A recent fieldtrip to Norfolk with a botany group I’m a member of, the Institute for Analytical Plant Illustration (IAPI), was a wonderful way to spend a hot July weekend; poring over plants in the sun and doing sketchbook botanical illustrations on site.
Sketches from Weeting Heath
For more on our first day, a visit to Wicken Fen, please click the link. Our Second day saw us visiting two really interesting Breckland sites, and stumbling across an enormous number of plants there. We were lucky to have members of the Iceni Botanical Artists’ Group with us, who know an enormous amount about the local botany and habitats.
First, we visited NWT Weeting Heath reserve where the visitor centre has a resident swallow nesting just above the tills, and Stone curlews nesting nearby. Reserve Warden James Symmonds took us on a tour of the dry chalky soils, where some unusual and rare plants are found.
Looking at Spiked speedwell Veronica spicata on Weeting Heath nature reserve
James was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and within seconds we’d spotted the locally common Purple Cat’s Tail Phleum phleiodes along with Quaking grass Briza media, Purple milk vetch Astragalus danicus, Wild thyme Thymus vulgaris, Common stalk’s bill Erodium cicutarium, and Weld Reseda luteola.
Purple Cat’s-tail Phleum phleiodes by Iceni Botanical artist Rob Dyke
One very beautiful flower growing in abundance on Weeting Heath is the Maiden’s pink Dianthus deltoids.
Maiden's pink Dianthus deltoids clump (with us botanists behind)
This flower forms bright clumps which make the whole area glow pink. Individual flowers can vary from a shocking magenta to a delicate pale shade.
More photos of Maiden's pink
We saw loads of Ladies’ Bedstraw Galium verum, Ragwort Jacobaea vulgaris complete with Cinnibar moth caterpillars Tyria jacobaeae, Wood sage Teucrium scorodonia, Rare spring sedge Carex ericetorum, and Hare’s foot Trifolium arvense. I recorded more than 40 species in the hour or so we were there, not to mention an endless succession of solitary wasps, Skipper butterflies, Breckland-specific hemipterans lurking under some Stork’s-bill, and the metallic Forester moth Adscita statices.
Forester moth Adscita statices on Scabious flower
Having painted this moth some years ago, on a scabious flower; I was delighted to see the animal posing in the sun at Weeting...on a scabious flower!
The botanical jewel in Weeting’s crown is the rare and stunning Spiked speedwell, Veronica spicata. This gorgeous blue plant was growing in small clumps throughout the reserve, really pretty against the honied yellow of the ladies bedstraw flowers and the Hawksbits.
Spiked speedwell habit on Weeting heath
James told us about the management of this species, how a decline in the rabbit population had led to less intensive grazing which had detrimental effects on this speedwell’s population.
Spiked speedwell Veronica spicata plants
Introducing a “flying flock” of sheep, moved from areas of different nature reserves requiring grazing, had helped this species recover, and the plant is going from strength to strength at Weeting.
Spiked Speedwell Veronica spicata by Isobel Bartholomew (Iceni Botanical Artist)
James explained about exposing areas of soil by stripping off the turf and topsoil, creating Turf-stripped patches. These encourage some of the rarer Breckland species as there’s no competition with grasses, and form part of the Wildlife Trust’s research and management scheme.
James Symmonds (NWT) and Joyce Barras (IAPI) botanising on a stripped turf patch
The next reserve we visited was Cranwich Camp, an unmarked area of chalk-land meadow in amongst heathland and beautiful Scot’s pines, and our guide was one of the Iceni botanical illustrators, Rob Dyke.
Cranwick Camp, complete with botanists.
As we got out of our cars, he pointed out a tiny little plant, found nowhere else in the UK. It’s the un-assuming Proliferous pink Petrorhagia prolifera. Once we got our eye in, this little flower was all over the place. There's some suggestion it may have been brought as seed from Italy in clothing or footwear, Cranwich camp was an Italian prisoner of war camp in the 1940s.
Proliferous pink Petrorhagia prolifera by Christine Grey-Wilson (Iceni Botanical Artist)
This site was also rich with species; I listed more than 35. These included Vipers bugloss Echium vulgare, Small bird’s-foot trefoil Trifolium dubium, Meadow bindweed Convolvulus arvensis, Flixweed Descurainia sophia (nationally scarce), and both the Spiny and common Restharrows Ononis spinose and Ononis repen.
Vipers Bugloss Echium vulgare
We spent a long time figuring out what part of the plant the spines of the Restharrow were (shoot tips we concluded), and I was bowled over by how pretty all the Kidney vetch looked, turning the grassland pale yellow.
Kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria
Another rarity we found was the Spanish Catchfly Silene otitis. This is a spindly looking plant, with different plants bearing the male and female flowers. Some of the specimens we found even had the odd dead insect attached to the sticky stem, verifying the name.
Spanish Catchfly Silene otitis by Jan Toomer (Iceni Botanical Artist)
Along with the plants, the area was alive with insects, loads more Forester moths and lots of Six-spot Burnet moths Zygaena filipendulae.
Six-spot Burnet moth life cycle Zygaena filipendulae
It seemed wrong to head off with the sun beating down, and so many of these tiny and beautiful Breckland plants to examine, but we left newly informed and entirely inspired by the botanical jewels of this corner of Norfolk.
Many thanks are due to Roger Reynolds and Sarah Howard of IAPI for organising the trip, to James Symmonds of Weeting Heath, and to Rob Dyke and Isobel Bartholomew and the Iceni Botanical Artists’ Group.
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