In the fairy tale of “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine’s brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to
gather nettles in a graveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell — all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done — running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men — except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)
This was one of my favourite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm’s way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.
I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: “common nettles” or “stinging nettles.” I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking — and although they’re actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women’s arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.
According to the Anglo-Saxon “Nine Herbs Charm,” recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against “elf-shot” (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and”flying venom” (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.
Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles,” said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, “I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”
“Nettles have numerous virtues,” writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. “Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.
“Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient’s name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits.”
The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:
“Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle’s high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as ‘Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.’ This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.
“Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica ‘syringes’ of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful.”
Bumblehill Nettle Soup
Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.
Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.
Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.
Preparing nettle soup.
Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle tops, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.
Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.)
Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey. Or try these two other good recipes: nettle pancakes and wild nettle bread.
Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women’s domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to “enrich the soil” wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.
The illustrations for “The Wild Swans” above are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, & Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Related posts: “Swan’s Wing” and “The Folklore of Food.”
Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.
Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.
The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:
‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.
The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.
Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop. In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.
Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.
Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.
Most warrens in East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.
The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.
The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.
The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!
Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.
The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.
Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.
Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.
Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.
The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.
The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.
The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.
The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.
Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’. ”
Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie. Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’. Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.
By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets. A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.
Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.
It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.
The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.
Outside of Norfolk most people have never heard of them; come to think about it – some inside the County would also be at a loss to know! Follow me then – and bring a pair of ‘wellie’ boots with you. But don’t wear them just yet unless, of course, you particularly like their weight and feel for we are heading first to Skiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, the place where those ‘Stewkey Blues’ may be found.
The village of Stiffkey lies, as we now know, on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes (see below). There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.
The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, particularly in wellie boots, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature not only creates traffic jams, but sometimes the occasional ‘incident’ caused by those vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!
High above the village sits Stiffkey Old Hall and the church of St. John the Baptist (or is it St Mary’s? – but that is another story) both in close proximity and with impressive structures. The nearby Rectory was one time infamous during the 1930’s, all because of the activities of its incumbent, the Reverend Harold Francis Davidson. His neglect of his parish work, his family and his frequent trips to London to carry out his work as the so called “Prostitutes’ Padre” started local tongues wagging. In 1932 he was defrocked by the Church after being convicted by a Consistory Court in Norwich on immorality charges. But, Davidson went on to make a new career as a performer to raise funds, principally for his proposed appeal – which obviously wasn’t successful by the way. He finally met his demise at Skegness when he was supposed to have been killed by a lion after he entered its cage – a kind of action replay of Daniel in the lion’s den. Despite his experiences and end, Davidson still had many friends and it was they who provided the funds for his funeral back at Stiffkey. The church and the churchyard were packed with people and estimates at the time numbered the crowd at 3000 plus; even the Marques and Marchioness Townshend, from their stately seat at Raynham Hall near Fakenham, were among the mourners.
In modern times Davidson has come to be regarded as a victim of an antiquated church legal system and his reputation has, to some extent, been restored. But, enough of this slight digression and a tale which has received more than its fair share of coverage over the years. For those who are still curious and would like to follow his story in more detail; click on the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Davidson . We must move on to other digressions before homing in on the main reason for this blog.
In 1937 Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, purchased Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey for £2250 – or so we are led to believe. He was anxious to contribute to Sir Oswald Mosley’s new vision of Britain but, unfortunately, he had no experience of farming and after eight years he abandoned the farm and his task to return to his beloved Devon. There, he recorded his experiences in ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’ (1941). The book contains some memorable descriptions of the north Norfolk coast:
‘The sea was half a mile from the village, and the field ended in a plantation or land-fringe of stunted trees, and then steeply down to a pebbly shore and a creek where a fisherman’s boat was moored.
We sat down on the grass, gazing out over the marshes, one vast gut-channelled prairie of pale blue sea-lavender. Afar was the sea merging in summer mist and the palest azure sky. There was no sound: the air was still: not a bird stirring. This was the sun I remembered from boyhood days, the ancient harvest sunshine of that perished time when the earth was fresh……’
For some of his time in Norfolk, Williamson lived in a small cottage off the village street in Stiffkey, while there he collaborated with Miss Lilias Rider Haggard on ‘Norfolk Life’ (1943), a journal of the years 1936-7. It is, in fact, an anthology of unusual extracts from old books on husbandry, farmers’ calendars and herbals. It is a gardener’s book, a farmer’s book, a field naturalist’s notebook — with some especially good observations on birds. It is a book of jottings that somehow manage to get the very heart of Norfolk in them.
