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Exploring Norwich's newest nature reserve

PUBLISHED: 09:22 30 January 2012

Kevin Hart, reserves manager for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, at Thorpe Marshes.

Kevin Hart, reserves manager for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, at Thorpe Marshes.

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It is the county's newest broad and lies at the heart of Norfolk Wildlife Trust's first 'urban' nature reserve. STEVE SNELLING explores the natural wonder close to home that is Thorpe Marshes.

The sky’s pink blush is fast fading but lingers long enough to cast a beguiling sheen across the darkening broad. A chill breeze shakes skeletal branches and combs coarse marshes sodden with water. In the dying light of a winter’s afternoon, there is about this place a raw, almost eerie, beauty.

Beyond broad dykes brimming with water and teeming with plant life you could be forgiven for thinking yourself lost in some wetland wilderness faraway from modern life.

It’s hard to imagine these saturated acres just a few years ago when industrial-scale quarrying transfigured an age-old pastoral scene.

Harder still to credit that this bewitching landscape is barely five-minute walk away from an escarpment studded with hundreds of homes and a short bus ride from the throbbing heart of Norwich.

Of course, the clues are there, albeit half-hidden by a natural screen of distant vegetation. Look one way and you can just pick out the towering tip of Thorpe’s parish church peeping above twilight-darkened trees. Turn around and you’ll notice fragments of buildings that mark the beginning of Broadland Business Park Continued on page 20 Continued from page 15

fringing an invisible Dussindale with its sprawling maze of cul-de-sacs.

Listen and you’ll hear the swish of traffic competing with the cawing of gulls and the gusting wind as it hums a constant refrain.

Yet it is hard to shake those initial impressions. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s first ‘urban’ nature reserve seems something of a misnomer, a trade description wonderfully at odds with reality. And therein lies its essential appeal and particular charm.

Thorpe Marshes, more than any other Broads’ nature reserve, represents a rare, wildlife-rich piece of protected countryside that’s not merely close to home for thousands of urbanites but spread out before them — in their own backyard.

Kevin Hart is in no doubt about the reserve’s special qualities. “It’s fantastic,” he says in the course of a leisurely guided tour. “You can get out on to the marshes, walk around the broad and get close to the river and it feels as though you’re in the middle of the countryside. You could have driven for an hour to find a similar kind of setting and yet it’s right on Norwich’s doorstep.”

As warden for the trust’s latest addition to its impressive list of wildlife havens, Kevin fairly oozes enthusiasm for the place. “The reserve’s proximity to so many people is important, but it’s not the only thing that makes Thorpe Marshes such an exceptional site.

“There’s a wonderful range of species and rare species at that. As well as a good population of water vole, the dykes are floristically incredibly rich which tells you all you need to know about the quality of the water. They are packed with water soldier and that, in turn, has helped the Norfolk Hawker, a rare and iconic species of dragonfly, to flourish.

“And then there are the marshes themselves. They’ve been grazed for such a long time that there’s a diversity in the sward that you only get from not having artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides put on the land. It means you have all the natural building blocks from which everything else grows and it’s all within easy walking distance of thousands of people’s homes.

“Norwich is so lucky to have it and the wildlife trust is very lucky to be in a position to maintain it and not so much improve it, as it’s already a lovely environment, but to ensure that no harm comes to this habitat and that the management of it is appropriate for the species that exist here.”

Just what form that care and control will take is as yet unclear. These are early days for Kevin and Thorpe Marshes. The site, dominated by the broad that grew out of a Lafarge gravel quarry, was only leased to the trust by Crown Point Estate in the summer, just a matter of months after Kevin joined the trust with responsibility for managing 5,000 acres spread across nine Broads’ reserves. “Hopefully,” he says, “it’ll be a case of us growing together. We both more or less started with the trust at the same time, so we’ll be developing as we go along and as I get to know more about this and all the other reserves I am fortunate to work on.

“The next few years will be really interesting, learning more about what’s actually here and getting to know the site more intimately.”

A Norfolk man born and bred he had previously been working with an environmental children’s charity at Whitwell, educating youngsters about the countryside and the wild world. Such goals bear a striking similarity to the aims currently being pursued at Thorpe Marshes, only here the focus is not simply on involving children but an entire community.

As well as a series of educational initiatives with local schools, a host of nature workshops are being planned and volunteers recruited to assist in managing the site and recording the myriad species that thrive there.

Jerry Kinsley, the reserve’s recently appointed community officer, hopes that local people will act as the trust’s ‘eyes and ears’, not only identifying potential problems but reporting wildlife sightings that will help shape the site’s management.

Broader appeal, however, brings with it potential problems. And its unusual proximity to such a large conurbation means that Thorpe Marshes, more than most nature reserves, will have to strike a careful balance between people and wildlife.

Just a stone’s throw away from Whitlingham Country Park and its people-focused leisure activities, Norfolk’s newest ‘urban’ reserve may share a common history that owes much to gravel workings but is poles apart in its ideals and priorities.

“As our name suggests, our main interest is conserving and making sure wildlife can survive,” says Kevin, “but this site gives us a special opportunity. We want to encourage more people to visit Thorpe Marshes to enjoy the species and the habitats that are there and it’s up to us to get the balance right.

“Obviously, visitors do put a certain amount of pressure on places such as this, but then there are also certain invasive species which can put pressure on native species. It’s all about managing these things.

“There may be times when we will need to restrict access to certain areas at certain times. For example, there’s a possibility we could get ground nesting birds such as terns settling here on the shingle banks and if that is the case we would have a responsibility to protect them. But we also want to maintain and increase the number of people coming out here to explore and to enjoy free access to this wonderful piece of countryside.”

And there is, indeed, much to enjoy. At different times of the year you might chance upon kingfishers and otters, orange tip butterflies and reed buntings or even Chinese water deer and the occasional elusive Cetti’s warbler.

In the course of my wintry walk such delights were unsurprisingly noticeable only by their absence, but that hardly mattered. The bird-freckled broad with its ring of dykes and watery marshes casts a serenely hypnotic spell all of its own.

Kevin was clearly hooked by it long ago. As we squelch along paths slippery with mud, he revels in the natural wonders that abound in and around the gin-clear water.

And as we walk and talk I can’t help wonder whether he has any particular favourite aspects of the reserve. The light has all but vanished, swallowed by the oncoming night, but the vision burns bright.

“When you can walk out and watch cattle standing there with Norfolk Hawkers flying up and down beside them and hear the plop of a water vole disappearing into a dyke, I have to say that ticks a lot of boxes. And all of that within walking distance of the centre of Norwich…”

■ Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Thorpe Marshes reserve can be accessed via a footbridge over the railway line off Yarmouth Road opposite Thunder Lane. Parking is limited and dogs are allowed but should be kept on leads to avoid disturbing livestock and breeding birds.

■ If you are interested in volunteering or would like to know more details about future events and workshops, contact community officer Jerry Kinsley on 01603 625540.

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