At the heart of the Hickling Living Landscape is NWT Hickling Broad
. This important reserve contains 600 hectares of open water, reedbed, fen, grazing marsh and woodland, and has excellent visitor facilities.
The largest of the Broads, Hickling is a year-round haven for wildlife. It's easy to spend a day walking around its boardwalk trails or, in summer, gently whiling away a couple of hours while taking in the Broad's hidden corners on one of NWT's electric boat tours.
Between late May and early July adult swallowtails – the UK's largest butterfly – emerge from their food plant, milk parsley, to provide one of Norfolk's iconic wildlife spectacles. Swallowtails are an unmistakeable sight with their scaly mixture of yellow and black colouring. They have a distinctive red spot (and a row of blue markings) at the lower edge of their wings. The large caterpillars are lime green with black stripes.
Also present is the Norfolk hawker. One of only two brown-coloured hawker species found in the UK, the best way to tell this large dragonfly from the similar brown hawker is by its bright green eyes, paler body and clear wings. The species is confined to the Broads, though hopefully does seem to be expanding its range. Another interesting insect is the fen mason-wasp. In 2010, a large colony of this little-known species was discovered at Hickling; remarkably, the colony is thought to contain around a third of the known Western European population.
Although numerous plants and invertebrates occur, the Upper Thurne Living Landscape is probably best known for its impressive birdlife. For instance, the Hickling area is home to almost the entire British crane population of around 50 birds (the first pair arrived in 1979). Undoubtedly the best place to see them is from the Stubb Mill viewing platform; a number of cranes usually fly into the reeds here around dusk each evening to roost during the winter months. Standing 1.2m (4ft) tall, these impressive birds give a haunting, bugle-like call as they drop from the near-darkness.
Stubb Mill also hosts a magnificent roost of winter raptors, with counts of almost a hundred marsh harriers recorded, as well as small numbers of merlins and hen harriers.
Hickling also has a fantastic historic pedigree in relation to the bittern: in 1911 the naturalist Emma Turner found a nesting pair of bitterns in the site's extensive reedbeds – the first confirmation that this secretive species had bred in the UK since 1886. A famous iconic photo of the downy chick was taken to mark the event. More than a century on and the species is doing well in the Upper Thurne, though visitors are still far more likely to hear the strange, booming call of the male during spring, than actually see this cryptically-plumaged member of the heron family.