Working Lives

Wildlife conservation on the Broads (1950s-2019)

Location: Poringland

Rodney grew up near the river in south Norfolk. He studied zoology and geography and lived for a time in Australia where he was the environmental representative on the Macquarie River Advisory Committee. He compares the area to the Broads. More recently he has been involved with bird surveys and remembers the coypu eradication campaigns. Now retired, he is involved with current conservation action such as the Chet B-line and Wild Patches.

Growing up in Poringland

I was born in Framingham Pigot in 1948. My mother came from Cambridgeshire but her family moved to Norfolk in the 1920s. They lived first in Costessey for awhile until they rented a house in Brooke. My father had a tenanted market garden on the Framingham Pigot Estate. Shortly after his father died he bought some land and a bungalow, The Ramblers, from Huby Spruce situated on the boundary of Poringland and Arminghall and he started a market garden there. My mother worked at Bletchley Park in Hut 6 for two years during the War. My parents met when they both came home after being demobbed. My brother and I were fortunate in that our mother was quite prepared to let us cycle for miles and miles. She had been free to roam around Brooke when she was a child and she thought it was important to let children explore and discover their neighbourhoods.

By the time I was about seven, I think, I had found Surlingham Ferry. At the time there was a row boat ferry there, where you could row yourself across the Yare, but you had to leave a boat on either side. So you would row over to the other side, pick up a boat and tow it back over before rowing over again. There was an honesty box in which to put the tuppence fare. There was also the same type of ferry at Coldham Hall. I remember crossing at Surlingham and cycling around to Brundall and then re-crossing the river at Coldham Hall several times. There were still freighters coming up to Norwich so you had to be watchful before you cast off from the riverside.

Surlingham ferry. Courtesy Surlingham Village website.

A few years earlier there were I believe similar ferries at the Beauchamp Arms and at Cantley to allow people living on the south side of the river to catch trains on the Norwich to Yarmouth and Lowestoft line.

I can’t imagine that system working today, can you? It makes you realise that society does change as time moves on.

Schooling and early career

I went to Bracondale School in Norwich and did my A levels at Norwich City College. I then went to university in Portsmouth and studied zoology and geography. After that I did a teaching qualification at Newton Park College near Bath and taught first of all in Lincolnshire. I then spent 12 years in Australia. We lived for a time in the Macquarie Marshes of New South Wales which had some resemblance to the Broads in that there were large areas of open floodplain grassland grazed by cattle. The big environmental change there was caused by upstream dams and the diversion of water to irrigate cotton which reduced the volume of water that could flow downstream and spread out across the floodplain. I served for six years on the Macquarie River Advisory Committee as the environmental representative. This was about the same time that marshes in the Broads were being ploughed because of high wheat prices.

In both places there were big ‘battles’ which led eventually to solutions to reduce the environmental damage. In the Macquarie Marshes it was increasing the wildlife water allocation and restrictions at certain times on water extraction by irrigators to allow waterbirds to breed while in the Broads it was the introduction of environmental stewardship where farmers are paid to keep marshes under grass. Environmental stewardship has since been extended to other areas and habitats in the UK while the schemes trialled in the Macquarie Marshes have found wider application in the Murray-Darling basin although long droughts in the 1990s and more recently have not helped.

Birds, coypus and cattle

My recent involvement with the Norfolk Broads has mostly been through doing bird surveys such as helping with the BTO national bird atlas, and getting involved in breeding bird surveys. Coming back after many years away some changes are very noticeable. One of these is the variety and the number of birds of prey that we have now. The marsh harrier was rare when I was a child. There were no more than one or two pairs around. Buzzards were non-existent. The bittern was rare as well. I only read about them, I never actually saw or heard one. Another change in the wildlife is the expansion of feral geese numbers, the greylags and Canadas. It was quite a novelty if you saw a wild goose back in the 1950s. I remember when I was about 10 finding on a cold, snowy day a flock of about 50 greylag near the Surlingham Pistol Club and being quite awed by it.

Coypu were also common in the 1950s. It was quite usual to see them swimming across the rivers and broads. But the hard winter of ‘62/63 really hit the population hard. After that there was a concerted attempt by the Ministry of Agriculture as it was called then. They had an eradication programme and by the late ‘60s coypu were more or less gone from the Broads. We did have one chap on my ‘A’ level zoology course who was working as a technician on the coypu control project in ‘66. In the ‘63 winter I even saw one near our market garden on an iced over pond. That freeze-up lasted at least six weeks. I imagine it had come from the Tas looking for food. I never saw otters whereas I have seen them recently near the Beauchamp Arms, in Rockland Broad and near Berney Arms and seen signs in several of other places.