At the northern end of the village is a long concrete road called Green Way that leads down to the Stiffkey salt marshes. This road was first laid by the army during WW2, as was its camp at the end of the road. The camp was used for training anti-aircraft gunners then and into the 1960’s before being abandoned, to be used as a camping site with its original guardroom still standing and in use by campers. It is worth saying, for those who cannot do without their cars, that there is what you might call a ‘rough’ car park area here, at the edge of the marsh. It is, in fact, on the Norfolk Coastal Path for you walkers and it belongs to the National Trust – so its members get a bonus of guaranteed free parking! The topic of parking gets a particular mentioned here because Stiffkey is another of those small places where parking within its environs is very limited, very limited indeed. The above mentioned National Trust car park is also a long way from the village itself; a village that can just about manage a general store that contains the village Post Office counter. The village also an antique shop that some say is worth a visit and as for food and drink, it has a pub, the Red Lion at the northern end of the village; again, some say it has ‘a good reputation’ and would offer a welcome pause for those on the way to seeking out those ‘Stewkey Blues’.
The Location of Stiffkey Freshes:
Stiffkey Freshes is located between Stiffkey and Morston adjacent to the coastline. The easiest way to reach the area is via the coastal path, having parked at the National Trust car park at Stiffkey. It is a walk east along the path for approximately one and a half miles until you reach the creek on your left. Alternatively, park on the NT car park at Morston and walk along the coast path towards Stiffkey – this is slightly further by the way. When you have reached the Freshes you will see some moored fishing boats in the creek and dinghies hauled up onto the grass.
There is, of course, an alternative and much shorter route from the A149 coast road at White Bridges, a location not named on the map so you would have to ask! But, a word of warning at this point. As already meentioned, the A149 through Stiffkey can be very busy in the summer months and is quite a dangerous road to walk along, because there are no pavements or flat verges. The advice is against using this route, particularly if you have children with you – carrying whatever you have for about 200 yards on this road, whilst supervising children, is fraught with danger from passing traffic. In addition, and not to rub the difficulties in, the only parking available is in a lay-by on the north side of the road near two farm buildings. This lay-by is frequently used by bait diggers who make their way down to the marsh via the footpath beside the buildings. So, do not go that way.
But, assuming that one has successfully surmounted all the obstacles, we find that this part of the North Norfolk coast that we speak of, is in a permanent state of flux. You have the cliffs between Weybourne and their vanishing point at Happisburgh to the east which are constantly being eroded. Sandbars, banks and dunes there, having been formed by the tides, gales and wave action over many months and years, can be ripped from their roots by simply one ferocious winter gale from the north-west. Stiffkey Freshes is somewhat lucky in this respect; the two-mile long Blakeney Point curves around offshore like a comforting arm and gives vital protection. This guardian prevents major erosion on the southern side of the channel and, as a result, the dunes edging the Stiffkey Freshes creek and abutting the beach itself have not changed a great deal over the years.
Now, the locals advise that visits to the Freshes should be made about one hour before low water in order to reach the marram-topped dunes that are ideal picnic venues. It would be here where those wellies would prove temporarily very useful; that is. if you did not wish to take off walking boots and paddle bare footed across the creek. From there, it is a walk along the dividing line between the dunes and the ribbed hard sand that runs down to the channel several hundred yards away. Only then would that ideal secluded and sheltered spot be found, with the added possible bonus of seeing a hare or two – they seem to favour living amongst the dunes.
Be still and listen:
Once you have established your base, take time to be still and look around you. Attune your ears to the constant calling of the seabirds and wildfowl that can be seen going about their business on the sands and in the shallows that lie in front of you. Take your binoculars and scan the north-west where you will see seals hauled out on the sandbanks. You may also spot a mussel fisherman wading up the creek, pulling his heavy boat behind him because the water is too shallow to run the outboard engine. It will be laden with the day’s catch to be shovelled into net bags on the bank of the creek.
A ‘wild’ place:
There are just a few places left in Norfolk that can be described as ‘wild’; Stiffkey Freshes is one of those. If you are an early bird and can get to the dunes as dawn breaks, or you are prepared to stay as dusk approaches, you will witness nature at its most impressive. These are the times of day that you will see a great deal of bird activity, with skeins of geese and flights of duck going to or returning from their feeding grounds. You may also see a fox hunting along the foreshore or a muntjak trotting along amongst the dunes. Again. do not visit only on hot summer days – wrap up warm and come in winter when the north westerly’s blow and the clouds skitter across the sky like the sails of racing yachts. Watch the waters of the channel being whipped up and spume dancing off the crests of the waves. The fine sand that blows in drifts across the landscape will sting your face and you will taste salt on your lips; you may never feel as cold again anywhere else, but what a rewarding experience you will have had.
