Working Lives

Shell man (1960s-2019)

Location: Rockland St Mary

Derek’s interest in snails started at a young age, and whilst they are his main interest he has a keen interest in all wildlife including birds and butterflies. He has volunteered at Wheatfen Broad and has been involved with carrying out many marsh surveys including a five year study of Haddiscoe Island.

My interest in snails started when I was seven or eight and I used to go down to Thorpe marshes on the banks of the river Yare and I would find all these little shells and things washing up on the shore. I used to wonder what they were and so I started to collect a few, and then more and more.

I used to go to the marshes down past Whitlingham station. If you go down there and over the bridge you are immediately on the marshes and you can walk round the river. Through the sluice gate there was a huge conglomeration of shells. I used to take my mother’s wire sieve and tie it onto a pole, get all the sediments out and sift the mud out. There were loads of great shells, all different, great fun. I used to love it.

I saved up all my pocket money to buy a copy of Edward Step’s book Shell Life, which was illustrated, only rough sketches but I was able to identify things; I still have the book.

I remember that amongst all the shells that I collected from the rivers I had a section which I couldn’t identify. The reason I couldn’t identify them was because they weren’t freshwater snails, they were land snails that had fallen into the water, died and the shells had fallen in to the sediments with the freshwater shells. That did puzzle me for a considerable time.

On the odd occasion that I went to the coast with my parents, there on the beaches were similar things, only these were much heavier and thicker than the freshwater and land snail shells that I was used to. After this I started to put together a serious collection that ‘moth-balled’ for some years until the interest came to the fore-front again with my wife and the children she was teaching. Before long I started acquiring shells from all over the world and this was done by exchanging shells for shells with other collectors. The problem of where to house the vastly growing collection was solved by siting a 40ft caravan on the back lawn (still there today). It also provided me with a workshop where I can sit and sort out samples which we take when surveying the marshes and rivers of Norfolk.

It is my interest and my children are not really interested in the shells. We are members of the Shell Collector’s Club of Great Britain, so I decided to offer them round to various collectors and sold them. All gone except for a collection of Spondylus which I have hung onto because of their great beauty.

I would say shells were the top of my interest but I was interested in everything else too, wildlife for example, birds and butterflies, etc.

Wildlife and breeding butterflies

I used to breed butterflies: peacock, tortoiseshell and red admirals. I would find caterpillars, take them home and have them in big bottles on my window sill, mother used to go berserk when they got out. I bred them right through, and then let twenty or thirty butterflies go. By doing this I was expanding the population because you were taking them away from the predators which would normally devour about eighty percent of them. The caterpillars were found mainly on nettles. The drinker moth was on reeds, sedges, it’s a big caterpillar about as thick as my finger, huge thing, lovely.

The numbers of butterflies are going down and down all the time, and what I was doing then ought to be done by somebody now, but I’m just too old to get involved in this stuff now. But if it could be done we would be able to release more of these creatures for people to enjoy.

Marshes – a changing environment, not for the better, loss of butterflies

Not very much happened on the marsh; cattle grazed there and the old boys would check daily to see that none had fallen in the dykes. Not very much went on work wise there, not like nowadays where if something stands at twelve inches tall, out comes the machinery to cut it. Why? I honestly do not know, leave it alone. If you go to Rockland now it’s been cut to extinction, they just won’t let things grow, it’s a nightmare. It looks like parkland, the damage has been done.

When we first came to live here fifty odd years ago, about fourteen or sixteen species of butterfly used to breed down there, there are none there now, all gone.

They haven’t been allowed to breed, the grass just keeps getting cut down which exposes them to the bad winter weather, kills the caterpillars, it’s not good. People haven’t got a clue now what they’re doing, they just think ‘oh doesn’t that look nice’.

As I said, the damage is done, they just think that it is lovely to look like parkland, and that it is brilliant to have lovely smooth grassland but it doesn’t support any life, none at all.

Rockland Marsh 2013

Meeting Roy Baker and becoming more involved in surveying the Broads and marshes

When I finished work, around 1993, I went down to Wheatfen just to give the warden a hand, building bridges, things like that. This is when I met Roy and Keith. Keith was a manager of one of the water authorities and was an expert in diatoms and algae, an absolute expert, a brilliant brilliant man.

