With lockdown over, the new visitor centre at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Carlton Marshes nature reserve is fully open. It is the gateway into a wildlife wonderland and sure to become a landmark in this wild corner of the county.
Stepping out for the first time onto the viewing platform of the new visitor centre at Carlton Marshes, I was stopped in my tracks – it is quite an outlook.
Framed by magnificent mature oaks, the vista is of big Suffolk skies and green and silver marsh grasses flowing to a faraway tree line. In the middle distance stand the two iconic and half-dead ‘lightning trees’ – lonesome oaks that have been struck by lightning, petrifying the upper reaches while the lower branches remain laden with the green leaves of life.
It is clear the location of this state-of-the-art facility has been carefully chosen to offer stunning views of Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s (SWT) largest reserve and inspire those who come here. The glass-fronted building is also impressive – all wood (charred larch apparently) and open-plan interiors.
Later, when I look back from deep in the marsh, I see clearly that the structure was designed to blend into the landscape – its low, sloping, sail-like roof tying it to the Broads and the many boats that use this waterscape. It is an edifice that is sure to become a landmark in this wild part of the county where rare marshland plants like bog pimpernel and water violet depend on the clean and low nutrient water it offers.
The visitor centre is the lynchpin of the biggest habitat restoration and building project ever undertaken by the Trust. Enabled by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of over £4m – one of the largest grants ever received by a wildlife trust – its construction has gone hand in hand with the purchase and conversion of an additional 348 acres adjoining the existing 558 acres of nature reserve near Lowestoft.
The end game is the creation of a landscape-scale wildlife wonderland that the charity says will become a “gateway to the Broads National Park.” The aim is to provide the space for rare species such as lapwing, redshank, avocet and marsh harrier to thrive and to go on to repopulate neighbouring areas.
Connecting with nature
The day I visit, families are spread out on picnic tables around the front of the centre, enjoying the warm, summer sunshine while children have a whale of time exploring the fantastic assortment of wooden climbing frames, bridges and tunnels built into natural bunds and wildflower areas.
Lockdown is over and this summer is the first time that people can enjoy the new facilities to the full.
It is a different story to when the visitor centre first officially opened last October. After only a week its doors had to close because of Covid restrictions. Fortunately, the design of the building allowed the café to continue operating within Government regulations with staff serving refreshments through a service hatch.
“It wasn’t the ideal time to open a new facility but actually in terms of what was happening with Covid we saw so many more people getting out and connecting to nature,” SWT’s Visitor Experience and Engagement Officer, Vicky Bolton, tells me.
“We were finding a lot of people were coming to us, to explore the reserve and meet up with loved ones who they could only meet outside. We were busy during the winter – sausages rolls and hot chocolates were the best sellers. There was one day when we made over 100 hot chocolates.”
Incredibly, Vicky tells me that water voles and their young have been using the dyke in front of the visitor centre and have become firm favourites with visitors. Normally shy Chinese water deer have also come close, to graze in the nearest marsh.
“They never used to come here but it’s like we’ve sprung up and nature has come closer to us,” adds Vicky who says the Trust has received “loads of positive comments” about the investment that has taken place here on the edge of Lowestoft and how it has enticed people to explore the area.
Vicky continues: “We are at the southern tip of the Broads – a very rich area of habitat – so the more people we can draw in with our facilities and talk to them about our message of creating a wilder Suffolk and preserving what we have here, the better.
“There are people who have lived in surrounding villages that never knew we existed but now the presence of this building and facilities is bringing people down and opening their eyes to the gorgeous landscape around them.”
Leaving the visitor centre and (very tasty) sausage rolls behind I head out with my family along the main path. Down and among it all, I feel dwarfed by the expansive terrain. There’s almost too much to take in, so I focus on the minutiae of what’s right near me.
I see peacock and red admiral butterflies gorging themselves on the swaying reddish-pink clusters of hemp agrimony. A giant brown dragonfly seems curious at our presence – zooming around us at speed, too fast for easy identification. We decide it is probably a brown hawker or maybe the rarer Norfolk hawker, known to inhabit these parts.
Birds of prey are also in evidence. I see a pair of kestrels hovering nearby and later, across the marsh, I see the distant but unmistakeable profile of a marsh harrier, floating in the air a short distance above the ground before dropping out of view.
Today marsh harriers are a fairly common sight across the fens and reedbeds on the Suffolk coast – a far cry from the fragile situation 50 years ago when there was only one known breeding pair in the whole of England, at the RSPB Minsmere reserve just south of Carlton Marshes.
The plight of this stunning bird of prey was a key reason for establishing Carlton Marshes as a SWT reserve in 1975, as naturalists sought to help the harriers recover from such low numbers. Much of the reserve is ideal nesting habitat and, according to the Trust, the breeding success of the harriers at Carlton Marshes in those early years made a significant contribution to the recovery of the UK population.
We are heading to one of the newly established areas of the reserve called Peto’s Marsh, an area of arable land that since it was purchased in 2018 has been landscaped with both shallow and deep pools. Nature has moved in swiftly and last year this area was the most successful breeding site for wading birds on the Suffolk coast.
Through my binoculars, I’m drawn to the many little egrets assembled here. At one point I see six of these pure white miniature herons hunched around a small turf pond. A large gathering of greylag geese alight and immediately veers off as one. In the foreground, a small herd of belted Galloway cattle make their way through the tall pasture in single file, their heads hidden by the grass and only their black-white-black flanks in view. It is a reminder that this land is also home to livestock.
Beyond them I make out a pair of Chinese water deer crouched in the grass. Squat and buff in colour they have large fluffy ears and can resemble a dog at first glance.
Although Chinese water deer originate from China and Korea, they have become established in the east of England following escapes from wildlife parks. According to the book Mammals of Suffolk, written by the SWT’s Simone Bullion, the first record of a Chinese water deer in the wild in Suffolk was at Minsmere in 1989.
They are at home in the wet and swampy Broads and coastal reedbeds of our county, which resemble their native habitat back in Asia, and graze on grasses, sedges and rushes. But they are definitely foreigners – their look strange to our eyes – and the species is distinctive in that neither sex has antlers. Adult males have long curved tusks protruding from the upper lip that they use in combat to stab and tear rival males during the rutting season.
And so the work continues with SWT rangers intending to constantly create new habitats by fluctuating water levels and producing new muddy edges for waders. Excitingly, this year has seen the first breeding bittern on site and there have been plenty of sightings of common cranes who have visited the reserve. Rangers hope these gigantic birds are scoping the site out with a view to breeding here soon.
It is a place to return to year after year.
This article first appeared in the September issue of the Suffolk Magazine