Mike was already working for the RSPB when he got the opportunity, at very short notice, to get his own site, at Strumpshaw. He talks to us about arriving at the fen, initially living in a caravan on site and the years of work put into the development and maintenance of Strumpshaw Fen.
I was born in Chester in 1944 and most of my formative years were spent in a marvellous market town called Oswestry on the Welsh border. I have always been interested in wildlife from an early age, keeping caterpillars, and bird nesting. In the days before it was illegal I had an egg collection which I still have.
I went to university in Liverpool, to study biology of various sorts and I ended up with an MSc principally in freshwater biology which suited me for my future work with the RSPB.
After university I went into forestry for a year or so before joining Shell in the pesticide industry, initially marketing insecticides worldwide from their office in London.
I was then outposted to a research centre in Kent, and I got heavily involved in research on aquatic weedkillers. I was given a marvellous molecule to play with. It killed every aquatic weed and the algae which were normally problematic after the aquatic weeds were killed. In high doses it was found to be carcinogenic to wildfowl so it never made it to market.
I left Shell in the late sixties – early seventies, and because I had got very involved in conservation and with pesticides in water I joined the RSPB. In order to get my name known in conservation I decided to work for free as jobs were few and far between in those days.
I finally started paid work with the RSPB in about 1972, initially at Leighton Moss in Lancashire, one of their best reserves. From there I went to four or five other reserves before getting my own site which was Strumpshaw.
Strumpshaw, working on my own to start with
I was asked to go to Strumpshaw at very short notice; the lease with Strumpshaw Hall was imperilled so I had to get there within 20 hours to make sure that the lease actually happened. The land was considered to be worthless from the landlord’s point of view but from a wildlife point of view it had an awful lot of promise.
To help secure the 21-year lease we had a go-between with Dr Martin George of the Nature Conservancy, as it was in those days, working with Mr Key from Strumpshaw Hall and RSPB.
My remit was to initially write a management plan, to enhance the wildlife and habitat, to manage some very good floristic meadows and to extend the reserve to good wildlife areas and to limit the shooting in the area because at that time there was a lot of indiscriminate shooting.
I had some volunteers at the time, but I also had a lot of workers in the 1980s when there was a brilliant government financed scheme to train workers.
I was completely on my own until 1980, at which point a pair of marsh harriers 29/30/31 decided to nest and for the first time I was given an assistant to ensure that these birds bred successfully which they did.
Accommodation, living in a caravan
When I first arrived at the reserve I wasn’t married and I lived in a little caravan, the exact one is the one you’ll see in an episode of Father Ted, with Graham Norton and Father Ted living in it. I lived in it until winter set in and it got too cold, after that I went in to lodgings. In 1978, just as I got married I moved into a cottage which the estate provided, this cottage is now an office and volunteers’ accommodation.
Trails and hides at Strumpshaw
We started to open to the public once I lived on site, which was in the mid seventies. Having birds and wildlife to see we started to put together a system of hides. One viewing point was developed from an old shed on the edge of Strumpshaw Broad. We then built a number of hides surrounding the reed fen.
Condition of the area, clearing the scrub, sewage and sewerage works
The area was very unlike it is now. In those days the reed beds were tidal and in pretty poor condition because of enrichment of nitrates and phosphates from the river. They were also infested with great hairy willowherb, nettle, canary grass and so forth, which are indications of enrichment in a reed bed.
The reed was very poor quality, some of the areas were cut annually, but if any of it had been used on a roof it would have deteriorated very rapidly.
There was a huge amount of scrub that had taken over the reed beds as well. Scrub is mainly a mixture of various willows and alders. I started clearing the scrub within a short time of taking on the site, it became a major operation.
We learnt that if you raised the water levels sufficiently the roots of the willows and alders would not regrow so we didn’t have to use any pesticides at all, which was very very good.
The scrub was then burnt on beds of corrugated iron, so that once it had cooled we could carry the ash off. This limited the amount of nutrients being released in to the fen system.
The river Yare took the whole of Norwich sewerage works in, which meant that the river had a very large amount of nitrates and phosphates, which was very bad for a healthy water system.
There was a small sewerage works at Strumpshaw which was pumping out far too much poorly treated effluent in to a small stream called Lackford Run, which again did not help the reserve at all. Those works closed down in the 1990s.
