St Benet’s Abbey is a popular site for birdwatchers, particularly in the winter, when it is inundated with winged visitors from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. River valleys act as pointers for the movement of migrating birds who look out for landmarks like St Benet’s mill to guide their way.
Geese and swans
During the cold months, pink footed geese from Iceland are a common sight on the grazing marshes, though their co-patriot the whooper swan is a rarer visitor. Similarly, bewick swans from Russia are occasionally seen, while the native mute swan is almost as common as the Canada goose and both reside throughout the year.
A native returns
These large birds are sometimes joined by the common crane, which has recently returned to Britain and chosen the Broads for its new home. You’ll be very lucky to see a crane but the little egret, which looks like a white heron with yellow feet, is becoming more common. Of course the grey heron is such a familiar sight it has its own name in Norfolk dialect, called the harnser. Other waders you’re likely to see are lapwings (or peewits) and redshank.
Ducks and drakes
Water fowl are abundant. You’ll almost certainly see a mallard, but there are also tufted ducks, potchard and gadwall. The ducks also have their migratory cousins calling in from afar like the wigeon, here in huge numbers during winter before heading back to Russia or even the Chinese boarder. Even some of the birds we think of as residents, winter thrushes like redwing and fieldfares, will head back to breeding grounds in Scandinavia or Russia in spring.
Of course there are summer visitors too. Swallows travel the 6,000 miles from southern Africa to spend the warm months here. The wet lands are a first source of food in the spring, so early arriving sand martins and house martins, swallows and later the swifts, pour into the area before heading off to breeding grounds elsewhere. Swallows and martins can be spotted on top of the mill. In our NATURAL SOUNDS section you can hear swallows making a nest in the old gatehouse, which often also houses blue tits or great tits in its small crevices.
Reedbeds really come alive in the spring, as the wren, reed bunting and meadow pippets who’ve been tucked away through the winter think about breeding. If you’re lucky at this time of year you’ll also see a lapwing engaged in a display of falling and tumbling in the sky in its efforts to attract a mate.
Other birds to watch for on the water apart from the common gulls, black headed gulls and cormorants, are great crested grebe. In summer try to spot the common terns, also known as sea swallows, as they dive for fish with their forked tails.
St Benet’s is also a good place to see birds of prey. The hobby is another migrant whose numbers have increased recently. It feeds on dragon flies, which are abundant here in summer. The marsh harrier, until recently a rare sight, is now growing in numbers and spotted all year round. A bird zipping along the hedgerows is likely to be a sparrow hawk and even red kites are seen occasionally, though none are yet breeding in Norfolk. Short eared owls, an upland breeding bird, are resident in the winter and a barn owl may be spotted at any time of year, most likely at dusk or dawn. Finally, the osprey has recently started to settle at Ranworth Broad for a summer vacation, so in May or September you might just catch sign of one passing through and diving for fish.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust on birds
The NWT website has an excellent section on birds with many photographs to aid recognition: NWT Birds. And if you see something exciting, don't forget to add it to our SIGHTINGS list at the top of this page.
Meadow and marsh
The land around St Benet’s Abbey is part of a working farm and since the end of monastery life has been used to graze cows. The fishponds, dug originally for the Abbey, were subsequently used commercially though they have lain dormant for well over a century. Aside from this, as far as we know, the land has not been cultivated since the time of the monastery garden.
This all makes for a grass meadowland rich with wild flowers through the spring and summer. Cowslips, knapweed, buttercups, ribwort, white campion, ragged robin, birds foot trefoil and vetch are all plentiful. So too the cuckoo flower, found in early April when the cuckoo starts to call and the preferred place for the orange tip butterfly to lay its eggs.
The fishponds and dykes are home to other wetland flowers like water mint the flag iris or yellow flag, hemp agrimony, common spotted orchid and marsh orchid. They also contain a variety of rushes, sedges, reeds and grasses. Rushes are the round ones and sedges have sharp edges which can cut your fingers.
