West Norfolk probably has as wide a range of habitats as any equivalent area in Britain with the added bonus that they are accessible and all within a few miles of each other.
Scanning the inshore waters of the North Sea often provides a sighting of Common Scoter with rafts sometimes numbered in thousands and for the careful observer there may be a few ‘Velvets’ amongst them. Divers, grebes and auks appear and disappear amongst the waves with frustrating ease with confusion added by the bobbing heads of seals. Terns & gannets may be seen making their characteristic plunges in pursuit of fish.
The north coast is fringed at low tide with extensive sandy beaches some of which, in warm weather, provide a wonderful place for families to sunbathe and picnic. On such occasions after just a short stroll away from the access points you will find the beach largely deserted. A walk along the strand line will provide evidence of the many life forms within the sea. Sea-weeds of course are ever-present and sometimes a leathery ‘Mermaid’s Purse’, the egg-case of ‘dog fish’ or Tope, and after a particular combination of tide and storm, banks containing millions of wrecked razor shells may be found. Ventures into the sea for a closer look at the marine wildlife will be rewarding but need to be undertaken with considerable care as the tidal flows around the sand banks cause strong currents. In winter groups of Sanderling race along the water’s edge and the occasional flock of Snow Buntings feeds toward the back of the beach.
Behind the sandy shoreline there are varying combinations of dunes and marshes. The dunes are particularly fragile and access into them should be limited to those places where it is clearly permitted and attention should be paid to any signs giving guidance or imposing restrictions. The flora and fauna of the dune slacks and the salt and fresh marshes could easily occupy a keen amateur naturalist for a whole season. Green Hairstreak Butterfly, Natterjack Toad and Marsh Helleborine are amongst the many species of the dune slacks.
The saltmarshes are subdivided by muddy tidal creeks occupied by a variety of wading birds now including the snow-white plumaged Little Egrets that are easily spotted in contrast to the cryptically coloured Curlews feeding amongst the flora of the marsh. Depending on the particular location the saltmarsh may be coloured in summer with a crust of Sea Lavender’s purple-pink blossom and the purple flush of Seablight foliage. The unusual Sea Heath forms mats on the dryer parts and on any larger areas of intertidal mud the edible Marsh Samphire grows, often in neat but natural rows.
Large numbers of Wigeon and geese occupy the fresh marshes in winter
The inland boundary of the marsh is sometimes formed with slightly larger areas of brackish or fresh water and beds of phragmites reed. These areas are attractive to wildfowl and provide nesting places for their predator, the Marsh Harrier. As the breeding season approaches a lucky visitor may hear a Bittern booming from the reeds or at the end of the season see dispersing Bearded Tits flash over the reed heads. Around the edges or where the reed is cut short the feathery pink flowers of Ragged Robin will show.
At Holme the north coast bends south-west into the Wash and the marshes and dunes give way to the cliffs of Hunstanton. This brief 1.3 km strip of cliff rises to the modest height of 18 metres and is unusually formed of white chalk over red chalk and carstone. Although only a relatively small area of cliff face exists it provides a breeding place for a small colony of Northern Fulmars. Over the last 100 years or so, erosion has caused the cliff line to recede some 30 metres and the process is continuing. South of Hunstanton the yellow beach sands are briefly overcome by shingle before disappearing into the vast intertidal areas of dark mud and sands of the wash. As the autumn tides rise here, there may be seen some the most dramatic displays of bird activity in the world.
Fenland & Farmland
The great area of farmland within west Norfolk must not be overlooked by any visitor interested in wildlife. Our farmland is composed of many different habitats according to location and season. In the Fens of the south-west the land is flat and the soils very dark, the fields are quite large and their boundaries are formed with ditches rather than hedges. The natural flora present may be limited to the ditches but the avifauna present, particularly in winter, is fairly widespread and will reward a visit. During the day the fields are scattered with groups of Mute Swans and flocks of Bewick and Whooper Swans. The muddy edges of ditches provide feeding grounds for the occasional Common Sandpiper and other waders and those with more water and herbage are frequently occupied by Grey Herons. The larger drains and rivers bear numerous Great Crested Grebes and Dabchicks and provide a hunting place for Kingfishers and on the waters around Denver Sluice you may see Red-breasted Merganser and Goosander.
Much of the water drained from the fens flows into the Old and New Bedford Rivers and in winter the excess water is deliberately flooded onto the intervening grassland forming the Ouse Washes. Where the water recedes sufficiently in summer cattle graze some of the grassland and hay is cropped. The many resident breeding bird species are joined in the winter floods by tens of thousands of wildfowl and waders. Bank, Short-tailed and Water Voles are present in good numbers and nearly half the aquatic plant species of Britain are to be found in the Rivers and ditches.
In the north and central parts of west Norfolk the farmland cloaks low rolling hills, the fields are not overly large and there are many hedgerows and blocks of woodland. The minor roads often have verges up to five metres wide some of which are mowed once or twice a year but many others are allowed to follow nature’s course and as the year progresses these are occupied by increasingly tall flora. In summer these verges are truly alive with insects: Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Painted Lady and Ringlet are amongst the many butterflies commonly seen; a closer look will reveal a variety of hoverflies feeding on the nectar of the umbellifers present. On a sunny afternoon stoats may be seen dashing across these roads often carrying prey and at dusk it is not unusual to find a Barn Owl hunting along the verges. In the autumn a careful look through the hedge into a field may reveal a mixed flock of Lapwing, Golden Plover and Black-headed Gulls and as winter deepens you are likely to find a flock of many thousands of geese, possibly all Pink-footed Geese but always worth checking for a rarer species amongst them. In spring before the crops grow up too high there are many Brown Hares to be seen and still a good number of Grey Partridges. Many field edges boast a red splash of poppies and carpets of poppies measured in acres may still be found.
West Norfolk still retains some important areas of heathland and fortunately substantial parts are contained within the NWT reserves of Roydon Common NNR and East Winch Common. The heaths of west Norfolk together with the associated wet and wooded areas are fascinating places for the all-round naturalist. Although at first glance some appear only to have heather a more careful look will reveal, especially in the damper areas, a much richer flora including Marsh Gentian, Bog Asphodel, Southern Marsh Orchid and sundews. In summer dragonflies abound: hawkers, chasers, skimmers and darters and so of course the Hobby must surely follow. In spring, as dusk closes in, the churring of Nightjars will be heard at Dersingham, Woodcock may be seen displaying and as the light finally fades completely the presence of a glow-worm may be revealed by its white light.
Ancient woodland and parkland
Just inland from the Wash coastline you will find the ancient woodlands of Ken Hill and The Sandringham Estate and rather further east lies Houghton Hall with some 4500 acres of parkland. One may struggle to find truly great trees outside such places. Large mature broad-leafed trees host a multitude of species of invertebrates and so attract many other creatures. Great and Lesser Spotted woodpeckers and Tree Creepers occupy the canopy and where a suitable understorey exists Woodcock nest on the ground below. In autumn these places are rich in fungi.