The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 674/Twenty Years on the Norfolk Fens

Twenty Years on the Norfolk Fens (1897)
by Last Cutting Farman

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 1, issues 674 (August, 1897), p. 351–357

4060575Twenty Years on the Norfolk Fens1897Last Cutting Farman

TWENTY YEARS ON THE NORFOLK FENS.

By Last C. Farman.

Before entering into details respecting the fauna of the district in which I reside, it will perhaps be best to describe the locality.

The little old-time village of Haddiscoe nestles on the verge of the watery vale of the Waveney, and abuts the main turnpike road. In a north-easterly direction is situate the famous town of Great Yarmouth, some eight miles distant as the crow flies. About the same amount of mileage would take us to the easternmost point of England, viz. the town of Lowestoft. Immediately on passing through the village, we reach the celebrated Norfolk fen or marshland, stretching away in a northerly direction as far as the eye can reach, its flatness only broken by the numerous drainage mills dotted about like sentinels. Looking in a north-easterly direction one sees the Herringfleet Hills, covered with heather and bracken and crowned by tall firs. It is but two miles from the village to these hills, to reach which we must cross one of the narrowest parts of the fens by the main road, locally called the dam, bent and twisted about like some huge serpent, and studded on either side with closely planted willows. At the foot of these hills meanders the old brown Waveney, from which this valley takes its name. In the midst of the fir trees we have referred to, ripple the waters of Fritton Lake. This lake during the winter months teems with wildfowl, and decoy pipes are successfully worked, some hundreds of Duck and other species of wildfowl annually having their necks wrung by the decoyman's hands. When winter storms burst upon us, thousands of wildfowl congregate on this lake, and flighting at night they scatter around the district, dropping all over the fens into the weedy ditches and shallows. It is almost needless to state that in such a district, and despite the revenue tax, wildfowlers are numerous, and on favourable nights an almost incessant fusillade is kept up in select spots when heavy rains or some breakage in the river's bank have flooded a few acres.

Having tramped these fens almost daily during the past twenty years, and during the shooting months with a gun for a companion, and having an eye upon the wondrous works of nature, it may prove interesting to the readers of 'The Zoologist' to learn something of my observations during that period. In particular, I, like many, most deeply regret the decrease in several species of our breeding birds.

I will now give a list of the birds which still breed on the fens here; this will not include the broads, where several other species continue to nest, though in diminished numbers. We number Heron, Wild Duck, Teal, Dabchick, Moorhen, Lapwing, Redshank, Common Snipe, Reed Warbler, Reed Bunting, Kingfisher, Sky Lark, Meadow Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Pheasant, Partridge, and Red-legged Partridge.

Herons.—There is a Heronry within a short distance of my home, and the birds seem to be fairly numerous throughout the district. Many are daily fishing in the ditches, which abound with Jack, Roach, Tench, Bream, and Perch in plenty, but Eels are scarcer every year, the Heron playing a great part toward diminishing the same. Many a tussle have I witnessed between Heron and Eel. In 1894 I counted twenty-six Herons on a twenty-acre marsh going through a toilet of wing preening, &c.; most of these were young birds. Fortunately for the Heron he is not a table bird, otherwise he might not survive here in such plenty. Specimens of both the Purple and Night Herons have been shot in the locality.

Wild Duck.—With the common Wild Duck I note a great falling off during the breeding season. In the early days of my observations it was not an uncommon occurrence to stumble across half a dozen clutches of young Ducks whilst tramping across the fens during the month of June. A few couples still breed here, and recently I flushed four in one lot and seven in another at sunrise and sunset. Little parties ranging up to ten in number may be seen tacking about the fens. In a wood not a mile from my home a Wild Duck successfully hatched a family several years in succession on the topmost branch of an oak tree.

Teal.—A few pairs of Teal annually breed here, and I always flush some of the birds from the ditches during the months of August and September.

Dabchick.—A few Dabchicks still remain in the locality, nesting on the Waveney, but I note a great decrease in this species.

Moorhen.—The Moorhen appears to be a very uncertain breeder in this neighbourhood. In the year 1885 scores of these birds nested in the district, and although some hundreds of eggs were taken, wherever one went the little black fluffy young could be seen, while the call of the mother birds and the weep of the young ones could be heard all over the fens. These diminished yearly till none were left. In 1894 we had another inrush, the ditches seemed alive with them, and whilst walking across the fens one morning I counted thirty nests containing eggs. Last year I only saw six nests, and this season I have not noticed one.

