Farmland: prairies of crops hide a multitude of fascinating wildlife.
THE DOMINATING LANDSCAPE OF NORFOLK, and the one that gives the county its rural appeal: it is the mix of arable and livestock agriculture that defines the mostly flat topography of this virtually man-made environment. The landscape is part of a plateau known as the East Anglian Plain that is underlain by chalk and only deviating from flatness with the incisions of streams and river valleys (the highest point being Beacon Hill at 105-meters above sea level.) It is thought that ice sheets deposited a layer of boulder clay tens of meters thick on top of this chalk some 350,000 years ago, smothering the pre-glacial river gravels evident beneath the clay.

Although massively deprived of wildlife rich areas such as hedgerows since the Second World War through field enlargement and changing farming practices, the irregular field pattern of previous centuries can still be detected and this is where some of Norfolk's most familiar wild animals can still be seen; the brown hare, more accustomed to the Eurasian steppe is perfectly at home in cereal fields and grassland margins whilst the towering song of skylarks resonates from high above on warm spring days. 
It is not only birds that can make use of the fields during the winter months. Brown hares will happily nibble away at winter cereal growth to sustain themselves into the spring, when the warmer weather produces a growth surge in the crops and instils in them the urge to find a mate; this is when we notice them most vividly, frolicking and chasing each other about the landscape in their fabled 'Mad March' pantomime. Hares are not the only mammals to frequent the farmland environment; field voles scurry about beneath the rough and matted grasses of grazing meadows and pastures whilst bank voles and wood mice clamber amongst the hedgerows and ditches, feeding on seeds during the winter and spring, followed by the fruits of summer and autumn.

The decline of insects in the intensely farmed prairies is well documented and a cause for concern. It is not all doom and gloom however; modern, well educated farmers now recognise the importance of insects within the landscape, particularly those that assist with the pollination of crops. It is becoming more common to see food crops planted in partnership with colourful strips of nectar rich plants, providing food for bees, beetles and butterflies; the very animals that pollinate the crops we need for our own day-to-day sustenance.

Large round bales of straw in a field.
Ripening cereal crops growing in morning sunshine.
Fields full of cereal crops have a particularly aesthetic quality once the ears of the plants have begun to develop. On a bright summer's morning the semi-golden crops suggest that harvest time is not far away. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM TEN IMAGES)

It is easy to overlook the wildlife living in what we often regard as the countryside, the thousands of hectares of crops and ploughed fields that whizz past us as we travel from place-to-place in our cars or when crammed into a bus or train, yet the fields and verges are alive with hidden animals and plants. Many of these animals live with us throughout the year, bolstering themselves against the damp and cold of the winter months on meagre rations, birds often forming flocks to increase their chances of finding food, where many eyes are better than just a few. Rooks are a prime example, with many hundreds frequently seen systematically working a stubble field in the depths of winter, picking up spilt grain and prising a grub from beneath the soil surface.
Large round bales of straw are a familiar scene during the late weeks of summertime, a period of great activity on Norfolk's farmland. Paradoxically, as farmers are busy gathering the harvest, wildlife is taking it easy after the hectic days of summer. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM EIGHT IMAGES)


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