Rodger was a motor engineer who became interested in wildlife in the 1990s and worked with young people through the RSPB’s Wildlife Explorers and outreach at Strumpshaw and Wheatfen, and across the marshes. He believes going into the education side of wildlife actually educated him more than anything else!
I was born in 1946 in Hellesdon, near where Norwich Airport is today. It was totally different back then. Our back garden was just off the Cromer road and it looked straight out onto cornfields. As a youngster of eight and nine I was allowed to go out and play on the waste ground around where I lived. We had this little special place not far from the airport that we called the Dip. It was a big old clay pit that was no longer used, and we used spend hours down there playing, making dens, and in wintertime, when the snow came, there was a big slope so we used to go sledging.
Early opinions on wildlife
At this time, I was not particularly into wildlife. I did like watching the birds in the garden and we fed them. I used to take notice of what was going on around me. The only bird book I had was the Observers Book of Birds which was then called the Book of Birds. I remember looking at a picture of a magpie in the book and wishing that I could see one but we never did see magpies. My mum always liked to feed the birds and watch them in the garden and did encourage us to look after them.
My friends weren’t really into wildlife either. But if we did go across to Great Yarmouth, on the train, I was always interested to see if I could find a heron or something on the marshes.
I went to Heather Avenue Primary School and Hellesdon Secondary Modern School. I liked woodwork, history and geography. I also liked gardening and kids used to come from all over to help out in the school garden.
I left school when I was fifteen in 1961.
My first job was with the Kenning Motor Group as an apprentice auto-electrician. When I was fifteen, I had to do a year’s probation before they signed me on to do a five year apprenticeship. Before the apprenticeship, I had a proper aptitude test which was quite difficult and different to the GCSE requirements they have today.
I finished my apprenticeship at 21 and I continued to work for the Kenning Motor Group until around 1972-73. I then went to work in a scrap yard as a mechanic.
Working life in motor engineering
The scrap yard job was with the Thompson Brothers in Costessey. Actually, that happened to be opposite where I live now, but they did move later to Longwater Gravel.
I worked there for quite a while. They put me through my HGV class one driving test because I used to work on big trucks.
A job then came up for a driver so I thought I’d apply for it. I fancied a change, and I wanted to get out of the muck, the oil and the cold, especially in the winter. I drove for them for about two or three years and it was a good life but I found it was quite boring, so I then got a job at Ford and Slaters, a Leyland dealer in Norwich and worked there from 1978 until 1991 when I was made redundant. Then I was out of work for three months.
I was getting interested in wildlife then, in 1991 and was debating whether or not to go for a wildlife job. I applied to Mike Blackburn, the warden at Strumpshaw Fen. For an internship and he said, ‘Yes you can do that’. I worked out I could live for approximately about 12 months with the redundancy money. But I had two children at school at the time, and he could not guarantee me a job in the area. I decided that I’d best go back to what I know and keep wildlife as a hobby and enjoy it that way.
I went to Jim Russell Commercial and it was a sound job. I was working in Mercedes Benz trucks then in October 1991. I worked for them for about four or five years until they were taken over by Orwell trucks, based in Ipswich. I worked for them until I retired in 2011.
Young Ornithologists’ Club
Throughout my life, I was involved with Wildlife Explorers, the YOC, the Young Ornithologists’ Club, which was part of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) youth movement. Later, the RSPB changed the name to the Wildlife Explorers. They wanted to lose the emphasis on birds because that put off so many children.
In 2006 I took over the leadership of the Wildlife Explorers, and I was leader there until just after I retired.
The children varied in age and were anything from six, and the oldest should have been 14, but there were one or two that wanted to stay on older than that, and if they were okay with the other children I let them stay.
A few parents came along, and I think the parents actually enjoyed the days out just as much as the children did.
At the YOC, we did field trips. I took children to near enough every RSPB reserve in Norfolk and some of the Wildlife Trust sites, and a few other sites all the way around Norfolk. We had one trip out to Breydon Water in the winter time; there was actually snow on the ground but there was good attendance. The boat could hold 12. We had to do two trips because there were too many children for the boat!
The Wildlife Explorers paid for the sessions. Only the children that could were charged a pound a session, because I thought it should be open to everyone not just to people with plenty of money. We didn’t used to spend a lot because we were based at Whitlingham Country Park and they were good to us and they never charged us to use the facilities there. We also had good support from the RSPB Norwich members’ group.
I then moved from there, with the group, to Strumpshaw Fen. The biggest trouble with Whitlingham was that we had was you got a lot of people wanting to know what we were doing when we went out pond-dipping or walking. Dog walkers would let their dogs off the leads which caused problems with some children. So, I decided we’d better move away from there and go to Strumpshaw.