Where the hell are those ‘Stewkey Blues’ you may be asking by now, having been dragged through the village and down on to and over the marshes. Well, all that was to give you a flavour of the place; and talking of flavour, the good news is that you have finally arrived at your destination and the source of ‘Stewkey Blues’ It is here, on the marshes, that you will need those Wellies – and, sorry, it should have been mentioned before that a rake and bucket would be a further advantage! Let Alan Savory – the Norfolk wildfowler tell you what you have been dying to know since you started reading this Blog; revealed by way of his writings which, whilst about duck shooting on the North Norfolk marshes including Stiffkey, mention that the Stiffkey marshes are famous for the ‘Stewkey Blues’ – a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour. Let this extract from his book ‘Norfolk Fowler’ (1953) explain further:
‘There is a place far out on the sands somewhere between High Sand Creek and Stone Mell Creek that is called Blacknock. It is a patch of mud covered with zos grass and full of blue shelled cockles known as “Stewkey Blues”. It is a famous place for widgeon, but very dangerous to get on to and off, if one is not too certain of the way on a dark night. The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.’
It is the geography of this region that helped create perfect conditions for these special cockles: nowadays they can be found a few kilometers north of Stiffkey, on the seaward side of a saltmarsh, where muddy creeks flooded with tide create a good habitat for them to live in. They are usually buried an inch under the muddy sand which, it is claimed, gives the cockle its blue colour. Traditionally the cockles were raked from the mud by the women and then washed in seawater, and it is still as it was that the Stiffkey fishermen and inhabitants collect them. Some fishermen add flour or oatmeal to assist this process.
Stewkey Blues is a popular nickname for Stiffkey Blue Cockles which are only found at Stiffkey. The name ‘Stiffkey’ is actually pronounced ‘Stewkey’ and the cockles have a dark grey-blue shell – hence the name. They indeed have a different colour from other types of cockles around England. When they colonise, they form shells of a distinctive blue tinge, ranging from mauve to slate-blue. Its colour has always been thought noteworthy and that is why it is mentioned in their name. They have a rich shellfish flavour, refreshing and slightly salty. Stiffkey cockles open when they are steamed, and are eaten fresh, or used for soups and pies. Traditional seaside style is to boil and sell from stalls, with pepper and vinegar to taste. They have long been considered a delicacy in East England, but unfortunately, the cold winter of 1989 killed many cockles and its trade has never really recovered to the level that it once was. Indeed, it is unfortunately recognized that, year by year, the number of Stiffkey cockles declines.
Very few tales of Norfolk are without a myth or a ‘scary’ story. Stiffkey and cockle gathering is no exception. Rest a while longer from your long trek and hear this from a past Cockler:
The Screaming Cockler of Stiffkey:
In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work, as the tides race in cruel and fast over these marshes. But the cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles. Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’.
“We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter. It’s hard work cockling, you know! You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you might have to go hungry? Or one of your children? Then, we have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village. You can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.
But she just wouldn’t listen.
We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack and your life and a night with an empty stomach is far better than no life at all.
So we left the girl Nancy. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back, came back home to our families and to safety. There was nothing we could have done – she just wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad and that quickly. Of course when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. Don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.
Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her, see. Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing. Raging against the roke and the tide, even against God himself. Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So they turned back – had to. Too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.
She’s still out there of course.
No not her body. No, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.
Now, don’t you be thinking of going out there, not now!
No it’s not ’cause of the tide. The tide has already turned on its way back out. But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea. That fog – It’s her! – she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisy. Probably cause it was foggy when she drowned. No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her, with all that seaweed still in her hair.
So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”
The Norfolk Broads may look natural, but they are a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings. Amazingly, this fact was not realised until the 1950s, when Dr Joyce Lambert’s research revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. This, coupled with the historical evidence of peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable. Another clue was that the area’s names are not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They are named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.
Imagine a time where there are no mod cons, no electricity and certainly no mechanical diggers – just man power and a need to survive in what would have been difficult and unforgiving times. By the time of Domesday, around 1086, East Anglia was the most densely populated part of Britain, with a prosperous economy founded upon a stable agricultural regime. At this point, water levels in the Broadland estuary would have been sufficiently low to enable widespread exploitation of the wetlands, but very little wood was to be found on the Broadland uplands and much of the remaining floodplain woodland would have already been cleared for timber and particularly for firewood. Peat cutting, or ‘turbary’ provided a readily available alternative.
The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort. Yet it was a prosperous industry and provided fuel for both individual families and manors, with a greater proportion being sold. It is estimated that more than 900 million cubic feet of peat would have been extracted.
Peat extraction was a very hard and unpleasant task; the deeper, more compacted peat has a higher calorific value and is a superior fuel to that unearthed from the surface layers, but the effort of cutting blocks of peat from pits which were constantly filling with water would have been enormous.
Some people would have been cutting fuel for their own individual domestic consumption, however much of the peat, or ‘turf’ was likely to have been from demesne turbaries, which were owned by the church or by the manor. The peat produced in these turbaries was sometimes used within the manor or priory, but a large proportion was sold.
