East Winch Common conservation success

A woodlark on East Winch Common. Photo: CHRIS MILLS ANL-160831-105246001
A woodlark on East Winch Common. Photo: CHRIS MILLS ANL-160831-105246001
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Rare marsh gentians are in flower at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s East Winch Common as a two-year, £40,000 project comes to fruition.

The project was made possible through a partnership with the Veolia Environmental Trust, who in 2013 awarded a grant of £39,224 through the Landfill Communities Fund.

Marsh Gentian at East Winch Common. Photo: KARL CHARTERS ANL-160831-105441001

Marsh Gentian at East Winch Common. Photo: KARL CHARTERS ANL-160831-105441001

This enabled a programme of targeted improvement works, including tree thinning and installing the infrastructure needed to introduce cattle or ponies alongside sheep grazing the site.

The common is one of the largest surviving remnants of the extensive heathland that once covered large areas of West Norfolk.

Comprising wet heath, acidic and neutral ponds, dry heathland, and grassland, important species at the site include the scarce emerald damselfly, marsh gentian, woodlark and both oblong-leaved and round-leaved sundews.

Head of nature reserves at Norfolk Wildlife Trust, John Milton said: “The heathland had reduced in size due to encroachment of birch and oak scrub, and with the remaining area gradually becoming dominated by purple moor grass.

Removal of scrub, together with creating shorter vegetation and localised areas of bare ground will allow the less competitive wet heathland plant species, which make East Winch so special, to colonise areas without being overwhelmed by vigorous grasses. The rarest of these are now being afforded additional protection through custom made guards.

“Marsh gentians with their rich blue trumpet flowers are conspicuous against the backdrop of waning flowers of cross-leaved heath and mosses and are a real jewel of the site.”

Upgrading the site’s fencing has allowed NWT to introduce cattle onto the Common. The sheep that grazed the heathland previously had not made enough of an impact on the dominating purple moor grass.

Over the next few years the different type of grazing provided by NWT’s British White cattle will not only maintain the open nature of the common but also gradually help to reduce the dominance of the grass and allow the plants special to wet heathland to thrive.

Bill Boyd, NWT West Norfolk reserve manager, said: “We have managed to retain pockets where most of the site’s characteristic wetland species survive (and two special wet heath mosses have been found in 2015-16 that hadn’t been seen for 49 years). The improvements in site condition should allow these wetland species to slowly expand into adjacent areas and make the site more robust.

“It is one of the acknowledged counter-measures to help sites and species adapt to changing climate.”

The Veolia Environmental Trust’s project manager, Rob Hargraves, chairman of East Winch Parish Council, Nell Steele, and other parish council representatives joined NWT nature reserve staff to visit the site last week.

Mr Hargraves said: “It is always great to visit sites on completion of the projects and we are very pleased to hear that the work at East Winch Common is now complete.

“The improvements benefit biodiversity and site users. New interpretation helps people know what’s there and how to find their way around and the cattle help maintain the interesting wildlife and also help keep paths open for the visitors. It’s win win.”