We talked and I told them that I did some snail surveys for the likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), not for pay but because I was interested in seeing what I could find. About a year later I met Roy at Wheatfen and he told me that they were setting up the Wheatfen Partnership, surveying the marshes and various places for whoever wanted it done, in return for a pie and a pint at lunchtimes.

Roy told me that Keith would be doing diatoms, and he would do freshwater invertebrates and asked me if I would come on board to do the snails. That’s where we took off and we’ve done the whole of Norfolk, every river system.

Roy found the customers, English Nature, as it was, Environment Agency, Norfolk Wildlife, official bodies of people.

The surveys were just one offs unless we were asked to follow up with further ones. Roy was an academic and brilliant at writing so he would write them up.

Haddiscoe Island survey

We did a five year study of Haddiscoe Island, it’s the only island within the interior of Norfolk, we did everything, moth trapping, butterflies, snails, algae, invertebrates, aquatics everything . It was done just out of interest, to keep our brains going. We were getting to the point where we couldn’t trudge across a lot of the marshes and although it is a big area the one asset of the island is that because there is a road you can drive everywhere and get to where you want to by car.

We were asked to survey the salt dykes, a peripheral dyke of Haddiscoe Island because they were going to reprofile them to make them bigger and they wanted to make sure that they weren’t going to damage anything . It was an interesting area to study as it is grazing marshes, that’s all, nothing else, nothing happens there, there are only about three or four houses on the whole place.
We started to see unusual birds, some migrant ones coming in, as well as butterflies.

As I say it took five years to complete and Roy has written it all out and a book is due to be published by Norfolk Naturalists in the next couple of months, which is good as that’s our final farewell one.

Finding rare species and the Acle Straight

Roy and I found a rare species of snail which caused some controversy with the dualling of the Acle straight. The Anisus vorticulus is just about the rarest freshwater snail in this country and there is all this business going on now and they can’t do the road works. We’ve had various meetings with different people down there about it. It’s crazy, if you are going to dual a road then you have already got one single carriageway and you just need to put another one in. We spoke to someone in the higher echelons and explained that you can go either side of the existing road, and we said that the snails are in the dykes on the right hand side of the road and on the other side of the road there is just a meadow. ‘Why couldn’t the road go through there and leave this alone, and not do away with the dykes and these rare snails?’ But we were told no, that can’t be done, we weren’t given a reason why, just that it couldn’t be done.

I think to myself why do I bother, what’s the point getting involved now, agendas have been set and it’s going to make no difference at all.

Protecting other rare species

We also found Segmentina nitida, another very rare freshwater snail. We got to the point whereby if we found a new site we just didn’t tell anybody, in doing so we protected it.

I don’t know for sure and I have never managed to understand it but I have a feeling that when a landowner suddenly finds out that there is a rare snail on the land they start to think that they will have big restrictions put on the land, and that it’ll be made a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). So they don’t want that so they’ll slub the dykes out and destroy the species and then they haven’t got to worry about it, I think that that is what’s been happening.

The first to find two rare species – a third one and I’ll be happy

We found Corbicula fluminalis, which is the Asian clam and is not native to this country, but it’s here now and we found it up on the river Chet.

I was doing a bit of work by myself on beaches for marine stuff, and I found the new what is called Ensis americana, a little razor clam that at that time was new to this country.

I’m just waiting for the third one now, when I find the third one that’s come into this country, then I’ll be happy.

Everyone gets over excited when a new species is found, they think that it’s going to take over. The American clam is semi tolerant of slightly salt water and it could be a pest if it blanketed everywhere but it didn’t, people just get so excited, the Broads Authority are terrible, getting excited over things.

There was a big controversy over the Himalayan balsam.

Himalayan Balsam

This is a beautiful plant and obviously alien to this country, but it has its place in my book. It flowers in September when everything else has died back. And of course what likes it? Bees. And the big thing these days is making sure that we look after the bees. All these people are just pulling out the Himalayan balsam, destroying the the nectar for the bees, I just don’t understand them. I had someone tell me that the bees won’t use it because it is poison to them, but that’s just nonsense, I don’t know, these people, what you do with them.

So you’ve got people who think like the authorities and want to help them so they see the Himalayan balsam growing on the Broad margin down here. They jump over the wall, tramping across everywhere, pulling the stuff out, destroying it.

