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Birds, butterflies and more at Norfolk’s Strumpshaw Fen

I arrived at the Strumpshaw Fen reception centre just in time to glimpse a jack snipe sitting among the reeds less than five metres away. I was able to grab a photograph of it before it moved into thicker growth, amid which its camouflage rendered it almost invisible. I had come here hoping to see a bittern, but if I was unlucky, then the jack snipe, which I had not seen before, would be adequate compensation, for I have never left here disappointed.

I had driven to Norfolk a few days earlier, through heavy sleet and rain, though now, with the sun, had come a hint that the long delayed spring was perhaps on its way. Pairs of greylag geese and mute swans sailed peacefully across the water, while a coot dragged a beakful of broken reeds, presumably nesting material, from one side of the pond to the other, despite the fact that the nesting site itself lay amid thick reeds.

Strumpshaw Fen is an extensive wetland area about six miles east of Norwich. Managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), it is home to large numbers of water birds, mammals and invertebrates, some of which are rarely seen elsewhere in the country. The narrow approach road ends at a railway track which, to reach the reserve, must be crossed with vigilance, as the line is still in daily use. The reception centre, though small, doubles as a hide, wood mousegiving excellent views across the lake and its surrounding reed beds. Coffee, tea and light snacks are available.

Leaving the reception centre, I followed the woodland trail south for a few hundred metres. Tits and finches of various kinds flitted among the branches, as did wrens, those noisiest of small avians. Turning right, I carried on between a damp meadow and a patch of waterlogged alder carr, accompanied by peacock and vivid yellow brimstone butterflies, to arrive at Fen Hide, where I spent the next hour.


The hide commands a clear view across an open stretch of water backed by reed beds, through which broad areas had been cleared. Coots, mallards and a pair of gadwalls paddled across the pond and a Chinese water deer tip-toed out of the reeds and began to nibble the new shoots. These small deer were introduced to Britain in the late 19th century, and several herds are now flourishing throughout the Norfolk wetlands. Their numbers are declining in their native China, with the result that the British colonies now make up around 10% of the world population.

Above, circled three of the fen’s most striking inhabitants, marsh harriers. One of these swooped down on the deer and nipped it on the back, then flew off again. The deer jumped but was not otherwise deterred from its foraging. A second harrier, a female, alighted on a pile of cut reeds and spent the next several minutes preening herself. Her efforts were rewarded when a male descended and quickly mated with her.

A further short section of trail brought me to the bank of the River Yare, which I followed north to Tower Hide. The proximity of the river meant that this part of the track was prone to flooding during wet weather. Indeed it was quite muddy in places, yet dry enough in one patch for a tiny wood mouse to scamper across in front of me to hide in a clump of grass.

As its name implies, Tower Hide is raised, and entered by a short staircase. Its height gives it the most extensive view over the fen. Several ducks, including beautifully coloured, broad beaked shovelers dabbled in the foreground shallows. Beyond lay a patch of open water, at the boundary of which, some fifty metres distant, stood a heron and a pair of egrets, while marsh harriers continued to circle over the reeds.

Mating marsh harriers, Strumpshaw FenAfter another short stretch along the river bank, with only the soft chug of a couple of passing boats to disturb the near silence, I followed the track, again quite muddy in places, then a wooden boardwalk, between tall reeds and willow carr, from which splashes drew my attention to the close presence of a pair of water deer. I re-crossed the railway line to reach the road that brought me back to the reception centre.

The Fen Trail I had followed was, at 3.8 kilometres, the longest of three designated paths. The Woodland Trail is 2.4 kilometres long, and is perhaps the most favoured by families, as it provides some activities for children as well as the opportunity to see small birds. Meadow Trail, 1.2 kilometres long, passes through open, flower-rich grassland, which contains many orchids, as well as milk parsley, the food source for the caterpillars of the swallowtail butterfly which, in this country, is only found here and in a few other small areas of Norfolk.

Chinese water deer

10% of the world’s Chinese water deer live in the UK

A mile south-east of Strumpshaw are the Buckenham Marshes, a broad, almost treeless area of wet grassland, also managed by the RSPB. This can be reached by a footpath running parallel to the railway track from Strumpshaw, or by car along a narrow road that ends at the small Buckenham railway station. A footpath leads across the marshes to a wooden hide near the bank of the Yare. Birds to be seen here include lapwings, mute swans, greylag and Canada geese, egrets and avocets. In winter, the numbers of these residents are augmented by wigeon, teal and some of the largest flocks of Arctic bean geese to be seen in Britain. Another winter phenomenon is the display of tens of thousands of rooks that congregate at dusk before roosting in the trees around the margins of the marsh.

10% of all Chinese water deer live in the UKOn arrival back at the reception centre, I bought a coffee and flapjack, which I took to the observation window to enjoy while watching a flock of bearded tits flying back and forth across the open water between two areas of reeds. Again I was able to add images of these beautiful reedbed specialists to my photographic collection. However, I still did not see a bittern, which gives me an excuse, should I need one, to pay another visit to Strumpshaw Fen.

Brimstone Butterfly


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