The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 676/Fen versus Marsh

Fen versus Marsh  (1897) 
by Thomas Southwell

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 1, issues 676 (October, 1897), p. 437–443


No. 676.—October, 1897.


By Thomas Southwell, F.Z.S.

In the Introduction to his 'Birds of Norfolk,' the late Mr. Stevenson gave an admirable description of the physical features of the county of Norfolk, in which he pointed out that its surface might be sharply divided into six very distinct sections, both with relation to the very marked characters of each area, and also in the light of its distinctive fauna and flora. These divisions, which may be traced with the greatest precision on the map, he designated—1st, "the Broad" district, including the great alluvial plains bordering the sluggish rivers of East Norfolk, which have always hitherto been known as "Marshes," Reed Bonds, or Levels; 2nd, the "Cliff"; 3rd, the Meal, consisting of sandy warrens and salt-marshes near the coast; 4th, the "Breck," consisting of the extensive (for the most part unenclosed) lands and sheep-walks to the west and south-west of the county; 5th, the "Fen," confined to the south-west border; and 6th, the "Inclosed," or more highly cultivated portion, constituting the east central division of the county, extending from north to south. It is only with the first and fifth of these divisions that we have here to deal, and my purpose in contributing the following remarks is to protest against the misuse of the term "Fens," which has of late been frequently applied (e.g. in your own Journal, p. 351)[1] to the fine tracts, mostly of splendid grazing "marshes," which characterize the eastern portion of the county of Norfolk, and which term, however correct it may be from a strictly etymological point of view, is certainly in the present case misleading, and a breach of a convenient distinction perfectly understood by the inhabitants of the respective districts.

The "Fen" district of Norfolk is perfectly distinct both in its physical aspect, its geological formation, the character of its inhabitants, and to a considerable extent in its fauna and flora, from the eastern "marshes"; it is entirely confined, as has been said, to the south-western portion of the county, and, although sharply defined on the whole, its outline is much broken. Commencing near Brandon, its eastern boundary follows the high land in an irregular line near to the towns of Hockwold, Feltwell, Methwold, and Stoke Ferry, at which latter point it takes a sudden bend westward along the valley of the Wissey to Fordham, approaching nearly to the river Ouse, and, after sending off a branch along the Nar valley, is continued nearly up to the town of Lynn. To the west it merges in the great Cambridgeshire Fens, and includes the north-west corner of Norfolk, rightly known as "Marshland," the whole forming a portion of the great Bedford Level. Marshland, properly so called, and rightly distinguished even here from the adjoining fens, consists of some 57,000 acres of very fertile land, which have gradually been recovered from the sea by means of artificial embankments, and is absolutely distinct both in name and origin from the adjoining "Fens." In an article entitled "The Fens and Fen-Folk," which appeared in the 'Transactions' of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society (vol. iii. p. 610), I endeavoured to convey some idea of the past and present condition of this remarkable tract of country, as well as of its former inhabitants, a totally different race to the hardy sons of Norsemen inhabiting the north and east coasts of Norfolk; to this article I must refer your readers should they care to pursue the subject, but perhaps I may be allowed to quote a few passages from an address which I had the honour to deliver to the same Society at their Annual Meeting in 1894, briefly referring to the same subject:—

"Of the true Fen there is little left to enable any conception to be formed as to its appearance, even, say, a century ago, much less in still earlier times, when the land was forest clad and inhabited by the Wolf, the Wild Boar, and the Beaver; whilst giant Stags and herds of fierce Urus roamed its glades, and Cranes and Pelicans made their homes in its fastnesses. The trees have been swallowed up by the growing peat, which has also preserved the remains of its vanished fauna. One little spot, however—at Wicken, in Cambridgeshire—no doubt fairly represents one of the aspects of the Fen before modern draining and cultivation had destroyed for ever its former characteristics; here unbroken tracts of Sedge, Cladium mariscus, clothe the wet soil, and the dead level is only relieved by an occasional clump of dwarf sallows; the effect, however, is destroyed even here by the 'loads' which convey the water to the draining mill, the tall chimney of which may be seen in the distance.

