I recently went on a botany fieldtrip to Norfolk with the Institute for Analytical Plant Illustration (IAPI) and it was a fabulous way to spend a sunny July weekend, and to discover a whole new area of Britain.
Our first day was an exploration of Wicken Fen, a gorgeous nature reserve full of fenland species, peat, wind pumps and dragonflies, run by the National Trust. Please click the link to hear about our exploration of Breckland rare plants on the second day of our trip.
Old wind pump, now used to pump water into rather than out of Wicken Fen
We had a guided tour from the reserve manager, Sarah Smith. She told us about the history of the reserve (some of it has been managed by the National Trust since 1899), current management including the efforts to prevent erosion of peat and degredation of habitats, how wind-pumps are now used to bring water into the area rather than to drain it, and the 100 year plan for the future, “Wicken Fen Vision”. This is as ambitious as it is exciting, with a possible 5000 hectares of fenland being managed by the National Trust by 2099. The aim is both to protect existing peatland and to preserve a swathe of it for the future, to allow the ecosystems a chance at being resilient to changes that climate change and the future will bring.
Modern windpump at Wicken Fen
Peat has been lost from the area at an alarming rate, once it dries out it simply blows away in the wind (“Peat blow”), and Sarah estimates that 6ft of peat is lost every 70 years. In some areas there’s only 30 or 40cm of peat left, and in other places nearby there’s none at all, just the chalky soil below. In the 1850s a forward thinking person put “Home Post” into an area of “The Great Fen” (a nearby nature reserve), flush with the ground. Now this post stands a good 18ft proud of the peat level, showing the speed of erosion due to drainage and drying out thanks to agricultural use having lowered the level of the water table.
The National Trust uses grazing management, water conservation, judicious plant clearing, and liasons with the local farming community to help enact its vision. We really got the feeling this was a habitat full of hope, and that the future of the fens seemed bright.
The plants in evidence on site were varied and wonderful; we spotted reeds, hemp agrimony, Spearwort, St John’s wort, Silver weed, Waterlilies, Knapweed, Betony, Yellow rattle, Purple loosestrife, and there were big clumps of the Great fen sedge, Cladium mariscum.
Great fen sedge, Cladium mariscum
In one channel we saw lots of Butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris, the first time I’d seen it growing in the wild.
Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris
A boat trip along the clay-bottomed channel of the Lode was a real treat, with sedges and reeds hanging over, and damsel and dragonflies flitting alongside.
Boat trip along the Lode in Wicken Fen
We saw Keeled skimmers, Brown hawker, Banded demoiselle, Broad bodied skimmers along with loads of butterflies like the Peacock butterfly and Small tortoiseshell.
Keeled Skimmer dragonfly Orthetrum coerulescens
Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator
After the boat trip, we were treated to a talk about Breckland species and habitats by the active and inspiring Iceni Botanical Artists’ Group
Isobel Bartholomew told us about their project; illustrating 45 of the rarer Breckland plant species, and brought along many of the original artworks for us to examine.
Isobel Bartholomew of Iceni Botanical Artists discussing their book on Breckland plant species
There was a vast range of species illustrated, from grasses to speedweils, and a fascinating variety of illustrative styles too. They’ve all been put into one well-produced book, and we were able to buy ourselves copies. If you would like a copy, please follow directions on Iceni’s web page.
Gorse Ulex europaeus and Broom Cytisus scoparius by Isobel Bartholomew, Iceni Botanical Artist
Viper’s bugloss Echium vulgare by Jo Kjaer, Iceni Botanical Artist
With the marsh harriers overhead, dragonflies and butterflies throughout, hot sun, an abundance of plants, and fascinating talks; coupled with poring over botanical illustration originals and the wonderful boat trip; it has to be said the first day of our Norfolk Botany field trip was a massive success.
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