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How Norfolk nature emerged victorious from wartime

PUBLISHED: 13:10 11 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:28 11 November 2017

A Norfolk pillbox is steadily reclaimed by nature.

A Norfolk pillbox is steadily reclaimed by nature.

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Nick Acheson of Norfolk Wildlife Trust on how nature has reclaimed wartime sites.

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During the Second World War Norfolk was a focus of military activity, largely for two reasons. Her shallow, accessible coastline was deemed at risk from Nazi invasion and her flat agricultural landscape was ideal for constructing airstrips from which to launch attacks on Nazi targets on the continent. As a result, today’s Norfolk abounds with Second World War infrastructure, much of it, since it was built by the coast or on sites of marginal agricultural value, in places of importance for wildlife, including numerous Norfolk Wildlife Trust nature reserves.

All around the North Norfolk coast there are pillboxes. In contrast to today’s threat from rising sea level, in the Second World War the potential marauder from the sea was the Nazi army and pillboxes were the literal front line of defence. A pillbox by the beach car park at NWT Cley Marshes is the last remnant of once extensive defences here, including a minefield which was temporarily adopted as a breeding colony by Sandwich terns and buildings which later, from September 1949, were adopted as the base of the Cley Bird Observatory, led by Richard Richardson and initially funded by what was then Norfolk Naturalists Trust. The complex was destroyed in the great flood of 1953 and today the only reminders of the war are a pillbox, in which swallows yearly nested until a recent surge buried it in shingle, and a few strange slabs of concrete on the beach.

In Broadland, defences against invasion took a different character. Since it was feared that Nazi float planes might land on the open water of Ranworth Broad, traditional Broads wherries were sunk upturned to obstruct them. Remarkably, these were soon adopted by nesting common terns, which have since shifted to purpose-built rafts, and the dawn haunt of otters.

In the far west of Norfolk, NWT Holme Dunes was used as a wartime firing range. The dunes were artificially straightened and raised and a small gauge railway ran along them, bearing moving targets. Happily, the bulldozing of sand to reshape the dunes left shallow scrapes which flooded to become slacks. These are now home to orchids, including southern and early marsh orchids and marsh helleborines, but also support one of the county’s few populations of the very rare natterjack toad. The dunes themselves, though still strangely straight, have returned to nature, full in summer of the blooms of wild parsnip and blue fleabane and with the wings of dark green fritillary and wall brown.

In Breckland, as far from the coast as anywhere in Norfolk, the wartime focus was defence in the air. The flat landscape and sandy soil, which prior to the invention of nitrate fertiliser was of little agricultural value, were ideal for the building of airstrips and these proliferated in the Brecks. At NWT East Wretham Heath, a remnant bunker from the wartime airfield has been adapted for a strange purpose: as a hibernaculum for bats, ten species of which are found in the region. The remains of the runway are important for a range of colonising plants including the nationally vulnerable wall bedstraw.

Nearby the priceless grassland of NWT Thetford Heath was saved by the presence of a post-war nuclear weapons store. Guards at RAF Barnham needed a clear view over surrounding land from their watchtowers. As a result Thetford Heath could not be planted with conifers (the fate of much of Breckland in the early twentieth century) and its rare flora and nesting birds were spared.

The fear, privation and danger of the Second World War are barely imaginable on our peaceful nature reserves today. Yet all across the county, fading slowly as nature reclaims them, there a reminders of those times, each a wildlife-haunted memorial to those who fought for our county and country.

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