In 1997 village residents leased Blo'Norton Fen from the village 'poor's trust', the Blo'Norton Fuel Allotment Charity, and started to restore its interest for fenland wildlife. In 2003 the 'Blo'Norton Fen Conservation Group' merged with the Little Ouse Headwaters Project which continues to lease and manage the fen.
Blo'Norton Fen boardwalk in spring
Because the land was waterlogged and of little use for agriculture, it was set aside as an area where the poor of the parish could obtain fuel, at a time when much common land was being enclosed and taken into private ownership. This is clearly shown on enclosure maps drawn in the 1830s. Originally peat would have been dug from the fen, and it is still possible to see the patterns of the peat diggings on the surface of the ground. Later, as trees began to colonise the area, wood would have been cut in the winter months, creating coppiced trees which can still be seen in some parts of the fen. In the past reed and sedge have also been cut for thatching and animal bedding, and cattle have been grazed along the drier margin next to the road.
In more recent times, the removal of wood for fuel by local residents has ceased, and the Fuel Allotment Trustees now derive an annual income by leasing the land. This money is then distributed to a number parish residents each year, in place of the fuel from the fen.
The fen is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and forms part of the Waveney and Little Ouse Valley Fens Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which means that the fen habitats in this area are considered to be internationally important. It's main conservation interest lies in the open areas of wetland vegetation that includes many uncommon and rare species that are confined to fen habitats. Historically this plant community (and its associated insects, birds, amphibians and reptiles) would have been maintained by regular mowing, with grazing along the drier fen edges. The fen surface was pitted by turf ponds created by peat digging. These ponds were also rich in wildlife, including many species confined to fen habitats. However, in recent times, as a result of the lowering of the water levels and a lack of any regular management, the ponds and much of the open fen vegetation was lost as trees and scrub invaded, shading out the characteristic fen vegetation.
Since 1998 we have been working to reverse this process, by clearing areas of alder and willow, and instigating a programme of regular summer mowing of both the remaining and newly created open areas. Different stands of fen vegetation are cut each year, most on a four year rotation. This means that there is always a mixture of stands of different ages, benefitting different sets of species. The four-year rotation benefits the internationally rare Great Fen-sedge or Saw Sedge (Cladium mariscus). At the eastern end of the open fen, an area of fen meadow is cut on a two year rotation. Great Fen sedge is less common here but the cutting regime benefits a higher diversity of other fen specialists including Black Bog-rush (Schoenus nigricans), Marsh Helleborine orchid (Epipactis palustris), Marsh Lousewort (Pedicularis palustris) and Bog Pimpernel (Anagallis tenella).
The cut vegetation is stacked in the woods at the edge of the fen to rot-down. These piles are home to slow worms, grass snakes and many beetles, including some very localised species of ground beetles. Since this management started, a significant area of fen has been opened up and the fen vegetation has recovered rapidly, helped by an improvement in the water table. A rolling programme of excavation of new turf ponds now ensures that open water is retained for aquatic species, including amphibians and dragonflies.
Black bog rush Schoenus nigricans: this handsome, black-flowered sedge is characteristic of peaty soils fed by base-rich water. These habitats are rare on a European scale and are one of the features for which Blo'Norton Fen is designated as a Special Area of Conservation.
Black Bog Rush © Barrie Wilkinson
Bog Pimpernel © Malcolm Storey
Bog pimpernel Anagallis tenella: despite its name, this tiny, delicate, tiny flower occurs mostly on bare peat and moss carpets in calcareous fens. In lowland England it has declined substantially as a result of drainage, eutrophication and agricultural 'improvement'
Water shrews are semi-aquatic and live in burrows close to water in reedbeds, rivers banks and around ponds and ditches. This is the largest British shrew and has short dense fur that is black on the back but greyish white underside. It feeds on invertebrates including freshwater shrimps and caddis larvae caught underwater, as well as many terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms, snails and beetles. Protected under Schedule 6 of the Wildlife and the Countryside Act, they are vulnerable to pollutants and pesticides, as well as to loss of wetlands
Water Shrew in the wild © Dr Steve Furness
Great Fen Sedge © A.J. Silverside
Great Fen sedge Cladium mariscus:more popularly known as Saw Sedge because of the saw-like serrations on its leaf edges, dense beds this large, very localised sedge were formerly harvested to provide material for thatching roof ridges. The flexible, strong leaves are more suitable for this purpose than the more brittle common reed which was used for thatching the roof slopes. Sedge swamps dominated by this species are rare in Europe and are another feature for which this fen received its international designation.
The footbridge over the Little Ouse
There is a circular walk around the fen that can be accessed from two points along Fen Road in Blo' Norton, or by crossing the river from Thelnetham Fen. The permissive paths around the fen have been improved by the building of a boardwalk over the wettest parts of the existing path and strengthening of much of the remainder with a rigid plastic mesh. In summer 2005, a new footbridge was built across the river with the help of Norfolk County Council. This leads to Thelnetham Fen (managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust) and the LOHP's Hinderclay Fen. The Angles Way long distance path can also be joined as it passes through these two sites.
Although there are no public rights of way, Blo' Norton Fen is open to all to enjoy throughout the year. Even with recent improvements to the path it can be wet and muddy in the winter months so caution and Wellington boots are recommended! Those walking with dogs are asked to keep them under close control to avoid disturbing the wildlife, and to ensure they do not foul the footpath. Please note also that cycling and horse riding are not permitted, due to the damage they will cause to the footpaths.