Lapwing.—Twenty years ago the Lapwings which nested with us were almost countless, now not one remains. The year 1894 saw the last three couples topple and twist over the old familiar breeding-grounds. What few remain are driven, mainly through steam drainage, to the Suffolk side of the Waveney, where the marsh is yet suitable for them, between the river and the Herringfleet Hills. Owing to the long drought, the land is now almost as hard as rock. The young Lapwings are thus seeking their sustenance by the water's edge at the ditches. A Lapwing—and we suppose it was the same bird—laid white eggs on the same marsh several years in succession.

Redshank.—Redshanks, like the Lapwings, have entirely forsaken the old haunts; fifteen years ago, many couples of these birds nested on the rushy marshes at the foot of the uplands, quite two miles from the river. Just ten years ago the last couple nested there, and in 1894 the last of the Redshanks nested on the Norfolk side of the Waveney. In early spring by the river side it is not uncommon to witness twenty Redshanks in one flock before they pair for nesting. I have noticed this species on the fens in almost every month of the year, and in 1894 I saw one on Christmas Day.

Snipe.—Few Snipe breed with us now,—I have not heard of a nest being found during the past five years. Some, however, lay on the Herringfleet Rands on the Suffolk side with the Lapwing and Redshank. I generally shoot a few young one during the month of August, high tides driving them from the Rands to the fen ditches.

Reed Warbler.—The Reed Warbler is nothing near so numerous in the district as of yore. When a youngster, I was fond of trailing through the tall reeds to search for Reed Warbler's nests, and had little difficulty in finding half a score. Now it would take a lot of searching to find that quantity of nests, and judging from the few birds one sees, this species has decreased very much during the past ten years.

Reed Bunting.—The Reed Bunting, like the Warbler, is on the decrease. Several, however, still remain and breed by the side of the deep ditches. Strange to say, though I have lived with these Buntings during a period extending over twenty years, I have only found two nests, one containing five young ones, the other four eggs, which I added to my collection.

Kingfisher.—Alas, for our gaudiest of British birds! Are we to retain it in Norfolk, or will this handsome bird, like the Great Auk, become extinct? It is rare at the present day to see a Kingfisher. I still know one place where a couple annually breed, and fortunate for such the owner of that particular nestingground worships their presence as a Hindoo would a god. Woe be to the miscreant who would dare to disturb that pair of sacred fishers. If any bird requires protection in Norfolk, it is the Kingfisher. In the year 1883 Kingfishers were very numerous on the fens, and I could see them daily. Occasionally I noticed as many as half a dozen together. Severe winters and the gun have almost exterminated this beautiful species as far as Norfolk is concerned.

Skylark.—The Skylark breeds profusely all over the marshes, and during nesting-time eggs can be found anywhere and everywhere. During the past twenty years I have found several nests of the Skylark containing young Cuckoos, the latter being very common at present in the gardens and thickets on the verge of the fens.

Meadow Pipit.—Of late years the Meadow Pipit seems to be on the decrease, though several still breed with us. I have seen a few nests myself this season, and allowed the same to remain undisturbed.

Yellow Wagtail.—The Yellow Wagtail is only second to the Skylark in breeding numbers. Annually, at the beginning of April, a large number of these handsome birds visit us, and I have seen some scores of them dotted about the fens. Their bright yellow plumage very much resembles the blossom of the dandelion, which at that time abounds in the locality. I fail to see any decrease on the part of the Yellow Wagtail in the district.

Pied Wagtail.—A pair or two of these nest on the fens, the majority taking to the uplands. I have taken some curious eggs of this species, and have on several occasions found their nests inhabited by a young Cuckoo. We have a liberal supply of Pied Wagtails in Norfolk.

Pheasants.—Pheasants breed all along the verge of the fens, and they seem to thrive and do well on these lowlands. Several breed amongst the tall grass by the side of the river Waveney.

Partridges.—Both the English and Red-legged Partridges nest on the fens, the former in numbers, the latter having very much decreased in the locality of late years. We have not a tithe of the number we had ten years ago.