We didn’t provide transport; the children had to find their own way there, and to be honest we didn’t have enough money to fund a bus.
After I retired, I kept it going for a while but I found that I didn’t really want to be tied down to every second or third Saturday running the group. I thought that as I organised the group, as the leader, I should actually be there and I shouldn’t leave it to someone else.
Activities at the club and star students
At the club we did tree planting, nest-box building, and bird watching, but bird-watching is a bit hard going with a group of 10 to 15 kids; they liked the practical stuff. We used to go out and study stuff like ponds and pond-dipping and we’d go into the woods.
We studied trees and all sorts of different things. We’d go out into the meadow and study the ground.
Some of them did go on to study or work in wildlife. One young lady came in as a 12-13 year old and left before when she was 14, but she went on to go to university and study zoology, ecology – a masters in ecology – and between the two courses, she actually came over to Strumpshaw Fen as an intern for three months one summer.
I was really pleased with that. Another young lad (but he’s probably in his thirties or maybe a bit older) was a member of the group and he volunteers over at Strumpshaw Fen on a regular basis, once a week, at the reception.
My daughter Carly used to go when she was about eight years old. She used to be a junior leader there but she found that she had too much studying to do for her O-Levels. Later on she went back to the group when I had nothing to do with it at all and she rejoined as a leader. She encouraged me to go back to being leader because I had got involved with the Wildlife Explorers at the YOC.
Wheatfen is south-east of Norwich in the Yare Valley, with the River Yare which goes out to Great Yarmouth. It’s about four or five miles from Norwich and about 20 miles from Great Yarmouth and it’s a tidal river at that point, as it is in Norwich.
I first heard about Wheatfen by listening to Radio Norfolk. Keith Skipper always used to have Phyllis Ellis on one of his programmes once a week and it always fascinated me. She was asking for volunteers and I thought, ‘I quite fancy that, I’ll go over and have a look’, and I’ve been doing that for twenty-five years plus now. I was actually looking at the volunteers’ book and I think my first entry in there was January 1991.
When I first went there, Wheatfen was quite a jungle. Ted had died and Phyllis had set up the trust with a group of friends using the land she had inherited from Ted.
Ted had let it revert to woodland. He was a bit of a wildlife expert and a scientist and he was doing an experiment to see what would happen and how quickly. This happened across the whole of the site, which is probably about 80-odd acres.
The dykes and the tides
There was still a lot of open fen with overgrown reed beds. They put some old radiators as bridges across the dykes (or what was left of them), so there were no real bridges. The reed had grown across the dykes, and so you had to be very careful where you walked because you could be on the path one minute, and the next minute, if you walked off the wrong way, you could be up to neck in the dyke.
The dykes are about 5-6 feet wide, and you can’t step over most of them. Back in the day they were used for drainage more than they are today.
Phyllis wanted us to go over there to help get the site ready safely for the public to walk in. She wanted the public to see the wildness at Wheatfen. We did some work but just enough so that people could get in and walk around safely. Then, in 1991, Anneka Rice came in with her group as part of Challenge Anneka and they laid this massive boardwalk and put a bird hide, or thatch as Phyllis insisted on calling it, onto it. It’s still there now, but it’s due for some repairs now. The boardwalk is made of wood and Wheatfen is obviously a wet place so it’s starting to rot.
At the moment the trustees and the warden are trying to get a grant to replace the boardwalk. They’re looking into either using wood or re-formed plastic but I don’t think they’re keen on the re-formed plastic because of the micro-plastic bead thing.
At the moment the tides are so high that sometimes they have to shut the reserve because you can’t get on it. There’s no actual flood barrier between the river and the reserve, so when it’s high tide, the water comes in and just sits there. If we don’t get too bad a bad high tide it runs off into the dykes and all drains back into the river.
The tides aren’t having an effect on the wildlife in the river at the moment, but they are frightened that it might. They’ve just had a study done on the milk parsley (the food plant of the Norfolk swallowtail butterfly) which is tolerant of a little bit of brackish water. So, they’re a bit worried, if the milk parsley perishes the butterfly may too.
To check for salt in the water we’ve got meters set up in a lot of the dykes. They’re electronic and they read the salinity, the height of the tides and all the other information needed.
Wildlife at Wheatfen
I was there recently and we happened to catch a Chinese water deer munching its way through the reeds. We get a few muntjac deer as well. They don’t really do a lot of harm and are normally found in the woods and around the periphery of the fen.