The Norwich effluent still pumps nitrates and phosphates in to the river Yare. It will never be completely resolved as there is nowhere else for them to get rid of that amount of treated sewage effluent and so the reserve needs to be managed.
A dam, a police boat and no honeymoon
Strumpshaw Broad was tidal and joined to the river Yare, until 1978 that is. Some friends (I suppose you’d call them) at Anglian Water said that if they were passing by with their equipment they would put in a dam for me. The dam went in in 1978 just a day or two after I got married and so we never did have a honeymoon; the dam was vital.
We moored all the machinery up in the entrance to the dyke mid-morning and we worked all day to build this clay dam, with clay from the bed of the river.
At about three o’clock in the afternoon we were finishing off and heard a boat noise from further down the dyke to the Broad and believe it or not we had dammed-in the local police boat. They had been having a nice quiet time and were very worried to begin with, and about what their chief constable would say. I said ‘I’m afraid that dam’s in and it’s staying put’, but in the end we did actually scrape a narrow channel for them to get their boat through.
Controlling water levels
Once we had closed off from the river we were expecting a shortfall of water but it was much more than anticipated. We subsequently learnt that it was because there were two drinking water boreholes immediately adjacent to the reserve, pumping 24 hours a day, taking water from below the reserve in the chalk layers.
In order to make that right we had to build sluices in the system, this meant that when the river was in very high water or after very heavy rain we could use the river water.
Clearing vegetation off the Broad
When I first saw the Broad in the seventies it was almost extinct. If you look at ancient maps you can see that it had been quite a sizeable area, but subsequently it had grown over with vegetation and silt.
Once we had the dam in place and we could control water levels we began to dream of the reclamation project and we finally put the scheme together in 1980.
The surface vegetation which had grown over the silt, called ‘hover’ in Norfolk, needed to be pulverised and we took a new approach to do this. We used a gadget called a mud cat. It was used with a high front mounted high pressure water jet, which jetted the hover into a pulverised mash.
The mud and water was subsequently pumped into a bunded area so that we could allow the water to be decanted off in an exit pipe so that we would not run out of water, and we were left with a clear water pristine Broad.
Improvement in wildlife
Waterways are amazing things, they soon start to recover, aquatic weeds would reappear and following them we saw a very good increase in wildfowl, particularly tufted duck, and pochard. At the same time we started to see dab chicks, great crested grebe, kingfishers and so on.
The one thing that we had done by shutting ourselves off from the river was we had stopped the annual eel run. So I decided for the next few years to bring in elvers from another source and released them in to the area for a number of years. I have been off the reserve for too many years so I do not know what the situation is like now.
Farming, Norfolk reed, reed cutting by hand and the effects on the Broad
Some of the meadows had been allowed to lie derelict for many years so we started grazing them. And as this went along we noticed that the meadows were actually floristically very rich and slowly we allowed haymaking to take over from grazing. There was a very viable population of birds like snipe, redshank, yellow wagtails, lapwing and so on at this time; a very rich area for wildlife really.
As I mentioned previously, when I started the reed quality was very very poor, and other areas which had been allowed to be cut were quite often burnt by the cutters who had been allowed to cut the reed.
Within a year or two we decided to put reed cutting on a rotation so the reed would not be cut every year as it had been. The cutters preferred to cut the reed annually because it is clean and there is hardly any waste.
However, we did various experiments and proved quite happily that a reed bed does not support an optimum population of birds such as reed warblers, sedge warblers, reed bunting, bearded tits and all the associated insects and so on until the reed bed had accumulated two years of dead reed followed by a fresh growth that year. So that is why we decided then to put reed cutting on rotation, on to a double wale or better still a triple wale.
Early on, reed cutting was carried out by two reed cutters in the area, by hand with simple hand scythes, which was very inefficient.
We started using motorised cutters, which cut the reed much lower down and got a much stronger reed for roofing. At the same time we had started controlling the water quality and levels and the quality of the reed improved immeasurably.
The last time I had the reed tested whilst I was still warden it was the best quality in the whole of the Broads. Strumpshaw reed is very very good but places like Hickling produce equally good reed.
There is a big demand for Norfolk reed and there is a lot imported from places like Poland and Holland.