A friend of mine in this neighbourhood commenced to make a collection of rare birds with his own gun. To give the readers of this Journal an idea of what Norfolk contains in the shape of avifauna, I will mention some of the rarest of the species he obtained, all shot within the last twenty years and within a few miles of my home; such as, Avocet, Spoonbill, Bittern, Scoter, Scaup, Shovellers, Smew, Gargany Teal, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Red-throated Diver, Common Arctic and Black Terns (a Sandwich Tern fell to his gun, but he failed to secure it), Little Gull, Pallas's Sand Grouse, Ring Ouzel, Woodlark, Grasshopper Warbler, and Pied Flycatcher. Besides many other waders, he also secured the following:—Curlew, Whimbrel, Golden and Grey Plovers in summer plumage, Turnstone, Sanderling, Little Stint, Temminck's Stint, besides a number of commoner species.

Rails, &c.—The Landrail or Corn Crake is rather rare in the locality. Whilst shooting at Kessingland last September I saw several, probably collected near the sea-coast preparatory to migration. I shot a fine specimen of the Spotted Crake by the Waveney in 1893, the only one I ever obtained with my own gun. The Water Rail used to be very common, but I seldom see one now. One of this species was shot at Oulton last season without legs. A Woodcock was shot the same day with short stumps hard as horn; the legs must have been cut or shot off some considerable time, as the bird was in good condition. Speaking of Woodcocks, I saw a pure white specimen which was shot at Acle in 1894. The following white birds have also been shot in the district:—Several Wild Duck, Blackbird, Fieldfare, Starling, Jackdaw, House Sparrow, House Martin, Greenfinch, and Robin with red breast.

Not having sufficient time to give a full list of the rarities killed or seen in the district, I will confine myself to mentioning the following:—Three or four Hoopoes of recent years have have fallen victims, one Golden Oriole, several Waxwings, a Two-barred Crossbill, and a Baven shot on the marshes, besides Grey and Red-necked Phalaropes. As probably most or some of these have previously been duly recorded in these pages, further comment is needless. Two Cranes have fallen to the gun during my period of observation, one of which I saw myself. Several Bitterns have been killed near the river Waveney, two of which fell to the gun of a cousin of mine, as well as a Little Auk. Several of these birds have been picked up all over Norfolk after strong gales from the north-east. I saw several flocks of the famous Pallas's Sand Grouse when visiting us a few years back.

In October, with an easterly wind, come the winter migrants streaming across the fens—thousands of Rooks, Jackdaws, Kentish Crows, Skylarks, Chaffinches, Lapwings, and Golden Plover. I have noticed these birds coming from the sea, tracking after each other six or seven days in succession.

We generally see a few young Golden Plovers in August, but the main body arrive about November 27th, and a number remain till severe weather drives them elsewhere. We had some thousands of these birds last winter on the fens, mingled with which were Dunlins and Ring Plovers. We usually have a good day or two with the Snipe in November, but these birds have very much diminished during the past twenty years, our marshes becoming more solid and unsuitable for them, and we have to tramp the ditches for the few couple we yearly obtain. We have some good sport with Snipe during moonlight weather by sitting near a swamp of shallow water facing the moon, and I have knocked over several in an evening. They come screaming through the air like bullets, and dropping into the shallow water can be easily discerned in the moonlight, and, with care, shot sitting. You do not see them when once on the wing. Lapwings and Plovers are similar in habit, and these come before the Ducks' flight. After having done with the Snipe, &c, you can often add a Duck or two to your bag.

In some winters we have a number of Geese on the fens, but, owing to absence of cover, not many are shot. In 1890 we had some large strings of Geese feeding quite close to the village, and these remained several weeks. I managed to shoot one Bean Goose out of seven; a friend shot three Grey Lags out of twenty-one, besides a fine specimen of the Canada Goose; and my father shot a Bernacle Goose. Specimens of the Brent and Egyptian Geese have also been shot here. I counted eighty-four Grey Lags in one company. Some winters produce Swans. In the year 1894 we had several in the district, and I shot one Whooper; while a specimen of Bewick's Swan was also shot. A friend of mine killed three Whoopers with one shot.

During the severe weather of 1894 we had some fine Smew and Goosanders up the river, besides Sheldrakes, Scaup, Tufted Ducks, Golden-eyes, Crested Grebes, and Coots in numbers, driven from the broads.

There still remain a few Hares on the fens, and some Otters. Several of the ditches teem with fish of late years. Pike have been taken, from nineteen pounds downwards; I captured a Bream in 1896 weighing six pounds and a half, besides four excellent Tench. We had a few years back abundance of Eels, but, owing to steam drainage and constant persecution by Eel-pickers and Herons, they are becoming scarce in the ditches.


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