Thursday 22 October 2020

Norfolk's Wonderful 150


This is a kind of book review … though it might be more honest to describe it as a plug for a splendid publication that dropped through my letterbox very recently.

‘Norfolk's Wonderful 150’ is a slim volume described as ‘A collection of special species from Norfolk to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society’. The anniversary was actually 2019; various practical things delayed the project and it’s well worth the wait.

Here’s the plug: it’s available by post – follow this link -  for just £10 including postage. As I'm a member of NNNS mine arrived free of charge, which is even better.

Norfolk's Wonderful 150.
I should declare an interest. I was asked (and I agreed) to write the account for common crane, then later for little tern as well. Honeyguide leader Tim Strudwick did rather more, namely five accounts for solitary bees and wasps, for which he is the county recorder.

The outcome is accounts of 150 species that all have some special connection to Norfolk. Ten are mammals, including three extinct species: coypu, steppe mammoth (the West Runton elephant fossil) and pioneer man Homo antecessor, stone tools and footprints of which were recorded at Happisburgh. There are sixteen birds, including several where there are important populations in the county, such as spoonbill and stone-curlew, plus others where Norfolk has a story to tell, such as collared dove, which first bred in the UK at Overstrand in the 1950s, and Egyptian goose, which have spread fairly widely from where they started at Norfolk stately homes.

Invertebrates range from the familiar and ‘no-brainer’ choices for Norfolk, such as swallowtail butterfly, fen raft spider and Norfolk hawker dragonfly, to wonderfully obscure species, including Breckland leatherbug, three leafhoppers, three aphids and six beetles. The range of ‘experts’ that NNNS has been able to call on to study and write about these groups is seriously impressive – exactly what you’d hope a natural history society can do, but should never be taken for granted.

The scope of the book extends into the underwater world, both freshwater (such as intermediate stonewort, shining ram’s-horn snail and holly-leaved naiad) and sea water. The latter reflects the huge growth in knowledge thanks especially to the underwater exploration of Dawn Watson and Rob Spray. Their photo of lightbulb sea-squirt is one of the standout images among an excellent selection of pictures in the book. Cromer crab is also there, in case you’re wondering.

For interest I counted up how many of the 150 were recorded on Honeyguide’s recent ‘Norfolk breaks’ in September 2020. The answer is 14, which excludes Cromer crab and lobster seen solely on plates, and are as follows: Chinese water deer, grey seal, pink-footed goose, Egyptian goose, crane, collared dove, bittern, marsh harrier, rook, bearded tit, grey hair-grass, hoary mullein, milk parsley and samphire. Less then 10% doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s not bad given many are very seasonal (e.g. dark green fritillary), local (e.g. Breck robberfly), tiny (e.g. the false-scorpion Dacytylochelifer latreillei), underwater (e.g. depressed river mussel, crucian carp) or mythical (Black Shuck).

Hoary mullein Verbascum pulverulentum; strongholds in west Norfolk and around the southern edge of Norwich are on the extreme north of its European range.

As the team behind the book recognises, what to include or exclude is always a matter of debate. Being an enthusiast for willow emerald damselflies I might have chosen that over scarce emerald damselfly … but then county recorder Pam Taylor’s opinion trumps mine.

Birdwatchers could point to several other species with important populations or typical of Norfolk, such as avocet, brent goose or grey partridge. From my perspective, if more birds were included I would have learnt less. 

I wouldn’t want to miss Jo Parmenter’s accounts of arable plants like smooth rupturewort and weasel’s-snout, nor Peter Lambley’s five species of lichen. I hadn’t previously come across Norfolk comfrey (a recently discovered hybrid) or Iceni bramble (one of more than 100 micro-species of bramble in Norfolk). Here are two fascinating facts: reindeer lichen was found at Horsey in 2012 and shrubby sea-blight has its own species of lichen. Wow!

A reviewer’s lot is to find fault. I scraped the bottom of my pedant’s barrel and found a few things that might be done differently, but they were all so trivial I deleted the lot. This slim volume is a cracking publication, and a snip at £10.00 including postage and packing. Every naturalist who lives in or knows Norfolk should have it.

Chris Durdin

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