A trip to Wheatfen Nature Reserve
Published: Tuesday 25th Feb 2020
Written by: Isobel Taylor
Tucked away in the beautiful countryside village of Surlingham lies Wheatfen, a 52 hectare nature reserve and our chosen charity here at Norfolk Cottages. Home to thousands of species of wildlife, Wheatfen is made up of large swathes of open fen, reed beds, sallow carr and two small broads. I spoke to Wheatfen’s Warden, Will Fitch, about the reserve and the work being done by Norfolk Cottages, the homeowners and its customers to support the work of the reserve.
How did the Ted Ellis Trust come about?
From 1987 onwards Wheatfen has been managed by the Ted Ellis Trust, named after the man who dedicated so much of his life to the study of the wetland. Ted was the uncle of Richard Ellis, one of the founders of Norfolk Cottages and the Original Cottage Company. The cottage on the reserve is still owned by the family, who have set up a forest school teaching children the joys of being outside.
Ted Ellis was a nationally renowned naturalist, highly regarded in the academic world for his meticulous research work on the wetland. However, he was also admired by the public writing daily articles for the Eastern Daily Press on his discoveries at Wheatfen. These were so popular with readers that they went on for 40 years, never missing a day!
After Ted’s death in 1987 the Ted Ellis Trust was founded to preserve Wheatfen. It is now a recognised Site of Special Scientific Interest and is one of the last tidal marshes of the Yare Valley. The Trust’s aim is to preserve its rich and fragile ecology and keep the land and its wildlife accessible for all, whether for educational purposes or simply enjoyment, as this is what Ted would have wanted.
Why is Wheatfen so important?
David Bellamy, one of the Patrons of the Ted Ellis Trust, once said, "Wheatfen Broad is, in its way, as important as Mount Everest or the giant redwood forests of North America. It is probably the best bit of fenland we have because we know so much about it. That is purely because one man gave his life trying to understand it – Ted Ellis".
It is said that Wheatfen is the most well-studied wetland nature reserve in Britain and we are so lucky to have such a unique area of marshland left in Norfolk. Scientific research still remains core to the reserve. We have great connections with the University of East Anglia (UEA), local colleges and currently have a research project running with the University of Leeds and Royal Holloway who are measuring the impact of climate change on the reserve.
What type of Wildlife can you see at Wheatfen?
Wheatfen has a diverse landscape and even more diverse array of wildlife. There are thousands of rare species to be found here from Swallowtail butterflies to otters. The Swallowtail butterflies are very important to the Norfolk Broads. The particular subspecies found here is only found on the Broads because of the milk parsley, which only grows in this area, that the butterflies lay their eggs on. Visit the broad from late may to mid July to see the beautiful butterflies in their natural habitat.
Quite outstandingly, Wheatfen is home to two species found nowhere else in the UK - the Galeruca laticollis beetle and Timmia megapolitana moss. Once again this demonstrates what a wonderful, unique place Wheatfen is. The Galeruca beetle was first discovered in 1997 and is now a thriving species on the fen, with the black larvae feeding on the rare fen plant Meadow Rue. If you are keen to try and spot one, August to September is the best time to look.
How do Norfolk Cottages customers support the Ted Ellis Trust?
The Ted Ellis Trust is a charity meaning we are completely dependent on donations and grants. The Trust is made up of 5 members, and as a warden I am the only employee of the Trust. I work with a team of 41 dedicated volunteers who are responsible for the conservation work of the reserve. As a team we work on maintaining the network of footpaths around the reserve, coppicing and clearing scrub. All this hard work allows the fen to be enjoyed by the public now and in the future.
Everytime you book a holiday with Norfolk Cottages you have the option to donate £1 to Wheatfen, as we are Norfolk Cottages' chosen charity. This donation may seem small but the money is saved for vital projects at the reserve, with £10,000 saved so far! For example 10 years ago an educational centre was built with the help of charity donations from Norfolk Cottages. This study centre is now used by conservation groups for talks and meetings and a place to educate people about the rich biodiversity of the reserve and its history. Other projects supported by Norfolk Cottages have included the major restoration of Thatch Pond which visitors can find out more about by heading to the hideout on the reserve.
With the support of Norfolk Cottages and their homeowners and customers these essential projects help fulfill the legacy of Ted Ellis, allowing us to protect the area and keep it open for all to enjoy.
When can visitors come and enjoy the reserve?
The reserve is open everyday from sunrise to sunset. There is a free car park and entry to the reserve is always free but any donations are warmly welcomed, simply pop your donations in the postbox at the Warden's office at the car park. Sadly we cannot allow dogs on the reserve as this may disrupt the wildlife but all ages are welcome to come and explore the reserve.
For those looking to learn more about the wetland, we put on events throughout the year. From volunteer taster days, to guided walks to days celebrating the special Swallowtail butterfly, there are lots of ways to find out more about this unique place to visit in Norfolk. We hope to see you soon!