RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Remembering my time as a nature reserve warden

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One of my first jobs when I came out of the RAF after five years’ service mainly in the Middle East was as summer-time warden of a nature reserve on the Norfolk coast.

The 600 acres of dunes and heath at Winterton north of Great Yarmouth had been released by the MOD who had used it as a live ammunition training area. I wasn’t too scared by finding high explosive mortar bombs exposed in dune blow-outs as I had already dealt with live ammunition abroad.

Certainly, a local man searching for scrap brass had been blown to smithereens and later, a botanist from Imperial College London had vanished together with his trowel when he was examining the root system of marram grass. One always thinks: oh, it won’t happen to me.

What was far more interesting and even exciting was to explore dune lakes full of natterjack toads, the foreshore maintaining a breeding colony of 20 little terns, and to tread daily amongst the glaucous tufts of the prettiest grass in the UK: crested hair grass – Corynephorus canescens – which was almost confined nationally to this reserve.

Today you can buy it in some garden centres. More thrilling to me than any of these was the presence of a pair of red-backed shrikes, one of the rarest our breeding birds. The pair seemed to have their nest was in a clump of hawthorn and brambles. Then I watched the male dive in to the scrub and give the game away.

The nest was like that of a blackbird but smaller, of moss and grass stalks, with a lining of fine rootlets, rabbit fur, and a few pigeon’s feathers. The pair bred successfully and reared young. I actually found one of the so-called larders of the pair, where they had impaled some large beetles and crickets on a thorn to be used as emergency rations. No wonder they had earned the country name of butcher-birds.

Fast forwarding to Sussex and the present times, it seems that about 10 pairs of red-backed shrikes may have bred in the UK during the period of the new Bird Atlas which covers 2007 – 11. Of course this is dismal compared to the 1950s, but this was marginally better than the previous decade when it was declared virtually extinct.

There is hope in that Sussex seems to have had a possible success in present times. The birds were located somewhere north of Chichester, possibly on the heaths of Ambersham – Iping nature reserves. Rough, bushy country with brambles and thorns, long grass and a good supply of beetles and other large insects are the requirement for this shrike. The species did have confirmed breeding in Devon, and it seems to have gained a new foothold in my old stamping ground on the coast of Norfolk. With the new land management craze for wilding, as recently adopted on the Knepp Estate near Plaistow, there is the chance that more suitable habitat for these rare birds is being created.

Meanwhile, red-backed shrikes passage out of Fenno-Scandinavia where they breed through south- eastern England on their way to Africa. They are occasionally seen at places such as Pagham, Cissbury Ring, Ashdown Forest and the photograph shows you what to look for. That heavy beak gives it away for one.