Until recently the fens and reed beds in the Broads would have been harvested for thatch and hay. All these habitats need to be looked after and maintained or they slowly turn into something else. The St Benet’s area is conserved as grazing meadow so there are few trees other than willows which like the wet environment and hawthorn which can flourish despite the wind. Even so there may be more trees than in medieval times when Norfolk was actually less wooded than today, as the trees had been consumed for fuel.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust plants
The NWT site will help you identify any plants you've seen at St Benet's. And don't forget to record them for us on our SIGHTINGS or WILDLIFE PHOTOS headings at the top of this page.
The rivers are crucial links between the various Broads environments, linking the fens, the reed beds and the grazing marshes. The valleys form corridors for the movement of wildlife, but they are also home to some of our rarer creatures. It is known that otters live in the area, though they are extremely difficult to spot. The water vole too is a rare sight, though within living memory it was common here.
Below the surface there is a whole underwater world of life. At the top of the food chain is the pike, notorious for eating anything it can swallow, whether fish, small mammals or frogs. Perch, roach, dace and tiny sticklebacks are all found here and once the European eel was common. Now these are an endangered species and the anglers, another common sight at St Benet’s, would rarely come across one.
Although the river is tidal the water is not salt, and saline intrusion into the habitat only happens with unusually big tides. This is an increasing worry though with climate change which is likely to make such tides a more regular occurrence.
Finally the dykes leading into the rivers, as well as the fishponds, are a great place to find toads and frogs.
Wide open habitats, like that at St Benet’s, are good for spotting deer. Muntjacs and chinese water deer, two non-native types, are common locally. But roe deer and even red deer, Britain’s largest land mammal, have been seen in the area.
Mad March hares
Brown hares, once almost as common as rabbits, can also be seen especially from late February through to April when you might even see them boxing. Harvest mice are a rare species and seldom seen but you may spot a field vole or a bank vole. Perhaps more likely are their predators, stoats or weasels.
Hard to spot
It is known that some otters live locally, but they are notoriously difficult to spot. Similarly you’ll be lucky to see a water vole, sometimes known as a water rat, whose numbers have declined dramatically in recent times.
1,000 years ago when the first monks settled at St Benet’s there may possibly still have been beavers and wild cats locally. The brown bears and wolves which prowled this area in ancient history would already have been long gone.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust on mammals
For more information about mammals, both large and small, to watch out for on your visit to St Benet's, have a look at the NWT site, and don't forget to record what you've seen in SIGHTINGS at the top of this page. If you're quick enough to catch a good photograph, please add that to our WILDLIFE PHOTOS too.
So rare they named it Norfolk
The St Benet’s fishponds are a hugely rich habitat for insects, some of them rare. These include Britain’s largest dragonfly, the blue and green emperor. These are essentially aerial predators, large enough to hear their wings and even their jaws snap as they feed. Another dragonfly, the very rare Norfolk hawker, is also found here. You can spot those because they have brown bodies but are the only brown dragonflies with bright green eyes. The Norfolk hawker is not confined only to Norfolk, some live in Suffolk too.
Damsels or dragons?
There are also different species of damsel fly. These are much smaller than a dragonfly, though the family resemblance is clear, as with the azure damselfly. When at rest they have their wings closed, while the dragonfly keep theirs open.
The swallowtail butterfly is Britain’s largest and a particularly beautiful example of an insect which has been threatened by the loss of its natural habitat. Fortunately the Bure Valley Living Landscape area provides an environment which suits it. You may also spot a painted lady butterfly, which migrates to the UK during the summer from North Africa. More common are the small tortoiseshells.
Mind the mess
If you walk up to look at the site of St Benet’s church it is almost certain you will have to dodge some cow pats en route. Think of these as little micro habitats for insects, which help to maintain a thriving ecology on the site.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust information
The NWT is an excellent source of information about invertebrates to be found locally. And of course, do please record anything you see in our SIGHTINGS record at the top of this page.