At the end of a lane, a cattle grid marks the way onto Wacton Common and here I meet Alice, one of the volunteers for NWT’s Wildlife in Common project. As part of the project, volunteers are visiting their local common every month, observing and recording the wildlife they see, adding to our knowledge of how important common land is for the wildlife of Norfolk.
Wacton is a Claylands common, in the heart of the South Norfolk Claylands Living Landscape and was once, or so I’ve been told, one of the largest commons in Norfolk. On this morning in April, when the wind drives a chill to our bones and the sky is clouded grey, our expectations of what we will find here are, it must be said, low.
The flat expanse of the common offers no break from the wind and the grassland has been agriculturally improved, dominated by grasses that may have been sown, or have been encouraged by fertilisers, while weed killers have removed all but the toughest of the flowering plants, the docks and thistles and the creeping buttercup hunkered into damp hollows. The history of agricultural improvement might date back the Second World War when, along with many commons and meadows in Norfolk, Wacton Common was ploughed as part of the drive to produce more food.
Despite the lack of wild flowers, we hear, through lulls in the breeze, the clear song of a skylark rising and the chatter of yellowhammers. A flock of fieldfares rise and fall around an ash tree; these must, we think, be the last of these birds, stopping off at the common on their journey back north for the summer. Crows tumble on the wind, then twist mid air to mob a solitary buzzard.
Tucked in the corner of the common, a small pond hides in a tangle of willows. Alice writes down the names of the plants we find here: brooklime and water mint, water forget-me-not, yellow flag, lesser water parsnip and the dried flower spike of last summer’s water plantain. On the bank a single pale flower of lady’s smock. I search the plants that grow in the clear water for signs of great crested newts laying eggs, looking for leaves folded neatly in half, concealing an egg, but none are obvious today.
We follow a track to the south, where the verges hold remnants of the flora that probably once covered the whole of the common. Cowslips huddled on the banks of a ditch; the winter-brown stalks of knapweed rattle in the wind above the first fresh leaves of yarrow, cinquefoil and vetch. Ground ivy creeps on the edge of the track with a riot of purple flowers.
Across the centre of the common, a curious J-shaped ditch looks recently dug, narrow, straight-sided and supporting few plants except a carpet of jointed rush in the puddles at its base. A larger ditch forms the eastern edge of the common and we wonder if this is the old, stock proof boundary of the common, now half-concealed by a thick hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn still white with blossom. Dog’s mercury carpets the base of the hedge, a clue that this hedge has been here a long time; beyond it, the ditch has reedmace and willows standing in water. As we look at the ditch and hedge, considering both history and plants, we catch the garlic and musk scent of a fox.
Back at the cattle grid, Alice and I arrange to meet again in a month. By then the fieldfares will be long gone, but the swallows and swifts will be back and the hawthorn heavy with white, scented blossom. We talk of identifying the different species of willows, once they have leaves to look at and of surveying for reptiles. All of these records are important, revealing the history of the common; its changing landscape and species, helping us understand not just this place, but what it shares with the other commons in Norfolk.
Helen Baczkowska is a Conservation Officer at NWT.
[Header image by Guy Edwardes/2020VISION]