The decline of the peat cutting industry
Wage labour was used, but for the most part the turbaries are likely to have been worked by bond tenants as part of the mandatory labour service owned to the lord of the manor. For example, the bond tenants of Stalham Hall in the 13th Century owed their lord 23 days labour per annum in the turbaries, and were likely to have been required to work in the fields in addition to this. Records made in 1328 indicate that the tenants were required to undertake 14 days labour in the pits, or to pay 14d. in lieu.
The industry peaked in the 13th Century, but increasing water levels and floods made extraction from the submerged turbaries more difficult, and more costly; by 1350 there were visible signs of decline.
The account rolls for properties held by Norwich Cathedral Priory at Martham date from 1261. Up until the early 15th Century, the Martham turf accounts were made more or less systematically and show annual revenues for turf sales of between 3s. 2d. and 14s. 2d. for the period between 1299 and 1340. From 1341 onwards there was no revenue from turf sales, although peat was still cut for domestic use. In 1349, the accounts show that the cost of producing turves rose dramatically, from a previous 50 year high of 9d. per 1000 turves to 20d. per 1000.
The accounts of the Norwich Priory show that peat was the main fuel in the cathedral kitchens in the first half of the 14th century. Turf consumption began to fall after 1350, although the Priory continued to rely on turf as the main source of fuel until around 1384. After this date, however, other fuels, such as wood, are increasingly mentioned in the accounts, and after 1440 there are no further references to peat as a fuel.
The reasons for this shift are almost certainly economic ones: there was either a greatly increased availability of other fuels which could be more easily obtained, or the cost of producing peat had risen to such an extent that alternatives had to be sought.
Towards the end of the 14th Century, the relative sea level had risen to the extent that the peat workings were being flooded on a regular basis. Where flooding was not too severe, it may have been possible to bale the cuttings, but once flooded, the deep turbaries could not be adequately drained with the technology then available and it was probably nearly impossible to continue to extract peat from the flooded workings in the traditional manner.
Alternative techniques for removing peat from the flooded pits were devised: for example dredging the soft peat, or ‘mora’, from the bottom of the flooded pits and shaping it into blocks. Where there was sufficient labour available, the industry continued for a time on this basis, however the impact of another factor meant that this labour was no longer in cheap, and plentiful, supply.
The advent of the plague
Bubonic plague, otherwise termed the ‘greate death’, because it affected everyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, arrived in England by ship in June 1348. ‘Black Death’ was a later name for the disease, thought to refer to the dark swellings, or ‘buboes’ at the lymph nodes. Those infected with the disease died within 4 days of detecting the first signs of swellings in armpit or groin.
Others were inflicted with the pneumonic form of the disease, which affected the lungs. In either case, very few recovered. Within 18 months of the advent of the plague, almost half the population of the country was dead. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the personal devastation and panic which would have swept the country.
“alas this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders. William Dene
Food shortages caused by famine may have exacerbated the impact of the plague, with perhaps a higher mortality rate among the famine-weakened population than might otherwise have occurred. East Anglia was seemingly particularly hard-hit by plague, perhaps because of the high population density. A prayer in the church of St Edmunds in the market town of Acle, written by the rector at the time, refers to the “brute beast plague that rages hour by hour”.
In the months following the first outbreak of plague, houses would have been empty, crops stood unharvested in the fields, and animals were left untended; the workers who undertook these tasks struck down by the disease.
“for want of watching…….animals died in uncountable numbers in the fields and byways and hedges” Henry Knighton
The impact of the Black Death
Corresponding to the first outbreak of the plague the peat cutting industry seems to have undergone a rather sudden decline, even thought the natural resources of Broadland was by no means close to exhaustion at this time and large tracts of uncut peat fen still existed in many of the river valleys.
It is possible that some of these surface resources were not exploited because of ownership constraints or because there was some other significant and conflicting economic use of the land, for example reed or sedge cutting. However, because of the enormous scale of the peat cutting industry, the value of the excavated peat, and the rapidity of the change, it is probable that there was some more substantive factor which caused the decline.
The decline in the peat cutting industry almost certainly had its underlying cause in natural phenomena, but these were greatly exacerbated by the changing economic and social circumstances which came about as a result of the Black Death.
A major impact of the plague was severe labour shortage and because of this between 1350 and 1500 average wages in England rose dramatically. The economic impact of this on peat cutting, which was labour intensive, was devastating. While it would have been possible, if less economically viable, to continue to excavate peat in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding by more labour intensive methods such as dredging the wet peat and shaping it into blocks, the loss of almost half of the labour force would have rendered any labour intensive tasks unworkable, and moreover, many of those who organised and supervised the work were dead.