I went to Holland once or twice, reed cutting there is done to a very different system. Thatchers over there have to have reed that is cut every year, so most of the reed in Holland is cut on an annual basis and the government pay for it to be done like that. So Holland could actually support more wildlife than it does.
Creation of new waterways
The reed beds suffered from a lack of open water apart from this Broad, which was subsequently mud pumped. We created quite large open water areas with heavy machinery from about 1980 onwards and that continues to the present day.
Marsh harriers, swallowtail butterflies, raft spiders, otters and mink
Marsh harriers began to breed in 1980 at a time when water levels were controlled for the first time, there was a lot less scrub and the reed bed was getting to be much healthier.
They reared five young very successfully and they have bred every year since in much larger numbers and they have spread out to outlying areas too.
Once we had started to control the water quality and levels a number of things happened. Marsh pea, Lathyrus palustris really took off. It is a plant that is quite a rarity in any of the fens really and Strumpshaw was notable for the fact that it was the only site in Britain where it was setting viable seed.
As milk parsley, a wetland plant, also developed and expanded. So too did the swallowtails. There were three adults in 1975 and when I left at the turn of the century the highest count was forty-five in one day.
Raft spiders have now been introduced into the water soldier dykes and they are doing very successfully from what I have seen.
Otters started breeding on the reserve in the late eighties, as the fish population developed in the improved waterways. Mink were always there, but I gather that they are continually trapped now, I don’t know about numbers and so on.
Acquisition of Buckenham and Cantley marshes
Buckenham and Cantley marshes came up for sale in the early 1990s and we were given the opportunity to buy them both. In order to do that we had an appeal and we raised a million quid. Both marshes were bought off East Anglian Real Property company [EARP]. The area was nationally important for wigeon and bean geese.
The year after we bought Cantley marsh the river wall collapsed one Saturday afternoon under a surge tide. The marshes went under for a considerable time, and in fact the water was 47 per cent seawater. As a result all the invertebrates in the marsh were killed. I well remember receiving a letter from one of the locals that following spring congratulating the RSPB on having bought these marshes and getting rid of all the birds. The lack of invertebrates of course meant that there was no food for the usual mix of lapwing, redshank and snipe to breed.
The grassland and invertebrates did recover as did the summer and winter birdlife.
My involvement with Rockland Broad
Rockland Broad lies across the river and it was infamous in the Yare valley for being a public shooting zone. Indiscriminate and unlawful shooting took place from September through to February; basically it was a cowboy shoot with no control whatsoever.
I became involved because many birds which shouldn’t have been shot like swans, herons and our special geese were being shot. Anything that flew anywhere near Rockland was being shot.
The problem was that the ownership of the Broad was lost in the mists of time. So the Parish council, the Broads Authority and the RSPB embarked on a system called Adverse Possession which meant that it was advertising that the parish council was taking over the Broad and if nobody challenged their ownership in twelve years it would become part of the parish council, which it did.
It was a very exciting first night of September. We had advertised the fact that shooting was coming to an end from then on. We expected all the wildfowlers, cowboys to behave themselves and not turn up. Unfortunately they all did. But following a phone call to Loddon police we met an amazing sergeant who was very much in favour of controlling gun licences. He came out with us that night and confiscated every gun around the Broad. They were all recoverable as long as the owners produced their licences at the police station.
Working life after Strumpshaw
I stopped working at Strumpshaw at the turn of the century, basically because of the stress levels developed from administration issues, management issues and new working systems on the site. Computers had arrived and although I ducked out of using them as much as possible by paying my wife to do the administration, I gradually thought that life was becoming unbearable.
After I left I went in to the stock rearing business, with a flock of three hundred sheep, ten rams and a number of cattle as well. It was a bit of a mistake to go in to this business, I didn’t own any land and we also had BSE and Foot and Mouth Disease, all within three years. So I sold out of that and continued with tree surgery which I had already diversified in to and I have carried on with that up until the present time very happily.
I am very proud of what we did at Strumpshaw. We created a very good area of fen, expanding from three hundred acres to nearer two thousand acres, with a complete mix of fen wildlife.
Mike Blackburn (1944-2019) talking to WISEArchive in Brundall on 25th September 2018.
Photos supplied by the contributor.
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