Archie Taylor

One person who I knew reasonably well was Archie Taylor. He lived at the Staithe at Rockland. I’m not quite sure whether he owned or leased the reedbeds around Rockland Broad but he made his living in various ways. Part of it was by reed cutting, when he sold his reeds to local thatchers, but he also owned a number of rowboats. We used to hire one of them as children for sum of 10 shillings (50p now). He would have been around 70 years old in the early ‘60s. One of my uncles told me that back in the 1920s Archie was a British cycling champion. He also used to have his photograph published in the EDP every September 2nd, the day after the opening of the duck shooting season. Dick Jeeves was probably the photographer, and he would take a photograph of Archie in his boat in the reedbeds or on the water at Rockland Broad. Archie was also a really good fly fisherman and I remember rowing down the fleet dyke and coming across Archie on his boat. He was catching perch using a fly rod. Another story I heard about Archie was that when the Broads froze over, which they did frequently back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, he could actually shoot a flying duck while he was skating on the ice. Well that’s what I was told!

Talking of fish….

I’m not aware of commercial eel fishing on the Broads but I used to catch some for the pot. A group of us would get a boat from Archie and row out to where the old wherries had been sunk. We’d anchor up against one of them, climb up onto the hull and catch the eels inside by bobbing, which is where you have an earthworm on a long piece of wool. I would bring the eels home and fry them. I haven’t eaten one for many years. In the 1970s there was unfortunately a pollution spill from the May & Baker factory in Norwich and this probably made eating eels more dangerous because of the mercury in the water.

How things change

In the ‘60s we sometimes rowed down the Fleet Dyke to the river and then go upstream to what is now the Strumpshaw Nature Reserve. Back then it was part of the Strumpshaw Estate. I think it’s still owned by the estate, but it’s leased to the RSPB. The RSPB cut the reserve land off from the river to reduce polluted water getting in, and of course it has carried out a lot of management work which has really boosted the wildlife. When we rowed there it was mostly mallards we flushed from the dykes and reedbeds although I do have some movie pictures of a water rail. Now there is a much wider variety of species. The management of the Broads has improved by having nature reserves and a larger area under some form of environmental stewardship. In the early 1950s and forties though farming was less intensive and birds such as lapwings commonly bred in fields in quite large numbers. And then we went into a period of intensification where a lot of grazing marshes were either ploughed to grow crops or fertilisers were added to increase grass growth. The latest schemes have improved things for some species including breeding lapwings although still nowhere near the levels of yesteryear.

Lapwing. Photo South Yare Wildlife Group.

Current concerns

Now that I am retired I carry out some voluntary conservation work, mainly with The South Yare Wildlife Group and the Bergh Apton Conservation Trust. Our major project at the moment is the establishment of a pollinator corridor, called a B-line, from Poringland, which is at the head of the Chet, down the river to Hardley. B-line is a Buglife brand name for these corridors. Buglife is a national organisation that is trying to connect habitat along river valleys and the wider landscape, and they have supported us in our efforts to establish a pollinator corridor along the Chet. So the plan is to start from the source of the Chet in Poringland and then try to have as much pollinator friendly habitat as possible along the length of this river to its confluence with the Yare. Bees and hoverflies are important and their significance is being recognised more and more. Just earlier today, on the Today Programme, Professor Smith was saying how insect populations are declining so much that there’s a real risk to the functioning of ecosystems, and that we’ve really got to tackle it. The B-Line has received funding from Water, Mills and Marshes.

My other project I am involved with is the South Yare Wildlife Group’s Wild Patch Project which is also funded by Water, Mills and Marshes. In a way it led to the development of the Chet B-Line. The idea behind the Wild Patch is to change the mindset of tidying the landscape for tidiness sake, to encourage people to let areas go a bit wild so that they can provide more habitat for a multitude of different creatures, most of them small, such as beetles, bees and butterflies that are important for the base of food webs.

Gardens have been a major focus for the Wild Patch project because that is where most people can have a direct effect on wildlife. Community areas and road verges can play a role too. Wild Patches can be part of B-Lines.

When we are talking about the long term future we cannot ignore climate change. It is very likely going to be catastrophic causing not only risks to biodiversity but, also for example, causing huge levels of migration as people are forced to leave areas that become uninhabitable. Then there is the likelihood of rising sea levels causing the inundation of the Broadland floodplain.

Getting on top of climate change is going to mean a lot of behavioural changes by a lot of people. I suppose it will be partly new technologies coming in, changes to the way land is used, changes to what people do in terms of maybe the number of holidays where planes are used. There’s a lot of things that have got to be questioned. The basic problem is the increase in the human population and the increase in the energy used as people want to have richer, more fulfilled lives. We no doubt evolved as intelligent creatures because of the need to rapidly adapt to climate change in earlier times. Now that there are more than 7 billion of us will we still be able to adapt in time?

As individuals we can all make a contribution but there is little point in an individual changing his or her way of life if the majority don’t. It is the Tragedy of the Commons writ large.

Some people of course can do more than others. But most of us can be part of making pollinator corridors a useful way to help biodiversity and to some extent our food supply. By allowing wildlife to migrate northwards as the climate warms they might also mitigate some of the adverse impacts of a warming climate on biodiversity.

Rodney Aldis 2019

Rodney Aldis (b. 1948) talking to WISEArchive on 26th June 2019 in Framingham Earl.

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