The plague shifted the balance of economic power in favour of the workforce: labour became scarce and it became increasingly difficult to coerce the peasant classes into carrying out their traditional tasks on behalf of the manor. While not the single most important factor in the decline of the peat industry, the plague certainly reduced the economic viability of peat extraction from the deep cuttings to a point where it was no longer possible.
Peat continued to be cut from surface deposits on a smaller scale until the beginning of the 20th Century to supplement, and locally to replace, firewood as a source of fuel, but the deeper turbaries were never again exploited, and the industry which was instrumental in creating the Broadland landscape we know today was never fully revived.
The River Yare rises close to the village of Shipdham near Dereham and then winds eastwards towards Norwich. At Barford it is joined by the smaller River Tiffey. Then at Earlham, on the outskirts of Norwich, it passes through Earlham Park and loops round the University of East Anglia.
River Yare at Earlham Park
In Lavengro George Borrow captured the beauty of the Yare at this point:
‘At some distance from the city, behind a range of hilly ground which rises towards the south-west, is a small river, the waters of which, after many meanderings, eventually enter the principal river of the district, and assist to swell the tide, which rolls down to the ocean. It is a sweet rivulet, and pleasant it is to trace its course from spring-head, high up in the remote regions of Eastern Anglia, till it arrives in the valley behind yon rising ground; and pleasant is that valley, truly a good spot, but most lovely where yonder bridge crosses the little stream. Beneath its arch the waters rush garrulously into a blue pool, and are there stilled for a time, for the pool is deep, and they appear to have sunk to sleep. Farther on, however, you hear their voice again, where they ripple gently over yon gravelly shallow.’
This scene has hardly changed since Borrow’s day and the park is a popular place for walkers and for children to paddle in the summer. The Yare also provides an important corridor for wildlife at this point with its marshes and wet woodland. After passing the University lake, it skirts round the southern edge of Norwich and merges with the River Wensum at Trowse – where it becomes navigable. The Wensum is the larger of the two rivers at this point, but it is the Yare that takes on the name.
River Yare at Strumpshaw
Flowing eastwards from Norwich, the river passes through Postwick – which was frequently painted by the Norwich School Artists. It then moves on to Bramerton where one of Broadland’s colourful characters – Billy Bluelight – used to race boats up the river. His claim was as follows:
‘My name is Billy Bluelight, my age is 45, I hope to get to Carrow Bridge before the boat arrive.’
The next village is Surlingham – which was home to the naturalist and writer Ted Ellis. Ellis lived in a cottage at Wheatfen Broad for many years and turned the surrounding marsh and fenland into a nature reserve. He was an expert on the eco-systems of the Norfolk Broads and a much-loved nature diarist for the EDP newspaper.
Wheatfen Broad Near Surlingham
Another colourful Broadland character made his living on Rockland Broad and this was Jimmy Fuller – alias ‘Old Scientific’. He was a wildfowler and marsh man who earned money by shooting and collecting specimens. He was even known to shoot Ospreys – in fact, anything that he could later sell. The guide book writer, W. A. Dutt, once met him and provided the following account:
‘Fuller appeared from behind a reed stack just as I was knocking at his cottage door and in a few minutes we were afloat in his gun punt. In the dyke leading from the cottage there was open water; but the Broad in spite of two days’ thaw was partially covered in ice through which Fuller had broken a channel for this boat.’
Further downstream still, the river passes through Claxton – a small village which is now the home of another naturalist – this time Mark Cocker. In his book Crow Country – he provides a fascinating account of jackdaws and crows in the Yare Valley. Watching them pass overhead at Buckenham – heading for Buckenham Carrs – inspired him to try and understand more about their movements. The book is a personal account of this obsession which is centred on Norfolk but also takes in rookeries in other parts of the UK and Europe.Two-thirds of the way between Norwich to Yarmouth lies the village of Reedham which perches on higher ground overlooking the marshes. There is a railway swing bridge here – allowing larger boats to pass and a chain ferry which carries cars across the river.
In his book The Rings of Saturn W.G. Sebald travelled along the railway line here and crossed the river at Reedham:
‘Through Brundall, Buckenham and Cantley, where, at the end of a straight roadway, a sugar-beet refinery with a belching smokestack sits in a green field like a steamer at a wharf, the line follows the River Yare, till at Reedham it crosses the water and, in a wide curve, enters the vast flatland that stretches southeast down to the sea. Save for the odd solitary cottage there is nothing to be seen but the grass and the rippling reeds, one or two sunken willows, and some ruined conical brick buildings, like relics of an extinct civilisation.’
In Coot Club by Arthur Ransome – the children and Mrs Barrable sail up the Yare as far as Brundall in an attempt to keep out of the way of the Margoletta. On their way back they get stranded in the mud on Breydon Water – which leads to the climax of the story.In his verse narrative, The Broads (1919) – Hugh Money-Coutts described Breydon as follows:
‘On Breydon Water, when the tide is out,
The channel bounds no sailorman can doubt.
