Despite the warm weather, unseasonable warm, a walk through the South Norfolk Claylands in February still felt very much like winter, with stark trees against a grey sky and the over-flowing ditches that give February its old name of “Filldyke”.
This is ancient countryside, still carrying the imprint of Bronze Age field systems, severed in places by the Roman road that halves the clay plateau from north to south. The pattern of small family farms, clusters of villages, commons and tall hedges pre-dates the Georgian zeal for improving soils and enclosing commons that changed North Norfolk forever, creating regular fields and neat hedges of hawthorn. Here in the south of the County is a secret countryside of woods and meadows, mostly ignored by tourists on their way to the coast or the watery attractions of the Broads.
From my front door, in the heart of the Claylands, a regular walk takes me through two commons and into an ancient wood. The first common, Wood Green, is open grassland, pock-marked with the ponds found throughout this landscape, the abandoned remnants of old clay diggings. One pond, closest to the path, is now largely covered with reeds and home in the autumn to a small murmuration of starlings; by February, these have long since left, probably to join the larger flocks on the coast. A roost of pied wagtails has replaced them and they circle the common with their dipping flight, chattering between telephone wires and reeds at dusk.
Earlier, at dawn, I’d seen a barn owl here, quartering the rough grass; some years ago, I followed one on my bike and tracked it back to a nearby farm, watching it glide along the edge of a hedge and over the unploughed headland of an arable field. In recent years, rare barbestelle bats have been found in veteran trees and old barns across South Norfolk; doubtless these also forage for food along the commons, field headlands and hedges. These journeys, these nightly forays and glimpses into other lives, underline the importance of re-connecting the landscape, enabling species to move more freely than now, when scraps of habitats lie disconnected from each other, like islands in seas of arable land, brick and tarmac. This is conservation at a different scale from the ambitions of re-wilding, of bringing back wolf or lynx; this is an intimate vision, a barn owl or bat’s eye view, where hedges and meadows are vital. With climate change already altering the seasons, linking up habitats is vital to allow more wildlife to flourish, to give it the space to move and adapt.
Another line of connection, just west of Wood Green, is a loke, as we say in these parts – a muddy green lane, that runs south to Crow Green, the second common of my walk. Edged with field maple, hornbeam, crab apple and oak, this loke too is a corridor and in quieter moments I have spotted a small herd of roe deer here and watched a sparrowhawk slip soundlessly among the trees, causing a momentary riot of panic amongst the local songbirds. A scatter of feathers, usually pigeon, is the often only legacy the small hawk leaves. Today, a spot a bullfinch’s white rump amongst the bare branches and a field away, even in February, brown hares tear through dark furrows in small groups, stop, then stand up on their hind legs to box.
Photo: John Volynchook