My earliest encounters with wildlife were on the few hectares of common land I now live near. Here, as a child, I first saw a drifting barn owl, a grass snake swimming in a pond and taught myself the names of the wild plants that I found.

Grass snake swimming across a pond, photo by Peter Dent

As I discovered back then, common land in Norfolk is often a place where people walk, enjoy encounters with wildlife and seek solace or solitude. It is with all these in mind, that Norfolk Wildlife Trust working in partnership with Norfolk County Council and University of East Anglia has launched Wildlife in Common, a two-year project funded by the National Lottery through a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant, with additional support from Essex & Suffolk Water Branch Out fund.

During the project, thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, Norfolk Wildlife Trust volunteers will collect wildlife records on commons, allowing us to truly evaluate the importance of these places for wildlife. Through the project, help will be on hand for communities taking practical action to protect and conserve commons, whilst events involving schools, artists and museums will raise the profile of common land across Norfolk.

There are more than 300 commons in Norfolk, ranging from tiny fragments to several hectares, such as NWT’s nature reserve at New Buckenham Common, where the wealth of wildlife includes meadow saxifrage, green winged orchids and great crested newts. Common land is found throughout the County, but especially in the ancient landscapes of South Norfolk, parts of North Norfolk and on the Fen edge. Commons are also found close to towns, such as Neatherd Moor in East Dereham, where cattle were once grazed before market. Old maps and records reveal that at one time around twenty-five percent of Norfolk was probably common land.

Meadow Saxifrage, photo by David North

This shrunk dramatically as piecemeal enclosure gathered pace in the 1700s, when advances in farming methods allowed the profitable cultivation of more marginal land. As the large commons were enclosed, fragments of some were retained as “poors land” or “fuel allotments”, where rights to cut firewood were granted, or leased to raise money for the parish poor. Although not strictly common land, these are often the last relics of much larger commons, so some will be included in the Wildlife in Common project.

Over spring and summer, Wildlife in Common will work with volunteer surveyors to collect wildlife records on commons. Volunteers will be offered training and support through the project and will no doubt discover a wealth of wildlife on Norfolk commons, from widespread species such as meadow buttercup and blackbirds, to specialised species from butterflies to bees.

A major element of this project will be to support communities in researching the history of their common. This will involve collaboration with the University of Anglia and the Norfolk Record Office at Norfolk County Council. Hopefully this will help us understand more about the role of commons in the past and the pivotal role they have played over many centuries. The history of individual commons is often unrecorded, although they can contain archaeological features from burial mounds to wartime pill boxes; I can recall goats and cattle grazing on Norfolk commons and even these recent memories help us build up a picture of common land heritage.

We would love to hear from individuals or community groups in Norfolk who have a particular interest in the history or wildlife of their local common. Contact the project at [email protected]

A final exciting element of the project is the potential to explore the creation of new commons for the future. These would be largely informal open spaces with wildlife habitats, used for walking and enjoying wildlife. However, NWT will also look at the possibilities for establishing new common rights, perhaps in the form of community orchards or coppice woodlands, allowing residents to have a real stake in the land. This is a bold step and an innovative approach to public open space that has not yet been explored in Britain.

Wildlife in Common is being launched just as winter seems to finally be over. As well as waiting for the warmer days to come, I am also looking forward to seeing the results of the research and surveys on commons across Norfolk and finding out more about these fascinating places.
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