Starboard and port, the miry banks reveal
Where safety lies beneath his cautious keel.
But when the flood has wiped the water clean,
– Hiding the muddy haunts where seagulls preen
Their wings, and shake their heads – black pillars mark
The channel’s edge for each adventuring bark.
Beware; the channel shifts, and now and then
A post deceives the hapless wherrymen.’
Just beyond Breydon Bridge the Yare swings southwards and flows through Great Yarmouth before entering the North Sea.
There were once claimed to be 200,000 coypu in East Anglia; well, if that figure was ever remotely correct then it can be fairly safe to say that now it is zero – or as near as makes no difference! This population descent, of somewhat astronomical proportions, was due to trapping campaigns that started way back in the 1960s and which eventually eradicated the creatures, but at some cost both in time and tax payers money. Let’s look back at the early circumstances behind what is something of a contemporary tale in these here parts.
Maybe, the first question to ask is just how did an orange-toothed South American beaver end up as East Anglian public enemy number one?………
Well, it all began with a dodgy fence, and a would-be fur magnate with a name straight out of a P G Wodehouse novel. There was, however, nothing comical about the aftermath of an accidental release of a group of animals from farmland at East Carleton, Norfolk in 1937. These creatures were known by their more familiar name – coypu. Their story remains a fascinating one which once encompassed bitter rows between farmers and conservationists, landowners and politicians, along with a generous helping of cutting-edge science and, at times, more than a hint of old fashion farce as well!
Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that it was a story which ran and ran to the point where some probably became fed up………! in fact, its roots went back more than 80 years, to 1929. That was the year when aspiring entrepreneurs in this country began to import a species of large rodent from Argentina.
At up to 3ft long including the tail, and weighing perhaps 9kg, the coypu was an impressive creature – for a rodent. It was not quite a capybara or a beaver, but much bigger than the common rodents such as mice, voles and squirrels that we were used to in our part of the world. In many ways, you could consider the coypu to be something like a monstrous water vole, living along rivers and in swamps and marshes, and feeding on a wide range of mainly plant foods. With its combination of walrus whiskers, stumpy body, webbed hind feet and large orange front teeth it was never going to feature on the list of the most elegant animals in nature. In fact, it could be presented as rather a fearsome creature, which might explain why it was exhibited at the Great Yarmouth Easter Fair in 1935 as the ‘giant sewer rat’, accompanied by a rather lurid painting of two sewer workers fending it off with shovels!
The local farmers were not, of course, interested in the coypu’s looks; neither were those entrepreneurs out to make a profit. It was the creature’s fur that was the big attraction, its stomach area yielding a fine, soft undercoat of fur known as ‘nutria’. Twenty-two pelts were enough to make one fur coat and this was the attraction for those hoping to make a lucrative living. Notable amongst these was the delightfully-named landowner Philip Tindal-Carill-Worsley (1881-1946) was living at East Carleton Manor and saw an opportunity to make a profit from some very wet land along the stream that formed the border with the Mulbarton parish. This stream orginates from behind Catmere Herne, borders ‘The Meadows’, passes under the B1113 at Mulbarton Bridge, flows through the lake of The Grove (Cheshire DisAbility), across Intwood Ford and on to join the River Yare near Keswick Mill. The stream and an adjacent area north of Catbridge Lane was fenced off and pens built for the animals. Here, Tindal-Carill-Worsley set up his coypu farm on what was a 120-acre site – alongside a silver fox farm which was also set up for the same reason. Gamekeeper Charles Edgar George Schofield was put in charge – and by 1938 there were 300 animals. The coypu pelts, or nutria fur, were sorted at East Carleton and sent off to the London market. Tindal-Carill-Worsley was one of three Norfolk landowners who were to dabble in the nutria trade.
Things were fine at first, that is up until the year of 1937 when heavy rain caused some galvanised iron sheets to collapse. Some coypu, recognising an opportunity of more freedom, immediately seized this one possible chance to head for the nearest watercourses. A year after their escape coypu were noticed at Cringleford, near to Norwich, and within a few years they had reach Oulton Broad and the lower Yare and Waveney. At first, they were rarely spotted at all due to the fact that they are naturally very timid and tended to vanish at the first sign of danger. Their presence was only betrayed by tell-tale fast moving bubbles, and that distinctive whiskery snout when they came up for air.
Despite the fact that all of the country’s nutria farms had closed by 1940, the consequences of the 1937 escape meant that their numbers grew rapidly and would linger on for decades, well beyond the period of war when people had much more on their plates to deal with than an oversized renegade rodent and its ‘voracious vegetarianism’. Back in 1943, they simply ‘noted’ its presence, despite the fact that complaints about Coypus clearly damaging reed beds had started to be recorded.
