit of string.

Speaking of the crack team, here they are, hard at it...

Guest starring this time was George, the NWT warden given the task of keeping us in order and up to the mark. He’s already the warden at Cley marshes, which should have stood him in good stead for the challenges posed here. Some 13 of us are looking forward to being given a guided tour of Cley by George in a few weeks’ time. (Incidentally, the visitor for the previous working party was Adam, an academic studying how commons fit into their communities across the world, including some here in Norfolk such as our very own little treasure.) Who might visit us next time?

Anyway, in addition to casting an approving eye over our merry band, George put his chainsaw to good effect, further cutting back the scrub from the edge of the boardwalk. He was assisted in this by some of us: one of the benefits of having so many people is that we can divide our forces.

George’s other splendid contribution was his flapjacks, pounced upon at the break. He looks concerned, as they were his lunch!

Much as we all enjoy pitchforking heavy material onto dragsheets, hauling those dragsheets through cloying mud, and falling over (Julie’s turn this time, sadly no photographic evidence exists), we do enjoy our tea breaks, and come gleefully when the whistle is expertly blown.

By the tea break, the view had opened up considerably, but there was plenty more to do.

After the break, one of the old yellow sheets was broken out, so that a small party led by Julie could drag some of the stuff into the scrub on the other side of the boardwalk.

We noticed several shrews (common shrews we assumed, but now believe to be water shrews) scuttling off to look for somewhere less open to live. They were shrewdly not keen on publicity, but I did manage to get this:

Before we all trudged off home to hot baths, showers and Ibuprofen, we worked on for a few minutes overtime, but decided we could leave the last remnants of cut material for the next session. We felt pretty satisfied with the result, and several people walking the boardwalk agreed. This section is only cut every four years, so enjoy it before it all grows back!


We used to work for Southrepps Commons Trust of course, when the Parish Council owned these commons, but now happily do it for Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Since NWT took on the ownership and management of the site last February:

32 individual volunteers turned up for working parties

627.41 volunteer hours were logged in from February to the end of December 2019, including 367.25 on the SSSI; 41.25 at The Pit; 43.25 repairing the boardwalk and 81 keeping Himalayan Balsam under control.

Alan Marchbank, NWT Volunteer Coordinator has said,
“627 hours is a significant amount of support to the Trust, representing 90 working days. A huge thank you to you and all the volunteers for all you have done and continue to do at Southrepps Commons, it really is hugely appreciated.”

We also record sightings of plants and wildlife in various ways, the latest method being the whiteboard at the Lower Street information point. Since its installation in May 2019, 278 sightings comprising 119 different species were added to the board by anyone visiting who cared to do so.

So far this year, perhaps the most unusual is the Witch’s Butter jelly fungus I found growing on a fallen twig on School Common.

 Here is Team Leader John’s message of thanks for today’s work:

Well, the blast from the past wasn't too bad, I hope.  Since the move to NWT we continue to break records and set precedents, both of which I am proud to have been part of today.  So thank you very much for your contribution, which helped bring the cutting programme to within a whisker of completion in record time.  Margaret will be calling the shots in two weeks time, 2nd February when, barring unforeseen mishaps or calamities, a relatively light session will wrap up this season's work.  Not bad considering the published schedule runs into March.

Thanks again

Kind Regards, John  

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Prize day to start a decade

The first working party of the new year, nay decade, attracted an excellent turnout of 21 volunteers, all keen to work off the excessive consumption of minced pies, turkey and all the trimmings that they had inflicted on themselves over the festive period. Weather-wise it was unremarkable: grey, with the merest hint of light drizzle but crucially no wind to speak of, nor frost. The last time we cut this section was four years ago, and old hands remembered how deeply frozen it was then.

We were working on the section known as Area F, which is the reedbed nearest the car park. The previous day’s pre-cut session had already created a cleared area, so your correspondent was unsure of the need to be there at all. As it turned out, there was plenty left to do.

The day was, as usual, not without incident: not least your correspondent repeatedly stepping into one of the many little streams running across the site en route to The Beck, demonstrating a depressing inability to learn where these hidden traps lay. Firstly, the trolley full of tools fell off the boardwalk… one way to unload it I guess!

Then, then Grizzly sank in the mud and got very stuck...

Luckily the wheelbarrow with the winch got through!!

Once those small tribulations were overcome, the crack team of pitchforkers got forking…

And the crack winch team kept an anxious lookout for sheets to drag…

Luckily, there were soon as many as could be handled…

Tea break came early, when the winch jammed, with the rope getting wound round the drum and proving difficult to free, even with the three finest minds available brought to bear…

So many volunteers had come that there was a glimmer of concern that the supplies might not be sufficient, but all was well and the happy throng was satisfied. See how happy and satisfied they look!

This was the ideal opportunity for certificates of competence to be handed out to recently trained brush cutter operators – just like school prize day, but without the tedious speeches!

Once you are a fully certified brush cutter operator, you can dress up in this very snazzy gear…

That was Brian, hard at work cutting brush. As a result of his efforts, it’s particularly nice for the time being to be able to see Fox’s Beck from the boardwalk.

Volunteers who had joined us in the last four years had not seen this section un-cut and looking like this.

It won’t stay that way for long; the reeds will soon re-grow with their lovely range of shades of green, but for the record, this is how it looks today.

Here is Team Leader Kevin’s message of thanks:

A big thank you goes to all the volunteers (21 in total) who turned out this morning to tackle the reeds in area F which is the area between the Lower Street car park and the container. Despite a slight glitch with the winch the team worked with their usual enthusiasm and vigour and cut and moved way more than we anticipated. Well done everyone.
For those who could not make this morning may we take the opportunity to wish you all best wishes for the New Year and hope to see you at the next working party on 19th January.