Ted Ellis’ legacy lives on at his Broadland haven

Ted Ellis Nature Reserve, SurlinghamPicture of Ted EllisPicture: CollectCopy: Steve SnellingFor: EDP

Ted Ellis Nature Reserve, SurlinghamPicture of Ted EllisPicture: CollectCopy: Steve SnellingFor: EDP SundayEastern Daily Press © 2009 (01603) 772434 - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2009

Thirty years after the death of legendary Norfolk naturalist Ted Ellis, EDP nature writer REX HANCY looks back at the legacy of 'E.A.E' and wonders what he would have made of today's world...

Phyllis Ellis MBE, widow of Ted Ellis at Wheatfen Broad, pictured in 1996.

Phyllis Ellis MBE, widow of Ted Ellis at Wheatfen Broad, pictured in 1996. - Credit: Archant

Thirty years on and Janet Negal still recalls her shock at hearing of the death of Ted Ellis. 'He was my hero', she told me. I am not surprised. She had been corresponding with Ted for most of her young life. A letter received when she was still seven years old replying to a natural history query congratulated her on the quality of her handwriting. His letter had been wrestled from his ancient typewriter. Other recipients of all ages were given the information they sought in neat, hand-written replies. Now they regret not storing them more carefully.

'Thirty years? That's not possible!' has been the first reaction of the majority of Norfolk folk who still think of Ted as a daily presence in this journal, heard regularly on radio and seen on television. Such was his impact that the presence of 'The Peoples' Naturalist', which was the title of the biography by Eugene Stone, appeared to linger on for many years after he had gone. Even today if you mention his name to the majority of true Norfolk folk their eyes light up and stories are told.

Such an avalanche of comment has come my way that I can do no better than to pick out the common features. After three decades that is a tribute in itself. The popular image is of his quiet, dignified explanation of an item found in the field whether to an individual or group. The same was seen on 'the box'. Watching those appearances was a county-wide preoccupation with the content debated the next day. Today's emphasis on image and personalities often comes between us and the subjects, I have been told. Ted would be bemused by the hype surrounding modern presentations which add little and detract from the fauna or flora which should be the only focus of the exercise. Every effort is made, it seems, to demonstrate slick technique which Ted never dreamed possible.

What then would he have made of recent technology? The digital hand-held camera can take away much of the drudgery and uncertainty of the past. He loved his camera, first capturing the image and then sharing the results. He would be delighted to leave the scene knowing his efforts had succeeded, not having to wait for processing. Lectures built round his photographic slides were highlighted in the calendars of societies in grand halls and village halls alike. Each picture told a story which he relished in the telling. So many major and lesser groups were then at their peaks of enthusiasm. We can but imagine his shock at discovering many such assemblies no longer attract regular audiences or even organisers to lead them.

John Ellis with his fathers lost diary - Ted Ellis Nature Reserve, SurlinghamIllustrations inside th

John Ellis with his fathers lost diary - Ted Ellis Nature Reserve, SurlinghamIllustrations inside the diary - Little OwlPicture: James BassCopy: Steve SnellingFor: EDP SundayEastern Daily Press © 2009 (01603) 772434 - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2009

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Thirty years ago the idea of personal computers with the ability to share and distribute an unimaginable amount of information over the internet was still in the dream world for most of us. While embracing the possibilities, I feel he would regret the loss of personal contact and the specimen in the hand. There are many positives. I imagine his expression of delight at seeing how Chris Blenkiron has brought together thousands of articles he wrote for this and other periodicals. A huge archive can now be accessed by researchers, on application, made possible by the wonders of the machine which we take for granted.

Photographs, the pen, the public appearance were the tools he employed to instruct and enthuse. How may we now kindle the burning desire to seek and to find especially among the children? How do we encourage their exit from the digital world and plant them firmly in the reality of grass, trees, insects and all other natural wonders? The future of the world, I have been told, depends on the answer.

