Nature’s bounty was much in evidence when I made an early autumn visit to Thompson Common.

Birch polypore at Thompson Water, photo by Maureen Campbell

Scrub laden with berries was attracting roving birds, fungi pushed up through the grass, and dragonflies darted over the pingos – hollows left by glacial action which have turned into ponds.

As well as its 400 pingos, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) nature reserve near Watton is renowned as a haven for wildlife, including otters, deer, dragonflies and damselflies, 25 species of butterfly, and rare plants such as water violets and marsh orchids.

In fact, I discovered from chatting to Reserves Manager Jon Preston and the NWT’s Head of Nature Reserves John Milton that Thompson is one of the trust’s most diverse nature reserves.

On land next to the reserve I could see a survey under way and they told me it is preparatory work for a major scheme to protect and improve Thompson Common. The survey may lead to the uncovering of some of Norfolk’s lost pingos.

The special habitats at Thompson have been affected for some years by an intensive pig farm operation at the neighbouring Watering Farm. Nutrients from the farm have flowed into the 6.5-hectare Thompson Water, causing an over-abundance of water soldier plants, upsetting the ecology of the lake. Contaminated water has also affected some of the pingos.

Last year, Norfolk Wildlife Trust was able to buy the 23-hectare Watering Farm, aided by an anonymous donation, and begin planning for a remarkable restoration project which will bring multiple benefits to the reserve.  

John Milton told me: “Once we purchased the site, we created a detailed plan for its restoration – a restoration which is particularly ambitious. Although it is great to buy a piece of land as a buffer, we felt we had to take advantage of it and maximise its wildlife potential.”

Thompson Water photo by Steve Cox

Norfolk Wildlife Trust looked at several options and came up with a scheme which has won financial backing from the Biffa Award Landfill Communities Fund and Anglian Water’s Flourishing Environment Fund.

Nutrient analysis on the surface and beneath the former farmland was carried out which has informed the decision to deep-plough the land, which has a temporary cover of rye grass, turning the soil to a depth of one metre, burying high-nutrient soil and bringing less rich soil to the top.  

John said: “Bringing the nutrient-poorer soil to the top should kick-start a programme of recovery which ultimately, perhaps a decade from now, will lead to a species-rich grassland.”

Ploughing is getting under way this month now that a search for ‘ghost pingos’ has been carried out on the Watering Farm land by experts from University College London. Early indications from their topographical survey for depressions in the land suggest there may be 25 hidden pingos.  

“A lot of these pingos won’t feature on even the oldest maps, having been ploughed out over centuries,” said John. “The idea is to identify these ghost pingos which we will leave unploughed, investigate further their potential and re-excavate to their original profiles in the future, subject to further funding.”

The Watering Farm land will be turned over to grazing by Longhorn or British White cattle next year or the year after. It is hoped that eventually the deep ploughed area of farmland will turn into a suitable habitat for woodlarks and stone curlews.

An added benefit of the scheme is that it provides an essential link in a corridor for wildlife between Thompson Common, the Stanford Training Area – a huge area of heath used for army training – and fen at Cranberry Rough.

Reserves Manager Jon Preston said the project also includes clearing some of the scrub from pingos on the reserve, with the extra light helping to increase their biodiversity.  

He added: “The Brecks has areas of incredibly good wildlife habitat but others of really intensive farming. It is wonderful to take something which has been effectively destroyed by intensive agriculture over the years and, we hope, bring it back to being part of the unique Brecks habitat.

“These habitats don’t exist anywhere else in the world and we are really privileged to have so many good bits left that the trust looks after.”  

Steve Cox is volunteering for Norfolk Wildlife Trust one day a week for six months on a secondment from his employer, John Lewis.
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