Norfolk's Wonderful 150 - our fish and... Old Shuck

Wonderful 150

John Bailey enjoys the Wonderful 150 - Credit: John Bailey

I’ve just been delivered an extraordinary book - Norfolk's Wonderful 150.

It’s a collection of special species from Norfolk to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society. Or so it says on the cover and you can order copies via tonyleech3@gmail.com, I’m guessing.

I would if I were you because it is an entrancing way into the nooks and crannies of the natural world we enjoy here. There has always been a sentiment that the best anglers are actually fishermen (and women) naturalists. There was a book of this title by Norfolk legend Anthony Buxton that was long my bible and reading it in my youth, I realised that every print, spraint and broken reed along the river bank tells a tale.

When I first fished with John Wilson, 50 years ago, way before he was famous, I fancied myself as a country boy and he ransacked my knowledge of birds and mammals in all our early sessions. This, after all, was the era of Out Of Town, the greatest ever TV fishing program, presented by Jack Hargreaves, who stressed to us all that you can’t catch natural fish without studying nature. 
 
There are some real jewels in this little, gorgeously illustrated book and I’d better start with the fish it mentions. The crucian carp is the jewel and there is a wonderful write-up by Norfolk man Carl Sayer, now a professor at University College London. But what Carl doesn’t really highlight is that he is the mainspring behind The Norfolk Crucian Project that has brought a near extinct species back to scores of local pits, pools and ponds.

For many of us, Carl is exactly what fishery science should be all about. Yes, he spent a while studying the Norfolk crucian problem and amassing data but then, in quick time, he used that research to actually get down and dirty and DO something. Too often the academics examine a subject to the death and then either move on to another funded project or do something plainly daft. Carl digs or renovates former crucian ponds. He then stocks them with 100pc pure crucians. He lets them settle, breed and then he nets the juveniles and moves them to yet another nursery pool he has prepared for them. When I was a kid in north Norfolk there was a hatful of crucian waters. Now I’m an old-timer, I guess there are more now than then, and you can’t say that about most fish species, can you? 
 
One hundred and fifty species! Where do you start? Well, I have to bang my conservation drum a little so let’s look at two iconic Norfolk species mentioned, the otter and the bittern. The chapter on the former suggests that the otter increase hereabouts was a result of Philip Wayre’s releases in the 1970s. I’d have put those later than that but no matter. I’d hesitate to agree totally that “there is no evidence of them harming native fish populations “ because I walk the Wensum valley every day and it tells a slightly different story. The problem is that because native fish populations have been allowed to sink so low, even the removal of a handful of mature specimens can spell disaster. I would agree that otters also “take amphibians, crayfish, birds and small mammals.” In fact, I’d say they eat crayfish, birds, small mammals and fish IN THAT ORDER. 
 
I was talking about bitterns, wasn’t I? Well, three winters ago, in February, a bittern found itself on a lonely gravel pit in Lyng Eastaugh. I watched it from a long distance for a few mornings and then the fifth  I couldn’t see it anywhere in its usual reed fringe. I walked down the hill to investigate and found it killed, eaten and with otter tracks all around. Going back to those days with John Wilson I talked about, the Wensum valley was alive with water hens, coots, water rails, water voles and the like. Today, since the return of the otter, there are a fraction of what there were then. I’m not blaming otters or making judgments. There are not that many fish left and what remain otters find hard to catch. Ducks and voles and baby rabbits are the mainstay of the menu and we need to take off the rose-tinted spectacles we view nature through and realise that. 
 
There is some fun in this excellent book too. Old Shuck has his place, described as a “mythical devil dog....For many Norfolk people even today, Old Shuck is part of their psyche and those that claim to have seen him believe they have and won’t be swayed in that belief. The Devil Dog is as real to them as any pet dog'. Let me tell you, I have seen him and he’s no joke. I was living in Salthouse at the time in a cottage overlooking the marsh. My bedroom had a security light outside that gave onto the footpath and an open-sided wood shed. This particular night, around 2am, the light came on repeatedly and I got up to go out and disconnect it , thinking the blustery wind was responsible. As I approached, from the woodshed a great black beast emerged, paused, looked my way and then disappeared like rippling silk into the darkness of the storm. I saw it clearly those 10, 15 seconds. It was twice the length of a German shepherd dog and stood perhaps three feet at the shoulder. Come the morning I found it had fashioned a nest amongst the kindling and sawdust and the remains of two half eaten rabbits lay there. “Pet dog” this was not. 
 
This whiff of danger rather reminds me of those days when a large, wild boar used to roam the Wensum flood plain between Lyng and Lenwade. I used to think this, too, was a mythical beast until I met up with him in the dead reed beds, one winter night after a chub session. He didn’t have blazing red eyes and he didn’t breath out jets of fire but he looked pretty damn scary to me. Years on I still tend to avoid that stretch after dark and feel it’s a pity he didn’t make the Wonderful 150.