Broadland: reclaimed by nature from mans' industrial past.
BRITAIN'S LARGEST WETLAND -- now designated a National Park -- is a hugely diverse and complex natural area extending over the lower valleys of the rivers Waveney, Yare and Bure. This low-lying land is underlain by the shell-rich, muddy, sandy sediments known as Crag that was left behind in relatively shallow waters of a cool or temperate constitution thousands of years ago. The climate has continued to oscillate since the end of the last Ice Age with varying sequences of peat forming in times of amelioration. Before the 13th century the Broadland area was a functional wetland floodplain shifting from saline to freshwater habitats, but the extensive commercial peat digging that was to follow left giant man-made scars on the landscape; these diggings later filled with floodwater, leaving behind the characteristic lakes that now give the area its name.

An area of international importance to wildlife, the Broads is a winter refuge for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and wading birds, not to mention the only place in Britain where the swallowtail butterfly and Norfolk hawker dragonfly can be observed. It's extraordinary to think that what we now recognise as broadland was once a wooded area, more akin to a  mangrove swamp with the ebbing and flowing of tidal surges, before large scale clearance of the landscape led to this part of east Norfolk becoming commercially productive for several centuries. Evidence of how the area may have looked can be found in the surviving carr woodland, dominated by alder and willow, which provides a constant backdrop to the mirrored surface of the broads themselves.


The varieties of differing habitats that comprise the broadland area are many and varied. The flat, open grazing marshes crisscrossed with ditches provide nesting places for redshank and lapwing during the summer months, transforming into feeding grounds for wild geese and widgeon at the onset of winter. Rustling reed-swamp comes alive in spring with the churring, scratchy, monosyllabic tones of reed and sedge warblers staking out their breeding territories; the ditches themselves buzz and clatter with clashing dragonflies; rivers and the open water of broads offer occasional sightings of an otter fishing at dusk or dawn. 


A classic broadland landscape comprises a great variety of different habitats, including sedge and reed beds, open water.
A classic broadland landscape comprises a great variety of different habitats, including sedge and reed beds, open water and East Anglia's own version of mangrove swamp; alder carr woodland. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM TWELVE IMAGES)

It is not only the fauna of broadland that provides much interest to the naturalist, unique plant communities to be found nowhere else in Britain are apparent, the peculiar water soldier for example, reminiscent of floating pineapples and essential to the survival of the Norfolk hawker, or the elusive and easily overlooked fen orchid, extremely rare, nationally protected and localised to but a few sites throughout the country.

There is no best time to visit any particular location or habitat within the Broadland National Park, for at any season there will be a natural occurrence to grip the imagination. The marshes have a windswept bleakness all of their own in winter yet are hot and humid during the summer, with over-wintering raptors replacing predatory dragonflies, and the play of large skies on millpond flat water during an icy January day can be interrupted at any moment by mesmerising murmurations of roosting starlings, in steep contrast to the myriads of whirring insects you may have found earlier in the year.
Sunrise over the Norfolk Broadland's marshes.
Grazing marshes and their adjoining ditches are an essential component of the broadland environment. Without them, many species of plants and invertebrates would not exist.


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Text and photography © James Williamson |
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