So much to volunteer for in Norfolk countryside

Whether its coppicing trees in one of Norfolk's nature reserves or dressing in period costume at Blicking Hall, there is no better way to experience something different, get new skills or meet new people than volunteering. MARK NICHOLLS finds out more.

It's a crisp and wintry Sunday morning, the pale rays from the sun are beginning to ease the grip of the sharp overnight frost and in historic woodland in the heart of Norfolk a dedicated group of environmentalists are hard at work.

The sound of sawing, branches snapping, and the light crackle of a fire mix with the social chatter among members of the Norwich Environmental Weekenders (NEWS) group.

With the sky growing heavier as the day goes on, there are flurries of snow but still the historic art of coppicing within this part of Wayland Wood continues.

Coppicing is a typical winter activity for NEWS members and a traditional method of woodland management which sees young tree stems cut down to ground level so in the years that follow new shoots emerge and are allowed to grow for a decade or more before the cycle begins again.

After rendezvousing in Norwich, the group headed out to the area of woodland, which received its first mention in the Domesday Book of 1086, and under the supervision of group organiser Steve Cook set about the day's task to coppice ash and bird cherry beneath a larger canopy of mighty oaks.

Dressed in waterproofs and wellies, and armed with saws and pruning tools and with a packed lunch and a flask of coffee in a bag close by, the group set to work.

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'It is the traditional way of managing woodland and would produce wood for fuel, fencing and building materials in years gone by,' explained Steve.

'Coppicing also lets the light in and allows the flora below, such as bluebells and woodland anemones, to grow again and survive. It also helps create a nesting habitat for birds such as warblers.'

Some of the coppiced wood is carefully burned on a small fire or left in neat bundles for the site managers to deal with but from some reserves, particularly where there is a higher hazel presence, it can be used for river defences or even for the jumps at Fakenham racecourse.

In addition, at least three members of the group — including Steve — have installed wood burners at their homes and use the wood for heating.

Norwich Environmental Weekenders has been in existence since the late 1980s and meets on Sundays to carry out valuable conservation work on some of the most important and attractive nature reserves in Norfolk.

Management work is undertaken in the wetlands, woodlands, heathlands, grasslands and coastal area of Norfolk with the group involved in various practical tasks ranging from scrub cutting and pond clearance to fence construction, reed cutting and footpath maintenance. Most of the sites are run by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the RSPB or Natural England.

Steve said: 'The work is generally organised by the site manager who is usually the reserve warden and they will sometimes be present to supervise an activity.

'We only ever do what we are specifically asked to do because most of the sites have a well-structured management plan.

'We are out every weekend during the winter and probably fortnightly during the spring as that is the bird-nesting season and we do not want to disturb the wildlife.'

The group has 35-40 active members but on a typical week a dozen or more will be involved in a task with the group meeting in Norwich to drive to the site, which could be anywhere in Norfolk, to start work at about 11am and go through until 5pm or until the light fades in winter, with breaks for lunch and hot drinks.

Autumn tends to be the groups busiest time for activities while during the hotter summer months – when several volunteers are on holiday – it tends to slow down a little.

'The only reasons we'd not go out is if the roads are too bad or the snow is too deep to allow us on to a site,' said Steve who works for BT and is joined on the activities by his wife Sara and son Sam, 12.

Within the group, members have a variety of reasons for being active with NEWS. For some who work for conservation organisations, it is an opportunity to keep in contact with what is happening out on the ground, while for others it is more a social activity or an opportunity to simply enjoy the Norfolk countryside as the seasons change.

Steve said: 'I do it because I enjoy doing the work itself and it is great being out in the countryside. I also have an interest in wildlife too but it is also about working with a nice bunch of people. I've known some of them for years so it becomes a bit like a family.'

Elaine Green, who now works for Natural England, has been with the group since she moved to Norfolk in 2001.

'When I first moved to Norfolk, it was a way of getting to know the countryside and learn about the local habitat,' she said. 'Now that I work in conservation, I carry on because this is a good way of seeing what is happening in the countryside. It is also good exercise, a sort of green gym and just a very enjoyable experience.'

Meanwhile, retired factory worker Colin Thompson has been a regular member of NEWS since its early days and has completed more than 600 tasks. 'I like the countryside, I am interested in conservation and this is also about helping to do a bit of good. One of my interests is wild flowers and by doing something like coppicing woodland, that allows the flowers to grow.'

Paul Lynch is a caretaker at Wensum Lodge in Norwich and has been involved in the group for about 20 years.

He has also documented the group's activities with a series of black and white photographs taken in recent months, which featured in an exhibition at Norwich Playhouse in November.

'Having been brought up in the inner city, I love getting out into the natural environment,' he said. 'It has been a great way of enjoying and getting to know the Norfolk countryside. It has also been a great way of getting to know other people.'

For Paul, the friendships he has formed within the group are important, hence the title of his series of photographs Twenty years of Good Company.

Norfolk's flora and fauna is its great natural treasure, spread over varied terrain from areas such as the Broads, the Brecks and the coastline.

While many statutory organisations keep a watchful eye over the management of it, it is work carried out by dedicated conservations such as members of the Norwich Environmental Weekenders, which continues to play a critical role in the upkeep and wellbeing of our county's priceless landscape.

? NEWS is always looking to recruit new members. More details at: