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Nature reserves are our gift today and to the future

Gulls roosting on scrape at Cley NWT Reserve. Photo: David Tipling
Gulls roosting on scrape at Cley NWT Reserve. Photo: David Tipling

Just recently I spent a couple of days in London. I had the honour of attending a meeting about the new GCSE in natural history and the creation of a Nature Pathway right through our education system. It’s a long journey to central London from north Norfolk. First I took a bus to King’s Lynn, which looped through quiet villages for an hour, past ponds where shovelers twirled in courting pairs, and farmland where desultory roosts of gulls crouched in fields churned to mud by pigs. Next I caught a train to King’s Cross, taking two hours more, through the rich, black fields of the Fens and the chalky hills of south Cambridgeshire. Finally I rode the tube, to Westminster.

Being the cautious creature that I am, and with so many links in the journey, I left early in the morning for our lunchtime meeting. This gave me an hour to spare in Westminster. My senses always seeking nature, I walked the short distance to St James’s Park.

Here I was with friends. Portly pigeons bustled self-importantly across the grass, demanding scraps from picnickers. Greylag geese – the self same greylags which crowd our Norfolk marshes – begged for handouts too (behaviour which would never do in Norfolk). Nearby, though always within bolting distance of the lake, coots and moorhens were similarly brazen. In the centre of one of the world’s great cities, here was biodiversity, here was life. But here too were hundreds and hundreds of people, all crowding into one small space, gasping for a lungs’ intake of nature, for a moment in something like the habitat in which human society evolved and with the countless species with which we share this wondrous planet.

Great British Life: Bittern fishing on the edge of newly grown reeds at NWT Hickling. Photo: Elizabeth DackBittern fishing on the edge of newly grown reeds at NWT Hickling. Photo: Elizabeth Dack

In the low trees by the lakeside I heard a chiffchaff and I watched a family of long-tailed tits looping through twigs and leaves, always calling, always on the hunt for motes of food, oblivious to the colossal weight of history all around. From the great trees overhead I heard the shrieking calls of rose-ringed parakeets, a sound that takes me instantly to Delhi, and to the four years it was my privilege to spend in India. Wild birds, for me, are portals to place and memory.

The meeting was fascinating; it went well. In the evening I travelled to stay with a scientist friend, catching up with her in Brixton. As I plunged into the chasm of the underground, seeking the southbound Victoria Line, commuters all around me, tearing blank-faced and every-which-way, I jokingly texted my dear (and very funny) friend: ‘What a dystopian hell-hole you inhabit.’

I mean no disrespect to the thrilling city of London, but the feeling had been mounting throughout the day. I am not the sort of animal that’s meant to spend four hours on buses and trains, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of unknown people. I’m not the sort of animal that’s meant for streets lined four storeys high, searching for a patch of grass, a tree, a bird. In truth not one of us is that sort of animal. Many of us – the world over – have to live like that, but it’s far from what we evolved to be and do.

Coming home to Norfolk the next day, I felt the weighty layers lifting: the loud crowds in St James’s Park while I was trying to find a quiet spell with nature; the blaring sirens and the megaphone protests outside Parliament as the prime minister was ferried past to PMQs; the juddering, clattering, claustrophobic horror of the tube: no light, no space, no green, no song, no sky.

I’m always grateful to be from Norfolk, but this week I am especially so. As the train crossed the peaty nowhere of the Fens the following morning, I was home. My mind stretched to the far corners of our lovely county, reaching into every habitat cherished and protected by Norfolk Wildlife Trust and by our friends and conservation partners.

Great British Life: A large flock of brent geese at Cley NWT Reserve. Photo: Elizabeth DackA large flock of brent geese at Cley NWT Reserve. Photo: Elizabeth Dack

In addition to the many wonders thriving on our nature reserves – the cranes, the bitterns, the fen and man orchids, the roosts of arctic ducks and geese, the swallowtails and bog bush-crickets, the yellow stars-of-Bethlehem and so much more – what’s precious about these places in our care is that they are everyone’s. They belong to Norfolk and to all who live here.

What’s more – more precious still – most of these wild places can be visited alone, in silence, with nothing for company but the chirps of birds, the wind sighing in the reeds or trees, your own wild thoughts. How wondrous to live where such freedom to be with nature is still possible. How rich the gift bestowed on us by the founders of Norfolk Naturalists Trust in 1926 and by all the staff and volunteers and donors who have worked for nature and for Norfolk people ever since.

With the exception of a tiny handful of sites (where access would be dangerous or impossible), all of our nature reserves are open to the public, most of them completely free of charge. Truly they are a gift.

But there’s a second aspect to this gift, making it still more meaningful. In a recent conversation with NWT CEO Eliot Lyne, I described our priceless network of nature reserves as ‘our gift back to the land’ and we agreed we’d hit on something. These are not empty words. Our talk these days as conservationists is all about nature’s recovery, about reconnecting nature across the landscape, about bringing nature back to everyone’s daily lives.

This, of course, is only possible if there’s nature to bring back. Our nature reserves – some big, some small, some old, some new – are irreplaceable stores of nature: of ancient habitats, of species, genes, foodwebs and interactions. Had our founders, trustees, staff, volunteers, visitors and donors not cared for them through all these years, there would be nothing to give back. They are our gift, today and to the future.



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