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Are these East Anglia’s ‘Big 5’ must-see species?

PUBLISHED: 10:04 22 July 2017

Otter: One of East Anglia's 'Big 5' species, according to Simon Barnes.

Otter: One of East Anglia's 'Big 5' species, according to Simon Barnes.

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You’ve heard of Africa’s ‘Big 5’ must-see species. But what are East Anglia’s equivalents? Simon Barnes has his list – but do you agree?

Booming again: The bitternBooming again: The bittern

In Africa they talk about the Big Five: the five animals that all tourists long to photograph. They’re all glamorous, they’re all dangerous, and they’re all stunning to look at: elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros and buffalo. The notion is borrowed from hunting: they all possess heads that look impressive - at least to some - when mounted and stuffed.

That’s why the hippo isn’t on the list. Hippos look a bit silly, though they’re dangerous all right - remind me to bore you with my latest close-encounter story sometime. But the Big Five is an enduring notion. They are the must-see animals that define a place and make it special.

So what about East Anglia?

We’ve lost all our big predators and all our large herbivores apart from deer, but this is still a special place. So perhaps we should identify our own Big Five. Not to shoot, and so far as I’m concerned, not even to photograph – but to see, to hear, to be aware of off, the share the place with, to breathe the same air as.

Swallowtail: Only found on the Broads.Swallowtail: Only found on the Broads.

Here are my five suggestions. There have been some painful and reluctant omissions but I’m only allowed five, because that’s the nature of the game. So here we go –

1 Marsh harrier: This species went extinct as breeding birds in Britain, came back after the First World War, and then in 1971, they were back down to a single breeding pair in Britain. That was at Minsmere on the Suffolk coast. Since then there has been a slowdown in persecution, a drastic reduction in certain pesticides, and a wonderful restoration of the reedbeds that the birds love best, As a result, marsh harriers are a common sight in the wild and wet parts of East Anglia. You can sometimes see them from the train; you can even see them from the window of the hut where I write these words.

2 Bittern: This is another wet-loving bird with its heartland in East Anglia: declining birds that have come back because of great conservation. Our wet reedbeds are back: so are our bitterns. They are lurkers and hiders, but their spooky foghorn call can be heard if you go the right places in May. Sightings are much harder, but I’ve even seen one from a boat in the Broads. This time of year you have a decent chance of seeing a female making a feeding flight over the reeds, looking like a giant owl.

3 Otter: Not an East Anglian speciality like the rest, but a very special animal with a great liking for our own watery landscape. They came back partly because we stopped persecuting them and partly because we’ve eased up a little on pollution: clean rivers mean more fish, and more fish mean otters. They’re hard to see: you need to be lucky. The best way to be lucky is to sit out a likely place still and quiet, for a good hour or more, and preferably at dawn. An otter going about his business is as thrilling a thing as you’ll ever see.

The comeback king: A marsh harrier in flight at Strumpshaw Fen.The comeback king: A marsh harrier in flight at Strumpshaw Fen.

4 Swallowtail: Strictly speaking, a swallowtail isn’t all that big, but it makes the Big Five for reason of its specialness - and anyway it’s damn big for a butterfly. You see them in late spring/early summer over the reeds in the Broads, shockingly large for an insect, like bight yellow bats. To see one is to realise how wild and how special this place is: it’s the only place in Britain where you’ll find a swallowtail.

5 Crane: Cranes are big all right, as well as incomparably elegant. They had been extinct in this country for more than 400 years before a tiny party dropped in on Horsey Mere in North Norfolk in the 1970s. They’ve stayed on, giving up on the idea of migration, and they’ve spread out very slowly, into the Fens at Lakenheath and at one or two other sites. They fly with their necks sticking out and their legs trailing behind: I saw a pair just the other day from a boat near Hickling Broad.

So what have I missed out? What other fabulous beasts make our place special? Send suggestions to info@simonbarnesauthor.co.uk

The common crane is one of Europe's largest birds, but is making a comeback in East Anglia after centuries of persecution by man.The common crane is one of Europe's largest birds, but is making a comeback in East Anglia after centuries of persecution by man.

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