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Wildlife on the Norfolk Broads
By Rob Sykes
BBC Norfolk

Cockshoot Broad (Photo: Ray Jones)
The waterways of Norfolk are home to a huge variety of wildlife

Springwatch highlighted the mecca that Norfolk provides for wildlife, but there is much more to see and it's often unique to the county.

The broads provide a sanctuary for all types of wildlife, both native and those introduced by man.

With its open waterways and diverse ecosystems, the Broads provide the perfect mix of leisure and education.

"Norfolk is special due to its rich variety in habitats," said Aggie Rothon, RSPB East.

The Broads are not only a special habitat, but also unique to Norfolk. For a long time they were thought to be a natural feature but in reality they are man-made.

The rich peat beds provided a source of fuel and were first exploited by the Romans. Over the years, successive generations mined the beds and with rising sea levels they eventually flooded, creating the intricate course of waterways you see today.

Nowadays the Broads are the UK's largest protected wetland and as such, support many different species.

From birds to mammals, the wildlife living on the Broads is richly varied and can often only be found in Norfolk.

"Because of its size, much of the flora and fauna is more abundant in the Broads and there is a high proportion of species present that are scarce elsewhere in country," said Brendan Joyce, director of Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Swallowtail butterfly (Photo: Thea Nicholls)
Norfolk is the only place in the UK in which to see the swallowtail butterfly

The habitat

The habitat is largely split into two categories; the fens and open water (the Broads themselves) and the drained grazing marshes.

"The fens and open water are rich in species such as swallowtail butterfly, breeding bittern and marsh harrier; the grazing marshes are characterised by drainage ditches with abundant water plants, water voles and also large flocks of wintering ducks and geese," said Brendan.

The Broads are the only place in the UK where you can see the swallowtail, so the conservation of our natural world is vital to their existence.

"Much of the fenland and open water, as well as large areas of grazing marsh, are designated as sites of European Importance for wildlife," said Brendan.

"Much of the Broads could be better for wildlife - open water has been grossly polluted, but some areas are slowly recovering. The grazing marshes could support more birdlife and aquatic plants but water levels are often too low," he added.

The sheer size of the Broads make them very hard to conserve.

Chris Packham

Packham's love for Norfolk

"No one organisation looks after the Broads. Conservation bodies such as the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB and the National Trust have very large land holdings which have to be managed," said Brendan.

"Much land is in private ownership and is often managed with financial support from Natural England.

"The Broads Authority is the national park authority and has statutory powers to regulate management, as does the Environment Agency which also carries out flood defence works. Another important organisation is the Broads Internal Drainage Broad which manages water levels on the grazing marshes," he added.


The habitat provided by the Broads is a dream for twitchers, with a huge array of birdlife.

"The Broads are the heartland for more rare species of wetland bird as well as the more common species," said Aggie Rothon, communications officer for RSPB Eastern England.

"In terms of the latter, you'll see kingfishers darting along the banks of the rivers. On the water, mute swans, ducks such as the mallard, the tufted duck, shelduck and shoveler and black headed gulls as well as greylag and Canada geese.

"Reedbeds will hold a variety of warblers such as the Cetti's warbler, reed and sedge warblers. You may also see bearded tits and hear their 'pinging' call.

Marsh harrier (Photo: Hannah McVey)
Many species are now flourishing on the Broads like the marsh harrier

"In terms of rarer species, the Broads are a stronghold for special species such as the bittern and marsh harrier. In winter, hen harriers can often be seen along with bean geese."

Not only do the Broads provide a home for wildlife but they have helped species thrive and reverse declining numbers.

"The Broads are very important for wildlife. Species such as bitterns and marsh harriers have previously suffered from a huge decline in numbers. Through conservation efforts, we now have both species regularly breeding within the Broads," said Aggie.

"The Broads also support other special species such as the Fen orchid, the otter and Norfolk Hawker dragonfly," she added.

Varied ecosystems

The sheer variety of habitats make Norfolk perfect for supporting varied ecosystems.

"The only thing the Broads doesn't have is mountains! Other than that there are heathlands, wetlands, woodlands and coastal areas so it's really vast in terms of habitat," said Aggie.

"As Norfolk was the last part of the UK to split from the continent, you often find species here that you may not find elsewhere in the country. Migration time also brings rarer birds to our coast," she added.

Norfolk is home to non-native species such as Chinese water deer and American mink. However, this can sometimes provide cause for concern.

Ranworth Broad (Photo: Barry Madden)
American mink
Can be found in and around many Norfolk waterways, but their elusive nature makes them difficult to see
Active throughout the day and can be seen throughout the year
Chinese water deer
Widely distributed in the Norfolk Broads and make use of the tall, wet fen vegetation for cover
Dusk and dawn are the best times to see them, especially during the rutting season in October
Swallowtail butterfly
Limited to the Norfolk Broads, choosing sites with a growth of milk parsley
Adults emerge from late May and will live on average for one month
Favour wetlands with extensive reed cover
Seen all year round, especially in the winter when wintering bitterns arrive from abroad

"There are a number of introduced species in Norfolk," said Brendan Joyce.

"There are particular concerns about aquatic plants like Australian swamp stonecrop, as well as zebra mussels that may spread throughout the Broads and waterways.

"Given the importance of the Broads for aquatic wildlife, any significant impact to its ecosystems would have a huge impact of national importance.

"The mink is of particular concern because of its impact on Norfolk's water vole population. Muntjac deer are having a devastating effect on some ancient woodlands by eating its shrubbery."


As beautiful as the Broads are, increased tourism can have an effect on wildlife.

"Boat traffic has an adverse impact on water quality by disturbing sediment. Boating causes problems by disturbing waterfowl and leads to demands to cut aquatic plants, which puts ecological recovery at risk," said Brendan.

That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the Broads and all they have to offer. Provided that you stick to the guidelines, there is no reason why the Broads can't continue to flourish.

"Boat users have plenty of information provided to them on how to minimise their impact by, for example, sticking to speed limits, avoiding disturbance to winter wildfowl flocks," said Brendan.

It can be a bit of a Catch 22 situation, because the very wildlife that is suffering at the hands of tourism also benefits from it.

"To balance the view, tourism does drive the local economy which has led to much investment, for example, in improvements to water quality. People visiting the area will hopefully appreciate it and wish to conserve it once they are informed of its special qualities."

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