Not only are they destroying the nectar source for the bees but they are tramping about where all these rare snails are living on the surface of the mud in between the reeds, and they’re destroying them with their big footprints going clonk, clonk, clonk everywhere, crazy, absolutely crazy.

Half the trees in this country are alien, do you want to cut them all down?

Clearing the banks of the waterways and dredging

Years ago there were lovely big hawthorn bushes growing on the bank of Rockland Broad; it was a picture, it was lovely. I’m not sure who has decided this but I spoke to a bloke one day who told me that the bushes were pulling the banks down. I told him that they weren’t, and that they were in fact helping and that it was to their benefit to leave the shrubs and things to grow. They drew the moisture out of the bank, which stopped the worms which in turn stopped the moles making the burrows to chase the worms. I told them that it was to their benefit to leave the shrubs there. The consequence of removing them was that when you walked there six months later, at high tide there were all these little geysers, coming out of the banks, spouts of water coming out of the mole holes.

It’s crazy, the bank is totally destroyed now, there used to be lovely big bramble bushes down there and we used to collect blackberries, there’s absolutely nothing there now.

I have disagreed with the RSPB about their dredging regime, I have had so many rows with them in the past, there used to be some beautiful dykes over at Strumpshaw.

The other marshes are owned by private landowners. One piece of land near here has been bought by the wildfowlers, the marsh has been cut down to extinction.

Ted Ellis Trust – the best nature reserve

Ted Ellis was a well known Norfolk naturalist and when he died a few others decided that it would be nice to make a nature reserve in his name. That’s what they did where he lived at Surlingham, and it is the best nature reserve in Norfolk without any shadow of a doubt. I say this because it is really management by neglect. They don’t manage anything badly.

Wheatfen, Ted Ellis Trust, by Akuppa John Wigham licensed under CC by 2.0

They might cut areas to keep footpaths mown, or cut trees if they come into the reed beds, that sort of thing but basically management by neglect, that’s what we say anyway.

The future, the next generation, who will take up the mantle?

This is a problem, and we’re always talking about it and I just don’t know the answer to it. There are some younger ones getting involved and even doing the same as I did with breeding the caterpillars. They need to be encouraged, to continue and really get involved. Will it happen? I don’t know it’s a difficult one. Every organisation is finding it a problem with youngsters coming through, they don’t seem interested, it’s disappointing but what can you do?

Surveying Trinity Broads and an incident, thankfully a happy if soggy ending

We had this job to survey the Trinity Broads, which is Ormesby and that little group of Broads, for Vertigo moulinsiana, a little land snail which lives in reed beds, it is quite rare and is a red data book species. Norfolk has got quite a good population of them.

We had to evaluate the population of the Trinity Broads, which we did. This particular day we were out on the Broad in a boat, provided by the water company that runs Ormesby Broad, an electric one not petrol powered as Ormesby is a water supply. We toddled on out and pulled into the reed bed, I had waders on and got out of the boat and walked through the back of the reed bed to take some samples, which would then be counted and used to try to evaluate the population.

Whilst I was out of the boat Roy and Keith were in it, and I heard this commotion and what had happened was Keith had stood up he was trying to net some algae samples then Roy stood up to do something else and the boat sort of wiggled and Keith went straight over the side of the boat, backwards. The problem was that he‘d got his foot tangled up in an old rope in the boat and so in actual fact he was suspended with his head in the water and body out of the water. You had to be so careful with the boat as you could just turn the whole thing over. However Roy got him back up I just don’t know, but phew, he did.

I think that may have been the point when we decided perhaps we were getting a bit old for this.

We had to take him back to the water company’s offices, strip him off, get him a pair of old overalls to wear so that he could go to the pub at lunchtime, we always went to the pub lunchtime. I mean, he was still soaked, sitting in the pub.

These things happen and you have to be aware of the problems around you, Keith sitting there in his overalls, it could have been very different, it could have been really bad.

Roy and I also had a rule, ‘if there’s cattle on the marsh we don’t go on it’. Particularly down Haddiscoe as it was so isolated, if anything did go wrong, you got charged by a bullock say, you couldn’t shout as there’s no one there to hear you. So if we had to do a survey we would always tell the land owner ‘we do not go on marshes with cattle on.

Really, the main thing is to just be careful when you are out there. Keep an eye out on what is around you and make sure that there is a pub nearby, essential, absolutely essential.

Derek Howlett (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive on 4th March 2019 at Rockland St Mary.

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