"The fauna and flora of this district must have been exceptionally interesting; of the latter, doubtless, a fairly accurate conception can be formed, but of the former we have few indications. Whether the Crane ever bred in the Norfolk Fens in historic times is uncertain, but seems probable;[2] it appears, however, to have been by no means a rare species.[3] I think there can be no doubt the Greylag Goose was formerly a regular breeder in this county, as well as in the Fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire,[4] but when we come to the Bittern, there is no doubt on the subject; till their haunts were destroyed they were extremely plentiful, especially about Poppelot; but now this characteristic denizen of the Fens no longer

'Undulates her note
Like a deep-mouthed bassoon.'

Its former haunts know it no more; but a man from that neighbourhood, with whom Prof. Newton conversed in 1853, assured him that his uncle had killed five Bitterns in one day's shooting, and that his grandfather used to have one roasted every Sunday for dinner. From the same source Prof. Newton learned that the Herons, now nesting at Didlington, formerly resorted to the sallow bushes and sedges in Hockwold and Feltwell Fens for that purpose, a mode of nesting which they also had recourse to in times past in certain of the reed-beds of the Broads. Redshanks and Ruffs of course abounded, and lingered as long as there were suitable feeding grounds, and even returned in 1853, as Prof. Newton has told us in his interesting paper (vide infra), after the great flood had temporarily restored the Fen somewhat to its former condition. Ducks, as may be imagined, were very abundant, and there were Decoys at Stow Bardolph, Hilgay, Methwold, Hockwold, and Lakenheath, where immense numbers of Shovellers, Pintails, Pochards, Gadwals, Wigeon, Teal, and Mallards were taken. A man named Wilson, generally known as 'Old Ducks,' was a great slaughterer of fowl at a Decoy on Methwold 'Severals,' but one Williams, at the Lakenheath Decoy, seems to have been even more successful still.

"The glory of the Fens were the various species of Harrier; these birds must have been especially abundant there, as they were also in the Broad district on the other side of the county. At Poppelot so numerous were they that it is even said the fenmen amused themselves on a Sunday, at a public-house in the centre of the Sedge Fen, by pelting each other with their eggs! Now both the Sedge Fen and the birds which used to inhabit it are gone, but it is remarkable how tenaciously the Harriers held on; constant persecution, however, was too much for them, and first the Marsh Harrier (always far less numerous than the other two species), then the Hen Harrier, and finally Montagu's Harrier, disappeared—the latter most reluctantly, for a long time clinging to one or two favoured spots, but now, I fear, quite restricted to the north-east portion of the county, where a pair or two of this and the Marsh Harrier may still be found in most years; but the Hen Harrier is exceedingly rare. The same fate awaited the Short-eared Owl, which followed in the wake of the Harriers. Another bird common in the Fens was the Grasshopper Warbler, or 'Reeler' as it was called by the sedge-cutters; and yet another, a rarity of the first water, Savi's Warbler, was found breeding at Poppelot.

"Speaking of the Fenland, which lies in the valley of the Ouse, Spelman says:—'All these parts often suffer loss from the river overflowing the marshes, but yet the gain annually is not small (from the fertilizing nature of the waters), besides the great abundance of fish and other water creatures (as wildfowl that are there attracted). This river is, as it were, the milky way to many inland places, for by it they import and export largely merchandise and the necessaries of life.' But this is as nothing to his praises of Lynn, with his remarks on which earthly paradise I must depart out of the Fens. 'Lynn,' says Spelman, 'is so well provided by nature with esculents and drinks, that it may seem to be the storehouse both of Ceres and Bacchus; for on its eastern side there is a great abundance of corn, eggs, Rabbits, and land birds, while on the western side there is a like abundance of cheese, butter, Oxen, Swans, and marsh birds; and in the neighbourhood of fish—on the one side sea-fish, and on the other river and fresh-water fish; so that scarcely in all Britain, perhaps in all Europe, is so great an abundance of eatables to be met with in like space.'"

