In Search of the ‘Stewkey Blues’!

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.

Stiffkey (Village-Sign)

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.

Stiffkey (davidson grave)

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.

Stiffkey (H Williamson)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……’

A more complete account of Henry Williamson’s experience in Norfolk can be found by clicking on the following link: ‘Don’t Take Up Farming Old Chap!’

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.

Stiffkey ( H Williamson Cottage)
The cottage where Henry Williamson once lived. A commemorative plaque has now been erected by the Henry Williamson Society.
Stiffkey (Plaque)
The Henry Williamson Plaque

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’.

Stiffkey (Saltmarsh-Sign)

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.

Stiffkey (Marshes)

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.

Stiffkey (Freshes)
Stiffkey Freshes

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.

Stiffkey (Mussel Man)
A mussel fisherman – a painting by Wendy Haws.

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.

Revelation!
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.’

Stiffkey (Stewkey Blues)
Here they are – Stewkey Blues!

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.

Stiffkey (Cockle Gatherers)1
Cheltenham Newpaper cutting 1902

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’.

Stiffkey (Scream)

“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.

Stiffkey (screaming-faces)

So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”

THE END

Sources:
http://www.norfolkblogger.co.uk/stiffkey-notable-for-cockles-and-a-former-village-rector/2825
https://www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/stiffkey.htm
http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/stiffkeyblues.htm
https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/ark-of-taste-slow-food/stiffkey-blue-cockles/
http://escapetoexplore.co.uk/myths/ml_cockler.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stiffkey

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A Tale of Norfolk Peat Cutting

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.

 

The work

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.

Barton Broad

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.

Peat Cutting (stalham hall)

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.

Peat Cutting (Black Death)2

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.

Peat Cutting (Black Death)1

“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.

stacking-reed (Feature)
Reed cutting that, for a time at least, operated alongside that of peat cutting.

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.

Bubonic Plague 1A 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 END

Sources:

Norfolk’s Public Enemy No.1!

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 – and has been so for a number of years now! 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.

Coypu (with rat)

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!

Coypu (Feeding 1938)2
Farming Coypu in 1938

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.

 

Coypu (pelts0
Coypu Pelts

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.

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Spread of Coypu in Norfolk

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.

Coypu

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.

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Ted Ellis

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’!

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Searching for those critters!

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.

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The war begins: Getting ready to set coypu traps in 1962. Placing the traps didnt stay a collar and tie job for long, as getting to the coypu haunts often meant a long slog through rushes, wading through mud, or setting them from boats.

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.

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Now what do I do with it: Police kill a coypu in a Norwich churchyard in December 1959.

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.

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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.

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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.”

THE END

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