If a sound can have colour, a piercing whistle over water in the Broads is blue: a light-bending neon blue, and an intense orange-tan. For this is the call of the kingfisher. In summer at Ranworth Broad, or along the boardwalk at Cockshoot, there are often kingfishers to be seen, that half-seeing, half-hearing awareness of blue as this heaven-shard bird goes by. There are otters too, slipping through the roots of waterside alders, and sedge warblers purring and chirping for their second broods. In the quiet reeds the lime-and-black caterpillars of swallowtails chomp the summer through and overhead go green-veined whites, looking for wild cabbages on which to lay the eggs which will become next spring’s emergent adults.

This cycle, these sounds and sights, the wind-waving stands of purple loosestrife and the buzz of white-tailed bumblebees on hogweed: they all belong to the Bure Valley Living Landscape, one of eight projects in Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s delivery of A Living Landscape.

Common tern with fish, photo by David Savory

This bright future for wildlife and landscape conservation in Norfolk has its roots, of course, in the past. In its early years Norfolk Naturalists Trust (now Norfolk Wildlife Trust) was as committed to the acquisition and protection of our county’s key sites for wildlife as it remains today. In the Bure Valley Living Landscape, which covers the lower valleys of the Bure and Ant Rivers, several treasured sites were acquired many decades ago, gifted by owners committed to the preservation of the area’s unique character and wildlife. In this way in 1945 much of Barton Broad was donated by Captain B. Wilson.

Then in 1949 two of the finest Broadland reserves were donated through the munificence of Lieut.-Col. H. J. Cator. On 22 March the Eastern Daily Press reported, ‘Ranworth and Cockshoot Broads, well known as sanctuaries for wildfowl, have been presented to the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust by Lieut.-Col. H. J. Cator as permanent nature reserves. […] In all nearly 500 acres have been made over to the Trust. Of this area, Ranworth Inner Broad covers some 120 acres and Cockshoot Broad 11 acres.’ It went on to record that, ‘The Ranworth Marshes appear to be the headquarters of the black variety of the swallowtail butterfly, and the neighbourhood is also particularly noted for breeding duck.’

The minutes of the NNT Council meeting on 16 October 1948 reveal more details of Lieut.-Col. Cator’s generosity and the character of the man. Apart from preserving His Majesty The King’s right to shoot over these Broads on one day of his choosing each year, he was anxious that no shooting be permitted (a remarkable stipulation at the time) and that the public should be granted access only in row boats and only from February to October, outside the roosting period for winter waterfowl. In addition he modestly requested that, ‘in order to keep it absolutely quiet as little publicity as possible should be given to his gift.’ The Council moved to make the Colonel an honorary life member and elect him to its membership as soon as a vacancy occurred. His gift and his vision were honoured the following spring in an article in the Observer on 10 April 1949 by the acclaimed war correspondent Sir William Beach Thomas, ‘The owners of this archipelago of small broads have for the most part kept them as true sanctuaries and spent much of their interest on preservation.’

Do you think we could persuade The Patron to open the Broadland Conservation Centre during Jubilee Year?

Anne Mackintosh
Soon however the ingress of the public to these Broads, even outside the waterfowl season, was found to be a problem. In the Council meeting held on 29 July 1949, ‘Colonel Cator reported that the pair of the common terns which nested in the hulk of an old wherry on the Broad have been robbed again just as the eggs were on the point of hatching.’ This was the second such occurrence of the summer and prompted the Council to close the Broad to the public for the rest of the season. The following year in the Report of the Council came happier news, ‘Common terns again returned to Ranworth Broad to breed and three pairs were successful in rearing young. Bearded tits were seen during the winter for the first time for several years, probably some of the stock from Hickling.’

Thus it was that Ranworth and Cockshoot Broads, with the fens and carr woods around them, came into Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s care. Ever since, marsh tits have sneezed undisturbed in the reserves’ alders and willows, water voles have nibbled by their dykes, and fen orchids have bloomed in quiet patches of marsh away from the public eye. These are precious sites at the heart of our vision for A Living Landscape in the Bure Valley.

In 1976 Norfolk Naturalists Trust turned fifty and, in celebration, the innovative floating Broads Wildlife Centre (as it is now known) was inaugurated. At the time the Secretary of NNT (equivalent to today’s Chief Executive) was Group Captain G. R. ‘Monty’ Montgomery. In the 1976 Annual Report, Anne Mackintosh, wife of then NNT Chairman Ian Mackintosh, wrote that two years previously Monty had casually remarked, ‘Do you think we could persuade The Patron to open the Broadland Conservation Centre during Jubilee Year?'

HRH The Queen, Patron of Norfolk Wildlife Trust visits Ranworth

So it was that on 25 November 1976 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II came to Ranworth to open the Broads Wildlife Centre and was ferried from Horning by river. In her article Anne Mackintosh recalls: ‘Preparations for the journey aboard ‘The Albert’ from Horning to the Conservation Centre and luncheon at The Old House, Ranworth, were nearing completion when the Trust learned that Her Majesty would be accompanied by Prince Philip. What was correct flag etiquette on board ‘The Albert’ in these circumstances? A call from HMY ‘Britannia’ established that a Royal Standard, of the size used on the Royal Barge, should be flown, with the Trust emblem displayed at the bow of the vessel.’

The Duke of Edinburgh’s humour is recalled in her article too. Speaking to Philip Wayre, co-founder with his wife Jeanne of the Otter Trust, Prince Philip wrily and accurately commented on his bandaged hand, ‘An otter, I presume.’ The Queen was given a watercolour by Jack Harrison, artist and for some fifty years illustrator of NNT’s Christmas cards, who himself was presented to Her Majesty. Prince Philip received a leather-bound edition of the Jubilee book ‘Nature in Norfolk – a Heritage in Trust’. He queried with a smile, ‘Is our part of Norfolk in it?’

Closing her article on the royal visit in the 1976 Annual Report Anne Mackintosh notes, ‘Such events do not just happen. Their success is a result of the teamwork of a great many people, blending their efforts in a harmonious way. We are grateful to all who helped the Trust in organising this visit of our Patron and Prince Philip.’ This same message pertains today. Norfolk Wildlife Trust has achieved much in the Bure Valley Living Landscape and plans to achieve much more, for otters, for Norfolk hawkers, for Cetti’s warblers, for Desmoulin’s whorl snail and for every species, including people, which lives in the landscape.

To do so, however, we depend on the generosity of Norfolk’s people. Some have given us priceless nature reserves and others have donated to appeals. Many support us by renewing their membership every year. At the start of our second 90 years of advocacy for nature in Norfolk we are grateful to everyone who has contributed to our work in the Bure Valley Living Landscape and across the county.
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