Thorpe Marshes in the 1960s

Blog post by Chris Durdin on 09 Jan, 2018
John Rushmer, now aged 93, farmed what is now NWT Thorpe Marshes in the 1960s. His memories were crystal clear when I went to see him to pick his brains about the recent history of my local nature reserve.

As a tenant elsewhere of landowners Crown Point Estate, John was offered the chance to put the unmanaged ‘Whitlingham Marshes’, as he knew them, into productive grazing. They were a mix of willowherb, sedge and other rough vegetation, plus reed in one corner, he remembers: much as for some of the ungrazed areas now.

The NWT’s British White cattle grazed Thorpe Marshes in 2017 (Chris Durdin)

Pochard in flight over the Broad, photo by David Savory

He surveyed the ditches and organised their restoration, essentially the existing ditch network plus continuations into what is now the gravel pit, St Andrew’s Broad. A diesel drainage pump was installed adjacent to the existing tidal flap and the pump ran through the summer months. Summer water levels would therefore have been lower than today’s more natural levels.

There was a curious accident from that. The drainage pump’s inlet pipe in a ditch was raised when need be by a pulley set on a wooden tripod. One of the legs of that tripod took root and accounts for the poplar tree near the tidal flap.

All of Thorpe Marshes was ploughed, turned over a foot deep. Then it was disced, rolled and seeded, mostly rye grass plus some white clover and cocksfoot grass. That surprised me: the rich mix of marshland plants when I first knew the site in the 1980s suggested to me that the marshes near the railway line had never been ploughed. Some nitrogen was applied to ‘improve’ the sward; however, John told me, no herbicides were used. That must have helped grazing marsh plants to reappear later. Added to that, the RSPB’s restoration project at Lakenheath Fen showed how resilient a marshland seedbank can be if the right conditions are restored, in that case to fields that held poplar trees and later went under arable cultivation, including carrots.

The NWT’s British White cattle grazed Thorpe Marshes in 2017 (Chris Durdin)

The NWT’s British White cattle grazed Thorpe Marshes in 2017 (Chris Durdin)

From 1961, 80-100 Friesian cows were on Thorpe Marshes from May to September. These were all for milking, which was done with a mobile unit called a milking bail, sited for the summer on a concrete pad that remains in place.

I have been used to older, traditional breeds for the grazing of the marshes. I told John about the Lincoln Reds, Red Polls, Dexters and British Whites there in recent years. Friesians have a reputation of being less robust.

Were Friesians OK, “on that rough old marsh?” I asked.

“It wasn’t rough when we farmed it. Not a weed to be seen,” John said.

The Friesians were there until about 1969. Flooding and waterlogging meant the initial flush of good grass didn’t last. From about 1970 to 1975 there was grazing with mixed or beef cattle on site, allowing a little over a decade for a natural recovery to the conditions I discovered when I moved to the area in 1987.

In today’s terms, ploughing of marshland would certainly be regarded as environmentally damaging. That doesn’t mean I am judging John harshly: his initiative then was of its time. What we learn from these snippets of local history is that nature can be remarkably good at recovery, given the right conditions.

Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks here
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