Like herbivores the world over, the coypu’s principal survival mechanism is to out-breed their supposed predators – there were not many of those around in the East Anglian region, but the coypu were not to know! Maturing after only eight months, coypu bred up to five times in every two years and with up to nine young in each litter. This, of course, made them very popular with the fur farmers, as one pair of coypu could produce 60 descendants over their three-year lifetime. All very lucrative, at least in theory, but once the creatures were out in open country, it was quite another and serious matter entirely.
Soon people were harking back to the case of the musk rat. Introduced into Europe in the first years of the 20th century for its fur, it too had escaped. Five animals wriggled out of an estate near Prague in 1905 and had become, according to one fanciful and suspiciously exact estimate, 100,000,000 by 1932. In this country the musk rats were eliminated by 1928 but only after a long and expensive eradication campaign. Then, just one year later, there we were importing another voracious non-native herbivore. It’s strange how some people never seem to learn! In mainland Europe the musk rat was blamed for burrowing into, and weakening, river banks – the reason why they are still tightly controlled in the Netherlands to this day – and this charge was soon being levelled at the coypu. This claim would be made again and again over the years but of this, at least, the coypu may have been unfairly pilloried.
By 1945 Mr H W Palmer, Pests Officer to Norfolk War Agricultural Executive Committee, was saying: “We have trapped and killed hundreds, especially in the Cringleford and Broads areas. They have become a feature of our fauna.” He also went on to say that in his opinion they were “harmless and purely vegetarian, living largely on the shoots of young rushes, and I do not think they do much real damage.” He said there was ‘no evidence’ that they damaged river banks. It was clear that it was its large increase in numbers that some people found unsettling.
The bitter winter of 1947 saw off many of the coypu, and population crashes were to be a feature of every sharp winter from then on. In wintertime, too, they were easy to spot, and therefore easy to kill, as they tended to huddle together for warmth. But as soon as spring came, numbers rapidly grew once more. By 1948 coypus had reached the mouths of the Nar at King’s Lynn and the Yare at Gorleston. There was still much debate raging about the creatures impact, but not everyone bought into the ‘giant rat’ image. In fact the coypus were so popular in the 1940s with some children, particularly in Cringleford – one of their early strongholds – where they would deliberately spring the traps to free them.
Ted Ellis, that past doyen of Norfolk naturalists, would be closely involved over the years. At this time, he was pointing out that the coypus were mainly eating reeds, and said they only ‘very occasionally’ damaged sugar beet crops. “I have watched coypus at close range often enough and found it hard to wish them ill,” he said. But at the same time he recognised that they were affecting rare plants on Surlingham Broad, and reluctantly concluded that “their increase must be checked by man”.
Later that year the Great Ouse Catchment Board reportedly made – and quickly withdrew – a £5 reward offer for each coypu skin handed in. Someone, it seems, had had a gentle word in the ear of officials and pointed out that if they offered that much (worth £160 in today’s money) then very soon the fly ol’ country boys would be busy catching coypus, all right – for breeding!
The trouble was no-one could really agree how damaging the coypu were. The ‘official position’ was that it was a ‘potential menace’ on its artificially banked waterways, but the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board chief engineer said he had not seen a single case of coypu damage in ten years. Someone else wrote to the local newspapers about his fears of tunnelling, fearing a ‘major disaster’. But fellow landowner Henry Cator, of Woodbastwick, countered that the coypu were keeping the Broads waterways open ‘free, gratis and for nothing…’ by clearing out the bullrushes. It didn’t help the debate that there were just so many myths and half-truths floating around, just like the coypus’ habit of growling when cornered – plus those orange incisors! This led to some people fearing they would soon ‘attack’ Broads boating parties. J M Last of Corpusty had to write in 1960 – to point out that “coypus do not lurk in banks and hedges to leap upon passing cyclists.” However, the knack of these animals suddenly appearing in unexpected places such as suburban gardens, beaches and even Great Yarmouth Fire Station did not exactly endear them to local people. In one startling 1961 incident a coypu even turned up in an outside loo at Litcham which prompted the comment “What puzzles us, is how it got there in the first place and managed to lock itself in.” Well, the animal might have been ‘caught short’!
After its escape from fur farms in the late 1930s it had taken to munching through rushes clogging up Broads waterways, thereby keeping them clear for boats. The debate ranged and went on and on. Did they eat crops? Did they tunnel into riverbanks? So, In an attempt to bring some science into the matter Norfolk naturalist, Dick Bagnall-Oakley, kept some Coypus for six weeks and discovered they were ‘hopeless’ at burrowing; they liked sugar beet best, followed by kale and other root crops, but didn’t really care for potatoes. He argued that their crop-eating was more than outweighed by their usefulness in keeping those rivers weed-free. It was an argument that was not going to cut any ice with local farmers, who became increasingly strident as the 1950s wore on. Soon they were banging on the doors of their local MPs and the Ministry demanding action, but the reply at first was that there were ‘no plans’ to bring in controls’.
