Volunteer Spotlight: the Southrepps volunteer group

Blog post by Guest blog on 19 Sep, 2023
This week we're shining a spotlight on the Southrepps volunteer group. The following blog has been written collaborately by them!

The village of Southrepps is situated mid-way between Cromer and North Walsham and is blessed with not just one, but five commons, covering about 12 hectares in total. They passed into the ownership of the Parish Council in 1990, with a group of volunteers looking after them. From 2005 they were managed on behalf of the Council by the Southrepps Commons Trust, which by then had a small army of local volunteers to call on. In 2019 ownership and management of the commons passed to Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which also added us to their growing number of volunteers. So, we’re volunteers for NWT these days, specifically working on our local NWT reserve.

Our main common is a SSSI of about six hectares. The original citation when this was declared said,

“Southrepps Common is situated in the upper valley of the River Ant and supports a variety of damp grassland and calcareous valley fen types. Such undrained river valley sites are now uncommon throughout much of Norfolk, and this site supports very local fen communities largely restricted to East Anglia.”

It goes on to mention its designation for two species of fly whose larvae are parasitic on snails: probably no-one working on the site has ever knowingly seen them! We are therefore subject to strict requirements for its management; in particular maintaining the unusual plant communities on the site, and stopping encroachment of reed & willow scrub into the calcareous valley fen areas. This occupies most of our volunteering effort. Between August and March we have fortnightly work parties to cut and remove reeds and other vegetation from across the site.

                                           
                                                                       One of the groups' work sessions

We have the use of a mower, and the cut vegetation is then loaded onto tarpaulins, which are then dragged to a convenient dumping site at the edge of the area being cut.

This used to be done manually, and it was very hard work, but for the last 10 years we have been lucky enough to have a petrol-powered winch to do the dragging, with just a couple of people needed to escort it.

                                           
                                           
                                                The petrol powered winch and volunteers dragging the tarp

One of the hallmarks of our group has been the willingness to adapt our ways of working: before the advent of the winch we used a beautiful cart built by the Trust’s Secretary and later Chairman John Houlgate, who was awarded the British Empire Medal in recognition of his contribution to conservation locally.

                                           
                                                                       The cart built by John Houlgate

We take the work seriously and we do work hard: sometimes it’s uncomfortably warm, sometimes bitterly cold, and often the ground is very muddy, but the work parties are also enjoyable social occasions, and many village friendships have started from meeting like-minded pitchfork-wielding people! We restrict the work parties to two hours, with a break for refreshments half-way through; these are always very welcome and convivial affairs.

                                            
                                                                    Volunteers enjoying their tea break!

Another major job, towards the end of summer, invariably providing hot work amongst nettles, bindweed and thistles, is the constant battle to keep the spread of Himalayan Balsam in check. We have a lovely stream running through the main common, called Fox’s Beck, and this is used by this deceptively nice-looking but wretched invader as a conduit through which to spread its malign influence. It seems impossible to completely eliminate it, but a surprisingly high number of people turn out each year for several sessions to pull as much up as we can. Once it has grown quite tall it has thick hollow stems, and the “thwock” sound it makes when you snap it is very satisfying! There is always keen competition to see who can remove the tallest plant, but no prizes; only the undoubted glory.

                                            
                                                          A volunteer posing beside tall Himalayan Balsam 

Although the SSSI takes the majority of our efforts, the other commons also get a look-in, particularly Pit Common, with its pond, which has sadly become inundated by another pernicious invader, New Zealand Pygmyweed (Crassula helmsii.) On the positive side however, an exciting recent development inaugurated by NWT has been the conversion of part of this common to a wildflower-rich area. It’s still in its early days, but it is looking promising.

                                            

As well as the land management aspect, other volunteering work includes comprehensive botanical surveying (we have recorded around 500 plant species), the passing on to NWT of wildlife sightings noted on the whiteboard at the Information Point at the start of the boardwalk across the main common, maintenance of that boardwalk (an increasingly frequent necessity unfortunately), and fixed-point photography to help NWT monitor how the commons are changing over the years. Although we obviously don’t keep a record of people’s ages, our group ranges from people in their second decade to their eighth! In 2022, 35 individuals volunteered, putting in a combined 683 hours. 16 work parties (with an average of 16 attendees) accounted for 496 of those hours, with a further 25 hours spent on Himalayan Balsam control.

We work directly for NWT under the direction of George Baldock (who also has the small matter of Cley Marshes to look after), but how we organise ourselves is left to us. We’re no longer a separate body, but for the sake of keeping a local community feel, which we believe helps with recruitment and retention of the all-important volunteer work-force, we call ourselves the Southrepps Commons Volunteers. Several people have stepped up to be Team Leaders, and they schedule the work sessions, take charge of the work on the ground, and keep George informed of progress and what other help might be needed from NWT.

When it’s particularly cold, or boggy, or the material to be mowed and moved is especially heavy, it’s not unknown for us to question why we do it. And then we remember; it’s to keep areas like this in good order…

                                           

… for the benefit of special plants like these, and all their attendant wildlife.

                                           
                                                                        ​Fragrant orchid by Sue Shaw

We have a blog of our own, mainly providing a light-hearted and extensively illustrated report of each work party, but also including notable wildlife sightings, and the occasional reading recommendation. We hope it gives a good impression of what we do, and the fun we have doing it: it can be found at:
https://southreppscommonsvolunteers.blogspot.com/

For more detailed information about the five commons and their history, see:
https://www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife-in-norfolk/commons/southrepps-common
 
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