In the half light of a spring dawn a nightjar reaches the end of his singing, his hollow purr stammering out with the coming day. His space in the soundscape is taken by a woodlark, sobbing to the first of the light. Then another sound jars, wiping the woodlark’s voice from the sky: industrial machinery roaring savagely, slicing through the peace of this West Norfolk day.
This is, it may seem surprising, the machinery of conservation. The woodlark and the nightjar are here only because of it, let back onto Grimston Warren by the felling of non-native conifers, by a daring Norfolk Wildlife Trust project to restore what was once, and may come again to be, Norfolk’s finest heath flora.
Grimston Warren, adjacent to NWT’s priceless Roydon Common reserve, was afforested in the 1960s, a tragedy for Norfolk heathland wildlife which was vehemently opposed by Eric Swann, co-author of the 1968 Flora of Norfolk. Some forty years later Muriel Hallatt approached Norfolk Wildlife Trust wishing to purchase a West Norfolk nature reserve in memory of her birdwatching husband Tony. Options by the coast were discussed and rejected until Bill Boyd, Reserves Manager for West Norfolk, hit upon the visionary idea of purchasing 100 acres of Grimston Warren, then for sale, removing non-native conifers, and attempting to restore the county’s most celebrated heathland flora.
Felling began on the Tony Hallatt Memorial Reserve in 1999 and was completed in 2000. Two principles guided the project from the start: that it should be as financially and environmentally sustainable as possible, putting the entire forest product onto the market, and that the soil horizon should be again as it had been in the 1960s, exposing long-dormant seeds of the site’s lost flora.
Amazingly, as soon as there was bare ground heathland birds responded, nightjars and woodlarks moving in to nest while felling continued around them. But the work of restoring this precious heath was far from over with the removal of the trees. The real challenge was to strip away the accumulated debris, the branches and roots, and forty years of accumulated needles. Waste wood, known as lop and top, was sent to the power station at Thetford, which consumed it as fast as it could be harvested. With regard to the litter, ‘the crucial thing,’ says Bill Boyd, ‘was getting the right contractor.’ After some false starts a local man was employed who, with his team, worked seven ten-hour days a week from May to November, stripping the litter and exposing the minute layer of original topsoil and its irreplaceable, decades-old seeds. The litter was sorted and marketed as topsoil improver, meeting NWT’s goal of recycling all of the forest product from the site.
With the trees and litter gone, common heather responded miraculously, its tiny seeds germinating as at last they were exposed to rain and sun. Bill Boyd recalls the return of bog pimpernel to the site’s wet heath, of lesser water plantain, marsh lousewort and two species of sundew, each a victory in the painstaking restoration of Grimston Warren. Water voles came back too, otter spraint was seen, and two of Norfolk’s rarest dragonflies, keeled skimmer and black darter, returned to breed. A heath was dramatically returning to life.
A few years later the western side of Grimston Warren came up for sale and, despite the massive task that had already been undertaken, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and its team of West Norfolk wardens, seized the chance to complete the job. The remaining 170 acres of plantation were purchased, with donations from various sources including, once more, Muriel Hallatt. For a few years nothing was done, until timber prices rose sufficiently to fund the ambitious restoration of this larger area of lost heathland. Felling began in 2008 and was completed in 2009, following the same method with one significant exception. On the first site, known internally as Grimston 1, stumps were pulled from the ground and burned by a highly expert contractor. By the time of the restoration of Grimston 2 burning was prohibited by law, so thousands of stumps were meticulously ground in place. All this effort was aimed at revealing fragile soils and seeds last exposed in the 1960s.
It worked. Grimston Warren is a heath once more today, ablaze with the flowers of common heather and loud with the chacking of stonechats. Mottled grasshoppers buzz from sun-beaten tracks, linnets rattle and it is hard to imagine that in 1999 the soil here still lay shaded, clothed in forty years of conifers and their blanket of fallen needles. Two-legged wardens are now assisted on the heath by many four-legged wardens. Roydon Common and Grimston Warren are home to a large herd of Dartmoor ponies which, natives of another great stretch of rugged heather, are ideally suited to life on Norfolk’s largest heath. They do a fine job of keeping scrubby vegetation at bay and have recently been joined by a small group of British white cattle, purchased from a Norfolk herd established in 1840. Having arisen through ancient forest clearance and subsequent centuries of grazing, heathland vegetation, and the unique fauna which depends on it, are best maintained with the same tools: sturdy, native breeds of livestock.
The rewilding of the Gaywood Valley Living Landscape has not stopped with the two-phase acquisition and restoration of Grimston Warren. In 2009 Norfolk Wildlife Trust purchased four agricultural fields, known as The Delft, which slope gently southwards from the southern boundary of Grimston Warren and drain water from it into the Gaywood. The site had been heavily damaged by agriculture, its waters too deeply drained, its peat lost and its soils burdened with nitrate fertiliser. Undaunted, in 2011 Norfolk Wildlife Trust received a SITA Trust grant to restore natural drainage, and recreate wet and dry heath and acid grassland. Following analysis of soils and water, over-deepened drains were filled, bringing water back to the surface, and two flows, one acidic and one less so, were guided into braided streams. These look natural but in fact they were expertly created by an excavator for the benefit of wildlife. By spring 2013, when the previous autumn’s work was resumed after a very wet winter, heavy machinery was accompanied by lapwings and little ringed plovers which had already moved in to nest. Common heather and the wetland-loving cross-leaved heath were harvested from Roydon Common and seeded across areas where low-nutrient subsoils had been exposed. As on the heaths to the north, Dartmoor ponies were recruited to graze the vegetation and favour the return of heathland wildlife.
The next step in this landscape-scale rewilding was the acquisition of Rising Breck. Though, like the Delft, it has been damaged, this area to the west of Roydon Common is being restored by grazing, to recreate nutrient-poor grassland as habitat for skylark and woodlark, grey partridge and lapwing. Perhaps more importantly, as grassland managed for conservation it will form a buffer, preventing agricultural nutrients blowing on the wind or percolating from surrounding farmland into the internationally important, fragile mires of Roydon Common.
Such bold restoration projects – though already approved by nightjars, woodlarks, keeled skimmers, otters, snipe, grey partridges and people – take many years to complete. Bill Boyd admits be being ‘blown away’ by the return of heathland wildlife to Grimston Warren but there is still much to achieve and the work of rewilding continues, as it will continue on all NWT reserves for as long as rare wildlife needs protection. At Grimston Warren plans include the reintroduction of natterjacks, so their purring calls may again be heard with those of nightjars on warm summer evenings. Here too NWT will work with authorities and with surrounding landowners to deliver the vision of the Gaywood Valley Living Landscape, ensuring it is a landscape in which the drumming of snipe and the swooping breathy whistles of lapwings fill the skies each spring, in which the burble of curlews comes from the wet heath in summer, and in which long into the future people, families, children enjoy these sounds and many more.