The rarer species at Wheatfen are the marsh harrier, the otter, swallowtail butterfly, Norfolk hawker, dragonfly and, of late, we’ve got the willow emerald damsel fly. There’s also some rare plants like marsh pea and marsh thistle. There’s one beetle in particular, galeruca laticollis, and Wheatfen is the only place in the UK that it’s found.
The marsh harrier has expanded its range since I first went there, and we also have the bittern. That’s due firstly to the management across the river at Strumpshaw Fen and secondly the management at Wheatfen. A lot of the marshes and reed beds at Wheatfen are totally inaccessible to the public so no one walks anywhere near some parts. If we think the marsh harrier or the bittern might be nesting on the site then we stay well away from the area.
I was talking to a lady at the office at Strumpshaw and they were then starting up a new field teaching session for schools. I said I’d like to join if that were possible, and she said ‘well just make sure you commit yourself to at least one or two days a week’. I agreed to that and so I worked with a lady called Lee Cousins, the head wildlife teacher, and I am still working with her doing field teaching today (not at Strumpshaw Fen but field teaching out at the Fairhaven Water Garden). We did lots of practical stuff at Strumpshaw; we did pond-dipping, we did bug-hunting, we went into the meadow, did meadow-sweeping, and talking about habitats; what was there and why it was there.
At the moment I’m working with the RSPB, but they don’t do very much teaching on-site at Strumpshaw Fen.
Working and volunteering at Wheatfen
I still work there now on the conservation side once a month. We are after new volunteers because, like myself, a lot of the volunteers who were originally there are getting old, and we aren’t quite as active as we used to be so we’d like some young blood in. We do have one young lady aged 17 volunteering; she’s there studying for A-Levels. Myself and another chap are two of the oldest and we’re in our seventies.
We do a real variety of work at Wheatfen as volunteers. Originally the work was mainly clearing some of the marsh and building bridges. When I first went there we didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so some of the bridges we built were quite ‘Heath Robinson’. We used to cut down a couple of ash trees, drop them across the dyke, get hold of a load of cut up hazel, put them across the river and nail them to the bridges. We put a piece of wire netting on and that was our bridge. If we didn’t peg them down, when the tide came in, they would float away. We still cut the marsh on an annual basis because we want the flora and fauna to come through and if you left it as it is with the nutrients from the river you’d finish up with a full reedbed and stinging nettles.
Wheatfen and Strumpshaw
Wheatfen and Strumpshaw are opposite each other on either side of the river. I’d say Wheatfen is slightly less managed than Strumpshaw. The new warden we have at Wheatfen, Will Fitch, has taken the reins up and he’s trying a few experimental fen cuts to see what happens. We’ve just removed 2.2 hectares of woodland which used to be fenland. I think it used to be 30% woodland at Wheatfen and 70% fen, and now that’s reversed the other way around due to Ted’s policy of neglect. It takes a lot of manpower to clear them and the site conditions are absolutely terrible.
Since I’ve been at Wheatfen, which was more or less from the start of the trust, they’ve had three wardens. The first one insisted on traditional methods, like using scythes and dyke cutters and manual labour.
The next warden was David Nobbs who was there for twenty-five years until two or three years ago when he retired at 66. We then got our new warden whose name is Will Fitch who is in his twenties. A new broom coming in.
I got involved with the Mills and Marshes Project through a lady called Claire Whitelegg. We’ve been going into schools and giving about three different lessons. The schools are all in Norfolk. I’ve been as far afield as Old Buckenham and Hemsby; quite a good spread.
The children are enthusiastic. One of the first ones I did was the ‘Big Garden Bird Watch’, which is part of the broader picture of the RSPB. We did the ‘Big School Bird Watch’. We’d go into the schools and encourage the kids to watch at home.
Another project where we went out to the schools was ‘Give Nature a Home’. We’d give a little presentation and walk around the school grounds to see how they could help nature by putting bird boxes in trees, bird-feeders, ponds, wild flower gardens, to encourage wildlife into their school grounds.
Finally, we did another project called ‘Bio-blitz’, which covered anything that was in the natural world; biologically alive rather than stones. We had this sheet to take around with them to tick off what they saw and then go back to the classroom for a plenary and talk about what we did and what they saw.
If anyone wants to get involved they can get in touch with Claire Whitelegg at the RSPB regional office.
I’ve also been involved with STEM outreach – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. I’ve been into several schools. I used to go in Mousehold Infant School in Norwich twice a year, once to do Bio-Blitz. The second time, I used to do three classes in a day with 90 kids and we’d be dissecting owl pellets all day. It was great, the kids loved it, and they sent me loads of little cards saying thank you and all the rest of it, so it really was enjoyable.