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Ted would be gratified to see his grand-daughter, Rose, now living in the cottage at Wheatfen, acting as an example. Much of her time is spent with groups of children, some very tiny, discovering the life in and on the trees and the miraculously rich habitat we know is there. 'They are even allowed to get their hands dirty!' chuckled Tony Irwin.

Tony was Keeper of Natural History at the Castle Museum heading a team of specialist naturalists. During his tenure he had the responsibility of moving the research material into the Shirehall which included a great deal of conservation work. Ted surely would be delighted to see the work done and the collections safely housed. I do not think he would have relished the administrative burden entailed and would be saddened to discover the team again reduced to one, as in his day.

A visitors' favourite in the museum remains the Ted Ellis room, the famous set of dioramas portraying the varied habitats which make our county famous. The displays were of his own devising and much of the material gathered by the man himself. Known for decades as The Norfolk Room, Professor David Bellamy cut the ribbon at a renaming ceremony. I am sure Ted would also permit himself a small smile of pleasure as he would to see the transformation of the nearby mammal gallery into a splendid exposition of natural history in its many manifestations plus the work and equipment of its practitioners past and present.

Research in depth and detail was so much a part of Ted's ethos. The joy of discovery was always his and in parallel with that was the urge to pass on knowledge and ideas in scientific papers, demonstrations, talks, picture shows and newspaper articles, in fact by whatever means was appropriate. His knowledge was phenomenal and memory prodigious and like other gifted individuals he could not always appreciate many of us need lessons to be repeated. A passing moment of impatience could be directed at anyone falling short of his expectations but was nothing when compared with any of his notorious 'rants' directed at what he considered the crass behaviour of officials and large organisations. The storm would pass and peace soon prevailed.

A whole series of his rants many assure me would follow his realisation that irreversible actions are taken now by those in power especially outside forces which over-ride the wishes of the people. Changes to the habitat with disastrous impact on the wildlife would leave him bewildered and frustrated.

Thirty years ago we were moving into the era of mass communication and the proliferation of easy accessibility of keys and guides to every imaginable group of species. This would be heartily endorsed. Awareness of wildlife is far greater. Yet Ted would see all too quickly that depth of understanding is suspect and this unfortunately is becoming increasingly evident when recruiting key personal. We must face the fact that 'the people's naturalist' had no formal training and academic qualifications. Today he would be pleased to sponsor young naturalists with no more than well-honed field skills and practical expertise. But would they have to remain as gifted amateurs?

Reference to field notebooks and photographs recording observations from the mid-Eighties remind us that the linear nature reserves of hedges and flower-filled verges which served to link the larger habitats have since been trimmed into town park tidiness. The sin of 'over-gardening' was a phrase frequently on Ted's lips when he referred to important wildlife sites which had been managed with more enthusiasm than sensitivity. The current state of the verges would appal him yet he would see hope. Friends extoll the floral virtues enjoyed by travellers in part of Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire for instance.

Allowing nature to take its course was Ted's guiding principle. If a tree falls the proper procedure for the naturalists is to monitor the processes of decay and the hosts of species making use of the material. Yet there are occasions when helpful intervention is desirable. During the early years of the Ted Ellis Trust the reserve at Wheatfen needed serious work to restart many of the natural processes especially in the waterways. The ultimate success seen in the regular identification of new species there and the re-establishment of others seemingly lost would please him.

How would he react to the host of species recently added to our national flora and fauna from sources as remote as the Far East? The destruction they are capable of wreaking on our native plants and insects would be perplexing. His reluctance to destroy any creature, his principle of merely observing would be at variance with his protective instincts towards our native species.

The Wheatfen reserve bearing his name with its visitors' centre, study days and easy access is managed and supervised superbly well. Ted surely would be pleased and proud to see his twin objectives, preservation and presentation blending so successfully.

• The Ted Ellis Trust is based at Wheatfen Nature Reserve in Surlingham, near Norwich. Its address is Wheatfen Broad, The Covey, off The Green, Surlingham, Norwich, Norfolk NR14 7AL. The warden is David Nobbs (01508 538036) or you can email info@wheatfen.org.

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