It was a wet morning, torrential rain hammering down from leaden clouds scudding across a May sky, whipped ever onwards by a fresh westerly breeze. Returning to our cars we contemplated our next move.

‘It does look brighter over there’ quipped one optimistic soul and we all looked and convinced ourselves that this was so.

An early lunch then, followed by a walk across the common….if the promise of brighter weather bore fruit. And luckily it did allowing us to amble across Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s well managed New Buckenham Common in a window of brightness surrounded by a dark frame of gloom.

Here we celebrated the wealth of wild flowers on show; stands of cowslips, red campion, greater stitchwort and

Green-winged orchid, photo by David North

meadow saxifrage. Vetch, trefoil and clover. A lesser whitethroat clattered its song from a stand of hawthorn, common whitethroats, blackcaps and a songthrush produced a musical serenade, whilst orange tip and peacock butterflies went in search of nectar or a mate.

But our real purpose here was to seek out a special plant, a plant dependent upon this habitat being cared for and more importantly undisturbed by ploughing, over grazing, or being smothered in chemicals. In short a plant that loves to be left alone; the green-winged orchid.

This common, like many others around the county contains a variety of micro habitats: higher, drier areas good for many wildflowers; sunken pits where ponds, some temporary, are formed; stands of native scrub where May blossom gives off its heady sweet fragrance; open bare ground beloved by basking butterflies, ants and beetles and some marginal tall grassland, meadow like and full of life.

It doesn’t happen by accident and it never did. In past times the rights of Commoners to graze livestock, collect fallen or easily accessible timber (hence the saying ‘by hook or by crook’), cut turfs or dig for marl or sand created these differing habitats, a mosaic rich in wildlife and cared for by the people whose very livelihood depended upon such areas existing.  Rights are still exercised on some Norfolk commons, usually for grazing with livestock, whilst some are

Cattle grazing, New Buckenham Common, photo by Charles Oxley

managed by conservation bodies and local councils, without whom they would quickly scrub over and be lost.  Beyond the common land nature reserves, NWT provides advice to the managers of commons on County Wildlife Sites and through and Wildlife in Common.

We headed for a likely looking area of short grass on relatively dry ground and were soon rewarded with the sight of a few orchids. We counted a dozen flowing spikes but then saw a few more, then another cluster and more still until we were amidst hundreds of delicate purple blooms. Crouching down and getting close we could see how the orchid got its name; the green veins on the hood of the flower giving an impression of a coloured ‘wing’. Such a beautiful plant and well worth an earlier soaking.    

There are more than twenty orchid species occurring in Norfolk. Some are widespread and common, others are very rare; all are very selective in where they choose to live, take several years to flower, can be unpredictable in their appearance and need unpolluted, well managed habitat to survive. Their seeds are very small and do not have large reserves of food so they need help in the form of minute fungi to assist germination.

That said there are certain areas that come up trumps every season: New Buckenham Common being one such site. There are others: the NWT reserves in the Broads where orchids of damper ground can be found such as common spotted orchid, the marsh orchids, common twayblade and the rare and elusive fen orchid. Coastal commons can be good for bee orchid.

And all orchids are beautiful. If you are lucky enough to find one take time to get close and look carefully at the flowers. They really do resemble such things as butterflies, bees, little men and ladies. It’s all about reproduction of course with the flowers designed to attract certain insects to pollinate them.

Celebrate orchids and all wild things. Cherish our commons and wild spaces. Help to maintain them by joining your local wildlife trust or by taking part in our surveys. Above all just enjoy the free splendour that nature puts on show.
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