Eric's crusade to protect Norfolk's wildlife

Stephen PullingerLooking through binoculars from a hide at Strumpshaw Fen, Eric Wilkinson becomes instantly animated at the sight of otters flitting in and out of a distant reedbed.Stephen Pullinger

Looking through binoculars from a hide at Strumpshaw Fen, Eric Wilkinson becomes instantly animated at the sight of otters flitting in and out of a distant reedbed.

Having reached 90 years, his passion for nature's wonders has not waned in the slightest from his childhood days of chasing corncrakes and tickling trout.

Decades before it became fashionable, the former train driver was already deeply concerned by the bleak outlook for wildlife and eager to play his own small part in protecting the planet by planting thousands of trees near his home in Hillcrest, Chedgrave, near Loddon.

And to celebrate entering his 10th decade as an active conservationist, he yesterday joined RSPB wardens for a walk in glorious sunshine round the reserve near Norwich - and added his signature to the charity's Letter to the Future.

The election time appeal to politicians calls on the next government to resist the temptation of making financial cuts that will have an adverse impact on the environment.

It states: 'Today there's still time to save nature. I want governments to invest in a healthy economy and a healthy environment. As well as protecting jobs, I want them to tackle climate change and to protect our seas, countryside and wildlife.'

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Eric, who still leads a Wednesday walkers group on rambles of up to five miles around beauty spots in Norfolk and Suffolk, said: 'Nature and wildlife is the most essential thing to us humans. Looking after birds and animals, and looking after our farmland should be important to us, or we are all in trouble. That is why I am signing the RSPB's Letter to the Future.'

He recalled that as a child growing up near Shirebrook, in Derbyshire, the call of corncrakes was a familiar sound on farmland, 'something that you could only dream of today'.

'We used to run after them and caught one once and put it in a pen in the garden,' he said. 'They were so common that Mrs Beeton even had a recipe for them in her cookery book.'

Eric, a member of the RSPB for 35 years, remembers other carefree childhood days tickling trout.

'You used to have lie very still and keep your hand in the water so long it went numb. And then you'd feel the tickle and could grab it,' he said.

His interest in wildlife endured through a 50-year career on the railway, working as an engine driver and inspector, but it was when he moved with his late wife and fellow wildlife champion Renee to Alpington, near Loddon, in 1976 that he began to make his mark as a conservationist locally.

Eric, who moved to his present home in 1983, has been a South Norfolk Council volunteer tree warden for Chedgrave and Sisland Carr for 20 years and is passionate about the role.

'If we don't catch up with planting we could be devoid of trees. In my time as a tree warden I have planted miles of hedgerows and thousands of trees from wild pear, oak and hornbeam - one of my favourites - to bird cherry,' he said.

Hundreds of people have enjoyed his walking and birdwatching expeditions, inspired by the Loddon and Chedgrave Society, and he even hosted a ramble for 37 people on the day he celebrated his 90th birthday in February.

'The reason I am still doing all right is that I keep my legs going by walking two or three times a week, so I won't be stopping,' he said.

Agnes Rothon, from the RSPB, said: 'We need as many people as we can to sign the letter. People like Eric can prove what we have lost but also show us how we can help stop that process. I for one want my son to see house sparrows and bluebell woods as he grows up.'

Do you have an environment story for the Evening News? Call reporter Tara Greaves on 01603 772446 or email