In 1958, the National Farmers’ Union county meeting in Norwich asked the ministry to list them as pests because of damage to sugar beet near waterways. Suffolk NFU followed suit a few months later. But the newspapers were still predicting that ‘an all-out attack on coypu in Norfolk was unlikely’, and people continued to write in claiming the damage reports were grossly exaggerated.
The public mood, though, was definitely with the farmers. one of whom said how coypu had cleared three-quarters of an acre of beet from his land:
“They took them when the beet were about as big as your thumb. They went right along the line, pulling the little beet up. They bit off the root and left the leaf lying on the ground. Rabbits were never as bad as that”…..“Two years ago I used to think they were pleasant animals. I even use to feed one near the Broad. Now I kill all I can.”
In 1960 the language took on a military hue, with a ‘War on coypus’ reported. They were soon killed in their thousands, or rather tens of thousands, aided by a 1962 Order under the Destructive Imported Animals Act which aimed to wipe out coypu and mink within five years – but still the numbers grew. More than 100,000 were reported killed in the year to September 1962 in the East Suffolk and Norfolk River board area alone. Rabbit clearance societies were called in to help tackle the problem. Meanwhile, in the decidedly non-Broads setting of the Jupiter Road industrial estate in Norwich, a new ‘weapon’ was being introduced. The Coypu Research Laboratory would spend years finding out as much as it could about the coypus’ habits, even fitting them with radio transmitters so their movements could be tracked.
A massive publicity campaign was launched at the same time, using everything from local television to post office noticeboards to warn the public of ‘the coypu menace’.
For a while, it looked like the battle would be won quickly. The terrible winter of 1962-63 had wiped out tens of thousands, with guns, traps and dogs accounting for thousands more. By February 1965 a campaign was being launched to clear Wroxham Broad, described as the coypus’ ‘last redoubt’ – a claim which turned out to be wildly optimistic. In the same year Coypu Control was set up, with five trappers working full time – which with hindsight was simply not enough. In 1966 the £72,000 campaign had cleared 2,500 sq miles of Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire, way above expectations. But still the coypu appeared. Every year saw upwards of a thousand trapped, giving the lie to reports of a battle won. Then a series of mild winters in the early 1970s saw numbers rocket once again. In 1973 there were 7,601 caught – more than six times the 1971 total.
By now the campaign, which was originally supposed to cost £12,000 a year over five years was up to £30,000 annually with no sign of it ending. Critics began to point out it cost £6 to wipe out each coypu, but no-one had ever actually worked out in monetary terms how much damage they were causing. It was time for a fresh look and in 1977 the Government set up an independent Coypu Strategy Group to look at long-term control issues. Then in June the following year, a £1.7 million masterplan was unveiled to wipe out the coypu within ten years. Just as well, with Coypu Control reporting the rodents had developed an alarming new taste – for cereals!
This time, 24 trappers were employed and the 10-year project started in 1981. With the aid of careful ongoing analysis, including dissection of bodies to understand population structure, this approach was successful and the coypu was effectively extinct by 1989. Interesting elements of this strategy was that included was an absolute decision that the project would end after 10 years, whatever the result, and that if the trappers were successful they would get a bonus of up to three times the annual salary, declining as the 10-year deadline loomed. The trapping was carried out using weldmesh cages baited with carrots, and the captured animals were despatched using a .22 pistol. Also, one of the more interesting developments to emerge during the project was the adoption of trapping rafts. As well as being relatively safe from interference, the rafts kept the baited traps at water level and attractive to coypu, throughout the cycle on tidal waters such as the Norfolk broads.
Overall, it was felt that this ‘final’ push would mean the end for the orange-toothed invader. In 1984 a total of 2,300 coypus had been killed; the following year scientists claimed that there were fewer than 20 adults left. Then in1987, the last colony was found near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, and only a dozen were caught that year. In 1988 just two solitary males were reported – one at Barton Bendish, and one near Peterborough. So, in January 1989 agriculture minister (and our local MP) John MacGregor was able to declare that, at last, the coypus were gone for good. Each of the trappers was stood down, with a £20,000 bonus for their efforts.
Was that the end of the story? Well not quite. In December 1989, a male coypu was caught at the Little Ouse at Feltwell and there continued to be 40-50 possible ‘sightings’ each year for some time thereafter but nothing was ever substantiated. Coypus did live on in Norfolk for a while, but only at Great Witchingham Wildlife Park where, unlike the dodgy fencing incident of the 1930’s, this time round the critters were securely penned in, drawing to a close East Anglia’s coypu saga. It only took 50 odd years and more than £2.5 million of tax payers’ money to get rid of a problem caused by “man’s greed and women’s vanity.”