Wild about Wheat­fen

For a quar­ter of a cen­tury David Nobbs has trod­den the path­ways of Wheat­fen na­ture re­serve, con­serv­ing, ob­serv­ing and main­tain­ing one of Nor­folk’s most spe­cial and be­guil­ing places for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. RACHEL BULLER met him

Norfolk - - Inside -

We meet the war­den who has helped pre­serve Ted El­lis’s legacy for 25 years

“THESE DAF­FODILS here have been grow­ing in the same line for nearly 90 years; they were planted by the re­serve’s orig­i­nal owner Cap­tain Cock­les in 1929,” says David Nobbs, ges­tur­ing to a patch of yet-to-bloom flow­ers emerg­ing from the wa­ter. “Ev­ery year I sym­bol­i­cally cut some and take them home to put in a vase as my own lit­tle trib­ute to him and this won­der­ful place.”

In this sod­den, re­cently-cut reed bed it is hard to be­lieve any­thing grows at all – but hav­ing over­seen Wheat­fen Na­ture Re­serve for 25 years as war­den, David knows bet­ter than most the magic of this ever-chang­ing, hardy land­scape.

He knows ev­ery move­ment of the ti­dal wa­ters, ev­ery bird call which in­ter­rupts the mes­meris­ing si­lence, ev­ery new shoot, ev­ery change in habit of its res­i­dents; his knowl­edge is en­cy­clopaedic.

Next month, he will fi­nally re­tire af­ter a quar­ter of the cen­tury as stew­ard of one of Nor­folk’s best loved re­serves, clos­ing the door on an in­cred­i­ble chap­ter in Wheat­fen’s his­tory.

“I am 66 next week and to be hon­est I never thought I would be reed cut­ting and dyke clear­ing at this age, but I have been very lucky with my health when you con­sider I have been work­ing in this cold, damp en­vi­ron­ment with the east­erly wind blow­ing in for all these years,” he laughs.

Wheat­fen was the home of nat­u­ral­ist, broad­caster and writer Ted El­lis – one of Nor­folk’s most fa­mous res­i­dents – and the Ted El­lis Trust was set up by his widow Phyl­lis fol­low­ing his death in 1986, to en­sure Wheat­fen re­mained the spe­cial place which had so en­rap­tured him for a life­time.

“Ted had left a map show­ing us ex­actly what the re­serve was like in the 1930s with the hope we could re­turn it to that state, as it had be­come largely in­ac­ces­si­ble. It gives me real plea­sure be­cause I feel, along with a won­der­ful team of vol­un­teers here, we have fi­nally re­alised that dream of Ted and Phyl­lis.

“We have re­stored the dykes, the paths, the fen and the wa­ter qual­ity here is won­der­ful now; the water­ways are thriv­ing with life. It has seen a dra­matic re­turn for the ot­ter, which was such a scarce crea­ture. When you see one in the wild for the first time, it is an in­cred­i­ble thrill and some­thing you never for­get.”

Things have changed since those early days. He now has an of­fice; a wooden cabin, with an old-fash­ioned heater on the wall, glow­ing red, to keep out the un­re­lent­ing cold and damp of the win­ter.

The walls are lit­tered with pho­to­graphs and old news­pa­per clip­pings re­mind­ing ev­ery­one of Wheat­fen’s sig­nif­i­cance, and there are books and records, metic­u­lously de­tail­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary nat­u­ral his­tory of the place over the last 50 years.

David started his life in farm­ing but, as agri­cul­ture changed, he be­gan to re­alise his fu­ture might lie else­where so he be­gan a con­ser­va­tion course at Ot­ley Col­lege in Suf­folk. As part of that train­ing he took a place­ment at Wheat­fen, where he stayed for sev­eral months. When the war­den be­came ill and was un­able to re­turn, David found him­self step­ping in.

“I would never have got the job as war­den now, as on pa­per I re­ally didn’t have any ex­pe­ri­ence,” he laughs. “But I fell in love with the re­serve. Phyl­lis was there along­side me and was a great help in those early years. We got on ab­so­lutely fab­u­lously.”

The ket­tle in David’s of­fice is al­ways on, and that, he says, is part of his prom­ise to Phyl­lis.

“She very much had an open door pol­icy and would al­ways make vis­i­tors a cup of tea, some­thing I promised her I would keep up. So I get the ket­tle on and have a chat with ev­ery­one. It is a very im­por­tant – and en­joy­able - part of my job.

“The re­serve has a spe­cial place in the hearts of peo­ple in Nor­folk and Ted’s legacy

re­mains in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to­day.”

Walk­ing around Wheat­fen with David, his deep un­der­stand­ing and con­nec­tion with the en­vi­ron­ment which has con­sumed him for so long is an in­fec­tious thing.

“Be­ing in the same place for 25 years you get to know where ev­ery thing is – you get to un­der­stand the life cy­cles of species, where and when cer­tain plants flower, and where to spot dif­fer­ent things.”

He says cer­tain views on the re­serve give him as much joy to­day as they did at first glimpse.

“Win­ter com­ing into spring is my favourite time as ev­ery­thing starts to wake up, but you can still see so much wildlife through the trees, across the reed beds and in the wa­ter chan­nels. Cetti’s war­blers seem to follow you around with their dis­tinct sharp call, bearded tits watch from the top of reed heads and you see Chi­nese wa­ter deer graz­ing around the paths.

“On a lovely crisp, bright frosty morn­ing it is mag­i­cal, es­pe­cially if the mist is hang­ing above the wa­ter.”

One of the ma­jor pro­jects which David has over­seen is the ma­jor restora­tion of Thatch Pond thanks to sup­port from Nor­folk Coun­try Cot­tages, which was founded by Ted’s nephew Richard El­lis.

“It is one of my favourite spots and to see the project fin­ished was in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to me. Hope­fully it will at­tract even more wildlife, such as dragon­flies, ot­ters and lit­tle egrets,” he says.

Be­yond the pond is the huge ex­panse of cut reed bed where wildflower­s in­ex­pli­ca­bly rise from the wet­land, cre­at­ing a car­pet of vi­brant colour through­out the spring and sum­mer, in­clud­ing Cap­tain Cockle’s daf­fodils.

“I still cut this reed bed, ev­ery year, and take great joy in the task. It is full of flow­ers, such as flag irises, marigolds, daf­fodils and so much more. As one type dies, an­other springs into life to re­place it. It re­ally is quite a pic­ture.”

Flow­ers emerg­ing from the wa­ter

Swal­low­tail cater­pil­lar

Ot­ter at Wheat­fen

Rae leaf beetle not found any­where else in the coun­try

Swal­low­tail but­ter­fly

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