We will now cross the county, and visit the great alluvial plain intersected by sluggish rivers, and studded with open sheets of water known as "Broads," lying in the south-eastern corner, and extending southward to Lowestoft, in Suffolk. The rivers are the Bure, the Yare, and the Waveney, with their tributaries flowing through valleys excavated in the glacial beds, the alluvial deposit in which is of great depth, and the process of growing up is still rapidly progressing, whilst the drier portions known as mowing marshes year by year are becoming more solid. In the north are the Horsey and Waxham marshes, further inland the valley of the Bure has its miles of reed-rond and mowing marsh; but the finest stretch of all is the great level plain, affording in summer and early autumn pasturage for innumerable cattle and sheep, through which the traveller by rail passes in his journey from Reedham eastward to Yarmouth, or south-east nearly to Lowestoft. I do not know the extent of the marshes in the valley of the Waveney to which your correspondent, Mr. Farman, refers, there must be many thousands of acres; but, confining my remarks to the county of Norfolk, this great alluvial piain comprises some 14,000 acres. Again quoting from the address before referred to:—

It "forms roughly a triangle, of which the ridge of high land running north for six miles from Reedham to Acle Bridge constitutes the base, and the two sides are represented by the courses of the rivers Bure and Yare, each for a distance of about seven miles in a straight line, converging at Yarmouth, and enclosing a tract of country shown on Faden's fine map, surveyed in the years 1790–94, with but a single marsh-road winding along near its centre, from Halvergate to a point about half-way between Reedham and Yarmouth, where it joins a similar track which follows the river bank from the former place; their joint course is then continued along the north banks of Breydon to the town of Yarmouth.

"Marshall, in his 'Rural Economy of Norfolk,'[5] speaking of this great level, significantly remarks that it is 'tolerable in summer,' and then relates his experience of a visit which he paid on the 17th June, 1782. Entering the marshes at Halvergate, he says that for nearly the first mile they rode to their horses' knees in water! They then inspected a marsh-mill, of which Faden's map shows only thirteen in the whole level (these doubtless altogether not equal in efficiency to one of the powerful steam mills which have supplanted them), and, making a sweep towards the middle of the marsh, they returned to Wickhampton, where, he states, the entrance to the marsh was always free from water. This great expanse of marsh was perhaps the finest Snipe ground in England; as many as seventy or eighty couple are there said to have fallen to one gun in a single day; and it formed the breeding-place of thousands of Ruffs, and who can tell what other birds, for there is little known of it and its inhabitants in those days, when only the shepherds and sportsmen ever trod its splashy soil. Although perfectly treeless, this great plain was not one dead level; there were sufficient irregularities to render certain portions drier than others, and these 'hills,' as they were called by the marshmen, formed the nesting-places of the Ruffs, Redshanks, Snipes, and other marsh-loving species, which frequented them in summer in large numbers; whilst on the wooded highlands to the north, along which the old Yarmouth road runs, Herons had their homes; and at Acle and Mautby were celebrated Duck Decoys, now no longer worked, and earlier still the Cormorants nested at Reedham.

"How changed is all this in the present day! From Acle to Yarmouth an excellent road runs straight across the marshes, whilst a railroad takes much the same course; and a second line of railway follows very nearly the same route as the old riverside track I spoke of earlier. Large sums are expended annually on drainage, and all through the summer, and often far into the autumn, the flat rich marshes are dotted over with cattle and sheep innumerable, luxuriating in the rich herbage."

From an ethnological point of view the men of North and East Norfolk are a vastly superior race to the mixed inhabitants of the Fens; they are silent, and, as might be expected from their lonely life on the sea or in the solitude of the marshes, very superstitious; but they are honest, brave as lions, quarrelsome over their cups like their Viking progenitors, but otherwise gentle as lambs. Not easy of approach, but once their confidence gained they are full of information, and with an abundance of ready wit expressed in a dialect peculiar to themselves. Many a time have I looked with admiration on these stalwart giants, and been struck with the easy grace of their bearing, their finely-cut features, crisp, curly, tawny-coloured hair and beards, the picture of manly beauty—the stuff that our Shovells, Minns, and Nelsons are made of—but such as are never bred in the "Fens."

  1. "Twenty Years on the Norfolk Fens."
  2. See 'Birds of Norfolk,' vol. ii. p. 125.
  3. The Le Stranges of Hunstanton, entertaining the prior of Coxford, Sir Henry Sharbourne, and others, in the year 1520, dined off a Crane, six Plovers, and a brace of Rabbits. This bird is mentioned in the 'Household Book' five times, and is valued at precisely the same sum as the Curlew, varying from 4d. to 6d.
  4. Op. cit. vol. iii. p. 3.
  5. Edit. 2, vol. iii. p. 276.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.