Fairhaven is owned by the Fairhaven Historic Ornamental Water Gardens Trust. It’s not a wildlife site as such, it’s not a nature reserve. It’s more an ornamental water garden. It has got quite a lot of plants and trees though. At Fairhaven we’re doing a lot of the same activities we’re doing at Strumpshaw Fen. We’re in the process of trying to find a place to put a new pond in to do pond-dipping.
Meeting other wildlife enthusiasts
I’ve met Mike Blackburn. He was a nice chap and I got on well with him. I also knew Chris Durdin. He was Head of Education when I started with the Wildlife Explorers, the YOC in those days.
I’ve also worked with Ian Barr from UEA. We did some bird ringing working with the Wildlife Explorers down at Whitlingham. He is absolutely brilliant with kids and I still work with him on bird ringing sessions out at Wheatfen in December. A lot of the contacts I’ve made are from when I used to run a stand at Wild About Norfolk. I used to wander round and talk to all the other wildlife people on the stands. I’d get them to either come and visit or come and talk to the kids or I’d look at their wildlife sites.
People I’ve worked with
I will have to mention two or three of the people I work with because I’ve met a lot of lovely people there. The lady who really got me into wildlife education was Kate Skinner, and she was the education officer at the regional officer at RSPB when I started to get involved. I’ve worked with her quite a lot. We’ve done quite a few spring flings up at the showground, which was a children’s event, especially for children in farming and the countryside in April normally, or around about Easter.
I’ve also worked with Eilish Rothney. One of the photographs I’ve submitted shows her talking to the kids and the kids are actually looking at a load of eels caught in a big bucket and they all put their hands in and had a feel.
General experience of wildlife
The Wildlife Explorers did a small mammal survey at Wheatfen and we found yellow neck mice, wood mice, short tail voles, field voles, bank voles, and I think there was a couple of common shrews. There’s a similar variety at Strumpshaw, but I’ve never done a survey there.
I haven’t seen an eel for years!
Deer have increased to a certain extent, muntjac especially, and I suppose the Chinese water deer have too. I think we’ve got more Chinese water deer in Norfolk than they have in China! Muntjac can be a bit of a pest because they eat anything and everything. It’s the same with the roe deer and the red deer.
There’s a few rabbits down at Strumpshaw but I’ve never seen one at Wheatfen and I think that’s because it’s too wet. We don’t see many hares, either.
I’ve seen the footprints of a mink but they are very illusive creatures and they do set up traps to find them.
There’s a few butterflies coming in; the silver washed fritillary has shown its face more than ever at Wheatfen and Strumpshaw and that possibly due to climate change as they’re moving north.
Best and worst moments in wildlife
One of the most satisfying aspects of working in wildlife is seeing the children’s faces when they’re coming over to Wheatfen and Strumpshaw, because some of them have never been to somewhere like that. To be honest with you it’s just a joy to see them, they don’t know what they’re going to see when they get there. We used to be a bit of field teaching at Strumpshaw and nearly all of them used to go home with a big smile on their face and you’d think ‘well that’s a job well done’, and, with a little bit of luck, we might have planted a bit of enthusiasm for wildlife.
On the downside, at Wheatfen I remember working across a dyke on what we call a ‘ligger-board’. We were cutting a dead tree down ‑ I have got a chainsaw license ‑ a tree that had fallen into the dyke. So, bearing in mind that this is the middle of December, I took the chainsaw to the edge of the dyke, laid that down and then went back to pull the wood out the dyke, and when I pulled it broke and you know where I finished up. In the dyke. On a December day.
A message to young people and final thoughts
I think the best thing for children or youngsters interested in wildlife to do is to join as a volunteer in places like Wheatfen or Norfolk Wildlife Trust. While you’re volunteering you learn a heck of a lot if you want to and if you ask. I can remember going onto some of the sites and saying that we were cutting reed and asking ‘why are we cutting reed?’ Well, some of the reasons are that bitterns like this type of reed bed or swallowtails like this type of reed bed so they actually manage the land. There’s such a short a supply of swallowtails that they have to really look after what’s there and compromise.
Going into the education side of wildlife actually educated me more than anything. I was a birder to begin with, as most people are when they start. But when you start teaching children about insects, plants and habits, you have to get the books out and read all about nature. I always say I’m a generalist. I just like to be able to explain to the children and adults alike what I know but if I don’t know I’ll say, ‘Sorry, you’ll have to look at a book or find someone else I don’t know.’
To finish this off I would just like to say thank you to all the people in the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, Wheatfen, the UEA and some of the teachers, and say how nice it’s always been to work with so many lovely people. It’s really encouraging to work with so many enthusiastic people all together.
Rodger Goodrick (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive on 19th November 2019 in Norwich
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