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From scrubland to wildlife haven
By Edd Smith
BBC Norfolk

Marsh harrier chicks
Marsh-harrier chicks at Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve

Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve in Norfolk is home to some of Norfolk's finest birds, mammals, insects, woodland and reed beds.

The reserve, which used to be used for shooting, was transformed by the Hawk and Owl Trust to protect habitats in Norfolk's Wensum Valley.

"In 2001 it was scrub land and now it's a wonderful open panoramic view," said Nigel Middleton, site manager.

The Hawk and Owl Trust is dedicated to conserving birds of prey in the wild.

Nigel is responsible for the 37 acre Sculthorpe Nature Reserve and is passionate about wildlife along the Wensum Valley, particularly the Marsh-Harrier.

It was his study of the harriers that lead Nigel to discovering Sculthorpe.

"I think I found Sculthorpe Moor by fate. I used to watch birds there from the old King's Lynn railway line and watch marsh-harriers fly along the Wensum Valley," he said.

He began to see that marsh-harriers were nesting in reed beds at Sculthorpe.

In 2001, the Hawk and Owl Trust were looking to employ Nigel as a full-time conservation officer and he suggested Sculthorpe Moor as a perfect site for him to work.

"I had a vision and I thought someone in the village must know something about the moor," he said.

"I knocked on doors in the village and found one of the trustees who told me the lease was up for renewal as a shooting area.

"I managed to convince the Hawk and Owl Trust to apply for the lease and the rest, as they say, is history."

Marsh-harriers can be seen flying along the Wensum Valley in Norfolk

Before 2001 the trust didn't have any bird reserves, but Nigel managed to persuade them that Sculthorpe had the credentials to be the first.

The Hawk and Owl Trust were successful in tendering for the lease and secured a 25 year charter of the Moor. It's fair to say the trust had no intention of using the site as a shooting venue.

"In the 1930s it was leased to the local doctors in Fakenham for the doctors' shoot - there's even evidence that a Bittern was shot here," said Nigel.

In October 2001, Nigel began the task of turning the Sculthorpe shooting area into the picturesque nature reserve that exists today.

He isn't alone though - he has an army of volunteers who help out at the moor.

"The people I've got to thank are the volunteers. The biggest thing they've done is to make it accessible to the public, including our mile and half of boardwalk - they laid it completely by hand," said Nigel.

And the volunteers are passionate too.

"You tend to find the volunteers, and even the public, fall in love with the moor straight away," said Nigel.

Rich landscape

The Wensum Valley is a rich landscape of various habitats and it's Nigel's job to monitor them.

"We have a monitoring program that records everything that breeds on the site. Not just birds but moths, dragon flies, insects and plants.

"The moor is a designated SSI or Site of Special Scientific Interest, because of the nature of the botanical interest at Sculthorpe.

"We have 53 species of breeding birds, 500 species of moths and several hundred species of plants. 83 species of water beetles have been recorded so far," he said.

Nigel is fanatical about raptors and Sculthorpe certainly isn't short of top predators.

"We have sparrow hawks, barn owls, tawny owls and kestrals to name but a few."

It's not just a visitor attraction, education plays a key role at the reserve too.

"We have always had the vision to use it for educational purposes," said Nigel.

"With our new visitor centre our education officer Leanne Thomas runs a busy schools program.

"Over the next two months we have over 600 children coming through our doors, learning about the countryside and habitats."

The brand new visitor and education centre is powered by green energy, produced by its own wind generator.

"We try to be as green as we possibly can. We draw our own water from the natural aquifer and our bio-digester toilets clean any liquids before pumping the water back into our dykes - it is good enough to drink," said Nigel.

40th anniversary

It's a special birthday for the Hawk and Owl Trust as they reach their 40th anniversary.

"We're putting together a series of events including a launch of an ale called Old Hushwing [an old term used for Barn owls]," said Nigel.

And if you think you have to travel for miles to find nature in Norfolk, Nigel sums up the reserve perfectly.

"It's a real hidden gem, one mile west of the centre of Fakenham - it's wonderful."

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