In 2016 Norfolk Wildlife Trust turns 90. Throughout the year, in celebration of our anniversary, we will publish a series of articles on the history of NWT. In this first, somewhat surprisingly we look to the future, to a vision for the recovery of our landscape and wildlife. In 2016 all 47 Wildlife Trusts in the UK are engaged in this ambitious vision known as A Living Landscape. It is a rescue plan which will again render the whole landscape healthy habitat for people and wild species, through collaboration between environmental organisations, authorities, landowners and the community. It is connected conservation, reaching beyond isolated nature reserves, into towns, cities, gardens and farms, into everyday lives across Norfolk.

Dr Sydney Long, founder of Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Despite its novelty and its daring, the roots of A Living Landscape are clearly to be found in the earliest records of NWT’s ambitions for wildlife conservation in the county. On 6 March 1926 435 acres of marsh at Cley, including a building plot, were bought by a group of twelve gentlemen subscribers led by Dr Sydney Long. Cley Marshes had long been famous for its birdlife and, in a meeting the following week at the George Hotel in Cley, the group agreed to create a trust and give the marshes to it, to be preserved, in Sydney Long’s words, ‘as a bird-breeding sanctuary for all time’ (Eastern Daily Press, 15 November 1926). This was Norfolk Naturalists Trust, now known as Norfolk Wildlife Trust. This date was significant not only because Cley’s habitats and wildlife were preserved; the foundation of a trust to own and protect them was also the start of the county Wildlife Trusts movement.  

From its earliest days, Norfolk Naturalists Trust was not content with owning and managing Cley Marshes. Its founders had a vision for wildlife conservation in the county which was prescient of our vision for A Living Landscape today. This is illustrated by more of Sydney Long’s words in the Eastern Daily Press in 1926, ‘[…] one is anxious to preserve for future generations areas of marsh, heath, woods and undrained fenland (of which there still remain a few acres in the county) with their natural wealth of flora and fauna.’ Thus, under Dr Long’s stewardship, and with the help of dynamic and generous supporters, NNT began a bold series of land acquisitions, including many of the most significant wildlife sites in Norfolk.

These same sites lie at the core of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s vision for A Living Landscape today. To make A Living Landscape a realistic goal, each Wildlife Trust has identified Living Landscape areas in which connected conservation may most meaningfully be delivered. In Norfolk we have identified eight such areas. They include the Bure Valley Living Landscape in the Broads, home of swallowtail butterflies, Norfolk hawker dragonflies and rare herb-rich fens; the Brecks Living Landscape  which supports spotted flycatchers, threatened plants including spiked speedwell and maiden pink, and a nationally important population of stone curlews; and the Cley to Salthouse Living Landscape  in North Norfolk, with Sydney Long’s Cley Marshes at its heart and with marsh harriers and woodlarks displaying in its skies.

The germ of these Living Landscape project areas – clusters of nature reserves connected across the landscape – has been at the heart of NWT’s work since its foundation. From its earliest days NWT has striven to secure precious fragments of habitat in an increasingly developed Norfolk and to connect nature reserves to maintain thriving landscapes. On 28 July 1930 The Times recorded NNT’s acquisition of Alderfen Broad, in today’s Bure Valley Living Landscape, to protect its breeding and wintering waterfowl, its fen flora and its swallowtail butterflies: ‘It is hoped that in time the area held by the Trust may be extended to include more of the marshes of this valley, so that the permanent preservation also of the rare marsh plants may be secured. It is the aim of

[…] one is anxious to preserve for future generations areas of marsh, heath, woods and undrained fenland (of which there still remain a few acres in the county) with their natural wealth of flora and fauna.

Dr Sydney Long
the Norfolk Trust to seize any opportunity for securing properties which are typical of the natural conditions of the county.’   

In 2012, more than 80 years after Sydney Long and his fellows founded NNT, the last major piece of coastal land in the new Cley to Salthouse Living Landscape came up for sale. With its greatest ever support from members and the public, NWT acted swiftly to buy it, completing, with the purchase of these 147 acres, eight kilometres of protected coastal marshes and honouring Sydney Long’s vision in 1926 of a protected landscape for common terns, common seals, brown hares, grey partridges, bearded tits and countless other species.
The second key strand of our vision for of A Living Landscape is community commitment to wildlife and conservation. Concurrently with the land purchase at Cley, with key support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, NWT raised funds to build the Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education Centre, making the wildlife of the Cley to Salthouse Living Landscape accessible to many thousands of people through events, workshops, films and lectures, in line with Sydney Long’s prophetic vision of future generations of Norfolk people at the heart of wildlife conservation in the county. Already the Aspinall Centre is a valuable resource for education, welcoming families, dedicated naturalists and visitors to the coast. Indeed all of our Living Landscape areas have sparked community involvement with volunteer conservation teams active in the Bure and Gaywood Valleys, education volunteers working in the Upper Thurne and along the Cley to Salthouse coast, and volunteer wildlife surveys taking place across the county.

Marsh harrier, photo by Jo Reeve

In 2016 NWT reaches the 90th anniversary of its commitment to the conservation of Norfolk’s wildlife: a commitment expressed in land acquisition, advocacy, education, habitat restoration and a passionate belief that the wildlife of Norfolk deserves a healthy landscape in which to thrive and that the people of Norfolk deserve the same. All that NWT has dared to achieve in 90 years and plans yet to achieve through our vision of A Living Landscape is prophetically summarised by Sir William Beach Thomas in an article in The Spectator on 27 June 1931: ‘Of all the schemes and ideas for preserving the animals and flowers – and, indeed, scenery of England – I know none that seems to me more quietly effective, if I may say so, more humane, than those put into practice and fostered by the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust. What it has done, and hopes to do, is of interest far outside the bounds of the county; has, indeed, found support from overseas as well as from many parts of Britain.

‘Characteristic areas – the Cley Marshes, Alderfen fen, the Starch grass marsh – have been acquired by acts of great faith and daring, for they were bought […] before the money for the purchase was in sight. By no means all of it is even yet in sight. These places, we may hope, are only a beginning.’

For us at NWT these places, these 90 years, are indeed only a beginning. Through our vision for A Living Landscape, on our nature reserves, in our visitor centres and at our events we invite you to join us for the next 90 years of saving Norfolk’s wildlife.
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